The Celts were polytheistic and their druids held the key to the tribes’ historical, political, philosophical and moral culture.
The Celts were not a religious people in the way that we would understand religion and religious conformity today.
They were a polytheistic people like the Romans and the Greeks but unlike them, the Celts did not have an established pantheon of gods and goddesses. Their gods and goddesses tended to be deities with a local identity and thousands of them may have existed; only a few gods and goddesses were ‘national’.
But they were deeply superstitious. They believed that the gods and goddesses could change shape to animal or bird form and as such believed that all objects in their physical environment were filled with magical powers.
Superstition and Human Sacrifice
The Celts were the first culture to believe in an afterlife, weeping at a birth and celebrating a funeral.
Ritual and sacrifice, including human sacrifice, was believed to sanction approval from and influence benevolent supernatural powers. The Celtic year was interspersed by festivals celebrating the seasons and, the druids, the guardians of the Celtic oral traditions, told tales and myths that were handed down through the generations.
The druids were the administrators of the Celtic religion. The Greeks and the Romans described the druids as ‘priests’ but their function in the community was much more complex, and had a much wider influence. It took twenty years to learn the druidical cannon and no wonder.
In addition to overseeing religious practices, druids were responsible for all of Celtic learning, law and philosophy. They were teachers, lawmakers and keepers as well as upholding the moral system of the tribes.
The Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BCE) writes that druids were great natural scientists with knowledge of astronomy and physics that they used in the making of calendars, calendars much more complex than the Julian calendar.
The druids also had a political role and at times were even called upon to decide on military matters.
One Roman writer describes how before a battle, both armies lined up against each other, swords drawn, spears at the ready, a druid might charge between the bands of men and stop the conflict.
Although in previous conquests the Romans showed a remarkable tolerance for other religions, it was not to be the case for the Celtic religion and the druids.
The druids held the knowledge of the Celts and, as such, wielded enormous influence, an influence that was a threat to Roman dominance. The Romans demonised the druids, emphasising their ritual of human sacrifice, and almost eliminated them.
Woodland Groves and Watery Places
The Celts had sacred places, lakes and rivers and groves or woods. Here the druids carried out ceremonies, mistletoe being cut from oak trees usually accompanied by a bull sacrifice, but the significance to us is now obscure.
The Celtic word for ‘oak’ shares a linguistic tie with the word druid, and mistletoe, a parasitic plant, is often found growing on oaks.
Mistletoe is a symbol of Celtic practices. Mistletoe is a bright evergreen plant that during cold northerly winters may have been given spiritual weight by the druids as evidence of eternal life.
When the Celts converted to Christianity, the druids survived as bards, judges and historians.
- Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Celtic Empire 1000BC – 51AD, 1990, Constable and Company Ltd, London
- Wood, J, The Celts: Life, Myth and Art, 1998, Duncan Baird Publishers, London