Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)
Chapter 4. Enter the Druids: the first contacts
In Chapter 1, we briefly outlined how we have come to learn about the Druids using the tantalizing scraps of information contained in the surviving Greek and Roman sources. The material is, to say the least, constrained and difficult to deal with: it is subject to biases introduced by the original writers; it incorporates observations made over many centuries and covering a wide geographical region; often what survives has been repeated third or fourth hand from some earlier text no longer extant; and, even more limiting, the record is very fragmentary. To write an objective account of druidism is therefore difficult, but therein lies the fascination of the subject. It is necessary first to untangle the complex process of transmission and then to try to penetrate the minds of the authors, the better to understand their limitations and their biases.
As we have seen in Chapter 1, the generally accepted view is that there are two broad traditions in Classical writing about the Druids - the Posidonian tradition and the Alexandrian tradition to which may be added the views of people writing during the time of the Roman Empire. While this is broadly true, the situation is a little more complex and perhaps a more objective way to approach the sources is in terms of the chronological order in which observations were made and the raw data entered the stream of available knowledge. The earliest observations of native behaviour were made by Greeks who were settling the coastal regions of southern Gaul from 600 BC and exploring the hinterland. Later, in the 2nd and early 1st centuries BC, as the Roman world became more involved in the affairs of southern Gaul, more was learned, while the conquest of Gaul and, later, Britain provided further opportunities to study the social structure and belief systems of the newly conquered peoples. Thus the three impact phases each generated a different tradition, which may be defined as:
✵ the Greek tradition (which fed into the Alexandrian tradition);
✵ the Late Republican tradition (incorporating what has been called the Posidonian tradition);
✵ the Imperial tradition.
In this chapter we will consider the Greek tradition, leaving the other two for discussion in Chapter 5.
The foundation of the colony of Massalia (Marseilles) around 600 BC by Greeks, from the eastern Greek city of Phocaea on the west coast of Anatolia, marked the beginning of formal relationships between the Greek world and the barbarian inhabitants of western Europe. It was the culmination of a period of exploration lasting three or four decades which saw Greek entrepreneurs probe the Mediterranean coasts of Gaul and Iberia and sail through the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) to trade with the Tartessians at their main port, now modern Huelva. The foundation of Massalia was quickly followed by the establishment of colonies at Agatha (Agde) and Emporion (Ampurias), encircling the Golfe du Lion; later, new colonies were set up along the coast to the east as far as Nicaea (Nice). Along this long coastal interface Greek settlers will have come into direct contact with native religious practices which, as we have seen, saw the construction of temples lavishly adorned with human heads.
The Greek colonial settlements were nodes of information exchange, and it was from here that eastern Greek historians like the 6th-century Hecataeus of Miletos and the 5th-century Herodotus would have learned of the Celts. They were also places from which expeditions were mounted into the unknown. Shadowy figures like Midacritus and Euthymenes sailed out into the Atlantic to explore the coasts of Iberia and Africa in search of resources and brought back stories of strange barbarians to share with their incredulous fellows in the comfort of the Mediterranean harbour towns. Others explored the hinterland of Gaul. One of these was Pytheas of Massalia who, towards the end of the 4th century, followed the old tin route across Gaul, via the Garonne river and the Gironde, to the Atlantic and then took ship northwards, visiting the tin-producing lands of Armorica and Cornwall before circumnavigating Britain, visiting inland areas as he went. It is even possible that he reached Iceland and may have crossed the North Sea to see first hand the coast of Jutland from which the much-prized amber came. He eventually made his way back to Massalia and there, around 320 BC, wrote an account of his remarkable journey called On the Ocean. The book no longer survives, but it was much quoted by later Mediterranean writers as the principal source on the wild north-western extremities of Europe. The first person to quote Pytheas was Dicaearchus of Messene, a pupil of Aristotle active around 326-296 BC, but On the Ocean was also well known to a writer of central importance to our story, Timaeus of Tauromenium (in Sicily), whose floruit was between 330 and 280.
Timaeus wrote a History which was well known to later writers like Cicero and Pliny. Indeed, Pliny actually acknowledges his debt to Timaeus as a source of information about Britain and the North Sea - information that must ultimately have derived from Pytheas. It is also highly likely that another Sicilian writer, Diodorus, also used Timaeus’ History for information about the north-western barbarians, though he does not acknowledge his source.
