A Roman Druid

I’d like to write a little bit about Druidry, and to explain why I refer to myself as a druid, when it clearly isn’t what I am.

Druidry is, today, a fairly broad term, but in truth I do think I push it a little far even by that standard. The original druids were, of course, the ancient Celtic priestly class of legend and occasional bit of written history even though it’s still probably not very reliable.

Though probably a little more reliable than the version you find in computer roleplaying games:

Eh, well.

Years’ worth of popular culture has given us some very specific images and associations. Druids wear white robes – maybe grey or grey-blue; they carry a sickle and a staff. They built Stonehenge and they perform strange rituals there and probably sacrifice people. And at least one of them brews magic potion for a group of indomitable Gauls.


Is this a more accurate picture, though? Can I do magic?!

No on both counts.

With regard to the accuracy of our modern image of the druids, there are things we know, things we’re told but are suspicious of, and a lot of things we don’t know.

We know they didn’t build Stonehenge. That association has been made long after the fact, and has no archaeological or historical basis.

Really. Not druids.

They were law-keepers, judges and arbiters. That we’re reasonably confident of. We reckon they were probably advisors to chieftains and other Celtic bigwigs (I use the word ‘Celtic’ in the colloquial sense: the various diverse but culturally related peoples living in northern Europe by the time of the Romans). The druids were likely storytellers, poets, bards, and possibly healers and medics. They were priests, most likely; possibly along shamanic lines, or maybe a sort of European medicine man. They could well have been involved in divination and interpreting the will of the gods, and maybe conversing with departed ancestors or the spirits of the natural world.

We don’t know for sure whether there were female druids: history isn’t overly clear on the question. There certainly are now, but as we’ll see, druids are a somewhat different prospect now. Of the originals, we have little written evidence about their nature and their role in society save what’s been committed to us by Romans. And Romans, being in long-term intermittent conflict with the Celtic populations at the time, have to be considered of dubious reliability. For example, as mentioned, we’re told, by the Romans, that the druids carried out human sacrifice. We don’t know whether that’s the case, or whether the references to such practices were part of a Roman propaganda campaign for the consumption of people back home: “It’s perfectly all right for us to invade these lands and enslave these people because they can’t be trusted to look after themselves. Look how barbaric they are. We’re bringing them enlightenment and civilisation.”

(Passing historical note: almost exactly the same rationalisations were used by the British while we were busily trying to dominate everyone in the world.)

Human sacrifice certainly wasn’t unheard of, of course, and the Romans were pretty much experts on it — though they tended to sacrifice more people to entertainment than to the gods. But the point is, we only ‘know’ about it in relation to the druids because the Romans told us about it — and as is the way of conquerors, they’ve told us only what they wanted us to know.

The upshot of it all is that we really don’t know that much about the original druids. So probably a good way to approach modern Druidry is to disregard the original version as much as is possible and concentrate on the modern sort.

There are all sorts of ideas about what modern Druidry — or Druidism, depending who you ask — is all about. There are groups, orders, societies and what’re called ‘groves’ (which are to modern druids what covens are to modern witches), all of which will have their own focus and emphasis. Many modern druids have written many excellent books on the topic. I can recommend the works of druidic pioneers Emma Restall-Orr, founder of the Druid Network, and Philip Carr-Gomm of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids; Cat Treadwell, a priestess and author local to my area; and Gloucestershire author and blogger Nimue Brown.

There are many others, but these writers, and the groups they’re associated with, will give you a pretty good bead on what modern Druidry entails.

Which leaves us with at least three questions. Firstly, why do modern people model themselves on and call themselves druids if we don’t really know what it was all about? And why have I said I’m not a druid if I am, or why do I call myself that if I’m not? And last, if the Romans were the enemies of the druids, how can someone be a ‘Roman Druid’? That doesn’t make sense! It’s an Oxo Moron!

Fnerk. Other stock cubes are available, obvs.

The first question I can’t answer in very short order. It’s a long and complex story, and you might be best — if you’ll forgive the shameless passing of the buck — to read up on the matter at either the Druid Network or OBOD, or consider the Wikipedia articles here and here.

The remaining questions I’m going to try to answer in my next couple of posts, so don’t go away.

I mean, obviously, you can go away. I don’t expect you to sit there gazing at your screen, constantly spamming the F5 key until I get round to posting again. It might not be today. You’re going to have to get some water, at the very least. Don’t underestimate how damaging dehydration can be. Just do check back, is all I’m saying.

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