The ancient megaliths and stone circles, such as Stonehenge, have often been associated with the Druids. Lurid tales of “religious” ceremonies involving human sacrifice, presided over by a strange class of mystical priests, have come down to us. Often, these stories take place inside one of the stone circles, or “temples.” While we don’t know about the human sacrifices, we do know that the megalithic structures were constructed long before the first reports about the Druids ever came to public attention.
Who were the Druids, anyway? In this month’s article, John Michell gives us an intriguing view of these mysterious people.
The Celtic Druids
by John Michell
The question of who invaded Britain in prehistoric times, and when these incursions took place, was much debated by earlier generations of scholars. Bloody battles were imagined, in which one race virtually exterminated another and populated the country anew. Mysterious “Beaker folk” were said to have arrived in the third millennium B.C. introducing metalwork and burying their chiefs in barrow tombs along with their favorite beakers. After them came the Celts; around 600 B.C. was the accepted date for their appearance in Britain. The nature of these invasions and their supposed dates are all now disputed. Archaeological science earlier in this century was much concer ned with racial types, and it was fashionable to argue that successive invaders prevailed because they were of superior stock to the natives. At the root of these theories was Darwin’s theory of evolution and belief in progress. The influence of such theories has now waned, and scholars are more inclined to regard social changes as being produced by migrations of culture at least as much as by warfare. In ancient times, as today, new ideas spread quickly enough around the world without violence. Nor is there any more certainty about the date of the Celts’ arrival. One can speak of Celtic culture and languages, but there is no single race; Celtic speakers vary in appearance from short and swarthy to tall and fair. Evidence of Celtic culture appears in Britain from the second millennium B.C., and it is now suggested that the Celtic priesthood could have been responsible for the Stonehenge temple, built in about 2000 B.C.
Celtic society in Britain preserved many features from the previous order, including shrines and feast days. Its calendar combined lunar and solar cycles, as in megalithic times. The social structure was similar to that advocated by Plato, based on a religious cosmology and democratic idealism. Each tribe had its own territory with fixed borders, and that land, held by the tribe as a whole, consisted of forest and wilderness, common lands and agricultural holdings.
Under a complicated system of land tenure, everyone’s rights and obligations were carefully defined. Some of the land was worked in common for the chieftain, the priests, and the old, poor, and sick tribesfolk; the rest was apportioned as family farms. Grazing and foraging rights were shared on the common lands. Much of the tribal business was conducted at annual assemblies where land disputes were decided, petty offenders were tried, and chiefs and officials, both male and female, were appointed by popular vote.
A great many old farmsteads in Britain, today, are on Celtic sites. During his raid on Celtic Britain in 55 B.C., Julius Caesar commented on its high population and numerous farms and cattle. The unifying bond between all the Celtic tribes was their common priesthood, the Druids. Their efforts preserved common culture, religion, history, laws, scholarship, and science. They had paramount authority over every tribal chief and, since their office was sacred, they could move where they wanted. settling disputes and stopping battles by compelling the rival parties to arbitration.
They managed the higher legal system and the courts of appeal, and their colleges in Britain were famous throughout the Continent. Up to twenty years of oral instruction and memorizing was required of a pupil before being admitted into their order. Minstrels and bards were educated by the Druids for similar periods.
Knowledge of the Druids comes directly from classical writers of their time. They were compared to the learned priesthoods of antiquity, the Indian Brahmins, the Pythagoreans, and the Chaldean astronomers of Babylon. Caesar wrote that they
“know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe, and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of’ the immortal gods; and these things they teach to their pupils.”
They also taught the traditional doctrine of the soul’s immortality. They must have professed detailed knowledge of the workings of reincarnation, for one writer said that they allowed debts incurred in one lifetime to be repaid in the next. A significant remark of Caesar’s was that Druidism originated in Britain, which was its stronghold. Indeed, it has all the appearance of a native religion, being deeply rooted in the primeval native culture. Its myths and heroic legends are related to the ancient holy places of Britain, and they may largely have been adapted from much earlier traditions. In Celtic, as in all previous times, the same holy wells and nature shrines were visited on certain days for their spiritual virtues. The overall pattern of life was scarcely changed. In the course of time, society became more structured and elaborate and the Druid laws more rigid, but the beginning of the Celtic period in Britain was evidently not marked by any major break in tradition.
Nor was there any great shift in population; the British today, even in the so-called Celtic lands, are predominantly of native Mesolithic ancestry. The Druids’ religion and science also have the appearance of belonging to an earlier Britain. Their knowledge of astronomy may have descended from the priests of megalithic times, together with the spiritual secrets of the landscape.
Yet there is an obvious difference between the Celtic Druids and the megalithic priests before them. The Druids abandoned the great stone temples and reverted to the old natural shrines, the springs and groves where they held their rituals. A religious reformation is here implied. It is characteristic of state priesthoods that their spiritual powers wane as their temporal authority grows; and the less confidence they inspire, the more tributes and sacrifices they demand of the people In its latter days the rule of the megalithic priesthood probably became so onerous that it was overthrown.
Whether as a native development or prompted by outside influences, a spiritual revival seems to have occurred in Britain in about 2000 B.C. with the building of the cosmic temple of Stonehenge and the first evidences of Celtic culture. Stonehenge is a unique monument, a symbol of a new revelation. The tendency in modern scholarship is to see it once more as the temple of the Druids, If so, it proclaims the high ideals on which Druidism in Britain was founded.