Another early writer who quoted extensively from Pytheas was Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who was in charge of the famous library of Alexandria from about 234 to 196 BC and there wrote three books, the Geographica, no doubt consulting Pytheas’ On the Ocean, which would have been housed in the library. It was from the writings of Eratosthenes that the later writer Strabo (c. 64 BC-AD 24) learned of Pytheas’ observations in the west, quoting them in his own work, usually with ridicule and derision.
To sum up so far - first-hand observations on Gaul and Britain, made by Pytheas towards the end of the 4th century, are known to have been transmitted either directly or indirectly through the works of Timaeus and Eratosthenes, to the later writers Strabo, Pliny, Cicero, and probably Diodorus Siculus, all of whom - though themselves Mediterranean-based - offered descriptions of the Celts and Druids of north-western Europe. It is quite possible, therefore, that some, perhaps most, of their information about the Druids derived from Pytheas. To this we shall return later.
Another Greek source of potential relevance to our story was Hecataeus of Abdera - an historian and philosopher writing in the late 4th century BC. One of his lost works, On the Hyperboreans, is quoted extensively by Diodorus Siculus, and it may have been from Hecataeus that Strabo and Pliny also gleaned their information on the Hyperboreans, who were a semi-mythical people believed to inhabit the far north-west. Diodorus is quite specific:
in the region beyond the land of the Celts [Gaul] there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island … is situated to the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans who are called by that name because their home is beyond the point where the north wind blows.
Apollo was worshipped there in ‘a notable temple adorned with many offerings and circular in shape’. He goes on to say that the people were friendly and were visited by the Greeks, who left behind votive offerings.
Superficially, this sounds like a reference to Britain or to one of the neighbouring smaller islands (if reference to the size of Sicily is ignored). Mention of Apollo implies that it was the moon that was revered, while the circularity of the temple could refer to one of the many stone circles found in the north-west.
Diodorus (still quoting Hecataeus) continues:
They say that the moon, as viewed from the island, appears but a little distance above the earth … The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years, the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished; … At the time of this appearance of the god he both plays on the cithara (lyre) and dances continuously through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades.
(Hist. II, 47)
While all this may be little more than fancy, it has the ring of factual substance behind it and one modern writer on archaeoastronomy, Aubrey Burl, has suggested that the visit of the moon every 19 years reflects the 18.61-year lunar cycle experienced in the north. Moreover, the appearance of the moon skimming across the horizon will happen only at a latitude of 58°N. The reference to the spring equinox and the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) is more difficult to interpret, but it could refer to the observation that the moon would appear to skim the horizon from the spring equinox (21 March) until the Celtic ceremony of Beltane (1 May), which is the first moment when the Pleiades are visible in the east at their dawn rising. Burl would argue that, taken together, the astronomical observations reported by Diodorus could all be accommodated on the island of Lewis, where the great stone circle and alignments of Callanish are situated.
If we accept that Hecataeus was recording the detail of moon worship in the British Isles, how could he possibly have learned of the fact, and with so much circumstantial detail? One possibility is that his source was Pytheas, who had probably sailed up the west coast of Britain in his circumnavigation. There is also quite strong evidence to suggest that Pytheas may have stopped at Lewis en route, to make one of his midsummer sun height measurements which enabled him to estimate the distance he had travelled from his home in Massalia.
There is much speculation in all this, but the Hyperborean story stands a good chance of being the earliest surviving record of the lunar-based religion of the barbarians of the north-west at the time of the Druids.
There can be little doubt that the stories brought back by Pytheas, and perhaps by other travellers about whom we know nothing, telling of the religious behaviour of the Gauls and Britons, became common knowledge among Mediterranean scholars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries. Either directly or through secondary sources like Timaeus and Eratosthenes, knowledge of the Druids spread. They are mentioned in Magicas (a book wrongly ascribed to Aristotle) dating to c. 200 BC and in Sotion’s Succession of Philosophers (c. 190 BC), and it is from this accumulation of secondary and tertiary sources that a cluster of later Greek writers glean their information - men like Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor (born c. 105 BC), Timagenes (1st century BC), Posidonius (c. 135-c. 50 BC), Dio Chrysostom (AD 40-c. 120), and Diogenes Laertus (3rd century AD). They, in turn, were used as sources by Christian writers, Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-c. 216), Cyril of Alexandria (early 5th century), and Stephanus of Byzantium (early 7th century).
