History of religion

Religions of Antiquity VI: Druids - The Celtic Elite

(Published in Grail World 37/2005)

Priests in white robes pose in front of the megalithic cult site Stonehenge. You feel connected to the classical Druidism from Caesar's time and want to revive an old religion as a Neo-Druid. Because the life of the Druids and their worldview continues to attract great interest in our day. Fantastic novels and comics present the Celtic elite of yore and leave room for thought for many a guess. But what do we really know about the Celts, their religion and their sages, the Druids?

About three millennia ago a migration of peoples began in Central Asia, starting from the Kyrgyz steppe in what is now Kazakhstan. The paths of these migrations can be traced today mainly due to the languages that had their common origin there. The so-called Indo-European language family extends from Europe to India and includes all European languages (with a few exceptions such as Finnish or Hungarian).

A branch from the stream of this prehistoric migration of peoples moved to northern to central Europe: the later ones Germanic peoples. A second large group populated Central to Southern Europe and the British Isles and created an important culture two to three millennia ago: the Celts.

Despite many similarities in language, religion and culture, the freedom-loving Celts never managed to unite into a large empire, so that outside attackers, such as the Romans or the Teutons, did not find it too difficult to conquer the divided Celtic lands . The Celtic culture then went on in the culture of the conquerors, with the exception of a few relics that survived in remote regions, for example in Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

We know little about the Celts
Our incomplete knowledge of Celtic culture and religion is based on archaeological finds and reports from ancient writers; there are no records of the Celts who had their own written language.

Often attempts are made to decipher Celtic mythology from pictorial representations, for example from the famous silver cauldron from Gundestrup, a moor find from the Danish Jutland. Hopefully the interpretations thus obtained apply to some extent - they remain speculative in any case.

I like to imagine that the archaeologists of the year 5,000 would excavate the Wies Church (this pilgrimage church near Steingaden in Upper Bavaria is a jewel of the Baroque era) with its paintings and sculptures. Would they describe Christianity as a monotheistic religion, or could they accurately describe Catholicism?

What did the Celts believe in?
Caesar attests to the Celts in his work "The Gallic War" (IV, 16-17) deep religiosity:

“All Gallic tribes are very religious... Among the gods they worship Mercury the most. They have a particularly large number of idols of him, they consider him to be the inventor of all arts, the guide on all roads and paths, and they believe that he has the greatest influence on the making of money and on trade. Mercury is followed by Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. The belief in these gods has roughly the same content as in the rest of the peoples: Apollo drives away diseases, Minerva teaches the foundations of the craft and the arts, Jupiter rules over the heavenly inhabitants, and Mars directs the wars. "

The from Caesar God referred to as Mercury was probably called Teutates, and the Celtic Cernunnos is equated with Pluto.

For most of the other gods, correspondences with the gods of the Romans are controversial. For example, the sun god Lug (Aed, Belenes) appears as a life-saving, young warrior and magnificent prince and is considered a symbol of the spring sun. As the monstrous, destructive giant Goll or Balor, on the other hand, he is the symbol of the scorching summer sun.

The important early Christian doctor of the church Origines (185-254) believed the druids of Gaul had "Worshiped the one god". In addition, according to the (unprovable) opinion of the Origines "Long inclined to Christianity because of the teaching of the Druids ... who already preached the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead." (10).

The Celts probably knew a heaven, a land of everlasting beauty, and a hell. As with the Greeks and Romans, the world also existed forever in the beliefs of the Celts, although this was interrupted by fire or water disasters, comparable to the cataclysms of which Greek philosophers spoke.

There are only unclear traditions of the once rich Celtic mythology, but something is likely to have flowed into Christianity, much into fairy tales, legends and customs, especially in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The recently celebrated “Halloween” here is an echo of the Celtic harvest festival and the festival of the dead, which was celebrated on the last day of October.

