Druids: The Iron Rulers of the Celts

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Equally close-mouthed and mysterious, the Druids were some of the most powerful people the world has ever known. They held an iron grip on religion and justice in many Celtic tribes, their initiation rites were legendary and secret, and their pride was nothing short of monumental.

The Druids believed that the hours of noon and midnight were sacred. So, too, were the oak tree and the mistletoe. Druid forecasts were legendary as well. They saw omens in the flight of birds and in sacrificial animals.

The power of the Druids came in three forms: legal, scientific, and religious.

Druids were jurists, deciding nearly all disputes-public or private-and administering their particular legal code. This code included the idea that an entire family could be held liable for the wrongdoing of only one of its members. It also included the concept of suretyship, the idea that a man who had broken a law was fined according to his ability to pay. The surety was a man who agreed to assume the debt if the accused failed to pay. So, the accused was bound to his surety-even moreso because if the accused failed to pay, then the surety could seize the accuseds property. One Celtic practice that was not part of the legal code yet still recognized as proper as a means of settling a dispute was the practice of mutual fasting: The man who was owed a debt could stand outside the offenders door all day long and refuse to eat until his debt was paid; honor bound the offender to fast as well; this usually brought the dispute to a rapid conclusion. As a last recourse, a man who was owed money could seek to have the offender ostracized by the Druids. This, in effect, was a damning blow in the worst way, for the Druids were the law in the community and anyone put outside their responsibility was one to be shunned by the community at large.

Druids were scientists. Their main field of study was astronomy. They studied the movements of the planets, moon, and stars, to tell the future. They also invented a quite sophisticated calendar to track these events. The Celtic month was made up of nights, not days. Fifteen nights made up the bright half of the month, and 15 made up the dark half. The months made up a year, which had four seasons.

Interwined with the religious practices were the yearly festivals, which divided the seasons of the year. The first festival of the year (February 1) was Imbolc, the patron deity of which was the goddess of flocks and fertility. The second festival (May 1) honored the Druids themselves and also was associated with fertility. Its name: Beltaine. The patron was Belenos, whose name can be found on coins, frescoes, and elsewhere in the scant Celtic records that survive. The third festival, Lugnasa, lasted a full week and culminated in a feast on August 1 to honor the god Lug. This was the god Belenos under another name, and this festival, too, was concerned with fertility. The last festival of the year was the most solemn: Samain. It happened on October 31 and commemorated the creation of the world.

Most of all, the Druids were the heads of the religion. They alone could approach the gods. (This served also to keep the religious practices in the hands of the Druids, not the people.) The gods were many, as in Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions. The Celts worshipped a blacksmith god, a god of oratory, and an antlered god. This was last was a symbol of fertility and was represented by a stag, a boar, or a bull. The Celts worshipped goddesses as well, many of them represented by birds. (The raven was the companion of the goddess of war.) In addition, each tribe had its own select god that it believed was in charge of that tribes welfare.

Druidic religious rites were so secretive because the Druids shared those secrets with only a select few. Even Druids who had been practicing for years did not know the innermost secrets of the order. That the head Druids kept it this way and mistrusted written records are the primary reasons we today know so little for sure about the Druidic rites.

It can be seen clearly that the Celts had many gods but not one head god. Like the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, the Celts preferred their religion in small doses and spread through many realms. Whether they ever thought to worship just one god is not the point. Rather, the point is that they revered the gods they did worship and kept their customs holy, even in the fact of fierce oppression.

It can also be seen clearly how the Druids kept their grip on Celtic society. Each tribe had a leader, yes, and sometimes this leader was not a Druid. But each tribe also a had a patron god. In order to worship this god properly, the people had to go to the Druids. Ignoring the god to spite the Druids was risky business indeed. The Druids also created the calendar and told the people when the festivals were. Since all festivals were religious, the Druids were naturally in charge of those festivities as well.

It can be argued that such wide-ranging power in the hands of so secretive few has not been equaled since.