Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Demise of the Druids?

One of my hand carved stones.
A wee druid - See the link below!
The name druid conjures up images such as  shamanic priests contacting the otherworld, white garbed modern druids  gathering at Stonehenge, or even Getafix from the Asterix cartoons. Druids  are cited as being active between 400BC-400AD in Gaul, Britain and Ireland. However  druidic origins may lay hundreds of years earlier. 

The word comes from druidh in Scots gaelic, droaid in Irish gaelic, which refers to a 'cunning man' or magician. This possibly stems from the Celtic dru, Greek, drus, an oak -  and oak worship does feature in druidic lore.  Substantiating this further is that the Welsh name for druid, Derwyddon, means 'oak knowledge'. 

Ancient sources tell us that druids were astrologers and therefore some  link them with rituals associated with stone circles*.   It is likely that druids presided over sacrifices, some of which may have been those of prisoners set aside for rituals. This  practice  repelled the Romans, but accounts of the bloody practices of the druids may also be propaganda. Roman writers tended to exaggerate the barbarity of other nations. 

Julius Ceasar tells us that would-be practitioners crossed to Britain to learn their arts. This suggests that there might have been a centre where druidic wisdom was taught.  We know that there were orders of druids, bards and ovates (fili in ireland), but there were also seers, magi, soothsayers etc… but whether these can also called druids is uncertain. 

“The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and [many] are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. 

“Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valour, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods.” 

Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars

Druids were more than priests,  they were also statesmen who held the warrior caste in check. Some scholars view them as the Celtic intelligentsia or as philosophers. Druids were mystic philosophers whose minds brimmed with astronomy, astrology, laws and folklore. Exactly how far back this lore stretched we cannot tell. It is entirely possible that ideas, concepts - religious and proto-scientific - were conveyed over generations. This ‘transmission’ was achieved orally, by word-of-mouth, utilising the storehouse of memory. It is hard to imagine this,  in our technological era where mobile phones and computers are used as external hard drives for our minds. Hard to  imagine a culture in which there is no written word! In which every lore and ritual and religion has to be committed to memory.  

Druids were the glue that held Celtic society together. For the Celts were never a unified people, they were ethnically diverse  but held certain cultural commonalties.  Being a  warrior based, tribal culture, they were constantly fuelled by internecine rivalries - a fact the Romans exploited to their advantage. 

Druids presided over inter-tribal assemblies. In Ireland we know that such gatherings were held at sacred centres, on specific festival dates, such as Lughnasa and Beltaine. In Britain one such sacred centre may have been Mona,  now known as the isle of Angelsey  off the coast of North Wales.  

The sacred isle of Mona, Anglesey off the coast of north Wales

Before turning to the terrible events on Mona, it is interesting to understand Rome’s motives for invading Britian in the first place. In 55 BC  Julius Caesar attempted a foray onto mainland Britain after he had conquered the Gaulish tribes. This was more to pump up his status than an all-out invasion.  In the century that lay between Claudius' conquest, Rome traded  with Britons,  currying support for their future endeavours. 

Nearly a century had passed before Emperor Claudius took an interest in the island. Claudius was not a disliked statesman and didn’t need to invade. The Britons could hardly have posed a threat to Rome either, but they may have ceased trading, and that pissed Rome off! By invading, Rome meant to return  trade to normal…  and to own it. 

Emperor Claudius

In 43 AD Claudius landed on British shores with four legions. An estimated 40, 000 men including auxiliaries. And while much of the land was subdued the locals were not all happy. There were revolts and many tribes proved troublesome.  

Suetonius writes that Claudius had  "utterly abolished the cruel and inhuman religion of the druids among the Gauls”**. Surely this sentiment was still running high when his legions arrived on British shores - Zero tolerance for druids! Given the importance of the druid caste, such an intolerant policy could only instil a bitter hatred toward the Empire in those it conquered.

