Who are the Druids of Roman Britain: Strange rituals, sacrifices and other facts about the "Gallic savages"
Who are the Druids of Roman Britain: Strange rituals, sacrifices and other facts about the "Gallic savages"

The Druids of Roman Britain were a sect of religious leaders, philosophers, medicine men, and royal advisers to Celtic and British society. But ancient Roman authors such as Caesar and Tacitus perceived the Druids of Gaul and Britain as savages. According to their beliefs, druids took part in strange rituals that may have required human sacrifice. Why this happened - further in the article.

The oldest description of the Druids is Julius Caesar's "Gallic Wars". Written in the first century BC, this work introduced the Druids to the Roman world. Other popular Roman authors, including Cicero, Tacitus, and Pliny the Elder, also contributed their stories. However, they all portrayed the Druids and their customs as barbaric. Roman authors often described unknown and foreign peoples in this way. But since the Druids did not document their own customs and religion, there was no way to challenge the Roman accounts.

Druids of Old England, Joseph Martin Cronheim, 1868. \ Photo: geomagische-reisen.de

According to Caesar, who encountered the Druids in Gaul, they were an important class in Gaulish society. The Druids recognized the only leader who ruled the group until his death. They met at a sacred site in Gaul every year, while Britain remained a center for Druidic studies. Caesar notes that Druids who wanted to continue the training of the Druids often made pilgrimages to Britain, which sometimes lasted more than twenty years, in order to improve their knowledge.

Druid's ceremony, Noel Halle, 1737-1744 \ Photo: pinterest.es

Druids did not take part in the war and were exempted from military taxes and conscription. Instead, they studied knowledge, medicine, astrology, and philosophy among many other subjects. According to Caesar, they did not write down their practice, but used the Greek alphabet. Caesar's most disturbing record is the practice of human sacrifice for which the druids used criminals. The sacrifice will be sacrificed through burning in the wicker man. The Wicker Man was a large wicker effigy with a body placed in it. However, archeology has not provided any evidence for this practice or its connection with the Druids.

Two druids strolling through the English countryside, 18th century. \ Photo: elastickare.rockahula.org

Indeed, it is possible that Caesar exaggerated specific claims to illustrate the conquest of Gaul and Britain. He portrayed the druids as scientists and barbarians. But how much this story is exaggerated, we will probably never know.

The Annals of Tacitus, written in the first century AD, is the only source for the Druids of Roman Britain, as other Roman sources mainly discussed the presence of the Druids in Gaul and the surrounding area. Tacitus's account takes place during the Roman invasion of Anglesey in Wales, when Britain was under the control of the Roman Suetonius Paulinus. Paulin was preparing to attack the inhabited island of Mona (Anglesey).

Woodcut from 1832 depicting druids preparing a wickerwork filled with living people to be burned as a sacrifice. \ Photo: thesun.co.uk

Tacitus wrote that as soon as the Roman infantry landed on the island, they were met by an opposing army, which included women dressed in black and druids.

The Druids raised their hands to the sky and shouted terrible curses that terrified the Roman soldiers. The Roman troops stood motionless before the unfamiliar sight. As the generals led their forces forward, the defenders of the island were defeated, and some soldiers were sent to destroy the sacred groves.These groves, according to Tacitus, were dedicated to inhuman superstitions, since the Druids considered it their duty to cover the altars with the blood of captives. Druids also consulted their deities using human entrails. Tacitus wrote very hostilely about the Druids, and this writing was also accepted by later Roman writers. Interestingly, recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed Anglesey's status as a Druidic island.

Roman soldiers attacking druids in the 1st century AD e., engraving of the XIX century. \ Photo: google.com

Mark Tullius Cicero, a contemporary of Caesar, also recorded his experiences with the Gallic druids. In his book On Divination, Cicero claims that he met a Gallic druid from the Aedui tribe named Divitiacus, who knew a lot about the natural world and was engaged in fortune telling by reading predictions.

Another, less extensive account is taken from the Historical Library of Diodorus of Siculus. Writing around 36 BC. BC, Diodorus described the Druidic order and their role in Celtic society. Among these roles, Diodorus notes that the Druids were theologians and philosophers, bards and singers. These roles correspond to those described by Caesar and those later repeated by Strabo.