The Celts knew natural beings and revered hunting and fertility deities, which often only had regional significance. Almost all Celts sacrificed to the sky god, the horse goddess Epona and the mother goddesses, who usually appeared in threes. A memory of this triad of goddesses can even be found in Christianity. To the south of Schönwies in the hamlet of Obsaurs (Imst / Tirol district), for example, there is an old shrine where the holy women are Ambett, Gwerbett and Wilbett to be worshiped. A healing spring is dedicated to these three women near Mühltahl (near Munich) and other places of worship also remember them.

Among the Celts, countless natural beings, “spirits”, “gods” and “goddesses” populated nature and the world in a diversity that can be compared with the gods of the Hindus (whose religion is also of Indo-European origin).

If you follow the author Jean Markale, however, are the innumerable Celtic deities "Manifestations of the diverse functions of an absolute, unknown, incomprehensible, unnamed and thus infinite God, whom one imagines as the origin of all that is." In his book "The Druids" Markale continues: "This God of the Druids, like the Christian God, is the beginning and end of all things".

If this, perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation of the Celtic image of God applies, is Julius Caesar only penetrated to popular belief, which he interpreted according to Roman religious understanding, and did not experience the deeper insights of the Celtic priests, i.e. the Druids.

To Markale the worldview of the druids is not polytheistic but monistic, which means that everything is traced back to a cause. It does not know the contrast between God and the adversary, no sharp boundary between good and bad, nor any fundamental separation between spirit and matter.

Celtic warriors' courage to die is attributed to their belief in survival after death and in rebirth as a human being (not also as an animal, as is the case with the Hindus).

The cruel religious ceremonies of the Celts, in which dozens or even hundreds of prisoners of war were sacrificed, are notorious. Perhaps the ancient authors have exaggerated, but archaeological finds show ritual human sacrifices. The Celtic custom of displaying the heads (in which, according to their belief, the soul resides) of the killed enemies speaks for cruel barbaric rites.

Celtic places of worship were often consecrated places in nature such as oak groves, springs, rivers, etc., hardly closed buildings. The stone setting of Stonehenge, which is often mentioned in connection with the Druids, is of older origin than the Celtic invasion. The Celts appeared in Central Europe between 900 and 700 BC, while megalithic structures such as Stonehenge were built between the 4th and 2nd millennium BC.

In summary: The image of Celtic religiosity that is accessible to us seems very contradictory: on the one hand archaic sacrificial rites and magical incantations, on the other hand deep thoughts about the world and an image of God that comes close to monotheism.

The Celtic Elite
A Celtic elite is of particular interest in our time: the Druids (and also druids; cf. 3). Their name is often traced back to the root word dru (Indo-German .: oak), so that druid could be translated as oak priest. To Pliny They picked mistletoe (a medicinal plant), which had ritual significance, from the oaks.

The social structure that Caesar describes (see box), is an (Indo-European) three-class system: priests, warriors, peasants. According to the historians of religion, the Celtic druids can be compared with the Indian brahmins. However, the druids did not represent a closed caste to which one belonged by birth, but anyone could become a druid, whether a member of a royal family, whether a warrior, artist, shepherd, farmer or slave. One became a druid through calling and long, intensive study as part of a specific training. The Christian religion, heir to the Druid religion in more ways than one, has adopted this principle.

Druidic teachings were secret and could not be written down. To Caesar the Druids thought it was a sin to write down religious texts ("The Gallic War", VI, 14). Whoever wanted to become a druid had to undergo training lasting up to 20 years, during which he had to learn many sacred texts by heart. Nobody knows exactly what druids had to be able to do, but their considerable knowledge impressed ancient authors.

Druids were priests, fortune tellers, philosophers, doctors, judges, mathematicians, astronomers, poets, bards, astrologers, perhaps also seers, prophets or shamans - the scientists of the Celts. Her varied tasks could hardly be mastered without specialization.

The druids formed a full-time, hierarchically organized priesthood:

“At the head of all druids is a man who enjoys the greatest influence among them. If he dies, he will either be succeeded by the one who has the highest esteem among the others, or his successor will be chosen by the Druids (...) However, it is not uncommon for weapons to be used for the leading position " (Caesar, “The Gallic War”, VI, 13).

