The Druids were the educated elite of what is now called the “Celtic” peoples. Many historians and archaeologists now argue that there never was an actual Celtic ‘race’, that it was more a cultural movement, but for the sake of clarity and to give a sense of familiarity, I will use the term.
The Celts were a tribal people, each tribe having its own chieftain. They were often at war with one another, raiding nearby tribal villages and stealing their neighbours’ cattle. They were a warrior race who, in one of those strange historical paradoxes, created the most beautiful art and inspired a religion which had a deep respect for Nature.
The Roman invasion of the Celtic regions was made easier because Celtic society was so fragmented. The Romans systematically conquered one tribe at a time. The Druids were the only common link between the Celtic tribes. They were the prophets, magicians, seers, healers, royal advisors and judges. Druids could move in complete safety between tribes as to kill a Druid was punishable by death.
For some years the Druids and Romans co-existed, but then for a reason that has been lost in the mists of time, the Romans turned on them. It was in the year 61CE that two crushing blows were dealt against the Britons. The first was the sacking of Ynys Mon, the Isle of Anglesey, off the north coast of Wales, which was a major centre of Druidic learning.
It was written by Tacitus that the Druidesses were like screaming furies who spat curses across the bay at the assembling Roman armies. Although this chilled the blood of the Centurions, they attacked and won the battle. All of the Druid Groves (sacred clearings within the forests) were destroyed and all of the Druids and their children were slaughtered.
The other blow was the defeat of the Iceni Queen Boudicca whose revolt very nearly put an end to the entire Roman occupation. However, the massacre of the Druids did not destroy the religion. It continued in smaller groups and gradually the Druid was seen as little more than a wandering magician. A far cry from the high status previously held.
Between 5OOCE and the late middle ages the Druid tradition was kept alive in the tales and songs of the storyteller and wandering minstrel. During this time we see such characters as Merlin and Taliesin emerging as seer-poets, living on the edge of society and completely accepted by the spirits of Nature. Much of modern Druidic teaching comes from the words of the ancient Bardic tales and the poetry of Taliesin and Merlin.
Bardic colleges continued to operate in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, for many centuries, but eventually the last one was closed in the 17th century. However, the pull of this tradition was too strong and soon poets such as William Blake rediscovered the voice of the Bard.
What is Druidry today?
With the growing awareness many people have towards the environment, there is an understandable interest in the Nature-based, or Pagan, religions, and more and more people are finding the Druid tradition.
Druidry means different things to different people. There are those who take their spirituality from Druidry and blend it with their own tradition, be that Pagan or Christian. And there are others who try to follow a rediscovered “Druidism”, i.e. the Druid faith.
The start of modern Druidry probably rests in the 17-1800s, the time of antiquarian William Stukeley, poet William Blake, and Welshman Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg).
These three gentlemen, and other romantics began to look for the ‘Noble Savage’ within our own ancient British past. They each came to their own conclusions, with Blake declaring that he was a Druid, Stukeley and his antiquarian friends made the associations between the ancient Stone Circles and the Druids, and Iolo Morganwg wrote a book called The Barddas, that he said contained the authentic teachings of the ancient Welsh Bards.
Although much of Stukeley and Morganwg’s work has been discredited, the inspiration has proved unshakeable, and the tradition that they unwittingly revived is now coming of age, looking at its roots with a clearer vision offered by up-to-date archaeology and history, but also not discarding entirely the works of the original revivalists.
Modern Druidry, as it now stands, is over 300 years old, and with its emphasis of ecology, environmentalism, the arts, and folklore, it is needed now more than at any time in the Earth’s history.