The Druids were an ancient order of Celtic priests in the societies of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland. The Celtic Druids served their communities by combining the duties of seer, priest, poet, philosopher, historian, scholar, teacher, doctor, astronomer and astrologer. The Celts had developed a highly sophisticated religious system, with three divisions of men who were held in exceptional honor; the lowest division were called the Ovates, the second division were called the Bards and then the Druids. The ovates were the healers and seers; the bards memorised the songs, poems, and stories of the tribe (historians); while the druids taught moral philosophy and were experts in the workings of natural science.
The Celtic Druids were advisers to the rulers of that time, acted as judges in the event of disputes, supervised executions and even controlled the legal system. They were held in such respect that if they intervened between two armies they could stop the battle. The Druid priests and priestesses acted as mediums through which the spirits could be summoned and heard, with rituals throughout the history of the Celtic Druids being enacted in sacred groves of oak trees and circles of standing stones
The first surviving and fullest account of the druids and their religion is that given by Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, book VI, written in Gaul in 59-51 BC. Overall, not much can be said of the druids with assurance as the sources of information about them is limited. However they continued to feature prominently in later sources of Irish myth and literature. Thus, the history of the Celtic Druids presents many obscurities and our main literary sources date back to the 2nd century BC with Pliny and The Commentaries of Caeser.
“The principal point of their doctrine”, Caesar wrote, “is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another.”
“With regard to their actual course of studies, the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed. Subsidiary to the teachings of this main principle, they hold various lectures and discussions on astronomy, on the extent and geographical distribution of the globe, on the different branches of natural philosophy, and on many problems connected with religion”.
–Julius Cesar, “De Bello Gallico”, VI, 13
After the first century BC the continental druids disappeared entirely and were referred to only on very rare occasions. However, there is some evidence that the druids of Ireland survived into the mid- to late-seventh century. In the De Mirabilibus Sacrae Scripturae of Augustinus Hibernicus, there is mention of local magi who teach a doctrine of reincarnation in the form of birds.
During the first millennium, Celtic and Druid spirituality was preserved by the Christian clerics who performed the valuable service of recording many of the stories and myths by which the oral teachings of the Druids were conveyed. People who think that Druidry was destroyed with the coming of Christianity fail to understand the resilience of spiritual teachings when they are encoded in myths and stories: and it is thanks to the clerics’ recording of these tales that we can be inspired by them today. St Patrick also recorded all of the old Druid laws in Ireland – providing us with invaluable information on the ethics and social structure of Celtic Druid culture.
A Druid’s Circle is a popular name for circles of standing stones such as Stonehenge, which is the most famous example. These are also known as the “Temples of the Druids”. Great mounds of earth were also built where the practice of seeking rebirth within the Earth was performed (in which initiates would sit in darkness awaiting the time of their rebirth). The best example of this is found at New Grange in Ireland, where a shaft is oriented to the Winter Solstice sunrise, so that the dawn rays can bathe the initiate in sunlight after his or her vigil through the night.