Nearly two decades later, in 60 AD, Suetonius Paullinus moved against the sacred island of  Mona. It was here that great assemblies were  most likely held and had also become home to refugees fleeing the devastation of their homelands at the hands of the Roman Empire. It was also known as a stronghold for  Druids. The islanders had also been sending rebellious tribes supplies. The Roman writer Tacitus tells us the rest. 

  “He (Suetonius) prepared accordingly to attack the island of Mona, which had a considerable population of its own, while serving as a haven for refugees; and, in view of the shallow and variable channel, constructed a flotilla of boats with flat bottoms. By this method the infantry crossed; the cavalry, who followed, did so by fording or, in deeper water, by swimming at the side of their horses. 

"On the beach stood the adverse array, 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 dishevelled 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 duty to consult their deities by means of human entrails."

Pallinus was called away as the Iceni  rose in revolt.  The Iceni were powerful Celtic tribe,  their territory covered an area equatable with Norfolk, parts of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. They called themselves Eceni and they had previously courted the Romans, possibly accepting trade deals and money to placate their tribesmen to act more favourably to the Romans. 

Their Queen at the time was Boudicca. Her husband, Prasutagus, was pro-Roman, and upon his death cited the young emperor Nero as his heir, together with his two young daughters. Despite this, within days of his death, his kingdom was pillaged by centurions. Boudicca was whipped and her daughters raped.  The chief men of the Iceni were stripped of their estates and relatives of the king treated as slaves. A demand was then made by Rome that all the money lent by Claudius to the Iceni be paid in full right away. This was a loan of 40,000,000 sesterces that the Iceni had not wished for anyway.*** 

Boudicca is described by Cassius Dio: 

In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh;  a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. 

The Queen addressed her people thus:

"You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery. Hence, although some among you may previously, through ignorance of which was better, have been deceived by the alluring promises of the Romans, yet now that you have tried both, you have learned how great a mistake you made in preferring an imported despotism to your ancestral mode of life, and you have come to realize how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery. For what treatment is there of the most shameful or grievous sort that we have not suffered ever since these men made their appearance in Britain? Have we not been robbed entirely of most of our possessions, and those the greatest, while for those that remain we pay taxes? 

 "Besides pasturing and tilling for them   all our other possessions, do we not pay a yearly tribute for our very bodies? How much better it would be to have been sold to masters once for all than, possessing empty titles of freedom, to have to ransom ourselves every year! How much better to have been slain and to have perished than to go about with a tax on our heads! Yet why do I mention death?  For even dying is not free of cost with them; nay, you know what fees we deposit even for our dead. Among the rest of mankind death frees even those who are in slavery to others; only in the case of the Romans do the very dead remain alive for their profit.  Why is it that, though none of us has any money (how, indeed, could we, or where would we get it?), we are stripped and despoiled like a murderer's victims? And why should the Romans be expected to display moderation as time goes on, when they have behaved toward us in this fashion at the very outset, when all men show consideration even for the beasts they have newly captured?

"But, to speak the plain truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils, in that we allowed them to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them at once as we did their famous Julius Caesar, — yes, and in that we did not deal with them while they were still far away as we dealt with Augustus and with Gaius Caligula and make even the attempt to sail hither a formidable thing. As a consequence, although we inhabit so large an island, or rather a continent, one might say, that is encircled by the sea, and although we possess a veritable world of our own and are so separated by the ocean from all the rest of mankind  that we have been believed to dwell on a different earth and under a different sky, and that some of the outside world, aye, even their wisest men, have not hitherto known for a certainty even by what name we are called, we have, notwithstanding all this, been despised and trampled underfoot by men who know nothing else than how to secure gain. However, even at this late day, though we have not done so before, let us, my countrymen and friends and kinsmen, — for I consider you all kinsmen, seeing that you inhabit a single island and are called by one common name, — let us, I say, do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its appellation but also its reality. For, if we utterly forget the happy state in which we were born and bred, what, pray, will they do, reared in bondage?

