The Druids of ancient Celtic society are recorded in classical references as being an intellectual class. Druids had roles such as educators, historians, advisers to royalty, astrologers, doctors, seers and astronomers, and were not simply the wizards or witches of modern repute. The word "Druid" is derived from the Greek word "drus" for oak, as the oak tree was sacred to the druid faith. The name "Druid" was given to men or women who possessed what Celts referred to as "oak knowledge," or wisdom. The principal historical record of the Druids is in the "Naturalis Historia" written by the Roman, Pliny the Elder.
Sacred Oak Tree
Pliny the Elder recorded the reverence in which the Druids held the oak tree and the sacred mistletoe that grew upon it. According to Pliny, the Druids would plant groves of oak and would not perform any religious rites without some oak foliage. Mistletoe from oaks would be harvested using a "gold pruning hook" or sickle.
Pruning the Sacred Mistletoe
According to Pliny, the Druids believed that anything found to be growing on oak trees was sacred and sent from heaven, particularly mistletoe. They performed a ritual nighttime ceremony to gather mistletoe, particularly on the sixth day of the moon. After making a ritual sacrifice and feasting under the oak trees, a Druid dressed in a white robe would climb a tree to cut the mistletoe. The mistletoe was an important addition to Druid medicines and spells.
The Celtic year was divided into two parts: the dark half and the light half. Samhain, on November 1, marked the start of a year, the end of the harvest and also the beginning of the dark period of the year. Samhain was believed to hold a gap in time and make it possible for Druids to travel to other worlds and times. Imbolc, on February 1, was the first day of Spring and marked the mid-point in the dark part of the year. On May 1, Beltaine was a celebration of the beginning of the light half of the year and fire festivals were held to mark the occasion. Lúghnasadh, on August 1, marked the start of the harvest and was dedicated to the god Lúgh.
The "ovate" class of Druids often made sacrifices as part of their ritual worship, and these may have included human sacrifices, which involved the ritual slaughter of convicted criminals or animals. The ovates were the class of Druids who made prophecies and studied nature closely, with rituals linked to natural phenomena. Female Druids often carried out sacrifices of prisoners of war and may have issued prophecies based upon a study of the entrails.
Training to become a Druid could take more than 20 years, as it involved memorizing literature, history, Celtic law and poetry, as well as learning astronomy. As Celtic society was not patriarchal, there were a number of female Druids. Well-known female historical characters reputed to have been Druids were Boudica and Onomaris.
Druids are reputed to have used ancient stone circles such as Stonehenge for their rituals and worship,. However, this was an idea that began to circulate in the 17th and 18th centuries and may not be correct. Certainly, the stone circles were in existence long before the era of the Druids.
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