Meet the Druids

Close your eyes and picture a Druid. What do you see? Chances are a white bearded man in a white robe springs to mind, perhaps with a golden sickle and a bough of mistletoe, someone similar to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, right? That’s what we’ve been conditioned to think of by both “historical” accounts from Roman and Greek contemporaries and Hollywood.

A Druidess by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In reality, the Druids were a far more diverse group, young and old, including men (who were called Druids) and women (who were called priestesses). They made up the most powerful class of Celtic society. And unlike in some modern religions, they were free to marry, with Druids often marrying priestesses or either one marrying warrior nobles. There were some who voluntarily chose chastity, such as the virgin priestesses who guarded the sacred fire of the Goddess Brigid in Ireland before the coming of Christianity, but they were an exception, rather than the rule.

There were three groups of Druids:

  1. Priests – Led ritual, taught the young, and persevered the religious tradition of the tribe.
  2. Bards – Composed music and poetry that was believed to have a magical effect. A bard’s song was thought to be able to induce sleep, control mood and cause illness or death. The satire of a bard (also known as the Poet’s Curse) permanently ruined a leader’s reputation and so was often used by warring tribes against one another.
  3. Prophets – Divined the future through the reading of patterns in animal entrails,  tracks or flight patterns or  by casting of lots of sacred wood (similar to reading runes). Some also received messages from the gods and goddesses.

The head Druid was called the Archdruid and he was elected by his peers.

Power and Function
The Druids held great power. In Ireland, the Druids chose the King through a shamanistic ritual call The Bull Dream. In the Irish court, no one, including the King, could speak before the court Druid had spoken. The word of a Druid was final, even if a more powerful noble disagreed. If you went against a Druid ruling, he or she could strip you of your rights, barring you from religious ceremony and all tribal matters, rendering you an outlaw without tribe or purpose.

Although exempt from taxes and military service, it was not uncommon for a Druid to accompany an army into battle. A Druid could stop a fight with a single word, even if the local noble or warrior leading the fight disagreed. There was also a custom that solider would always yield his or her weapon to a Druid if they asked for it, even in the middle of a battle.

Becoming a Druid
Almost all Druids were recruited from the nobility. It is believed that training took nearly 20 years for a priest or prophet and 7 – 12 years for a bard (and this in an age when the life span was pretty short – probably no longer than 35-40). It is said that at one time there were 13 Druid colleges (yes, that’s what they called them) or centers of learning in Britain alone. All religious learning was done orally and so the Druids became known for their astounding feats of memorization (which are even more amazing  viewed through our modern, writing-dependant, ADD mindset). But that also meant much of their tradition was lost over time (I’ll go in-depth on their religious beliefs in a future post). It is known that the Druids had a secret written language known only to them called Ogham. Its letter were named for the sacred Celtic trees, but its purpose remains a mystery (theories name it everything from a method of accounting to a secret code for communicating with non-Latin speakers).

But not all who studied with them stayed for the long haul. Many children of nobility were there only to learn from the gifted mathematicians, astrologers and healers among them. It is also probable that they were great linguists, considering there were dozens of tribes at any given time in Britain alone, each with their own language (or at least dialect) and the Druids were known to communicate internationally with one another in Latin and Greek.

The Druids underwent severe persecution by the Romans in Britain, because the Romans both feared and were jealous of their judicial power, ability to incite rebellion and religious sway. They routinely attacked Druid centers, cutting down their sacred oak groves and slaughtering the Druids. The most famous attack was on the Isle of Anglesey (then called the Isle of Mona) in 6o AD, which was so brutal that the event became known as the Rape of Mona. Still, the religion perservered until the late sixth century, when Christianity finally took over.

Up next…learn what the Celts believed about religion and the afterlife.

13 thoughts on “Meet the Druids

  1. I read one book (or maybe it was lore from OBOD) that said each level took about seven years in ancient times. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the silver and gold branches. One book I read suggested that whether you received the silver branch or the coveted gold branch was based on how many poems you’d memorized by a certain point in your training.

    • I couldn’t find anything that substantiated the silver and gold branches as fact, so I didn’t want to muddy the waters. That’s the tough thing about researching the Druids. We know so little for fact and much was made up based on conjecture when interest in the Druids resurfaced in the 1800s.

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    • I do, yes. There isn’t any proof, of course, but given his power (and sometimes magic) and his interactions with Viviane/Nimue (who are usually at some point the Lady of the Lake), to me it makes sense he would be a Druid, or more properly, the Archdruid. A balance of male and female, god and goddess, would be important to maintain. To me, Merlin is the title of the Archdruid, rather than a name. Through most of my book, Merlin’s title is used as his name (kind of like calling a Catholic priest “father”), but there is one occasion where another character calls him by his first name.

  3. If we believe that the author believes in whatever they conjecture when it comes to historical fiction, then it appears that Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxon both believed that “Merlin” was nothing but a title.

    In Mists of Avalon, Merlin is a title that is given to the Archdruid. When the book opens, a Druid by the name of Taliesin holds the title of Merlin, but later on, the title is handed off to a (Druidic) Bard by the name of Kevin. (The difference between the two Merlins is startling–Taliesin seems very neutral to Morgaine’s supposed betrayal of Avalon, but Kevin seems to be very harsh on her defection.)

    Of course, MZB goes on to contradict herself when she writes the prequels, saying that the Merlin is like a bodhisattva that cannot incarnate in every generation, but only when the need is greatest. So it’s hard to know what she believed.

    In Ancestors of Avalon, DLP posits that Morgan is also a title. Merlin clearly comes from the bird and is given to the highest ranking Atlantean priest that arrives amongst the marshfolk, but it is unclear where they got Morgan from. In fact, the only indication we get that Morgan is a title is a little hinting after they have been living with the marshfolk for some time and the quote “Mor-gan, you late!”

  4. Wow, Daya, you are a fountain of knowledge!

    I don’t know if you can say every historical fiction/fantasy author actually believes what they conjecture in their story. Sometimes it just fits the plot. (That’s what I like about historical fiction versus being a historian, you have the ability to bend facts within certain reasonable limits if you need to.) In fact, if you draw beliefs about me just from the things I’m using in my books, you could be completely wrong.

    I’ve never read Ancestors of Avalon, so I can’t comment on that or on MZB’s use of titles. But to me, if Morgan was going to be a title (it’s a name in my books), it would come from the goddess Morrigan. But that’s just my line of thinking.

    • Thank you, my dear. *bows*

      I’ve read all the MZB/DLP Avalon books except for “Sword of Avalon”–that was one of those books that was so boring, I quit five pages in. (And when I say “all the books”, I include the two that are now published in the omnibus entitled “The Fall of Atlantis”.)

      I can’t say I’ve done as much research on Avalon and the history of the area as you have, but I’ve picked up quite a lot between those books, the Magdalen Chronicles and another trilogy I’ve read about the Arthurian era. (I think I’ve mentioned the latter before, but the name of it still escapes me. 😛 )

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