The Ancient Druids
More than two millennia ago, in the year 335 BCE, Alexander the Great encountered a group of Celtic warriors with huge golden neck rings and brightly colored cloaks. As the story goes, he asked the so-called barbarians what they feared most in this world, hoping that they would say him. However, to his surprise, the noble knights just laughed at him and said they feared nothing at all. Unbeknownst to him, they understood the truth about reincarnation and this is what gave them such intense courage on the field of battle. That is to say, knowing that they would be reborn to live and fight again, they went to war with no concern of dying. They had learned this esoteric insight from the Druids, who were mystical Iron Age intellectuals that were part of the priestly caste of Celts among the islander Britons and mainlander Gauls, from about 600 BCE to 600 CE, give or take a century or two.
As pagan polytheists, the Celts worshiped many different deities, such as Tamesis the goddess of the River Thames. More importantly, Druids had to oversee every important ceremony in their society. In line with this, unlike other ancient civilizations that celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, the Celts observed the cross-quarter holidays instead. These are known as Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain. They happen on January 31st to February 1st, April 30th to May 1st, July 31st to August 1st, and October 31st to November 1st, respectively. Moreover, this used to occur from sundown to sundown, as part of an eight-day, rather than a seven-day week. In addition to this, the Druids also supervised every religious practice in the Celtic world, including the sacrifices that were given to the gods and goddesses of regional pantheons. Plus, Druids were required to study everything from cosmology to theurgy. Unfortunately, understanding the precise history, philosophy, and theology of the Druids is rather difficult because, although they were highly literate polyglots and proficient polymaths, Druids were strictly forbidden from recording anything.
As part of this, it took a Celtic priest or priestess two decades of apprenticeship in order to master three levels of initiation, from Bard to Ovate to Druid. They progressed from storytellers to soothsayers to spellcasters. So, these were not separate professions as the ancient Greeks and Romans thought. Rather, the role of a Bard was to preserve the living memory of their heritage through native poetic songs. Then, after memorizing that, an Ovate would learn the art of extispicy, the divinatory practice of using anomalies in animal entrails, most often the liver, to predict future events. They also learned to use astrology to forecast the most auspicious days for different kinds of things to occur. After that, a Druid learned to use philosophical riddles, similar to the way koans are used. Finally, they would learn to superintend at sacrifices for more than two hundred different deities. They also learned about the fairies that inhabit the wilderness, as well as the sacredness of certain plants. So, rather than building temples, oak groves served as their sacred sites. Even the proto-Celtic word “druwides” meant “oak-knowers”. In this way, a fully trained Celtic priest or priestess could harness the power of “draiocht”, meaning both “magic” in general and “Druidry” specifically.
In line with this, according to the accounts of some of their Greek and Roman contemporaries, the Druids were religious leaders, legal authorities, lore keepers, medical professionals, political advisors, and more. Julius Caesar even claimed that the Druids burned prisoners alive in immense wicker man burnt offerings of public execution. They also occasionally performed willing human sacrifices, in three-fold ritual killings, that left behind bog bodies as gifts to the gods. That is to say, after the victim’s skull was smashed, their neck was garrotted, and their throat was slashed, then they were kicked face-first into the peat bogs, which were believed to be portals to the underworld. At the same time though, Druids were primarily peacekeeping pacifists who could step between warring tribes in the middle of a battle and call an end to the fighting. No Celtic warrior would have ever harmed a Druid or questioned their authority. Oddly enough, this same respect was even given to mistletoe, which Druids believed to have magical and medicinal properties. This was partly because in the winter when all the trees are bare, mistletoe stays green, as if by a miracle.
More to the point, if two enemies ever met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings, and observe a truce until the following day. Regardless, in spite of the peacekeeping efforts of the Druids and the benevolent spirits of the mistletoe, the Celts were highly combative, with blood-thirsty chiefs constantly declaring war on each other. The problem was that when the Common Era began, the Celts had spread across Europe from Asia Minor in the east to Spain and the islands of Britain and Ireland in the west. However, they were strictly tribal, not imperial. So, they never formed an empire. As such, the Celts were very easy to conquer, and the Romans took full advantage of that fact. In the process, they massacred countless Druids and their followers, along with the sacred oak groves where they gathered. This long painful demise of classical Druidry first began in the year 43, and by the end of the 1st century, Ireland alone, far out at sea, remained unconquered. There, the ways of the ancient Celts survived untouched by the outside world long after the fall of Rome.
Unfortunately for the natives of the British Isles and western Europe, the Christians soon followed in the wake of the Romans, with devastating consequences for Celtic culture, even in Ireland. In the most famous instance of this, during the 5th century, Saint Patrick became partly responsible for the Christianization of the Picts and Anglo-Saxons. Simply put, the widespread violent conversion of the indigenous people was more or less pervasive throughout the lands. In fact, in the year 573, even the renowned Welsh Druid Merlin was forced to flee into the forest and hide from the militant monotheistic missionaries for the rest of his life. Ultimately, throughout the Middle Ages, the Church did all that it could to put an end to the sorcery of the Druids. Thus, over time, the spirituality and religiosity of France, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland were permanently altered by evangelical iconoclasts. Tragically, in the end, as the Christian conversion continued on, by the year 800, the ancient Druids were all dead and gone.