Druids, the ancient priests of Britain and Ireland, have long intrigued and kindled the imagination of large popular audiences. The stereotypical image of the white robed wise man, carrying perhaps a golden sickle and mistletoe, or clasping a white staff, remains strong with us today, the outcome of many centuries of thinking and invention. Yet what evidence do we have for these powerful but elusive figures?
Earliest mention of Druids comes during the 1st century BC, referring to druidae in Gaul (France) and Britain, who were wise men, observers of natural phenomena and moral philosophers. Similar to the druids were the bards (bardoi) - singers and poets, and diviners (vates), who interpreted sacrifices in order to foretell the future.
Druids and bards were common in medieval Welsh and Irish texts, probably giving account of much earlier oral tradition, passed on by word of mouth.
The visual appearance of druids - what they wore and what possessions they owned - is difficult to clarify. There are few illustrations or inscriptions of the time, whilst archaeology rarely provides certain answers. A druidic ceremony described by Pliny, in his Natural History, describes, a white robed druid climbing an oak tree to cut down mistletoe with a golden sickle.
In Wales, the roles and privileges of bards related to laws set down by Hywel Dda in the 10th century AD. During the 18th century, druids came to be seen as the ancestors of the bards, the praise poets, musicians and genealogists, who flourished in Welsh medieval society.
A revival of interest in druids began during the Renaissance (14th to 16th-centuries), when translations of Classical Greek and Roman texts became widely available. A number of sources describe the druids as performing human sacrifice. Places of worship were described as isolated wooded groves and near sacred pools and lakes. According to one source, the druidic groves on Mona (Anglesey) had the blood of prisoners drenched upon their altars.
Some accounts suggested that the stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge had been druidic temples. Similarly, a number of megalithic monuments on Anglesey were thought as the temples and sacrificial altars of druids. However, with advances in archaeological understanding during the 19th century, it became clear that these monuments were built over 4,000 years ago, long before the appearance of druids. Nevertheless, modern druids and bards continue to meet within stone circles today.
Celtic rituals of the Iron Age
Archaeology does however provide evidence for the religious expression of Celtic Iron Age people. The tradition of offering gifts to the gods is well illustrated at the site of Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey. Here, between 300BC and AD100, chariots, weapons, tools and decorated metalwork items were cast from a causeway or island into a small lake. Coincidentally, an account by the Roman author Tacitus vividly recounts the crushing of a druidic stronghold on Anglesey by the Roman army, leading some to infer that Llyn Cerrig Bach was a druidic site.
Other instances of Celtic Iron Age ritual have also been identified. For example, a probable sacrificial victim preserved in peat has been found at Lindow Moss in Cheshire (England). Recently, the famous Cerrig-y-Drudion bowl, elaborately decorated in the Celtic or La Tène art style, has also been convincingly interpreted as a ceremonial crown. This and a number of other crowns and regalia, found with burials or in temples in Britain, may have denoted priestly office.
In this prehistoric world, the power of the pagan Celtic gods was keenly felt, ever present and intermingled within everyday life.
The druids have long been associated with Anglesey in popular imagination. The historical evidence upon which this association is based is an account by the Roman author Tacitus, who wrote of the Roman conquest of Anglesey:
"On the beach stood the adverse array [of Britons], a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with disheveled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults; for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails." (Translated by John Jackson, published by William Heinemann, 1951).
Druids by A. Ross. Tempus Publishing (1999).
Exploring the World of the Druids by M. J. Green. Published by Thames & Hudson (1997).
Shrines & Sacrifice by A. Woodward. Published by Batsford (1992).
Tacitus: the annals By J. Jackson. Published by William Heinemann (1951).
The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People by D. Brothwell. British Museum Publications (1986).
The Druids by S. Piggott. Published by Thames & Hudson (1968).