Classical & Irish Writers Discussing Druids…
This collection of quotes about druids and druidic practices is from an old Angelfire website that I unfortunately can’t find a credit for. Although the material itself is all public domain, I’d like to credit whoever first compiled it, so comment below if you know!
Sopater [late fourth-century BC] (via Athenaeus 4.160):
Among them is the custom, whenever they are victorious in battle, to sacrifice their prisoners to the gods. So I, like the Celts, have vowed to the divine powers to burn those three false dialecticians as an offering.
Timaeus [early third century BC] (via Diodorus Siculus 4.56):
Historians point out that the Celts who live on the shore of the Ocean honor the Dioscori above other gods. For there is an ancient tradition among them that these gods came to them from the Ocean.
Eudoxus of Rhodes [late third-century BC] (via Aelian On Animals 17.19):
Eudoxus says that the Celts do the following (and if anyone thinks his account credible, let him believe it; if not, let him ignore it). When clouds of locusts invade their country and damage the crops, the Celts evoke certain prayers and offer sacrifices which charm birds—and the birds hear these prayers, come in flocks, and destroy the locusts. If however one of them should capture one of these birds, his punishment according to the laws of the country is death. If he is pardoned and released, this throws the birds into a rage, and to revenge the captured bird they do not respond if they are called on again.
Artemidorus of Ephesus [late second-century BC] (via Strabo 4.4.6):
The following story which Artemidorus has told about the crows is unbelievable. There is a certain harbor on the coast which, according to him, is named “Two Crows”. In this harbor are seen two crows, with their right wings somewhat white. Men who are in dispute about certain matters come here, put a plank on an elevated place, and then each man separately throws up cakes of barley. The birds fly up and eat some of the cakes, but scatter others. The man whose cakes are scattered wins the dispute. Although this story is implausible, his report about the goddesses Demeter and Core is more credible. He says that there is an island near Britain on which sacrifices are performed like those in Samothrace for Demeter and Core.
Livy [first century AD] (23.24):
(216 BC) Postumius died there fighting with all his might not to be captured alive. The Gauls stripped him of all his spoils and the Boii took his severed head in a procession to the holiest of their temples.There it was cleaned and the bare skull was adorned with gold, as is their custom. It was used thereafter as a sacred vessel on special occasions and as a ritual drinking-cup by their priests and temple officials.
Nicander of Colophon [second century BC] (via Tertullian De anima 57.10):
It is often said because of visions in dreams that the dead truly live. The Nasamones receive special oracles by staying at the tombs of their parents, as Heraclides—or Nymphodorus or Herodotus—writes. The Celts also for the same reason spend the night near the tombs of their famous men, as Nicander affirms.
Posidonius [first century BC] (via Diodorus Siculus 5.28):
The teaching of Pythagoras prevails among the Gauls, that the souls of humans are immortal and that after a certain number of years they will live again, with the soul passing into another body. Because of this belief, some people at funerals will throw letters into the funeral pyre, so that those having passed on might read them.
(via Diodorus 5.31):
The Gauls have certain wise men and experts on the gods called Druids, as well as a highly respected class of seers. Through auguries and animal sacrifice these seers predict the future and no one dares to scoff at them. They have an especially odd and unbelievable method of divination for the most important matters. Having anointed a human victim, they stab him with a small knife in the area above the diaphragm. When the man has collapsed from the wound, they interpret the future by observing the nature of his fall, the convulsion of his limbs, and especially from the pattern of his spurting blood. In this type of divination, the seers place great trust in an ancient tradition of observation.
It is a custom among the Gauls to never perform a sacrifice without someone skilled in divine ways present. They say that those who know about the nature of the gods should offer thanks to them and make requests of them, as though these people spoke the same language as the gods. The Gauls, friends and foes alike, obey the rule of the priests and bards not only in time of peace but also during wars. It has often happened that just as two armies approached each other with swords drawn and spears ready, the Druids will step between the two sides and stop the fighting, as if they had cast a spell on wild beasts. Thus even among the wildest barbarians, anger yields to wisdom and the god of war respects the Muses.
(via Diodorus 5.32):
It is in keeping with their wildness and savage nature that they carry out particularly offensive religious practices. They will keep some criminal under guard for five years, then impale him on a pole in honor of their gods—followed by burning him on an enormous pyre along with many other first-fruits. They also use prisoners of war as sacrifices to the gods. Some of the Gauls will even sacrifice animals captured in war, either by slaying them, burning them, or by killing them with some other type of torture.