"All this I say, not with the purpose of inspiring you with a hatred of present conditions, — that hatred you already have, — nor with fear for the future, — that fear you already have, — but of commending you because you now of our own accord choose the requisite course of action, and of thanking you for so readily co-operating with me and with each other. Have no fear whatever of the Romans; for they are superior to us neither in numbers nor in bravery. And here is the proof: they have protected themselves with helmets and breastplates and greaves and yet further provided themselves with palisades and walls and trenches to make sure of suffering no harm by an incursion of their enemies. For they are  influenced by their fears when they adopt this kind of fighting in preference to the plan we follow of rough and ready action. Indeed, we enjoy such a surplus of bravery, that we regard our tents as safer than their walls and our shields as affording greater protection than their whole suits of mail. As a consequence, we when victorious capture them, and when overpowered elude them; and if we ever choose to retreat anywhere, we conceal ourselves in swamps and mountains so inaccessible that we can be neither discovered or taken.  Our opponents, however, can neither pursue anybody, by reason of their heavy armour, nor yet flee; and if they ever do slip away from us, they take refuge in certain appointed spots, where they shut themselves up as in a trap. But these are not the only respects in which they are vastly inferior to us: there is also the fact that they cannot bear up under hunger, thirst, cold, or heat, as we can. They require shade and covering, they require kneaded bread and wine and oil, and if any of these things fails them, they perish; for us, on the other hand, any grass or root serves as bread, the juice of any plant as oil, any water as wine, any tree as a house. Furthermore, this region is familiar to us and is our ally, but to them it is unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, whereas they do not across them easily even with boats. Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves." ****

Cassius Dio - Roman History

Coin of the Iceni Tribe

However, I think there were numerous events that steered the temperament of the Britons along the path of destruction. Given the status of the druids, and the timing of the attack on Mona,  this must have played a part in the decision of the Iceni and their supporters to rise. 

The ensuing rebellion was a product of tribal grievances  harboured over decades. Their ranks swelling with sympathetic tribesmen, Boudicca's army  marched on Roman targets, razing them to the ground. No prisoners were taken, no mercy or quarter given.  The ferocity of the assault is evidenced  in  archaeology.    

However the uprising was crushed, in its wake some 80,000 people were slain. Sources disagree on Boudicca's fate, she might have perished through illness or claimed her own life. Over a decade after her death, in 77 AD,  a mandate was given by Emperor Vespian to bring all Britain to heel. Agricola was the general chosen for this task. Of course, the island of Mona was once again on the agenda and this time he finished the job. 

My notion is that after the massacre and subjugation of the Isle of Anglesey, in both 60 AD and 77 AD, the Druidic caste was very much reduced in power (Claudius had already been   purging the lands of their influence already). I think the events in 60/61AD  left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Britons.  It spelt the beginning of the end of Celtic culture. The druids were storehouses of Celtic lore, and they had been effectively crushed. Wholesale Romanisation began.

Suffice to say that druidry was percived as a threat. It reinforced tribal identity, and Celtic culture amongst the Britons. Their practices were viewed as repulsive by the Roman elite, (whether such stories were substantiated or not). Given the brutality of the Roman counter-insurgency, and the wiping out of hundreds of druidic practitioners, how much survived of pre-Roman druidic lore? In what form did it take? Did the slaughter, and the fact that the druids could do nothing to save their people from conquest,  weaken the caste’s position? 

After 77 AD Agricola embarked on a cultural conquest superimposed upon Rome's military success. As well as new towns, temples were built to honour Roman gods, while Celtic deities were fixed with Roman appellations.  Being brought into the domain of anthropomorphic Deities: in effect this was a degradation of form. People were encouraged to adopt Roman ways. Not that this was truly and utterly successful. The country people, the pagani, held to old traditions, some of which are still visible to this very day, even if further clouded by a veil of  Christianity. 

