The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 133

1012 The argument ex silentio is here of little value, since the references to the Druids are so brief, and it tells equally against their non-Celtic origin, since we do not hear of Druids in Aquitania, a non-Celtic region.1013

The theory of the non-Celtic origin of the Druids assumes that the Celts had no priests, or that these were effaced by the Druids. The Celts had priests called gutuatri attached to certain temples, their name perhaps meaning "the speakers," those who spoke to the gods. The functions of the Druids were much more general, according to this theory, hence M. D'Arbois supposes that, before their intrusion, the Celts had no other priests than the gutuatri. But the probability is that they were a Druidic class, ministers of local sanctuaries, and related to the Druids as the Levites were to the priests of Israel, since the Druids were a composite priesthood with a variety of functions. If the priests and servants of Belenos, described by Ausonius and called by him oedituus Beleni, were gutuatri, then the latter must have been connected with the {299} Druids, since he says they were of Druidic stock. Lucan's "priest of the grove" may have been a gutuatros, and the priests (sacerdotes) and other ministers (antistites) of the Boii may have been Druids properly so called and gutuatri. Another class of temple servants may have existed. Names beginning with the name of a god and ending in gnatos, "accustomed to," "beloved of," occur in inscriptions, and may denote persons consecrated from their youth to the service of a grove or temple. On the other hand, the names may mean no more than that those bearing them were devoted to the cult of one particular god.

Our supposition that the gutuatri were a class of Druids is supported by classical evidence, which tends to show that the Druids were a great inclusive priesthood with different classes possessing different functions—priestly, prophetic, magical, medical, legal, and poetical. Cæsar attributes these to the Druids as a whole, but in other writers they are in part at least in the hands of different classes. Diodorus refers to the Celtic philosophers and theologians (Druids), diviners, and bards, as do also Strabo and Timagenes, Strabo giving the Greek form of the native name for the diviners, [Greek: ouateis], the Celtic form being probably vátis (Irish, fáith). These may have been also poets, since vátis means both singer and poet; but in all three writers the bards are a fairly distinct class, who sing the deeds of famous men (so Timagenes). Druid and diviner were also closely connected, since the Druids studied nature and moral philosophy, and the diviners were also students of nature, according to Strabo and Timagenes. No sacrifice was complete without a Druid, say Diodorus and Strabo, but both speak of the diviners as concerned with sacrifice. Druids also prophesied as well as diviners, according {300} to Cicero and Tacitus. Finally, Lucan mentions only Druids and bards.1020 Diviners were thus probably a Druidic sub-class, standing midway between the Druids proper and the bards, and partaking of some of the functions of both. Pliny speaks of "Druids and this race of prophets and doctors,"1021 and this suggests that some were priests, some diviners, while some practised an empiric medical science.

On the whole this agrees with what is met with in Ireland, where the Druids, though appearing in the texts mainly as magicians, were also priests and teachers. Side by side with them were the Filid, "learned poets," composing according to strict rules of art, and higher than the third class, the Bards. The Filid, who may also have been known as Fáthi, "prophets,"1023 were also diviners according to strict rules of augury, while some of these auguries implied a sacrifice. The Druids were also diviners and prophets. When the Druids were overthrown at the coming of Christianity, the Filid remained as a learned class, probably because they had abandoned all pagan practices, while the Bards were reduced to a comparatively low status. M. D'Arbois supposes that there was rivalry between the Druids and the Filid, who made common cause with the Christian missionaries, but this is not supported by evidence. The three classes in Gaul—Druids, Vates, and Bards—thus correspond to the three classes in Ireland—Druids, Fáthi or Filid, and Bards.1024


We may thus conclude that the Druids were a purely Celtic priesthood, belonging both to the Goidelic and Gaulish branches of the Celts. The idea that they were not Celtic is sometimes connected with the supposition that Druidism was something superadded to Celtic religion from without, or that Celtic polytheism was not part of the creed of the Druids, but sanctioned by them, while they had a definite theological system with only a few gods. These are the ideas of writers who see in the Druids an occult and esoteric priesthood. The Druids had grown up pari passu with the growth of the native religion and magic. Where they had become more civilised, as in the south of Gaul, they may have given up many magical practices, but as a class they were addicted to magic, and must have taken part in local cults as well as in those of the greater gods. That they were a philosophic priesthood advocating a pure religion among polytheists is a baseless theory. Druidism was not a formal system outside Celtic religion. It covered the whole ground of Celtic religion; in other words, it was that religion itself.

The Druids are first referred to by pseudo-Aristotle and Sotion in the second century B.C., the reference being preserved by Diogenes Laertius: "There are among the Celtæ and Galatæ those called Druids and Semnotheoi."1026 The two words may be synonymous, or they may describe two classes of priests, or, again, the Druids may have been Celtic, and the Semnotheoi Galatic (? Galatian) priests. Cæsar's account comes next in time. Later writers gives the Druids a lofty place and speak vaguely of the Druidic philosophy and science. Cæsar also refers to their science, but both he and Strabo {302} speak of their human sacrifices. Suetonius describes their religion as cruel and savage, and Mela, who speaks of their learning, regards their human sacrifices as savagery. Pliny says nothing of the Druids as philosophers, but hints at their priestly functions, and connects them with magico-medical rites.1028 These divergent opinions are difficult to account for. But as the Romans gained closer acquaintance with the Druids, they found less philosophy and more superstition among them. For their cruel rites and hostility to Rome, they sought to suppress them, but this they never would have done had the Druids been esoteric philosophers. It has been thought that Pliny's phrase, "Druids and that race of prophets and doctors," signifies that, through Roman persecution, the Druids were reduced to a kind of medicine-men.1029 But the phrase rather describes the varied functions of the Druids, as has been seen, nor does it refer to the state to which the repressive edict reduced them, but to that in which it found them. Pliny's information was also limited.