(via Strabo 4.4.4-5):
Generally speaking, there are three uniquely honored groups among the Gauls: Bards, Votes, and Druids. The Bards are singers and poets, while the Votes oversee sacred rites and examine natural phenomena. The Druids also study the ways of nature, but apply themselves to laws of morality as well. The Gauls consider the Druids the most just of people and so are entrusted with judging both public and private disputes. In the past, they even stopped battles which were about to begin and brought an end to wars. Murder cases especially are handed over to the Druids for judgment. They believe that when there are many condemned criminals available for sacrifice, then the land will prosper. Both the Druids and others say that the human soul and the universe as well are indestructible, but that at some time both fire and water will prevail.
(via Strabo 4.4.6):
Posidonius also says there is a small island in the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Loire River inhabited by women of the Samnitae tribe. They are possessed by Dionysus and appease this god by mysterious ceremonies and other types of sacred rituals. No man ever comes to this island, but the women sail to the mainland to have sex with men, then return. Each year the women take down the roof of a temple and build it again before dark, with each woman carrying a load to add to the roof. Whoever drops her load is torn to pieces by the others. They then carry the pieces of her around the temple shouting with a Bacchanalian cry until their mad frenzy passes away. And it always happens that the one who is going to suffer this fate is bumped by someone.
Julius Caesar [first century BC] (Gallic War 6.13-14,16-19):
Throughout all of Gaul there are two classes of people who are treated with dignity and honor. This does not include the common people, who are little better than slaves and never have a voice in councils. Many of these align themselves with a patron voluntarily, whether because of debt or heavy tribute or out of fear of retribution by some other powerful person. Once they do this, they have given up all rights and are scarcely better than servants. The two powerful classes mentioned above are the Druids and the warriors. Druids are concerned with religious matters, public and private sacrifices, and divination.
A great many young men come to the Druids for instruction, holding them in great respect. Indeed, the Druids are the judges on all controversies public and private. If any crime has been committed, if any murder done, if there are any questions concerning inheritance, or any controversy concerning boundaries, the Druids decide the case and determine punishments. If anyone ignores their decision, that person is banned from all sacrifices—an extremely harsh punishment among the Gauls. Those who are so condemned are considered detestable criminals. Everyone shuns them and will not speak with them, fearing some harm from contact with them, and they receive no justice nor honor for any worthy deed.
Among all the Druids there is one who is the supreme leader, holding highest authority over the rest. When the chief Druid dies, whoever is the most worthy succeeds him. If there are several of equal standing, a vote of all the Druids follows, though the leadership is sometimes contested even by armed force. At a certain time of the year, all the Druids gather together at a consecrated spot in the territory of the Carnutes, whose land is held to be the center of all Gaul. Everyone gathers therefrom the whole land to present disputes and they obey the judgments and decrees of the Druids. It is said that the druidic movement began in Britain and was then carried across to Gaul. Even today, those who wish to study their teachings most diligently usually travel to Britain.
The Druids are exempt from serving in combat and from paying war taxes, unlike all other Gauls. Tempted by such advantages, many young people willingly commit themselves to druidic studies while others are sent by their parents. It is said that in the schools of the Druids they learn a great number of verses, so many in fact that some students spend twenty years in training. It is not permitted to write down any of these sacred teachings, though other public and private transactions are often recorded in Greek letters. I believe they practice this oral tradition for two reasons: first, so that the common crowd does not gain access to their secrets and second, to improve the faculty of memory. Truly, writing does often weaken one’s diligence in learning and reduces the ability to memorize. The cardinal teaching of the Druids is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another. Because of this teaching that death is only a transition, they are able to encourage fearlessness in battle. They have a great many other teachings as well which they hand down to the young concerning such things as the motion of the stars, the size of the cosmos and the earth, the order of the natural world, and the power of the immortal gods.
All of the Gauls are greatly devoted to religion, and because of this those who are afflicted with terrible illnesses or face dangers in battle will conduct human sacrifices, or at least vow to do so. The Druids are the ministers at such occasions. They believe that unless the life of a person is offered for the life of another, the dignity of the immortal gods will be insulted. This is true both in private and public sacrifices. Some build enormous figures which they fill with living persons and then set on fire, everyone perishing inflames. They believe that the execution of thieves and other criminals is the most pleasing to the gods, but, when the supply of guilty persons runs short, they will kill the innocent as well.
