Druids – according to the Romans.
Where does the name “druid” come from?
The Roman historians who wrote about them, called them "druides" or "druidae" in Latin. They thought the name came from an original Celtic word. The Greeks who wrote about them used the same word. In old Irish there is a word; "druí" meaning "druid or sorcerer". In early Welsh the word "dryw" means "seer". It may be that the word "druid" derives from two very ancient forms; "deru–" (oak) which has the same origin as the English word "tree", and "weid–" meaning "to see". This seems to be confirmed by Pliny the Elder, who states that "druid" contains the Greek noun "drus", "oak-tree". "Oak-knower" is a possible interpretation of the word, but one which I find a little too pseudo–mystical. Perhaps a description including the elements "deru–" and "weid–" could have the meaning "seer in the oaks" or even (a little fanciful, I agree) "wise man from the oaks".
What the Roman historians wrote.
A lot of what we know about the druids is to be found in "De Bello Gallico" written by Julius Caesar about his campaign in Gaul. He considered that Celtic society was made up out of three levels of people. The top two levels probably argued amongst themselves about who was the more important – these were the warriors and the druids. These two ranks were each in their own way essential to the Celts and to have changed one of them would have been to change Celtic society radically. The third group was that of the commoners. The druids were in charge of legal and religious life, maintaining the laws and histories of their people. It was the druids who were called upon to settle disputes – private or public, and to impose sanctions on those who defied their judgments. Caesar records that the druids are led by a druid who has absolute authority over them. He is chosen on merit if that is possible, otherwise – according to Caesar, he is chosen by combat. It would be interesting to know how often (if at all) that really happened. It would be like the high court judges of our era dueling over who should have the last word.
There was an annual meeting of the druids in the territory of the Carnutes. This was considered to be the central region of Gaul and the center of political power in Gaul at the time of the Roman aggression. The Carnutes settled an area between the Seine and the Loire, which later came to correspond with the dioceses of Chartres, Blois and Orleans. At this annual meet of the druids everyone who had a grievance of any kind could bring his matter forward for judgment or advice. The decision of the druids was final and binding.
It is interesting to note that while Caesar describes this as going on in Gaul, he says it originated in Britain and was imported into Gaul. He also says that those "who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither (to Britain) for the purpose of studying it." This has been a source of some disagreement among historians, some of whom have thought this was propaganda to show the desirability of invading Britain (as if the prospect of revenue were not enough).
Friend Julius goes on to discuss the various advantages of joining the druids. In many cultures of antiquity – and in cultures more recent, joining the class of administrators, priests and lawyers has been an accepted way of rising from the unfree masses to join the more privileged classes. Caesar supposes that it was the same for the Celtic youth applying to join the druids. They would become exempt from military service, the usual tribute payments, and effectively become answerable only to the authority of the druids. He writes that many of the young are encouraged by their parents and relations to join the druids.
Over their training he has less to say. Only that they spend 20 years committing to memory the verses that constitute the lore of the druids. According to Caesar it was not lawful for them to write down what they learned. He gives two reasons for this: firstly that the druids wished to keep their teachings secret in order to keep the people ignorant – and therefore dependant on the druids. Secondly he supposes that if they began to rely on the written word, the students of the druids would become less disciplined in the use of their memory, and study less effectively. I wonder how they ensured that the secrets of 20 years of training were kept for centuries. I am personally inclined to think that secrecy was less an issue than training the mind to perform at its best. After all, in cultures where secrecy is an issue we see codes and ciphers appearing – Caesar himself knew of them in the transmission of sensitive military documents. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Celts – or at least, nothing like it has yet been found or made public. That however is my own speculation.
Familiar with the Celtic warriors' lack of fear in battle, Caesar seeks an explanation in the druids’ teachings. He claims that the druids taught that the soul cannot be destroyed, and after death would move on to another body. Thus the warriors had nothing to fear. Other writers confirm that the druids believed in a form of reincarnation, so who knows, maybe he's right.
He goes on to say that the druids taught astronomy, respect for the nature of things and for "the power and majesty of the immortal gods".
Chapter XVI goes on to tell of sacrifices – amongst others, human sacrifices. There is little proof of these practices and while they very likely did take place, it is equally likely that the Romans (including Caesar) exaggerated for reasons of propaganda. Although a druid had to be present at any sacrifice that took place, as no-one else could speak to the gods, Caesar's account seems to suggest that the sacrifices were instigated by the people. The nation of the Gauls being "…extremely devoted to superstitious rites…. either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the druids as the performers of those sacrifices…".
Strabo has little to add to the picture, being openly derogatory about both appearance and character of the Celts. He mentions the Bards the Vates and the Druids, … "The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy. The Druids are considered the most just of men …".
Diodorus mentions bards and philosophers, saying that "Philosophers, as we may call them, and men learned in religious affairs are unusually honoured among them and are called by them Druids." His writing is in general not that different from what Strabo says and probably owes its content (via the writing of Timagenes) to the work of Poseidonius.