|The Druids were the priests or ministers of religion among the ancient
Celtic nations in Gaul, Britain, and Germany. Our information respecting
them is borrowed from notices in the Greek and Roman writers, compared
with the remains of Welsh and Gaelic poetry still extant.
The Druids combined the functions of the priest, the magistrate, the
scholar, and the physician. They stood to the people of the Celtic tribes
in a relation closely analogous to that in which the Brahmans of India,
the Magi of Persia, and the priests of the Egyptians stood to the people
respectively by whom they were revered.
The Druids taught the existence of one god, to whom they gave a name
"Be'al," which Celtic antiquaries tell us means "the life of every thing,"
or "the source of all beings," and which seems to have affinity with the
Phoenician Baal. What renders this affinity more striking is that the Druids
as well as the Phoenicians identified this, their supreme deity, with the
Sun. Fire was regarded as a symbol of the divinity. The Latin writers assert
that the Druids also worshipped numerous inferior gods.
They used no images to represent the object of their worship, nor did
they meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the performance of their
sacred rites. A circle of stones (each stone generally of vast size) enclosing
an area of from twenty feet to thirty yards in diameter, constituted their
sacred place. The most celebrated of these now remaining is Stonehenge,
on Salisbury Plain, England.
These sacred circles were generally situated near some stream, or under
the shadow of a grove or wide-spreading oak. In the center of the circle
stood the Cromlech or altar, which was a large stone, placed in the manner
of a table upon other stones set up on end. The Druids had also their high
places, which were large stones or piles of stones on the summits of hills.
These were called Cairns, and were used in the worship of the deity under
the symbol of the sun.
The Druids observed two festivals in each year. The former took place
in the beginning of May, and was called Beltane or "Fire of God." On this
occasion a large fire was kindled on some elevated spot, in honor of the
sun, whose returning beneficence they thus welcomed after the gloom and
desolation of winter.
The other great festival of the Druids was called "Samh'in," or "Fire
of Peace," and was held on Hallow-eve, (first of November) which still
retains this designation in the Highlands of Scotland. On this occasion
the Druids assembled in solemn conclave, in the most central part of the
district, to discharge the judicial functions of their order.
All questions, whether public or private, all crimes against person
or property, were at this time brought before them for adjudication. With
these judicial acts were combined certain rituals, especially the kindling
of the sacred fire, from which all the fires in the district, which had
been beforehand scrupulously extinguished, might be relighted. This usage
of kindling fires on Hallow-eve lingered in the British islands long after
the establishment of Christianity.
Besides these two great annual festivals, the Druids were in the habit
of observing the full moon, and especially the sixth day of the moon. On
the latter they sought the Mistletoe, which grew on their favorite oaks,
and to which, as well as to the oak itself, they ascribed a peculiar virtue
and sacredness. The discovery of it was an occasion of rejoicing and solemn
The Druids were the teachers of morality as well as of religion. Of
their ethical teaching a valuable specimen is preserved in the Triads of
the Welsh Bards, and from this we may gather that their views of moral
rectitude were on the whole just, and that they held and inculcated many
very noble and valuable principles of conduct. They were also the men of
science and learning of their age and people.
Their teaching was oral, and their literature (if such a word may be
used in such a case) was preserved solely by tradition. But the Roman writers
admit that "they paid much attention to the order and laws of nature, and
investigated and taught to the youth under their charge many things concerning
the stars and their motions, the size of the world and the lands, and concerning
the might and power of the immortal gods."
Their history consisted in traditional tales, in which the heroic deeds
of their forefathers were celebrated. These were apparently in verse, and
thus constituted part of the poetry as well as the history of the Druids.
In the poems of Ossian we have, if not the actual productions of Druidical
times, what may be considered faithful representations of the songs of
The Bards were an essential part of the Druidical hierarchy. One author,
Pennant, says, "The Bards were supposed to be endowed with powers equal
to inspiration. They were the oral historians of all past transactions,
public and private. They were also accomplished genealogists."
The Druidical system was at its height at the time of the Roman invasion
under Julius Caesar. Against the Druids, as their chief enemies, these
conquerors of the world directed their unsparing fury. The Druids, harassed
at all points on the main land, retreated to Anglesey and Iona, where for
a season they found shelter and continued their now-dishonored rites.
The Druids retained their predominance in Iona and over the adjacent
islands and main land until they were supplanted and their way of life
and religion overturned by the arrival of St. Columba, the apostle of the
Highlands, by whom the inhabitants of that district were first led to profess