The chief god of the Gauls is Mercury and there are images of him everywhere. He is said to be the inventor of all the arts, the guide for every road and journey, and the most influential god in trade and moneymaking. After him, they worship Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. These gods have the same areas of influence as among most other peoples. Apollo drives away diseases, Minerva is most influential in crafts, Jupiter rules the sky, and Mars is the god of war. Before a great battle, they will often dedicate the spoils to Mars. If they are successful, they will sacrifice all the living things they have captured and other spoils they gather together in one place. Among many tribes, you can see these spoils placed together in a sacred spot. And it is a very rare occasion that anyone would dare to disturb these valuable goods and conceal them in his home. If it does happen, the perpetrator is tortured and punished in the worst ways imaginable.
The Gauls all say that they are descended from the god of the dark underworld, Dis, and confirm that this is the teaching of the Druids. Because of this they measure time by the passing of nights, not days. Birthdays and the beginnings of months and years all start at night.
The funerals of the Gauls are magnificent and extravagant. Everything which was dear to the departed is thrown into the fire, including animals. In the recent past, they would also burn faithful slaves and beloved subordinates at the climax of the funeral.
Cicero [first century BC] (On Divination 1.90): The practice of divination is not even neglected by barbarians. I know there are Druids in Gaul because I met one myself—Divitiacus of the Aedui tribe, who was your guest and praised you highly. He claimed a knowledge of nature derived from what the Greeks call “physiologia”—the inquiry into natural causes and phenomena. He would predict the future using augury and other forms of interpretation.
The practice of divination is not even neglected by barbarians. I know there are Druids in Gaul because I met one myself—Divitiacus of the Aedui tribe, who was your guest and praised you highly. He claimed a knowledge of nature derived from what the Greeks call “physiologia”—the inquiry into natural causes and phenomena. He would predict the future using augury and other forms of interpretation.
Pliny [first century AD] (Natural History 16.249,24.103-4,29.52,30.13): I can’t forget to mention the admiration the Gauls have for mistletoe. The Druids (which is the name of their holy men) hold nothing more sacred than this plant and the tree on which it grows—as if it grew only on oaks. They worship only in oak groves and will perform no sacred rites unless a branch of that tree is present. It seems the Druids even get their name from drus (the Greek word for oak). And indeed they think that anything which grows on an oak tree is sent from above and is a sign that the tree was selected by the god himself. The problem is that in fact mistletoe rarely grows on oak trees. Still they search it out with great diligence and then will cut it only on the sixth day of the moon’s cycle, because the moon is then growing in power but is not yet halfway through its course (they use the moon to measure not only months but years and their grand cycle of thirty years). In their language they call mistletoe a name meaning “all-healing”. They hold sacrifices and sacred meals under oak trees, first leading forward two white bulls with horns bound for the first time. A priest dressed in white then climbs the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, with the plant dropping onto a white cloak. They then sacrifice the bulls while praying that the god will favorably grant his own gift to those to whom he has given it. They believe a drink made with mistletoe will restore fertility to barren livestock and act as a remedy to all poisons. Such is the devotion to frivolous affairs shown by many peoples.
Similar to the Sabine herb savin is a plant called selago. It must be picked without an iron instrument by passing the right hand through the opening of the left sleeve, as if you were stealing it. The harvester, having first offered bread and wine, must wear white and have clean, bare feet. It is carried in a new piece of cloth. The Druids of Gaul say that it is should be used to ward off every danger and that the smoke of burning selago is good for eye diseases. The Druids also gather a plant from marshes called samolus, which must be picked with the left hand during a time of fasting. It is good for the diseases of cows, but the one who gathers it must not look back nor place it anywhere except in the watering trough of the animals.
There is a kind of egg which is very famous in Gaul but ignored by Greek writers. In the summer months, a vast number of snakes will gather themselves together in a ball which is held together by their saliva and a secretion from their bodies. The Druids say they produce this egg-like object called an anguinum which the hissing snakes throw up into the air. It must be caught, so they say, in a cloak before it hits the ground. But you’d better have a horse handy, because the snakes will chase you until they are cut off by some stream. A genuine anguinum will float upstream, even if covered in gold. But as is common with the world’s holy men, the Druids say it can only be gathered during a particular phase of the moon, as if people could make the moon and serpents work together. I saw one of these eggs myself—it was a small round thing like an apple with a hard surface full of indentations as on the arms of an octopus. The Druids value them highly. They say it is a great help in lawsuits and will help you gain the good will of a ruler. That this is plainly false is shown by a man of the Gaulish Vocontii tribe, a Roman knight, who kept one hidden in his cloak during a trial before the emperor Claudius and was executed, as far as I can tell, for this reason alone.
