Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Druids - just what did they do?




So if the Druids weren't wandering about looking like Gandalf terrorising the local peasantry with the threat of an impromptu liver divination - what exactly were they doing? Well, if we are to believe anything Caesar says about them, the Druids were probably a lot like a medieval parish priest - even sharing the same belief in an immortal soul (check out Pythagorean Theorem). The way I see it, these guys would have shared very similar community roles and tasks to the Christian priests and monks that were to follow several centuries later - they were the intellectuals of the town, able to proffer insights into life and the afterlife, as well as offer advice on legal, moral and criminal matters. In the latter they may have been more hands on than their Christian successors, but then again, medieval priests weren't shy about condemning crimes against God.

So if this is what they did, why was Druidism driven to extinction? Well, most likely their fields of expertise were in competition with the Roman bureaucracies that followed the conquest of Gaul and Britain. The Romans wouldn't have been to keen on having two sets of laws in a town - or the locals seeking the Druid as an adjudicator rather than the Roman Praefect. You can see similar results after the French and Russian Revolutions where civilian courts and tribunals locked the modern Church out of civilian matters - it's very likely the circumstances post-Roman conquest were very much the same. Whether the Druids were actively sought out and persecuted as Tacitus described events in Britain - or if the Gallic Druids simply faded away into obscurity isn't easy to say, perhaps it was both - thanks to Caesar's mentioning of their habit of human sacrificing. If one thing's certain they would have been quickly removed from any roles in passing out criminal judgements and sentencing.

As for the question of them dressing like a wizard with a penchant for bedsheets? There's nothing to say they did or not. The Priestly colleges of Rome weren't afraid to don some pretty crazy costumes - so it's possible the Druids did wear religious robes...but did they do so all the time? I'd be tempted to say not. Most Roman priests (during the Republic) were drawn from civic life - they did a bit of auguring one day and the next they were back at home in their favourite tunic. I suspect the Druids followed suit. In the 1st-century BC, just like most other Gauls, they were probably clean-shaven with short hair - they may have carried or worn some symbol of office, but the lack of sightings of Druids in Caesar's 'Conquest of Gaul' does bear out the fact they looked just like everyone else. For more on Druids you can read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links