Druids & Trees

Druids and Trees

A somewhat shorter version of this message was posted to the forestry newsgroups and list servers just before winter solstice, 1999.

Who were the Druids?  Popular folklore tells us they were ancient Celtic wise men.  They wore long robes and had long, flowing beards.  Merlin, the famous magician of King Arthur's court, was reputedly a Druid.  They are credited with having built Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments throughout Great Britain and Europe. 

Other sources tell us Druids were men and women who were really into trees.  Their ceremonies were conducted in the open air, often in oak groves.  The word Druid is apparently derived from the ancient Celtic words for oak and truth--dru and druidh.  Other trees were also very important to them, including yew, hazel, walnut, willow, rowan, ash and birch.  Tree symbolism was used in their religious and philosophical teachings, and in their calendar and system of writing, called Ogham.

However, according to the Romans, the Druids were a nefarious lot who performed human sacrifices, and had enormous control over the widespread Celtic tribes in Europe and the Great Britain.  The question is, can you trust the accounts of Romans describing any peoples they were in the process of conquering?

What did the Druids have to say about themselves?  Unfortunately, we don't know much because the Romans and Christians were very efficient colonizers and proselytizers.  And the Druids didn't keep written records.  All their knowledge and traditions were carried down orally. 

Years ago I read a book by Paul and Rene Bouchet, two Frenchmen from Brittany, who claimed that in fact the Druid lineage was still intact, and that they were real, modern day Druids.  This book is still in print, and now there are many other books out on Druids and their beliefs.

According to the Bouchet brothers, Druids were the repositories and transmitters of Celtic culture, and all its knowledge and wisdom.  Perhaps more importantly for the Romans, Druids were the system of communication between Celtic villages and towns.  They traveled a lot and provided what little unity existed among all the widespread Celtic tribes--something the Romans would have wanted to eliminate.

They had religious, philosophical, judicial, medicinal, astronomical, and historical knowledge.  It took decades to absorb it all and become a full-fledged Druid.  Their public ceremonies were keyed to natural cycles throughout the year.  At this time of year (winter solstice) ceremonies centered on the mistletoe, a plant that produces its fruit in winter--when everything else appears dead.  Since the Druids believed in reincarnation, this phenomenon was symbolic and very significant.

Many modern day Druids put ecological responsibility at the top of their agenda.  I can't think of any other religion or philosophy that does this.   Some are also into woodland management and have a tree planting program!  By the way, from what I read, modern Druids are not at all sectarian, and welcome students from all other religious traditions.

Below are some links to web sites with information on Druids and what they believe(d).  You can find much more information on Druids and druidry with any search engine.  Judging from the number of books that have appeared over the past twenty years or so, many people are interested in what the Druids knew and taught.  

The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (Check out the Graphical Mystery Tour!)

The Druids' Return (I'm not sure where all this information comes from, but it's pretty interesting.)

The Insular Order of Druids in Association with Amazon.com Suggest (books)

The Celts: Part I - Druids and Sacred Trees

The Magic of Mistletoe