All these later writers were academic encyclopaedists recycling information from the works of others preserved in libraries, but they are of particular value in that they provide a direct line back to the lost first-hand accounts of the Greek explorers. Socrates gives an amusing account of the processes of research among contemporary scholars:
Together with my friends I unroll and go through the treasures which the wise men of old have bequeathed to us in their books and if we come across anything good we excerpt it.
It was in this way that scraps of knowledge were recycled and transmitted. Although our later sources are often frustrating in their brevity, it is to these armchair scholars, working away assiduously in their libraries, that we owe our knowledge of the first glimpses of the Druids.
What stands out from these early accounts is the respect the Greek writers clearly had for the Druids: the emphasis is on the Druids as philosophers - men who ranked high among the thinkers in the barbarian world outside the narrow Greek sphere. They are listed among the wise men of the world - the Egyptians, Assyrians, Bactrians, Persians, and Indians - men of honour and justice, the philosophers of the people. What is of particular interest is that a distinction is made between the Galatai (Gauls) who had druidae (Druids) and the Celts who were served by philosophati (philosophers). This may simply reflect the general confusion that existed over the nomenclature of the west European barbarians, since the names ‘Gauls’ and ‘Celts’ were often used interchangeably. Caesar gives some insight into these matters when, in describing the peoples of Gaul, he refers to them as people ‘we call Gauls’, adding that they called themselves Celts. Another possibility is that use of the two names could reflect an ethnic division between the inhabitants of the region.
Dio Chrysostom, a Greek Stoic rhetorician writing at the end of the 1st century AD, gives more detailed information:
The Celts appointed Druids, who likewise were versed in the art of seers and other forms of wisdom without whom kings were not permitted to adopt or plan any course so that it was that those who ruled and the kings became their subordinates and instruments of their judgment.
We should, however, remember that Dio Chrysostom was highly critical of the Roman rulers at the time and was conjuring up a vision of a ‘golden age’ when power lay with the wise.
This theme, of Druids as philosophers, is also taken up by Strabo. He distinguishes three classes of men of special honour, the Bards (singers and poets), Vates (augurs), and the Druids, and goes on to say:
The Druids, in addition to the science of nature, study also moral philosophy. They are believed to be the most just of men and are therefore entrusted with the decisions of cases affecting either individuals or the public … These men, as well as other authorities, have pronounced that men’s souls and the universe are indestructible though times of fire or water may prevail.
(Geog. IV, IV, 4)
The same point is made by Diodorus Siculus when he says:
They have also certain philosophers and theologians who are treated with special honour, whom they call Druids.
(Hist. V, 31, 3)
Julius Caesar also stresses the power of the Druids. He reiterates the view that they believe that the soul does not perish but passes from one body to another, and goes on to add:
They hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, about the size of the universe and the earth, about the nature of the physical world and about the power and properties of the immortal gods, subjects in which they also give instructions to their pupils.
(Gallic Wars VI, 14)
While Strabo, Diodorus, and Caesar have much more to say on the functions of Druids, derived from later observations, it is interesting to see in their writings, themes which they, together with the later Alexandrian writers, may have gleaned from the earlier Greek texts - the Druids were wise philosophers, they believed in the transference of the soul, and they studied astronomy and nature.
The Celtic belief in the immortal soul intrigued the Greek writers. It was entirely contrary to the commonly held Greek view, but it conformed closely to the beliefs of the 6th-century philosopher Pythagoras of Samos. So extraordinary was this idea to the Greek mind that it was not unreasonable for observers to try to relate the Druids to the Pythagoreans. Hippolytus, a 3rd-century AD Christian writer, tells a story of how the Druids had ‘profoundly examined the Pythagorean philosophy’, learning of it from Zalmoxis, a Thracian ex-slave of Pythagoras. He goes on to say that the Celts honour them [the Druids] as prophets ‘because they can foretell matters by the cyphers and numbers, according to the Pythagorean skill’. Hippolytus was using sources which may have gone back to the 3rd century BC. An alternative view, probably also current at the time and reported much later by Clement of Alexandria, was that Pythagoras and the Greeks had acquired their views from the Gauls. Neither scenario is likely to be true. Belief in the transmigration of the soul was (and still is) widespread - that it was given such prominence by the Greek writers was simply because of its novelty to them. The archaeological evidence of burial, which we have examined in previous chapters, is consistent with such a view: the deceased were equipped to move into a new life.
