Who were the Druids, and who are we today? The first known reference to a people known as ‘Druids’ was by Soton of Alexandria (circa 200-170 BCE). Although Soton’s original writings no longer survive, Diogenes Laertius quotes him as giving a very favorable opinion of the Druids as learned scholars.
Julius Caesar also mentioned the Druids in The Gallic Wars, written around 50 BCE. In this work, Caesar tells of Druids practicing human sacrifice by burning victims alive in a giant wicker man. Since Caesar was attempting to conquer the Gauls at the time, many scholars question the accuracy of this claim. It may be true that The Gallic Wars was nothing but propaganda, at least in Caesar’s account of the Druids. It is also true that many cultures throughout the world at that time, including the Romans, practiced human sacrifice. Attempting to judge cultures of the past through modern eyes is futile without a full understanding of the historical context. Whether or not it was true that ancient Druids practiced human sacrifice, it is certainly not true of today’s Druids.
What does the word “druid” mean? Strabo and Pliny the Elder claim that the word derived from the Greek word for “oak,” which is “drus.” If this is the case, then the word “druid” could have come from the Greek for “oak,” plus the Sanskrit word for knowledge, “vid,” transliterated into the Greek form “uid.” The combination of these would result in “dru-uid,” or “oak knowledge.” Another possibility is the Celtic word for oak tree (“doire” in Irish Gaelic), a word whose root also means “wisdom.” The oak was considered “the king of the forest” to Celtic people. It is associated with strength and greatness. Therefore, Druids were the “Wise Ones of the Oak,” or “those who see all,” or “they whose knowledge is great.” In other words, Druids were Druids.
This association with trees in general and with the oak in particular is probably responsible for the popular misconception that Druids worship trees. As with most misconceptions, there is a bit of truth in it, but it is not entirely accurate. Druids don’t exactly “worship trees.” Instead, Druids see that the energy of a creative force is present in the trees, and Druids honor and hold that life energy sacred. While Druids run the gamut in their personal expression of spirituality from monotheistic Druids to polytheistic Druids to agnostic and/or atheist Druids, they almost universally agree that the life force, called neart (pronounced “NYART”) in Scots Gaelic and nwyfre (pronounced “NOO-ev-ruh”) in Welsh, is sacred. So trees are just one of the many manifestations of the neart.
Next time we’ll explore neart and nwyfre and how they manifest in the world.