Rhagor - Opening our national collections

Ancient druids of Wales

[image: Ancient Druid: 'An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit' from Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles (1815) by Samuel Rush Meyrick and Charles Hamilton Smith.]

An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit from Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles (1815) by Samuel Rush Meyrick and Charles Hamilton Smith.

[image: The alleged Druidical Temple of Tre'r Dryw (Anglesey) - prepared by the Revd Henry Rowlands (1723)]

The alleged Druidical Temple of Tre'r Dryw (Anglesey) - prepared by the Revd Henry Rowlands (1723)

[image: Druidic ceremony]

Early 19th-century speculation on how a Druidic ceremony might have appeared at Stonehenge. We now know that Stonehenge was built some 1,500 years before the first historical reference to the Druids.

[image: Llyn Cerrig Bach]

Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey). A large quantity of Iron Age metalwork was found in this lake during 1943. [Image © Philip Macdonald.]

[image: Selection of metalwork]

Selection of metalwork found in Llyn Cerrig Bach, including slave chains, bent swords, tools and chariot equipment.

Druids, the ancient priests of Britain and Ireland, have long intrigued and kindled the imagination of large popular audiences. The stereotypical image of the white robed wise man, carrying perhaps a golden sickle and mistletoe, or clasping a white staff, remains strong with us today, the outcome of many centuries of thinking and invention. Yet what evidence do we have for these powerful but elusive figures?

Earliest mention of Druids comes during the 1st century BC, referring to druidae in Gaul (France) and Britain, who were wise men, observers of natural phenomena and moral philosophers. Similar to the druids were the bards (bardoi) - singers and poets, and diviners (vates), who interpreted sacrifices in order to foretell the future.

Druids and bards were common in medieval Welsh and Irish texts, probably giving account of much earlier oral tradition, passed on by word of mouth.

The visual appearance of druids - what they wore and what possessions they owned - is difficult to clarify. There are few illustrations or inscriptions of the time, whilst archaeology rarely provides certain answers. A druidic ceremony described by Pliny, in his Natural History, describes, a white robed druid climbing an oak tree to cut down mistletoe with a golden sickle.

Hywel Dda

In Wales, the roles and privileges of bards related to laws set down by Hywel Dda in the 10th century AD. During the 18th century, druids came to be seen as the ancestors of the bards, the praise poets, musicians and genealogists, who flourished in Welsh medieval society.

Human Sacrifice

A revival of interest in druids began during the Renaissance (14th to 16th-centuries), when translations of Classical Greek and Roman texts became widely available. A number of sources describe the druids as performing human sacrifice. Places of worship were described as isolated wooded groves and near sacred pools and lakes. According to one source, the druidic groves on Mona (Anglesey) had the blood of prisoners drenched upon their altars.

Stonehenge

Some accounts suggested that the stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge had been druidic temples. Similarly, a number of megalithic monuments on Anglesey were thought as the temples and sacrificial altars of druids. However, with advances in archaeological understanding during the 19th century, it became clear that these monuments were built over 4,000 years ago, long before the appearance of druids. Nevertheless, modern druids and bards continue to meet within stone circles today.

Celtic rituals of the Iron Age

Archaeology does however provide evidence for the religious expression of Celtic Iron Age people. The tradition of offering gifts to the gods is well illustrated at the site of Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey. Here, between 300BC and AD100, chariots, weapons, tools and decorated metalwork items were cast from a causeway or island into a small lake. Coincidentally, an account by the Roman author Tacitus vividly recounts the crushing of a druidic stronghold on Anglesey by the Roman army, leading some to infer that Llyn Cerrig Bach was a druidic site.

Other instances of Celtic Iron Age ritual have also been identified. For example, a probable sacrificial victim preserved in peat has been found at Lindow Moss in Cheshire (England). Recently, the famous Cerrig-y-Drudion bowl, elaborately decorated in the Celtic or La Tène art style, has also been convincingly interpreted as a ceremonial crown. This and a number of other crowns and regalia, found with burials or in temples in Britain, may have denoted priestly office.

In this prehistoric world, the power of the pagan Celtic gods was keenly felt, ever present and intermingled within everyday life.

Anglesey

The druids have long been associated with Anglesey in popular imagination. The historical evidence upon which this association is based is an account by the Roman author Tacitus, who wrote of the Roman conquest of Anglesey:

"On the beach stood the adverse array [of Britons], a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with disheveled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults; for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails." (Translated by John Jackson, published by William Heinemann, 1951).

