Who were the Druids? Well, when Roman armies set about the conquest of Iron Age Britain in AD 43, they later attacked Anglesey under the command of Suetonius Paullinus. The Romans’ Celtic enemies appeared at the shore, among them women in black with torches aflame, resembling mythical Furies. Suetonius – ultimately victorious – took care to demolish his opponents’ sacred altars, which were stained with the blood of sacrificed humans. The ones apparently responsible for this were the Druids, the educated ‘upper’ class who supposedly officiated as magician-priests, even lawmakers, and who shielded the mysteries of Celtic religious beliefs. Julius Caesar – in his Gallic Wars – also mentions human sacrifice among the Celtic upper echelons, with their victims immolated in a huge pyre. (The inspiration for the 1973 pagan horror movie, The Wicker Man.) Ancient historian Diodorus Siculus mentioned that one of the Druids’ methods of divining the future was to stab a man in the chest, then observe how he moved in his death throes. So could these elite, educated men also be the barbarians committing human sacrifice? For that matter, how much do we really know about the Druids, anyway?
Some authorities say we know next to nothing, and not even the accounts of ancient historians are to be relied upon. One of them is Professor Ronald Hutton – and I agree (the reasons are given below.) As the Daily Telegraph once reported:
‘In 1984, peat-cutters at Lindow Moss in Cheshire found a well-preserved body which was eventually dated to the first century AD. ‘Lindow Man’ … appeared to have undergone a ritual killing, and his stomach contents included grains of mistletoe pollen. Proof at last, it was said, that the Greeks and Romans were right: Druidic sacrifice was a grisly business, involving both mistletoe and blood. But when Ronald Hutton discusses this evidence, he shows that not a single detail can be relied on. The pollen consisted of four grains – a literally microscopic quantity, which might have just blown on to the man’s lunch. What looked like garroting might have been just the effects of a corroded necklace, and the gash to the man’s jugular could have been caused by peat-cutting equipment. As for the Greek and Roman authors, few had any first-hand knowledge of Druids in either Gaul or Britain; and the one who was best placed to gain it, Julius Caesar, seems to have copied his information about Druids out of somebody else’s writings instead.’
Despite (or because) of our lack of inner knowledge of the Druids, they have fascinated commentators for generations. This is especially true for modern neo-pagans, drawn to their veneer of secrecy and their mystique as guardians of unfathomable, arcane wisdom. But there are no texts recording their own beliefs, no contemporary origin stories, as with Christianity – there is no ancient Celtic Bible! Accordingly, the word ‘Druid’ is not Celtic but a conflation of the Greek word drus (oak tree or oak wood) and the Indo-European infinitive wid (‘to know’). Thus, a Druid is, metaphorically, ‘one who knows the oak’. Oak trees have a special totemic power and sanctity in Celtic tradition. It was the Druids’ task to interpret the handiwork of the gods in all its forms, and with its long age and great size, the oak represents everything that speaks of life, that has strength, that endures, that appears immortal, even.
The Druids and the Mistletoe
This brings us to that fabled object of ritual desire, the mistletoe. In fact, we’re about to open the door to a treasure trove of magical symbolism. Here is what the Roman historian Pliny (c. AD 77) had to say about the Druids:
‘The Druids—for that is the name they give to their magicians held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the robur [Latin for oak]… In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour. The mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the robur; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe … Having made due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for, the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims … It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.’ ¹
We’ll soon see how fanciful this is, but apparently, in the ancient Druid tongue, the word for mistletoe translated as ‘all-healing’, and the parasite mistletoe is indeed said to be used in early medicine. (Even in the 20th century it was thought to be able to cure epilepsy.) And yet, the plant is also known to be toxic, and one wonders how safely it was used. However, the scene depicted here by Pliny isn’t to be taken at face value. For one, and we’ll get to why later, he’s deliberately placing lunar symbolism into the text: the colour white (the Druids’ robes, and the fact that mistletoe berries are white); the number two (the moon’s symbolic number) and the sickle, the shape of a crescent moon.
Then there are the two sacrificial bulls. This is based on ancient Roman bas relief sculptures (the Tauroctony) of the redemptive god Mithras, sacrificing the universal white bull (symbolising the power of nature’s fecundity) which is then transformed into the moon. Again, this, and Pliny’s account, is symbolic – there isn’t even any evidence that Bulls were ritually sacrificed in the Mithraic cult.²
Bull symbolism also appeared in Plato’s Critias and the ceremony whereby the Kings of Atlantis are required to overcome a bull (using no metal weapons) and shed its blood on a pillar of ‘Orichalcum’ (imperfect gold). Such a test of strength never occurred, for it symbolises the initiate’s own inner subjugation of bodily appetites and emotions – Man overcoming his wayward ‘animal’ aspect. This is to be transformed into reflective, spiritual power. (Think of the Tarot trump ‘Strength’, whose female figure is holding a Lion’s jaws closed.) The ‘imperfect’ gold in Plato, then, represents the struggling soul of the candidate.
