Julius Caesar is one of the best ancient sources of information on the druids. To read this English translation (which corresponds to the Anthology extract "The Power of the Druids"), scroll down to "Caesar, C.J. De Bello Gallico,vi,13".
5-minute clip of a Channel 5 documentary ("Revealed: Julius Caesar and the Druids")that explores Britain's Celtic Druids – and tells the dramatic story of their last days, from Caesar's first incursion into Britain through to the Druids' bloody last stand on the sacred Isle of Anglesey. The film reveals the Druids' powerful hold over the Celtic Britons, and examines why the Roman conquerors were so determined to wipe them out as they became the centre of British resistance to the Roman onslaught. Note: contains some violent imagery. In future the whole episode may become available here.
The first half of this webpage brings together all ancient references to Druids, with existing passages translated into English. Interesting stuff! The second half continues with a history of Druids up to and including modern times; wirtten by Lugodoc, a self-professed druid, it has a definate political slant: for instance, not all would agree that the 1980's were "as bad as you've heard". Nevertheless, interesting reading.
Despite modern druids flocking to Stonehenge, there is no evidence that the famous stone circle - a symbol of British prehistory - the most visible part of which dates to c.2000 BC (Bronze Age), had anything to do with druids, the priestly class of the Celts - who only entered Britain from 500-100 BC from central Europe. It was John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century, who first thought it a "probability" that stone circles, such as Stonehenge, "were Temples of the Druids" and called his text on stone circles the Templa Druidum. Here's a famous image of Stonehenge painted c.1825 by J.M.W.Turner; in Salibury Museum. (scroll down to view) To know more about Stonehenge, look at these great webpages from BBC History.
A great website! For those interested in knowing a little more about the Celtic society, the hill-top town of Entremont in southern France presents an excellent example of Gaulish/Gallic living at the time of the Romans.
Vercingetorix was the chieftain of the Arverni, and led the Gauls in their ultimately unsuccessful war against Rome. Captured at the pivotal Battle of Alesia by Julius Caesar he was taken to Rome and executed in 46 BC. His statue stands, somewhat forlornly, at Alesia.
Julius Caesar is one of the best ancient sources of information on the druids. To read this English translation (which corresponds to the Anthology extract "The Education of the Druids"), scroll down to "Caesar, C.J. De Bello Gallico,vi,14".
On the homepage, click the blue icon "Gauls and Greeks" to take you to an excellent, very informative website on the Gaullish settlement of Entremont and their relationship with the Greek colony of Massilia (modern Marseilles).
The most stunning indication of the contact between Gauls and Greeks is the so-called "Vase of Vix": an enormous Greek pot (tecnically for mixing wine with water and known as a krater) which was buried with a high-status, Celtic female (princess?) at modern Vix in central-east France. It's the largest bronze vessel to have survived from the ancient world - and was surely a diplomatic gift. This link takes you to a photo from wikipedia but it is worth a quick search to get an idea of its enormous size!
The Gauls (and the Celtic Britons) revealed their Greek influence by sometimes using Greek coins or coins they'd minted themselves but struck with Greek-derived designs which became more and more abstract over time.
Whether what Caesar saw of Celtic writing was actual Greek or Greek-influenced alphabet we can't be sure. There are a few examples of Greek writing on Celtic objects - e.g. a Celtic sword from La Tene in Switzerland has the blacksmith's(?) name, Korisios, on it in Greek letters - and there are a few more examples of inscriptions in some of the Celtic languages (of which there several variants such as Gaulish, Celtiberian and Galatian). Pictured here is a bronze plaque, 1st Cent. BC, from Botoritta in Spain; it is written in the Celtiberian language, whose alphabet combines Phoenician and Greek characteristics.
About the author
To find out about Caesar's life and works, click here.
Julius Caesar is one of the best ancient sources of information on the druids. To read this English translation (which corresponds to the Anthology extract "The Religion of the Druids"), scroll down to "Caesar, C.J. De Bello Gallico,vi,16".
An immense number of local and tribal gods appears to have existed throughout the Celtic world... here a a few.
The Greek geographer Strabo confirms and adds to Caesar's description of Celtic human sacrifice: "They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing. Strabo, Geography IV.4.5.
The best archaeological data supporting Celtic human sacrifice is the body of the man placed in Lindow bog sometime c.50 AD. "Lindow Man" was almost certainly a ritual sacrifice; he was strangled, hit on the head, and had his throat cut, in quick order, then surrendered to the bog.
