Recently a friend asked a question on several facebook discussion groups - who were the Druids to the Celtic peoples? It's an interesting question and it made me think about exactly what role the Druids played within their society. The first hurdle is to decide where to start in looking for clues about who the Druids were. Every possible source of information has its flaws, either through the bias of the authors of secondary sources, or the bias of people interpreting harder evidence such as archeology. However, these flaws are not insurmountable and do not require that all evidence should be thrown out, especially when evidence form different source is supportive of the same point. I think in the end we are left with secondary sources Greek, Roman, Christian, and mythology as well as supposition from archeology and anthropology to form a picture of who the Druids were. Each one offers a little piece and requires a certain cynicism.
Personally I have always rejected the common modern division of the Druids into 'bards, ovates, and druids', although I can see ho wthis is a convienent way to divide up segments of study. As Daithi O hOgain says in his book The Sacred Isle, "Given their similarity in function abroad, and their interchangeability in Ireland, it seems best to regard these three terms druis, velitos, and vatis [druid, bard, and seer] as indicating the functions of the wise man among the ancient Celts. In the world of antiquity, we should not look for a clear distinction between great wisdom in its practical and sacred senses." So instead of seeing the Druids as divided in to rigidly different segments I think it more likely that there was crosstraining that would have made each Druid able in the basics of each area, but allowed individuals to specialize.
I also don't agree with the idea that some people put forth that an individual Druid was an expert in all things associated with Druidism. I think that the Druids filled a certain role within society as the educated class, if you will, and religious leaders, but that just like today there was specialization within. A fair analogy for my view may be of someone in a modern setting who goes through a degree program and has all the same basic classes but also focused electives. So this is why, I think, we see Druids referred to as seers, priests, judges, advisors to kings, healers, and astronomers.
So, who do I think the Druids were?
To start I think the Druids were concerned with any and all religious matters, both of doctrine and practice -Caesar tells us that "Druids are concerned with religious matters, private and public sacrifice, and divination." Diodorus also mentions the role of Druids: "The Gauls have certain wise men and experts on the gods called druids, as well as a highly respected class of seers....It is a custom among the Gauls to never perform a sacrifice without someone skilled in divine ways present. They say that those who know about the nature of the gods should offer thanks to them and make requests to them, as though these people spoke the same language as the gods. The Gauls...obey the rule of the priests and bards..." From this I gather that public religious ceremony required a Druid to preside. Caesar also mentions that a person brought before the Druids for judgment who ignored the ruling would be banned by the Druids from attending public ceremonies, and that this was viewed as an "extremely harsh punishment" by the Gauls. This reinforces the idea of the pivotal role that the Druids played within the society and in religious life.
I think the Druids were judges. Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, says, "...the Druids are the judges on all controversies public and private." Strabo also comments in a similar way, saying, "The Gauls consider the Druids the most just of people and so are entrusted with judging both public and private disputes." I know it's common today to refer to them as lawyers, but I don't feel that's accurate because the modern idea of a lawyer carries associations that are simply not what the Druids actually did. In a modern context the word lawyer refers to people who advocate for a particular person or side in a dispute, and historically the Druids as Brehon did not do this but acted as judges or speakers of the law. The word in Irish "breitheamh" (Old Irish brithem, plural brithemain) translates as judge, not lawyer. It's an issue of semantics in English but using the word lawyer implies action as an advocate, whereas judging is what they actually did. In the Old Law texts the Brehon (brithemain) always act as judges. The law texts do have a classification for a person who fills the role of an advocate but that would be "aigne" (that's the Old Irish). Kelly also discusses, in his book Early Irish Law, that people were often represented before the King or Brithem by a fethem, a non-proffessional lawyer who was usually the head of the person's kin group.
My final thought for todays blog - I think the Druids were seers. Although many references seem to seperate the seers into a different category, it is also clear that the boundaries were fluid and that Druids were also seers, so I think rather than three rigid categories the Druids themselves were expereinced as ritual leaders, seers, and bards. For example in all the following cases the words druid and seer are used interchangably or a person identified as one is given the attributes/skills of the other:
"The practice of divination is not even neglected by barbarians. I know there are druids in Gaul because I met one myself....He would predict the future using augury and other forms of interpretation." - Cicero.
"Tiberius passed a decree through the senate outlawing their Druids and these types of diviners and physicans." - Pliny.
" The Druidess exclaimed to him as he went, 'Go ahead, but don't hope for victory or put any trust in your soldiers.' Lamoridius on the emperor Alexander Severus recieving a prophecy when passing by a Druidess.
Another account by Vopiscus relates a similar tale of Diocletian being told he would one day be emperor by a Druidess offering a spontaneous prophecy, and later the same writer says "On certain occassions Aurelian would consult Gaulish Druidesses to discover whether or not his descendants would continue to rule."
Indeed, in The Sacred Isle by O hOgain the author points out that "prophecy and divination are the accomplishments most frequently attributed to druids in Irish literature." which clearly establishes that there is no way to seperate the concepts of seers and Druids from each other, particularly in the Irish.
Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in pre-Christian Ireland by Daithi O hOgain
War, Women, and Druids by Philip Freeman