The idea that the Druids were astronomers - observers of ‘the heavenly bodies and their movements’, men who could be compared with Magi of the Persians and the Chaldaei of the Assyrians - is also borne out by the archaeological evidence. We have seen that a knowledge of celestial phenomena was already well advanced by the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, and the famous Coligny calendar of the 1st century is not unreasonably assumed to be a product of druidic knowledge designed for their use in controlling the annual ceremonies and foretelling celestial events. The calendar, as we have seen, was a lunar device which conforms to Caesar’s observation that the Celts calculated time by counting nights ‘and in calculating birthdays and the new moon and the New Year their unit of reckoning was the night followed by day’. The Elder Pliny supports this: ‘for it is by the moon that they [the Druids] measure their months and years and also their eras of 30 years’. The Coligny calendar is believed by some to be a device for calculating within 30-year periods.
The importance of time, and in particular choosing appropriate and propitious times for significant events, is nowhere better demonstrated than in Pliny’s famous account of cutting the mistletoe. This is the only description of a druidic ceremony to survive and incidentally throws valuable light on druidic knowledge of natural lore.
The Druids … hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows provided that it is the oak. They choose groves of oak for the sake of the tree alone and they never perform any sacred rite unless they have a branch of it… . They think that everything that grows on it is sent from heaven by the god himself. Mistletoe however is rarely found on the oak and, when it is, it is gathered with a great deal of ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the moon … They choose this day because, although the moon has not yet reached half-size it already has considerable influence. They call the mistletoe by the name that means all healing.
In this preamble the importance of timing is stressed, though some leeway is given. By controlling the knowledge of the accurate measurement of time the Druids held power, thereby excluding the uninitiated. Once again we see the importance of the moon in these ceremonies. Pliny’s account continues with details of the ritual:
They prepare a ritual sacrifice and feast under the tree, and lead in two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest attired in a white vestment ascends the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts [the mistletoe] which is caught in a white cloth. Then next they sacrifice the victims praying that god will make his gift propitious to those to whom he has given it. They believe that if given in a drink [the mistletoe] will give fertility to any barren animal and that it is a remedy against all poisons.
(Nat. Hist. XVI, 95)
Later Pliny goes on to discuss other herbs which, so long as they are collected under the appropriate conditions, possessed a range of curative properties: selago (sabine), for example, would ward off evil and cure eye diseases, while samolos (a marsh plant) offered cattle protection against various diseases.
Where did Pliny, writing in the middle of the 1st century AD, learn of this fascinating rite? He does not give his source, but since it appears not to have been recorded by Posidonius, the possibility is that his information came directly from the earlier Greek tradition, possibly via Timaeus or Polyhistor, both of whom Pliny is known to have used as sources. That the transmitter may have been Polyhistor is hinted at by the fact that he is quoted by Pliny as the authority on oak trees and mistletoe and also upon varieties of acorns. Perhaps it was Polyhistor, himself using earlier Greek sources, who had gathered together details of druidic natural lore and practice in his own work, now lost.
One further point needs to be considered. In referring to oak trees, Pliny tells us that the name of the Druids comes from the Greek word for oak - dr V. If so, the second element may derive from the root wid- (to know), the full name thus approximating to ‘those with knowledge of the oak’. Another suggestion sometimes offered, that it means ‘those with very great knowledge’, though possible, is less likely.
What we have learned of the Druids from sources that may reasonably be linked back to earlier Greek writings - that they were a powerful intellectual elite with a philosophy centred on the transmigration of the soul, and that they were the keepers of astronomical and herbal wisdoms - is comparatively limited, but these were the distillations made by those compiling encyclopaedic works. Stories of the cutting of the mistletoe and of the moon-worshipping Hyperboreans - vivid anecdotes that would have enlivened the texts of the original observers - have so rarely survived. To the Greek world, then, the Druids were the wise men who controlled the lives and wellbeing of ‘noble savages’. As such, they deserved respect: they were, after all, neighbours and trading partners. It was only later, in the 1st century BC and 1st century AD, when the Mediterranean world of the Romans came into direct contact and conflict with the Celtic barbarians, that a rather different picture of druidism began to emerge.