Druidic Inspiration: Historical Generalisations

Carrying on from the idea that modern Druidry is based on Awen and invention…

What if, just what if there were no druids, that Celtic society had no specific caste/class that specialised in education, justice, healing, philosophy, magic or religion, and that the “druids” that the ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about were not members of said caste/class but were simply individuals taken from any part of their society – warrior, aristocrat, craftsman, farmer, merchant – with the relevant skills and knowledge. They were not organised or perennial enough in Celtic society to be seen as A Thing, but a semi-coherent variety of things that have been lumped together under the convenient label of “druid” (in modern times we could do the same and say that doctors, judges, solicitors, diplomats, artists, journalists, historians, theologians, priests are all “druids”).

This is perfectly possible, but has big consequences for how we view the neo-druid movement: everything we do or believe that we call “druidry” is based on a fantasy (shock-horror)!!! But fret not, this can be asserted with a fair amount of confidence about any spiritual or religious tradition. At some point they were all “invented” by other people, it’s just some have age and social prestige in their favour, making them a little more credible.

More posts to come on the subject!

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3 thoughts on “Druidic Inspiration: Historical Generalisations

  1. Interesting idea. I’ve never really got the idea of Druids as a “caste”, passed down by birth (as Isaac Bonewits suggests), as that doesn’t really square with the references to people studying for years to *become* a Druid. Perhaps they were, as you suggest, just people with a specific set of skills. Now, figuring out what those skills were, how we can learn them ourselves and apply them to modern life, that’s a different (and very big) question!

    • I’m not sure how caste systems work, or how anyone can be born into a profession/skill (especially if it turns out they have no aptitude or interest in their “birthright”). Perhaps within each caste there are/were a variety to choose from?

      Ronald Hutton suggested that the use of the word “druid” to describe a certain person in Celtic society is unreliable (different authors may have understood different things and then we go and lump them into the same category). For example, in the Medieval Irish texts a “druid” seems to be anyone that uses magic (kings, warriors, poets), not a specific class of person.

  2. It does seem much more likely that the term “druid” referred to a caste than a specific occupation such as “priest”. There seems to be a lot evidence that Celtic culture was a caste based culture as there were other castes such as warriors and it also seems to me more likely that outside observers, such as the Romans, would be able to identify different castes but unlikely to be able to get enough of an insider’s view to identify and name just one occupation. I think, historically, that it would be very unusual for a culture which was caste based to have individuals chosen for a profession regardless of caste. It might happen in extreme circumstances but I doubt whether it would occur often enough to produce the number of “druids” that seem to have existed within Celtic cultures.

    Caste systems do still exist in some cultures, such as the Indian/Hindu culture and the expectations, to my limited outsider’s view here in the UK, seem to be that you take a job within your caste’s scope. For example, most of my Hindu pupils at an East Midlands (UK) school, children of doctors, lecturers etc, were expected by their parents to be aiming for medicine or at least Maths/Physics/Engineering/IT degrees. There was little chance of them being “allowed” to choose Arts based subjects for example and the thought of them not going to university was not contemplated.

    In addition, it seems to me a caste system still operates here in the UK. Look at the percentage of pupils who go to private schools (around 7%) compared to the percentage of politicians who went to them (about 50% I think.) Look at the chances of someone with unemployed parents becoming a doctor, lawyer etc. It does happen I accept and we don’t call our society a caste-based one but in practical term it still operates that way. As for any requirement for “aptitude” rather than coming from the “correct” background”, I return to politicians: QED.

    My own guess would be that the historical “druids” were simply the caste that received an education (in subjects such as history, language, poetry, medicine etc). Thus, although they were born into the caste, they would have needed to study to gain that education in the same way that the warrior cast would have needed to train to achieve the level of skill they needed. The “nobility” would perhaps have been from the “warrior” caste and would not have needed to read or know the tribe’s history etc but would need to have had access to these things via the “druids”. Apart from my example of current-day UK as a caste system, until relatively recently certain trades and occupations were passed down through families (look at the number of businesses that are “X and son”) but, just because you were born the son of a butcher and expected to carry on in the trade for example doesn’t mean you wouldn’t need to learn how to slaughter and butcher an animal. You are born into your caste and then train to fulfill your role within that caste.

    A fascinating subject, I’ll await your next post with interest.

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