The exact role of the Druids in Celtic society is open to interpretation and varies according to geography. In the third century C.E., Diogenes Laertius said that the Druids were an ancient institution in the fourth century B.C.E., 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 three castes, below the nobility and above the plebes, or landless ones.
By most accounts, the Druids were the keepers of traditional wisdom who were concerned with moral philosophy, natural phenomena and theology. They included both men and women, for women had a place of importance in Celtic society. The Druids influenced both the sacred and secular lives of the Celts. They conducted religious ceremonies, served as mediators between the people and gods, exercised influence over the moral, ethical and spiritual 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.
Druids were skilled in the interpretation of omens, the correct rituals of sacrifice, the construction of a calendar, the medicine of herbs, the science of astronomy and the composition of poems. Ammianus, quoting Tima-
genes, said Druids "are uplifted by searchings into things most secret and sublime." Gaulish Druids were said to administer law and justice, though it is unknown how they did so in relation to 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, bards and seers. There seemed to be overlap, as Druids were said to read omens and prophesy the future. In the first century C.E., Dio Chrysostom equated the Druids with Hindu brahmins, Persian magi and Egyptian priests. More recently, Druids have been described as shamanic, based on their customs of night fires, drumming, chanting and ecstatic dancing.
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 robur oak tree was thought to have come from the sacred forest, and its foliage was used in ceremonies. Druid means "knowing the oak tree" in Gaelic.
Religious ceremonies were conducted in sacred woods or oak groves that 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 worshiped water gods and believed water to be sacred.
Ceremonies included prayers, libations and human and animal sacrifices. Victims were burned alive in wickerwork cages, stabbed, impaled on stakes and shot with arrows. The sacrifice of humans outraged the Romans, who outlawed it as barbaric by senatorial decree in 97 B.C.E. Later writers tried to excuse the Druids from participation in sacrifices, saying they did not do the actual killing. This is highly unlikely, given their roles as priests.
The only extant detailed account of a Druid ceremony comes from Pliny and concerns the harvesting 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, not supposed to fall to the ground, was caught in a white cloth. Two white bulls were sacrificed, and a feast held.
In interpreting omens, the Druids observed the hare or such birds 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 would describe his dream and the Druids would interpret it.
Classical writings make some references to MAGIC, including CHARMs with herbs and mistletoe, and belief in a
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