This doorway - with niches for human skulls - comes from a temple or sanctuary at Roquepertuse in southern France. It provides graphic evidence that these particular Celts in southern Gaul (the Saluvii) practised a cult of "severed heads" or skulls. In the Historical Museum, Marseille.
About the author
To find out about Tacitus' life and works, click here.
The largest hoard of Celtic objects discovered in Wales came from a former lake, Llyn Cerrig Bach, on Anglesey. Dating from 200 BC to AD60, some of these finds could have been ritually thrown into the lake on the eve or during the Roman invasion of Anglesey.
Also known as the Furies or Dirae, these "Kindly Ones" (!) were the goddesses of retribution who exacted punishment, on alive and dead souls, for murder and other serious crimes. In art they are usually depicted as winged, their hair entwined with snakes, and carrying torches and scourges. Their names, when in course of time their number had come to be fixed as three, were Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. In this dramatic 1862 painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau, "Orestes pursued by the Furies", Orestes is immediately hounded and driven mad by the avenging Furies for taking the life of his own mother, Clytemnestra. In the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Virginia, USA
Druids: See links in above sections "The Power of the Druids" and "The Religion of the Druids"
You'll need to scroll down to the bottom of this webpage to sections 249-251 to see the full version of Pliny's Latin text; the Anthology version is quite heavily edited with changes of word-order, word additions and subtractions.
The Romans borrowed the word magus from the Persians; perhaps meaning "wise man" it refered to their priests who seem to have mixed religion with other seemingly mystical abilities such as astronomy, alchemy and medicine. From the word, we get magic and magician. The best known magi are the "men from the east" mentioned in the Bible's Nativity story - the three wise men or kings. Our link starts the rather lovely "Power of Love" video from Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984)which depicts the traditional image of the magi. Pliny uses this word perhaps to cast the Druids as stranger and more mystical than traditional Roman priests.
This plant grows parasitically upon the branches or trunk of a host tree or shrub. Mistletoe's common name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words for 'dung' (mistel) and 'twig' (tan) because of the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings because plants would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. You can find lots more info on this Mistletoe website.
The famous "Coligny Calendar" indicates that at least some Celts measured time on the basis of the moon's cycles (a lunar calendar). Each lunar month equals 29.5 days. As regards the 6th day, no significance - if indeed there was any - can be discerned.
Not gold, alas, but iron. However, the fact that it was part of a burial hoard indicates the importance attached to such a tool - primarily used for harvesting wheat, barley, oats etc. Pliny tells us that Druids used golden sickles to cut sacred mistletoe.
The most famous instance of mistletoe in Classical literature is in Book VI of the Aeneid, where the hero Aeneas can only enter the Underworld by taking with him a "golden bough", a sprig of mistletoe to be found in the dark wood around Lake Avernus near Naples. While Virgil prompts us to imagine this bough as made of hard metal, one can also see that in reality, and in some circumstances, mistletoe can turn a golden colour. The link takes you to J. M. W. Turner's very golden painting of The Golden Bough episode in the Aeneid.
"Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; the Bards, the Vates and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy. The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and the murder cases, in particular, had been turned over to them for decision. Further, when there is a big yield from these cases, there is forthcoming a big yield from the land too, as they think. However, not only the Druids, but others as well, say that men's souls, and also the universe, are indestructible, although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them." Strabo, Geography IV.4.4.
"The Gauls have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids ; they have sooth-sayers too of great renown who tell the future by watching the flights of birds and by observation of the entrails of victims; and every one waits upon their word. When they attempt divination upon important matters they practice a strange and incredible custom, for they kill a man by a knife-stab in the region above the midriff, and after his fall they foretell the future by the convulsions of his limbs and the pouring of his blood, a form of divination in which they have full confidence, as it is of old tradition. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought. It is not only in times of peace, but in war also, that these seers have authority, and the incantations of the bards have effect on friends and foes alike. Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses." Diodorus Siculus, Histories V.31
"The Gauls do have a kind of eloquence, however, and teachers of wisdom called Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and universe, the motion of the stars and the sky, and the will of the gods. They teach many things secretly to the Galish nobles over a period of up to twenty years in caves and hidden in places in the forest." Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis 3.18-19.
Most of the druidic tradition is based on the writings of Pliny. Great painting entitled Druids Cutting the Mistletoe on the Sixth Day of the Moon by French artist Henri Paul Motte.
While no ancient source mentions female druids (aka "druidesses", "druid priestesses"), Tacitus reports that the Celts made no distinction between male and female leaders (of which Boudicca is the most famous), so one could suppose that this also applied to the priestly class of druids. Artists certainly like to portray female druids...