Once a year the druids of Gaul gathered in a consecrated place, probably at what is now Chartres (the Roman Autricum) in the land of the Carnutes. Their place of worship was probably under today's cathedral. At this meeting, for example, important disputes were resolved. Other important cult centers were the holy oak grove of the Galatians in Asia Minor, as well as the sanctuary of the island celts on Mona (Anglesey), which was destroyed by the Romans in 60 AD.

"People who enjoy respect and honor"
“In all of Gaul there are two classes of people who enjoy respect and honor, for the lower folk almost take the position of slaves ... One class is the class of the druids, the other class is that of the knights. The druids perform the service of the gods, make the public and private sacrifices and interpret the religious statutes. With them young men come in large numbers for instruction, and they are highly respected because they decide in almost all public and private disputes. They give judgment when a crime has been committed, murder has occurred, inheritance or border disputes break out; they set rewards and penalties. If an individual or a tribe does not comply with their decision, they exclude those affected from worshiping the gods. This is evidently the severest punishment for the Gauls *).
At the head of all druids is the one with the greatest respect. (...)
The Druids usually do not go to war and do not pay taxes like the rest of the Gauls (...) The core of their teaching is that the soul does not perish after death, but migrates from one body to the other. Since this makes the fear of death meaningless, it is, in her opinion, that it spurs bravery in particular. In addition, they often discuss the stars, the nature of things, the power and authority of the immortal gods, and convey all of this to the young. "
Caesar, “The Gallic War” (VI, 13/14).

*) This druidic punishment was adopted by the medieval church: as "excommunication".

The druids were held in high esteem. They were able to act as mediators in disputes, even to prevent wars, and even tribal princes did not dare to oppose them.

The power of the druids resided in their ability to exclude people from the sacrificial ceremonies, which made the culprit practically outlawed.

The initial high esteem of the druids (for example at Poseidonios, 135-50 BC Chr .; Caesar, 100-44 BC Chr .; Strabo, approx. 60 BC-25 AD) changed with the subjugation of the Celtic lands. Now druids became guardians of traditions, defenders of Celticism and its nationalism, and thus bitter enemies of Rome and masterminds in national uprisings.

This image of the enemy rubbed off on later Roman historians (such as Pliny, 24-79; Lukan, 39-65 and Tacitus, 55-115), who saw the druids as a threat to (Roman) civilization.

Roman emperors of the first century AD persecuted the druids and forbade their secret cults. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries there was hardly any systematic persecution of the Druids, who were able to hold out - partly underground - until the fall of the Roman Empire. They may have existed in Ireland as early as the 7th century.

The druids of modern times
The name Druid has a good ring to it. In modern times, interest in the druids arose in the 16th century, and "druid associations" were founded. The "Druid Order" (Ancient Oder of the Druids, AOD), which still exists today and is similar to the Freemasons, was created in 1781. Further founding of orders, lodges, groups or brotherhoods followed, which felt called to a renaissance of the old Celtic religion with theirs to initiate legendary, knowing priests.

The neo-druids, for example, believe in a mysterious connection between the past and the present. They seek to intuitively re-experience the old wisdom from tradition, at old places of worship or with the help of rituals. In the spirit of the "New Age Movement", in whose multicolored spectrum the Neo-Druids fit well. Their “green religion” of peace and the preservation of nature is also in harmony with modern ecological movements.

It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the “neo-pagan” neo-druids succeed in reviving old knowledge in order to arrive at timeless insights that contribute to solving the problems of our time.

Continued Religions of Antiquity VII.

Read about it too "The Christ Cup and the Search for the Grail".

(1) Demandt Alexander, Die Kelten “, CH Beck, Munich 1998.
(2) Ellis Peter Berresford, Die Druiden, Eugen Diederichs, Munich 1996.
(3) Green Miranda, Die Druiden, Econ, Düsseldorf 1998.
(4) Markale Jean, Die Druiden, C. Bertelsmann, Munich undated
(5) The Celts in Central Europe, Office of the Salzburg State Government, Cultural Department, 5010 Salzburg.