Druids: History, Lore, Magick and Modern Druidry
Celtic. Ancient. Mysterious.
The word Druid is thrown around quite a bit when you enter into the exploration of Celtic neo-paganism. But beyond being associated with nature, magick, and Ireland what do we really know about the Druids?
What do we know?
The short answer to that question is not much. Most all of the historical accounts we have were written by non-Druids. The Celtic priesthood eventually became a conquered people in 60 AD when the Roman Governor of England, Suetonius, attacked their heartland – the Island of Anglesey – hoping that any survivors would die out. And his plan, for the most part, was successful except for a few hidden sacred places. Knowing this, it’s difficult to believe any account of the Druids to be 100% accurate. Since it is the conquerors who have recorded their history. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Siculus, and Strabo are among the most notable Romans to have recorded their observations and opinions on the Druids. Most of what we know comes from their writings along with historical scholarship based on archeological evidence.
Who were the Druids?
The Celtic word Druid roughly translated means ‘oak knower.’ There is no denying they were people of magick. But they also held other positions of esteem: teacher, doctor, priest, judges and hands to Kings. They were highly educated with novitiate status taking up to 19 years to get through. They lived on the British Isles and Gaul but cannot be ruled out to live anywhere that the Celts lived. Julius Caesar wrote about the Celtic priesthood first around 40-50 BCE. This places the first written accounts of the druids 2400 years ago until 1200 years ago when it was attacked and replaced with Christianity. Historians believe the Druids predate the Celtic priesthood but when Druidism actually began is anyone’s guess.
What did the Druids believe?
Druidic theology again, remains somewhat of a mystery. We know from Caesar’s writings that the priests and priestesses taught their hymns in secret. And it was forbidden for them to be written down. The Druids kept no records. It is likely that the Druids believed in some form of reincarnation since Caesar, Siculus, and Lucan (a Roman poet) all mention Druidic belief in reincarnation in differing forms. Some aligned it with the Pythagorean theory of metempsychosis where the soul can inhabit either a human or animal body while others understood it to be more like soul migration. The ancient Druids believed in polytheism as their belief in multiple Gods and Goddesses was observed by the Romans. And they certainly believed in divination and magick.
Though the Classicists wrote at length about the Druids knowledge in science, astronomy, natural philosophy, and values/morality we don’t know exactly what systems they had or taught. We do know that they knew enough astronomy/astrology to create a calendar and held their own mythos regarding the natural world and enough material to keep their novitiates in school for almost twenty years! But sadly, with no written records, all we can do is make educated guesses.
Did the Druids engage in human sacrifice?
Yes. It has been disputed that vates were the actual people who carried out the killing. But it has been noted by three different writers that:
“In religious affairs the Druids were supreme, since they alone “knew the gods and divinities of heaven.” They superintended and arranged all rites. And attended to “public and private sacrifices,” and ” no sacrifice was complete without the intervention of a Druid.”
It is also from these accounts that we know Druids also preformed divination via the dead body to predict future events. Interesting to note is that archeologists believe bog mummies to be largely associated with Druidic sacrifice. Even more interesting, in a NOVA episode titled Ghosts of Murdered Kings about the bog mummies that the sacrifices made were men of wealth and nobility. Their findings were based on the stomach contents, clothing, and jewelry. If this is all correct, it means even Kings did not overrule the Druids and became sacrifices, either voluntarily or forced, if their lands were failing to yield a sustainable harvest or the people were otherwise suffering.
The legend of the Wickerman comes from Caesar’s reports of sacrifice made by the Druids building a giant human figure out of twigs and then stuffing it with live creatures (including humans) and burning it to the ground. Pliny even went so far as to assert that the Druids were cannibals who ate the flesh of their enemies. But remember what we talked about before? The victors wrote the Druids story and many of these claims may have just been anti-Druid propaganda since we have no archeological evidence to support them.
Were there female Druids?
Yes! Commonly referred to as Druidess, females could and did fulfill the same roles as their male counterparts. In fact, many Druidesses were warriors and strategists. One way they differed significantly from the Celtic priests is in their use of divination. Typically, Druidesses served the role of diviner more so than the Druid when it came to oracular functions. Druidic divinatory practices were well known for their prophecy, dreaming, augury, omens, reading of livestock shoulder blades (not kidding!), casting lots (throwing a group of sticks, bones, or stones and reading the pattern), and scrying.
Are there Druids today?
Yes, but without the human sacrifice I assure you! Probably the most well know Neo-Druidic organization is called the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. It was founded in Britain in the 1960’s and has over twenty-thousand members today. They are international and exist in over six languages with over 200 in-person groups around the world. If you are interested in learning more about neo-Druidic practice and membership into the OBOD, Check out their website! There’s also The Druid Network that is not a Druidic order. But it seeks to connect neo-Druids around the world and disseminate information about neo-Druidry.
What are some ways I can incorporate Druid magick into my practice?
Ancient Druids were many things to many different people. As we’ve said, they were teachers, doctors, advisors, priests, strategists, diviners, and more! Study everything from astrology to herbalism and Celtic forms of divination and you’ll connect with the ancient Druids. You could even be advising your friends and family on major decisions and you would be tapping into druidic magick! My advice is to take some of the above-mentioned disciplines and practices and incorporate them in your daily practice. I like to think that each of us has a little bit of Druidism within us even if we aren’t practicing neo-Druidism.
- The Religion of the Ancient Celts by J.A. McCullough (1911)
- Passing Through the Middle: Death and reincarnation among the ancient Celts
- I is for Insight: Celtic Divination
- Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids
Meet Allorah Rayne
Allorah Rayne is a practitioner of amnestic and wayfaring witchcraft and has been part of the online spiritual community since 2012. Her introduction to tarot was the age of nine and she pursued more intensive learning at fifteen. Allorah is the founder of The Wayfaring Witch © where she offers soul origin profiles, tarot and oracle card readings, digital downloads, workshops, and mentorships in the ways of the witch. She is also the co-founder of The Otherworldly Oracle Official Podcast, Spread This, Witches! and Witches in the Woods. You can contact Allorah at the following social media sites Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, on The Wayfaring Witch © website via live chat, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org