Background Reading

Druids by A. Ross. Tempus Publishing (1999).

Exploring the World of the Druids by M. J. Green. Published by Thames & Hudson (1997).

Shrines & Sacrifice by A. Woodward. Published by Batsford (1992).

Tacitus: the annals By J. Jackson. Published by William Heinemann (1951).

The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People by D. Brothwell. British Museum Publications (1986).

The Druids by S. Piggott. Published by Thames & Hudson (1968).

Article Date: 3 May 2007

13 comments

Vexi Virtanen on 28 January 2014, 13:33

What is it that you learn at school about the past?
For sure we know that the history books are written with blood - the blood of the beaten.
It is the history of kings, caesars, tzars, popes and bishops.
No stories about children, women, ancient believes, doctors or bardies.
We all have the roots in our history - BRIT, IRL, SCOT, EIRE, WALES, F, D, E, I, DK, N, S, FIN, RUS etc. - the same. Our grandfathers knew it. Do we?

Kyra Brittian Faye Avis on 27 November 2011, 03:40

My dad told me that my ancestors were of Welsh Druid descent. Druids from the country of Wales. I would like to know more about this bloodline to whom I am supposedly related. I appreciate any input you have for me :)






S, Hutchins on 25 March 2011, 11:27

Thank you for this historical information. I am of Irish descent......so.........a little disconserting to discover my ancestors were so bloodthirsty! I have visited StoneHenge and found it facinating. Your descriptions of their ceremonies and tools and garments were wonderful. Glad I found this web-site.......S.J. H.

lindsey cooper on 16 March 2011, 09:44

this is so cool. I'm welsh. My project is almost finished about the history of Wales. Nice website.

paula ramona ruarte on 16 February 2011, 11:27

overwhelming!!!!! so fond of I am of celtic culture and this article mostly satisfied my greed of knowledge about everything related to ancient anglosaxon culture. Thank you very much

Claire Stokes on 23 October 2009, 09:21

As a frequent visitor to Anglesey I am interested in visiting the possible locations for ancient druid groves on the island. This has frustrated me for years as in books/texts Anglesey is just named as the centre for the druidic religeon and priesthood but where are the sites on the island? I read that the area around Llanerchymedd was a site. I realise that the Roman army probably did a very good job of obliterating all sites! but wonder if there has been any evidence left. I would be very grateful if you could kindly answer my query as I keep buying books for info but to no avail!

Amgueddfa Cymru on 4 September 2009, 09:45

Dear Chris - there is an account of the Roman attack on Angelsea on the BBC website that you may find of interest:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northwest/sites/history/pages/romansinvade.shtml

chris kingston on 4 September 2009, 09:37

reading about the massacre at Anglesey i just wanted to know, what was the year this happend? did we the welsh drove the romans to savagery? what did we do to really tic them off?

Jessica cindy. on 29 April 2009, 08:57

This is really good information i learnt alot about it!

tommy pollock on 3 November 2008, 12:14

the english that they dont own england as they call it it was celtic 4000 years ago and is still celtic lands stolen by saxons and the romans .at least the romans gave it back .pity the celtic nation dont get together and drive english out of the land called britain .and rid the saxon laws forever .

Lady Maria Angel on 3 November 2008, 12:14

Please may I have your permission to use the following picture of the Druid: 'An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit from Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles (1815) by Samuel Rush Meyrick and Charles Hamilton Smith'.

It is for an unlimited print-run, book title 'History of Dress' (title to be confirmed), publisher: Eric Dobby Publishing Ltd.

Part of the proceeds of the book are to go to the NSPCC, so if it is possible to have some sort of concession on the fee, that would be gratefully appreciated.

Thank you very much.

Lady Maria Angel
Society of Authors member.

Amgueddfa Cymru on 3 November 2008, 12:14

Dear Lady Maria Angel, thank you for your comment, I have passed your request onto our copyright department. If you would like to e-mail graham.davies@museumwales.ac.uk then we will have your email address to be able to respond to your enquiry via e-mail.
Many thanks
Graham Davies - Rhagor Curator

Nealo on 3 November 2008, 12:14

I was looking around some druid pages and let me say yours is the best. the rest specifically had info on modern druids oly. thank you

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