A Modern Druidic Group at a
Stone Circle in Europe
Druids were an exalted caste of priests of the Celts, a barbaric, tribal people who spread through Giml, Britain, Ireland, Europe, Asia Minor and the Balkans by the 5th Century B.C. In the 1st century A.D. the Romans launched a series of suppressions of the Celts, and their religion eventually was replaced by Christianity.
The rituals and teachings of the Druids were highly secret and were passed on by oral tradition.
Little is known about the Druids, who have been the subject of much research and speculation. Most of what is known comes from the writings of the Greeks and Romans, the opinions of the latter of whom, as the conquerors, must be viewed with some skepticism; from archaeological evidence obtained from graves, shrines and temples; and iconography. The writings span the 2nd century B.C. to the 4th Century A.D. and are scanty at best.
The exact role of the Druids in Celtic society is open to interpretation and seems to vary according to geography. In the 3rd century, Diogenes Laertius said that the Druids were an ancient institution in the 4th Century B.C., during the time of Aristotle. Julius Caesar said the Gaulish Druids were one of the two highest castes, along with the knights, and were organized under a single titular head.
In Ireland, the Druids were the second highest of tIlree castes, below the nobility and above the plebes, or landless ones.
By most accounts, the Druids were the keepers of traditional wisdom who were con-cerned with moral philosophy, natural phenomena and theology. They were skilled in the interpretation of omens, the correct rites of Sacrifice, the construction of a calendar, the medicine of herbs, the science of astronomy and the composition of poems. Ammianus, Roman historian (ca. 330-395 B.C.), said Druids "are uplifted by searchings into things most secret and sublime." Gaulish Druids were said to administer law and justice, though it is not known how they did so without circumventing the authority of their tribal chiefs. Irish Druids were described as men of learning and art, who included seers, wise men, bards and jurists.
The Druids of Gaul and Britain were said to be separate from others in the priesthood, including diviners (see Divination), bards and seers. There seems to have been some overlap, however, as Druids were said to read omens and prophesy the future. Druids included both men and women, for women had a place of importance in Celtic society.
Dio Chrysostomus, the Greek philosopher (ca. 40-112 A.D.), equated the Druids with Hindu Brahmins, Persian magi and Egyptian priests. In more recent times, writers such as occultist Lewis Spence (1920) and historian Ward Rutherford (1978) have theorized that the Druids were Shamans.
Rutherford says they also were a possession cult, which is typical of societies that practice human Sacrifice. Customs that can be traced to the Druids include night fires, drumming, Chanting and Ecstatic dancing.
As members of the priesthood, the Druids certainly played a key role in the sacred and secftlar life of the Celts. They conducted religious ceremonies, served as mediators between the people and gods, exercised influence over the moral, ethical and spir-itual fabric of Celtic society through their teachings and divination and made political and judicial decisions.
Their teachings included moral philosophy, ethics, astronomy, the law of nature, the power of the gods and the concept of immortality. :
Certain trees, plants and animals were believed to be endowed with sacred and curative powers, and the Druids used them in religious ceremonies and for remedial purposes. The Mistletoe, believed to be a sign from heaven, was used as a remedy against poisons and infertility, even for animals. The oak tree was thought to have come from the sacred forest, and its foliage was used in ceremonies. The term Druid means "knowing the oak tree" in Gaelic.
Religious ceremonies were conducted in sacred. woods or oak groves which served as temples. These' sacred enclosures were also assembly sites where the Druids made decisions and administered justice in civil and criminal disputes.
Other meetings took place at river sources and lakes because the Celts worshipped water gods and believed water to be sacred. Ceremonies included prayers, Libations and human and animal Sacrifices. Victims were burned alive in wicker-work cages, stabbed, impaled on stakes and I shot with arrows. It was the Sacrifice of humans that so outraged the Romans, who had outlawed the practice as barbaric by Senatorial decree in 97 B.C.
Later writers tried to excuse the Druids' participation in Sacrifices, saying they did not do the actual killing. This is highly unlikely, given their role as a priest caste of religion.
The only extant detailed account of a Druid ceremony comes from Pliny and concerns the harvesting I of mistletoe: "On the sixth day of the moon, a Druid garbed in a white robe climbed an oak tree and, with his left hand, cut the mistletoe with a gold sickle (or, more likely, a gilded bronze sickle, since gold is too soft to cut mistletoe). The mistletoe, which was not supposed to fall to the ground, was caught in a white cloth. Two white bulls were Sacrificed and a feast was held..."
In interpreting omens, the Druids observed the hare or birds such as the crow and eagle to foretell events. They practiced divination by observing the death throes and entrails of their sacrificial..victims. During religious festivals, the Druids divined by dreams. A man would be put to sleep with Druids Chanting over his body. Upon awakening, the man described his dream and the Druids interpreted it.
Classical writings make references to the Druids' Magic, including Charms with herbs and mistletoe, and belief in a magical egg made from the spittle of angry snakes, which would ensure success in court and guarantee favors from princes.
