For the Celts and ancient Britons, most features of the landscape were imbued with significance. Fires caused by lightning were sacred, bogs were evil, and there was not a mountain, tree, river or spring that did not have its own spirit. Amid such numinous surroundings it was unwise to tread carelessly, for fear of offending the gods, and respect was shown by the making of offerings. The Celtic deities of the natural world were often synonymous with the places themselves. Trees in particular were revered as symbols of seasonal death and rebirth, and they also formed a bridge between the earth and the heavens. The greatest tree of all was the oak, from which pagan priests collected their sacred mistletoe. Oak trees feature strongly in Welsh myth, where they are often associated with magic. In the story of Lleu, oak blossom was one of the flowers used to conjure up the fair maiden Blodeuwedd. Among the holiest of all sacred places were oak groves, and the word nemeton (‘grove’ or ‘sanctuary’) is found in numerous ancient Celtic place-names, such as Nemetobriga (“Exalted Grove”) in Spain, Drunemeton (“Oak Grove”) in Galatia, and in present-day Nymet and Nympton in Devon. But the respect afforded to trees may well have been tinged with a healthy degree of fear, for there was also a dark side to the veneration of the ancient oakwoods. Anglesey’s sacred groves, for instance, may also have been the scene of ritual human sacrifice, if Roman sources are to be believed. The wisdom of the trees, it seems, was often bought at a steep price.
The Druids – known in Wales as Derwydd (translation: ‘knower of oak’), the term I prefer to use – were the priests of a religion that was practised in Gaul and ancient Britain until the Roman conquest of these countries in the 1st centuries BC and AD. Several hundred years before the coming of the Romans, Celts from Europe had conquered Gaul and large parts of Britain and it was these Celtic people, along with the ancient Britons among whom they lived, who practised the Old Faith. The Derwydd were the most powerful individuals in Celtic tribes and were not only priests but also teachers of the young and judges of the law. As judges they even settled disputes between different tribes – not merely those between members of the same tribe – which suggests that their authority extended beyond tribal boundaries. Boys chosen to be Derwydd studied for many years and the Archdruid – again I prefer the Welsh term Penderwydd – was the head of their priestly organization, elected for life and having authority over all Derwydd, no matter to which tribe they belonged. The Derwydd held their ceremonies out of doors and many of these rites were connected with the worship of trees, particularly the oak. Oak groves were sacred places, for whatever grew on these trees was regarded as a gift from heaven. This was especially true of mistletoe, the cutting of which was a sacred rite for the Derwydd, performed with a golden knife and usually accompanied by the sacrifice of two white bulls. Other trees with important properties included the rowan (protection from evil), the willow (associated with sorrow and enchantment), the laurel (protection from illness), the hawthorn (love and fertility), the ash (the tree of rebirth) and the yew (the tree of the dead).
The twin functions of divination and assuring the future were the most popular of the Derwydd’s activities, and generally included some form of sacrifice. Much is often made of the Celts’ propensity for sacrifice, which in Roman texts is distorted into wholesale massacres: Julius Caesar claimed that the Gauls would build a huge wicker model of a man, fill it with victims and then set the structure alight (unwittingly inspiring the classic British Hammer horror film The Wicker Man in the process). Whilst it is certainly likely that people were sacrificed, it is debatable whether this was done in either the numbers or level of cruelty that is claimed by the Romans. What is often overlooked is the fact that the Derwydd were teachers as well as priests, and possessed a remarkable degree of wisdom and knowledge for their time. The ancient script known as ogham, for example, was developed by Irish and Pictish wise men for writing on monuments of wood and stone. In its simplest form, ogham consists of four sets of strokes, each containing five letters composed of from one to five strokes, thus giving 20 letters. This is an impressive degree of sophistication for what was otherwise regarded as essentially an early barbarian culture.
Although at first the Roman soldiers were terrified by the Derwydd, who stood before their armies with long beards and white robes, cursing the invaders in a foreign tongue, their power was soon broken in Britain. Even the sacred groves where it was thought that human sacrifices were sometimes made were almost all cut down, although a few of the Derwydd remained in Ireland for two or three centuries longer. The old faith died out officially in the 2nd or 3rd century AD but it was never really forgotten. Indeed, part of the reason why Christianity was so easily assimilated in the British Isles was because of the central role played by wood in both religions – the Christian cross and the pagan oak. Even the tall columns in many churches were partly inspired by the towering trees that stood in sacred oak groves, to give the impression that these buildings had a similar function – an effect that was no doubt enhanced by the prevalence of non-Christian ‘Green Man’ images in many churches.
There have been signs since the early part of the last century that, slowly but surely, the wisdom of the trees has been rediscovered (if it was ever really lost). In the 20th century the dress and some of the customs of the Derwydd were revived at the annual Welsh festival of literature and music, known as the Eisteddfod. In our more enlightened era Druidism is officially recognised as a religion and those who follow it are, largely, left to do so unmolested. Despite many modern affectations, modern Druidism incorporates most of the key aspects of the ancient nature-based religion of the original inhabitants of western Europe. All over Britain many of the temples of the old faith – stone circles, oak groves, mounds, cairns, tors, tarns, dolmens and cromlechs – still stand and are even put to their original uses at times. In this sense therefore, it can almost be said that the old faith in its truest sense is very much alive and kicking and is likely to be around for a long time to come.