Bard, Thomas Jones, 1774. \ Photo

Strabo's geography, also dating back to the early first century AD, discussed the role of the Druids in Celtic society. Among the Gauls, in particular, the Druids held three positions of honor. The first and most respected position was the bard, or bardol, composed of singers and poets who retell tales and legends. The second position was that the Druids possessed special knowledge of the natural world and practiced divination known as Ovates. The last honorary position was that of a philosopher or druid.

Altar of the Druid, William Overend Geller, 1830s. \ Photo: britishmuseum.org

Pliny the Elder is another Roman author of the first century AD. In Natural History, Pliny described the role of the mistletoe in druidic ceremonies. He stated that the plant is sacred and is always used in rituals. He notes that the oak was also sacred. Certain rituals were performed in oak groves. For the druids, everything that came from the oak came straight from heaven, and the appearance of the mistletoe was proof that the tree was divine. Pliny further describes a religious ritual in which mistletoe was a key ingredient, and notes that the Druids practiced ritual cannibalism by eating the flesh of their enemies in order to gain spiritual strength.

An old druid standing in a field, author unknown, 1712. \ Photo: britishmuseum.org

It was only after the British Isles were converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages that any work on the Druids appeared in Britain. By this time, however, the ancient Druids described by Roman authors had largely disappeared. Irish and Welsh stories were also recorded not by members of the Druidic order, but by Christian monks. Consequently, by the time these tales were recorded in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Druids had moved into the realm of legend.

Irish literary sources, namely Uraichech Becc, describe the Druids as possessing supernatural powers. In this literature, the Druids became more associated with magical powers and divination than their ancient predecessors. The Irish Philip, or Philid, was a class similar to the Ovates described by Strabo. According to Uraichech Becc, these filials held a higher position in Celtic society than the Druids.

The Druids, or the conversion of the British to Christianity, by Simon François Raven I, 1778. \ Photo: twitter.com

The appearance of the Druids in Welsh literature is much less common than in Irish literature. Most Welsh descriptions date back to the tenth century of Hivel Dda, which laid down the laws concerning the Druids. Welsh tales of druids connected them not with sorcerers and wizards, but with prophets and ancient priests.

Roman and Christian stories should not be taken literally. Many Roman authors had their own agendas, and therefore it is difficult to define what is fact and what is fiction. Indeed, as a rule, the best source of information about the presence of the Druids in Gaul and especially in Britain is the archaeological evidence. Unlike literary sources, archaeological evidence has no motive to convince an audience and has no political agenda. A common misconception is that the druids were responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the stone circles at Avebury.But thanks to archaeological advances, it is now known that these structures were built about four thousand years ago, ahead of the ancient druids by two thousand years.

The man from Lindow. \ Photo: manchestereveningnews.co.uk

Also, thanks to archaeological evidence, the existence of Druids in the areas around the British Isles is now known. In 1996, a skeleton was found in Colchester, buried along with medical equipment, fortune telling tools and herbs. The burial of the skeleton, named "The Druid of Colchester", dates from the first century AD.

Many archaeologists have tried to prove the early Roman accounts of druids and druidic practices in Gaul and Britain. The most interesting of these practices would be the human sacrifice described by Caesar and Tacitus.

Druid. \ Photo: discover.hubpages.com

The discovery of a man from Lindow in an English swamp in the 1980s has implications for a possible human sacrifice by the Celts. The corpse was identified as a young man of high social status. Research has shown that the body was indeed a human sacrifice and that the victim was killed with a blunt object, suffocation, and cutting the throat. His death was dated to about 60 AD. e., and scholars have suggested that he was sacrificed to convince the gods to stop the Roman advance on the Celts.

Druids. \ Photo: blogspot.com

Although tales of Druids in Roman Britain are few and must be treated with caution, archeology has again provided the missing details. Many scholars rejected Druidic human sacrifice and cannibalism as Roman propaganda. However, given recent archaeological discoveries, the Roman records may need to be revisited.

In the next article, read also about why the Greeks revered the Delphic oracle so much and observed the traditions associated with it.

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