Roman policy was not to interfere with religious affairs that did not affect them directly. But the influx of Romanised settlers had a telling legacy. The thousands of centurions and auxiliaries that accompanied the conquests and later guarded the forts and walls to maintain control, were mainly from other  provinces, and with them they brought their own collection of deities. 

After the Iceni revolt, the process of Romanisation began. Changing the name of  deities, in effect superimposed a  divine hierarchy upon the genii loci or local gods. For the power of any god resides in its name, that is essentially its essence, and within the umberella of 'name' come a host of associations, stories, tales. The fixing of Roman apellations, such as Mars, Jupiter etc, restructured this thinking - assumed that these gods were the same as those of the conquerers, and worse,  offered a civilised version!  

Celtic religion was thus distilled into  Romano-Celtic religion. But not prehaps entirely. For the conquest of 77 did not complete its requisite of taming the entire island. And though many Caledonians were slaughtered  at the battle of Mons Graupius, the Romans were forced to retreat, little by little over the decades until they secured Hadrian's wall as a boundary between the civilised world and barbarian. 

Another of my carvings. A druid. Serpentine from Iona.

Perhaps in the North, beyond the great wall, refugees and Caledonians kept their culture alive. Perhaps  Druids did remain  and possibly thrived until the spiritual conquest of the Holy Roman Empire completed the job. But after the slaughter on Mona how could the order ever remain the same? The massacre was surely was as devastating to  Celtic culture, as the destruction of the library of Alexandria was to the ancient world. 

Unfortunately much that survives of bardic and druidic tradition is very much shaped and changed from its orignial form. The recorders of ancient traditions were fervent Christian scribes, and they couldn’t help Christianise - just as the Romans had Romanised.  It doesn't mean we should discount all they wrote, but we need to be selective. Nowadays there are heaps of books purporting to reveal the wisdom of druidic lore, rebranded and much of it fluffed up. Much of this is the continuation of seventeen century romanticism, part of the reaction to the changing world of agricultural and industrial progress that was sweeping the country at that time. Again, I don't see that there is so much wrong with this. You believe what appeals to you. In any doctrine or philosophy there may be elements you wish to adopt and incorporate into your worldview. And I am not wholly discounting that some essence may have survived in a water down form. I think those looking to faithfully reconstruct druidic traditions are aware of this problem. There is good work out there, amongst the 'feel-good philosophy/spiritually'. If you are interested in where this line of thought is at check out this site here: Celtic Reconstructionism.

Getafix the potion swigging Druid!

STONE MAD CRAFTS  -I carve rocks, if you want to know more have a gander at my FaceBook page

R4H - article about the attack on Mona.
BBC Blog - another article about Anglesey and druids, 


*Stone circles and megalithic sites date from 2 to 3 thousand BC and are found throughout Ireland and the British isles. Many of these sites have been proven to have astrological underpinnings and align to various solar, lunar and constellatory formations/events. The druids, being known for their astrological guile, may well have inherited such knowledge. 

Hypocritical really,  considering the hideous spectacle of the colosseum, the depravity of certain Roman emperors, and the brutality in which Roman soldiers dealt with conquered  tribes. 

"Seneca, in the hope of receiving a good rate of interest, had lent to the islanders 40,000,000 sesterces that they did not want, and had afterwards called in this loan all at once and had resorted to severe measures in exacting it."  Cassius Dio .

These are words placed in the mouth of an historical character long after the event. Treat with caution. However I do like the essence of the piece. The hatred of an empire and the imposition of its laws is tangible.


A Brief Introduction To Druids - Barry Cunliffe
Celtic Art Before The Romans - Ian Stead
History Of The Celts - Horace E. Winter
The Silver Bough - F. Marian McNeill
The Life And Death Of A Druid Prince - Anne Ross And Don Robbins
Agricola - Tacitus
The Histories - Tacitus
Religion In Roman Britian - Martin Henig
The Gallic Wars - Julius Caesar

Antiquæ Linguæ Britannicæ Thesaurus: A Welsh and English Dictionary