WHO WERE THE DRUIDS?
In the pre-Christian era of Celtic culture, the Druids were members of a professional class in which their society¹s religious and spiritual life was embodied. In their time, Druids filled the roles of judge, doctor, advisor, magician, mystic, and religious scholar, among other roles. They were the philosophers, scientists, theologians, and intellectuals of their culture, and the holders of the sum of knowledge for their age. The name "Druid" is unique to the Celtic people; other cultures had other names for their clergy, and expected different duties from them. Druids were not an ethnic or cultural group in themselves, but part of a larger society in which they participated. In the prechristian era of Celtic culture, the Druids were members of a professional class in their culture, the Celtic Nations of Western Europe and the British Isles. (see Nations) The Roman historians wrote the only first-hand accounts of ancient Druidry that we have. Even though they are usually understood as "hostile witnesses", they were often impressed by the Druids' philosophical wisdom, and their grasp of mathematical, scientific, and astronomical knowledge. The Roman author Diogenes placed the Druids together with the ancient world's wisest philosophers, alongside the Magi of Persia, the Chaldeans (the priesthood of the Babylonians) and the Gymnosophists (a Hindu sect which preceded the Yogis). The Roman author Strabo recorded how the intellectual caste of the Celts was subdivided into three distinct sub-casts, each with their own particular specialisation: Among all the tribes, generally speaking, there are three classes of men held in special honour; the bárdoi, the ováteis, and the druídai. The bárdoi are singers and poets; the ováteis are interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers,; while the druídai, in addition to the science of nature, study also moral philosophy. In this note about the Druids as philosophers of nature and of ethics, we have almost universal agreement among ancient commentators. We also know a few of the Druidic doctrines from Roman writers. Their teachings on ethics comes to us only in small fragments and proverbs, which Diogenes Laertius referred to as "riddles and dark sayings". One of them which he recorded, and which has been taken to heart by many modern Druids, is the teaching that "the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and honourable behaviour maintained." There are more references among classical authors concerning the Druidic doctrine of the immortality of the soul. For example, Pomponius Mela recorded, One of their dogmas has come to common knowledge, namely, that souls are eternal and that there is another life in the infernal regions, and this has been permitted manifestly because it makes the multitude readier for war. And it is for this reason too that they burn or bury, with their dead, things appropriate to them in life; and that in times past they even used to defer the completion of business and the payment of debts until their arrival in another world.
Julius Caesar confirmed that the Druids had a belief in the immortality of the soul and that the belief inspired courage and even recklessness on the battlefield. He also added, They also have much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy, and of the powers and spheres of action of the immortal gods, which they discuss and hand down to their young students. This latter fragment indicates the possibility that the Druids taught a mystery tradition. Information about the size of the world, of physics ("natural philosophy"), and the gods, was in the ancient world considered philosophical and cosmological knowledge, rather than scientific knowledge, although it included information about the world and the workings of nature obtained through scientific observation and experiment. This came together with ideas about the greater structures and powers of the sacred world ("the immortal gods", the "size of the world", etc.) which is the sort of thing that can be obtained through mystical practices like meditation‹about which it is possible to be Œscientific¹, or if not scientific then intellectually rigourous, as one may rationally and systematically study one¹s own spiritual experiences. That this knowledge was Œhanded down¹ from teacher to student also suggests the presence of a mystery tradition, for that is the usual means of transmitting information in mystery traditions around the world. The eminent scholar Fergus Kelly wrote that a Druid was "priest, prophet, astrologer and teacher of the sons of nobles". Jean Markale, another respected scholar, noted that the Druids were divided into these specialisations: Sencha; historian, analyst Brithem; judge, arbitrator, ambassador Scelaige; keeper of myths and epics Cainte; master of magical chants, blessings, curses, invocations, execrations, banishments Liaig; doctor who uses plants, magic and surgery Cruitre; harpist who uses music as magic, master of the "Three Noble Strains" of music: music that invokes laughter, tears, and sleep. Deoghbaire; cup bearer who knows the properties of intoxicating and hallucinogenic substances Faith; diviner Bard; popular poet and singer Fili; sacred poet and diviner
To become a Druid, students assembled in large groups for instruction and training as reported by Irish sources. An Irish epic called the Táin Bo Cuailnge describes the druid Cathbad teaching as many as one hundred students in something like a college. Apprentice druids on the continent of Europe would study for a period of as much as twenty years. The mythologies describe Druids who were capable of many magical powers such as divination and prophesy, control of the weather, healing, levitation, and shape-changing themselves or others into the forms of animals or people. But a Druid was not, strictly speaking, exclusively a mystic or a magician. He or she was mainly an important public functionary. Her divination skills and magical sight were required for many essential social and political purposes, such as advising the tribal leaders as they make policy, settling disputes and legal claims, and announcing the beginning of agricultural seasons such as planting, harvesting, and hunting. Druids were responsible for providing a system of justice, and apparently they possessed many of the same powers of investigation, mediation, conflict-resolution and even sentencing that today¹s judiciary have. It also appears that they were able to magically oppose criminal activity by, for example, performing magical spells intended to return stolen livestock, or to reveal the thief¹s identity in a dream. In times of war a Druid's magical skills were needed to learn about the enemy's movements and plans, to magically empower the warriors, and also to call environmental powers to the aid of the tribe. The Druids could put an end to an unjust war by walking into the centre of the battlefield and telling everyone to go home. On the other hand, another Irish text states that "Šdefeat against odds, and setting territories at war, confer status on a Druid". The general point here is that a Druid¹s status and powers are inextricably connected to a human community. Indeed the Druid¹s social standing was so important that at any assembly, the chiefs and kings could not speak until the Druids had spoken first. A good word for them would seem to be "priests", yet I am reluctant to use it for two reasons: The Romans never used it, and because Druids didn't minister to congregations as priests do. Rather, they had a clientele, like a lawyer, a consultant, a mystic, or a shaman would have. Caesar and his historians never referred to them as priests, but perhaps they could not recognise them as priests since the Roman priesthood, officiating over an essentially political religion, were primarily teachers and judges, with less emphasis on being seers or diviners, whereas the Druids appeared to have both legal and magical powers and responsibilities. A Druid's connection to nature is the source of all her powers, both in society and in magic. By understanding that connection, a Druid's being is joined with nature, and so she becomes aware of all that is known to nature, which is all things. A Druid then is a kind of nature mystic. To experience Druidism, turn off the computer and go into the woods, and listen. The voices of the old Gods are not silent. Their language is the blowing wind and the waves of the great pouring sea.