The vague idea that the Druids were philosophers was repeated parrot-like by writer after writer, who regarded barbaric races as Rousseau and his school looked upon the "noble savage." Roman writers, sceptical of a future life, were fascinated by the idea of a barbaric priesthood teaching the doctrine of immortality in the wilds of Gaul. For this teaching the poet Lucan sang their praises. The Druids probably first impressed Greek and Latin observers by their magic, their organisation, and the fact that, like many barbaric priesthoods, but unlike those of Greece and Rome, they taught certain doctrines. Their knowledge was divinely conveyed to them; "they speak the language of the gods;"1030 hence it was easy to read anything into this teaching. Thus the Druidic legend {303} rapidly grew. On the other hand, modern writers have perhaps exaggerated the force of the classical evidence. When we read of Druidic associations we need not regard these as higher than the organised priesthoods of barbarians. Their doctrine of metempsychosis, if it was really taught, involved no ethical content as in Pythagoreanism. Their astronomy was probably astrological1031; their knowledge of nature a series of cosmogonic myths and speculations. If a true Druidic philosophy and science had existed, it is strange that it is always mentioned vaguely and that it exerted no influence upon the thought of the time.

Classical sentiment also found a connection between the Druidic and Pythagorean systems, the Druids being regarded as conforming to the doctrines and rules of the Greek philosopher.1032 It is not improbable that some Pythagorean doctrines may have reached Gaul, but when we examine the point at which the two systems were supposed to meet, namely, the doctrine of metempsychosis and immortality, upon which the whole idea of this relationship was founded, there is no real resemblance. There are Celtic myths regarding the rebirth of gods and heroes, but the eschatological teaching was apparently this, that the soul was clothed with a body in the other-world. There was no doctrine of a series of rebirths on this earth as a punishment for sin. The Druidic teaching of a bodily immortality was mistakenly assumed to be the same as the Pythagorean doctrine of the soul reincarnated in body after body. Other points of resemblance were then discovered. The organisation of the Druids was assumed by Ammianus to be a kind of corporate life—sodaliciis adstricti consortiis—while the Druidic mind was always searching into lofty things,1033 but {304} those who wrote most fully of the Druids knew nothing of this.

The Druids, like the priests of all religions, doubtless sought after such knowledge as was open to them, but this does not imply that they possessed a recondite philosophy or a secret theology. They were governed by the ideas current among all barbaric communities, and they were at once priests, magicians, doctors, and teachers. They would not allow their sacred hymns to be written down, but taught them in secret, as is usual wherever the success of hymn or prayer depends upon the right use of the words and the secrecy observed in imparting them to others. Their ritual, as far as is known to us, differs but little from that of other barbarian folk, and it included human sacrifice and divination with the victim's body. They excluded the guilty from a share in the cult—the usual punishment meted out to the tabu-breaker in all primitive societies.

The idea that the Druids taught a secret doctrine—monotheism, pantheism, or the like—is unsupported by evidence. Doubtless they communicated secrets to the initiated, as is done in barbaric mysteries everywhere, but these secrets consist of magic and mythic formulæ, the exhibition of Sacra, and some teaching about the gods or about moral duties. These are kept secret, not because they are abstract doctrines, but because they would lose their value and because the gods would be angry if they were made too common. If the Druids taught religious and moral matters secretly, these were probably no more than an extension of the threefold maxim inculcated by them according to Diogenes Laertius: "To worship the gods, to do no evil, and to exercise courage." {305} To this would be added cosmogonic myths and speculations, and magic and religious formulæ. This will become more evident as we examine the position and power of the Druids.

In Gaul, and to some extent in Ireland, the Druids formed a priestly corporation—a fact which helped classical observers to suppose that they lived together like the Pythagorean communities. While the words of Ammianus—sodaliciis adstricti consortiis—may imply no more than some kind of priestly organisation, M. Bertrand founds on them a theory that the Druids were a kind of monks living a community life, and that Irish monasticism was a transformation of this system.1036 This is purely imaginative. Irish Druids had wives and children, and the Druid Diviciacus was a family man, while Cæsar says not a word of community life among the Druids. The hostility of Christianity to the Druids would have prevented any copying of their system, and Irish monasticism was modelled on that of the Continent. Druidic organisation probably denoted no more than that the Druids were bound by certain ties, that they were graded in different ranks or according to their functions, and that they practised a series of common cults. In Gaul one chief Druid had authority over the others, the position being an elective one. The insular Druids may have been similarly organised, since we hear of a chief Druid, primus magus, while the Filid had an Ard-file, or chief, elected to his office.1038 The priesthood was not a caste, but was open to those who showed aptitude for it. There was a long novitiate, extending even to twenty years, just as, in Ireland, the novitiate of the File lasted from seven to twelve years.1039


The Druids of Gaul assembled annually in a central spot, and there settled disputes, because they were regarded as the most just of men.1040 Individual Druids also decided disputes or sat as judges in cases of murder. How far it was obligatory to bring causes before them is unknown, but those who did not submit to a decision were interdicted from the sacrifices, and all shunned them. In other words, they were tabued. A magico-religious sanction thus enforced the judgments of the Druids. In Galatia the twelve tetrarchs had a council of three hundred men, and met in a place called Dru