Barbarous rites were found in Gaul even within my own memory. For it was then that the emperor Tiberius passed a decree through the senate outlawing their Druids and these types of diviners and physicians. But why do I mention this about a practice which has crossed the sea and reached the ends of the earth? For even today Britain performs rites with such ceremony that you would think they were the source for the extravagant Persians. It is amazing how distant people are so similar in such practices. But at least we can be glad that the Romans have wiped out the murderous cult of the Druids, who thought human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism were the greatest kind of piety.
Suetonius (Claudius 25):
(AD 41-54) Claudius destroyed the horrible and inhuman religion of the Gaulish Druids, which had merely been forbidden to Roman citizens under Augustus.
Lucan [first century AD] (Civil War 1.444-46,450-58):
Cruel Teutates pleased by dreadful blood,
Horrid Esus with his barbaric altars,
and Taranis, more cruel than Scythian Diana.
Oh Druids, now that the war is over
you return to your barbaric rites and sinister ways.
You alone know the ways of the gods and powers of heaven,
or perhaps you don’t know at all.
You who dwell in dark and remote forest groves,
you say that the dead do not seek the silent ream of Erebus
or the pale kingdom of Pluto,
but that the same spirit lives again in another world
and death, if your songs are true, is but the middle of a long life.
Silius Italicus [first century AD] (Punica 3.340-43):
The Celts known as Hlberi came also. To them it is glorious to fall in combat, but they consider it wrong to cremate a warrior who dies in this way. They believe he will be carried up to the gods if his body, lying on the field of battle, is devoured by a hungry vulture.
Historia Augusta [fourth century AD] (Alexander Severus 59.5):
(AD 235) The Druidess exclaimed to him as he went, “Go ahead, but don’t hope for victory or put any trust in your soldiers.”
While Diocletian was still a young soldier he was staying at a tavern in the land of the Tongri in Gaul. Every day he had to settle his account with the landlady, a Druidess. One day she said,” Diocletian, you are greedy and cheap!” Jokingly he responded to her, “Then I’ll be more generous when I’m emperor.” “Don’t laugh,” she said, “for you’ll be emperor after you’ve killed the boar.”
(AD 270) On certain occasions Aurelian would consult Gaulish Druidesses to discover whether or not his descendants would continue to rule. They told him that no name would be more famous than those of the line of Claudius. And indeed, the current emperor Constantius is a descendant of his.
Ausonius [late fourth century AD] (4.7-10,10.22-30):
You are descended from the Druids ofBayeux, if the stories about you are true, and you trace your sacred ancestry and renown from the temple ofBelenus. Nor will I forget the old man by the name of Phoebicius. Though he was priest of the god Belenus, he received no profit from the position. But nonetheless this one, who descended, it is said, from the Druids of Brittany, did receive a professorship at Bordeaux with the help of his son.
Botorrita Inscription (late second/early first century BC):
To Eniorosis and Tiato ofTiginos we dedicate trecaias and to Lugus we dedicate arainom. To Eniorosis and to Equaesos, ogris erects coverings of olga and to Lugus he erects coverings of the tiasos.
Tablet of Chamalieres (c. AD 50):
I invoke the god Maponos arueriitis. Through the magic of the underworld gods. C. Lucios Floras, Nigrinos the speaker, Aemilios Paterinos, Claudios Legitumos, Caelios Pelignos, Claudios Pelignos, Marcios Victorinos, and Asiaticos son of Adsedillos… The oath they will swear—the small shall become great, the crooked become straight, and, though blind, I will see. With this tablet of incantation this will be… luge dessummiiis luge dessumiis luge dessumiiis luxe.
Tablet of Larzac (c. AD 90):
—a magical incantation of women
—their ritual underworld names
—the prophesy of the seer ess who weaves this spell
The goddess Adsagsona renders Severa and Tertionicna enchanted and bound.
St. Patrick [fourth century AD] Confession:
It is remarkable that the Irish have indeed become a people of the Lord and are children of God. These people who up until now had no knowledge of God, but worshipped idols and followed disgusting religious practices.
Old Irish Law:
Sixth century—Oaths may be sworn in presence of Druids (Old Irish drui)
Seventh Century—Druid only has same rights as a boaire
Eighth Century—Protect me from the spells of women, blacksmiths, and Druids…