As for the Druids catching the magical mistletoe before it fell to the ground, Pliny records something similar. In his often fanciful Natural History he refers to so called ‘Druid’s Eggs’, which are made by intertwined serpents that produce a thick slime with saliva. ‘The Druids say that [the egg] – caught at a fixed period of the moon – is tossed aloft by the snakes’ hisses, and that it ought to be caught in a military cloak before it can touch the earth.’ Anyone capturing an egg thusly ‘must instantly take to flight on horseback, as the serpents will be sure to pursue him’ The test of its genuineness, they say, is its floating against the current of a stream, even though it ‘be set in gold.’³ He ends this bizarre description by alleging he has seen such an egg. This is more inner code – a deliberate allusion to the mythic Golden Apples of the Hesperides, guarded by a ferocious dragon, and which Heracles had to obtain. And so we have metaphor for ‘procuring’ spiritual gold, which requires much hard work and patience. Pliny even says he’s seen one of these impossible Golden Eggs, as it’s his way of declaring he is an Initiate.
Pliny has drawn, too, from another Initiate, the Roman poet Virgil, whose Aeneid depicts a Trojan war veteran’s journey to the Underworld. To get there safely, the hero Aeneas needed a magical talisman, the Golden Bough, obtained from a wide, dark forest guided by two white doves. Arriving at a tree on which mistletoe grew, he removed the Golden Bough, or branch, with its ‘flickering gleam of gold’ illuminating the darkness. As this was necessary as an offering to Persephone, the Queen of Hell, Aeneas is accompanied to the Underworld by a seeress, who instructs him ‘in those sublime mysteries, of the soul of the world, and the transmigration.’
Hence we land knee deep in the tradition of the Pagan Mysteries, which is the real basis for Pliny’s quaint Druid rite. The Mysteries were essentially private rituals of the Greco-Roman world whose participants were sworn to secrecy. They were initiations into the secrets of the soul’s real journey, where acolytes were taught not to fear death, and that a blissful afterlife awaited them in Elysium, or Paradise. There was the Eleusinian Mysteries based on the search of Ceres, the divine patroness of nature, for her daughter Persephone – abducted to the Underworld by Hades, Death himself. There were the Orphics who wore white robes as a token of their moral purity, and the Mithras cult with its symbolic slaying of the white bull and its ritual meal – so like what Pliny says about the Druids.
But if white-robed Druids cut down mistletoe from the oak with a golden sickle as the moon waxed (gently, lest it touch the ground, as two white bulls were killed) they must have stolen these metaphors from Greco-Roman writers! What we are really seeing here is thinly disguised High Magic cribbed from the Mysteries, death and rebirth rites with their search for divine power, purity and spiritual enlightenment. Pliny was actually revealing (in his obscure way) the kind of thing that would be taught to Mystery initiates. What looks like a quaint tale of nocturnal ritual activity by the enigmatic Druids has much hidden meaning. Often these ancient fables run way deeper than is at first obvious. Of course, if they didn’t there wouldn’t be any mystery would there?
As for who the Druids really were, Caesar noted that: ‘A lesson they take particular pains to inculcate is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another … They also hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, the size of the universe and of the earth … and the power and properties of the gods; and they instruct the young men in all of these subjects.’ Hence, the Druids world-view centred on the immortality of the soul: they believed in the afterlife, that their dearly departed would enter a new existence in the otherworld. This is evinced by Celtic sepulchral possessions from archaeological digs. Items of personal adornment – brooches, combs, nail clippers – even shoes brocaded in gold – were interred with the deceased on their journey of endless night.
Hence, in an echo of the Classical Mysteries, Roman poet Lucan (A.D. 39-65) says to the Druids: ‘From you we learn that the destination of man’s spirit is not the grave … if your teaching be true, death is the centre, not the finish, of a long life.’ Here is a glimpse, at last, of the real Druids of history.
1. Pliny, Natural History, chapter 95, bk 16.
2. See Beck, Roger (1984), “Mithraism since Franz Cumont”.
3. Pliny, Natural History, vol II, bk. 7, ch. 2.
The above is an edited version of The Druids, The Mistletoe and the Secret Tradition which appeared in Vol. XXXII (no. 1) of Diamond Fire magazine. Diamond Fire can be found on Facebook.