The Druids believed in the immortality of the soul and life after death, which some writers have equated with Pythagoras's belief in metempsychosis. The dead were cremated with all their possessions. Sometimes relatives committed religious suicide by jumping into the fire and holding the corpses so as to be with them in the next world. The Celts wrote letters to the dead and advanced loans that would be repayable after death. Caesar said that this belief in immortality sustained the legendary Celtic courage in battle.
The Romans feared and were repulsed by the Celts, and in 43 A.D., Claudius banned Druidism throughout the empire. In 60 or 61 A.D., the Romans sacked and destroyed their holy stronghold on the island of Mona (also called Mon or Anglesey). According to Tacitus, black-clad Druidesses leaped among the Celtic warriors, howling to the gods and screaming curses at the Romans. The Romans were victo-rious and not only slayed the warriors but killed all the Druids and laid waste to the sacred groves. The loss sent Druidism into a permanent decline; within several generations, the venerated and powerful priesthood was on a par with common Sorcerers.
Modern Druidic movements. In the 16th and 17th centuries, interest in the Druids revived. Translators of the classical texts romanticized them and turned them into stock folklore characters. John Aubrey, 17th-century British antiquarian, suggested the Druids had constructed Stonehenge, a theory that has since been refuted as inaccurate. Aubrey's views were endorsed in the 18th Century, however, by William Stukeley, who became known as the "Arch Druid" and the founder of modern Druidism. A meeting of "British Druids" is said to have taken place in 1717, organized by John Tolan and led by Stukeley.
In 1781 the Ancient Order of Druids was founded by Henry Hurle, a carpenter. This order was inspired by Freemasonry and also was a benefit society (charitable organization). The issue of charity split the organization in 1833. The United Ancient Order of Druids continued purely as a benefit society, while the Ancient Order of Druids retained its mystical underpinnings. By the early 20th Century there were at least five modern Druidic organizations, including the Druidic Hermetists and the British Circle of the Universal Bond, but most did not survive more than a few decades. In 1963 the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids split away from the Ancient Order of Druids, drawing members away from that group and the British Circle of the Universal Bond.
Before 1915 Stonehenge was privately owned, but modem Druids were allowed to assemble there. In 1900 a stone was knocked over, and the owner fenced the henge and began charging admission. At the next solstice ceremony, some of the Druids objected to the fee.
The police were called and the Druids were thrown out. They ritually cursed the owner (see CURSES). In 1915 Stonehenge was sold to Cecil Chubb, who turned it over to the government. Modem Druids were allowed to hold festivals at Stonehenge until 1985, when the monument was placed off limits to all such festivals, because of vandalism by the spectators who were attracted to the gatherings.
In the United States, another modem Druidic movement with no connection to the ancient Druids or to the modem Druids in England, was formed in 1963. The Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) initially was conceived as a hoax by a group of students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, who were protesting a school requirement that students attend religious services. The requirement was dropped in 1963-64, but the Reformed Druids decided to take themselves seriously and continue as an organization of autonomous "groves."
Rituals were reconstructed from anthropological material and in-cluded nonbloody Sacrifices. The founders of the RDNA did not intend for it to become a religion but rather viewed it as a philosophy. Some groves split off to fonn a separate branch, the New Reformed Druids of North America (NRDNA), which emphasized Neo-Pagan religion. Among these groves was the Berkeley grove, which was led by Archdruid P. E. I. (Isaac) Bonewitts in the mid-1970's. Bonewits left the organization around 1978-79. In 1983 he formed his own Druidic organization, Ar nDraiocht Fein ("Our own Druidism").
By 1985 modem Druidic activity in the United States had declined. The Reformed Druids of North America was no longer active as an organization, though individual groves remained scattered around the country. Ar nDraiocht Fein had approximately 400 members as of 1990.
Modem Druids observe the eight seasonal Pagan holy days, holding their rites outdoors.
Some American Druids gather at a Stonehenge replica in Washington State.
A 'Wicker-Man' as portrayed in the Classic British film 'The Wicker-Man'
One of the major problems with 'defining' Paganism and/or its beliefs and practices is that it is an 'organic' movement, in that it is undergoing constant change and re-evaluation from within, and as such any 'one-size-fits-all' approach to understanding Paganism will be found wanting.
Due to the very 'organic' nature of Paganism, and the many differing Paths and Traditions within it, in many cases no one definition may be universally accepted by all Pagans. Therefore, where such cases of possible conflicting and/or contradictory meanings of certain terms occur I have endevoured to give not only the generally accepted meaning, but also any major 'variations' in belief and/or practice.
Christians who believe this difference in meaning of certain key terms, beliefs and practices to be unique to Paganism need to remember that such conflicts also arise within the Body of Christ - the Church. Take for instance the differing practices amongst Christians concerning Baptism and the different attitudes towards women in the clergy.
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