Ancient Pagan Druids
What We Know About Druids
The druids were members of Celtic tribes' priestly social class in ancient Celtic Gaul (now much of the continent of Europe, especially France) Ireland, and Britain. They appear to have functioned as priests presiding over rituals, as judges, as seers, and as poets. Technically, druid refers to members of an entire social class, based on evidence from Classical authors and medieval Irish law texts, whose members had specific rights and privileges, as well as responsibilities, all of which were tied to specific social roles. Evidence from the Irish genealogical tracts and tales suggests that membership in the social class was both genetic, (members had family members who were druids) and based on skill or talent.
The Etymology and Real Meaning of Druid
The word "druid," or rather druides, is first attested in Latin and Greek, though it is of Celtic origin. Irish forms of drui (singular) and druid occur fairly frequently in medieval Irish literature, though mostly as references made in passing. The Irish forms occur much more often than the Welsh cognate dryw occurs in in early Welsh, part of course, because we have substantially fewer Welsh texts than Irish. In Indo-European terms, according to the 2000 Fourth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary I.E. Appendix edited by Calvert Watkins, the proto-Celtic form of modern druid, *dru-wid or strong seeing, is formed from the I. E. *deru "strong" and *weid- "to see." Druid then literally means "strong see-er." The idea of "seeing strongly" is of course an obvious link to being a visionary seer.
Non-linguists sometimes translate *dru-wid/druid as "oak seeing." This is a reasonable error; I. E *dru also gives us the word for oak because Oak is a strong wood, known even now for its durability. Modern English "tree," "trencher" and "trough" are all also derived from I. E. *deru because they are made out of wood, a strong substance. *Weid- "to see" also gives us modern English "video" and "wise." However, "oak seeing" is an inaccurate etymology, as is the equally fictious assertion that druid "means men of the oak." It doesn't.
Other Words for Druid
According to Uraichech Becc, the Medieval Irish law tract about social structures and classes, the fili was of a higher social status than the druid. The filid are classed with the lords, while the druids are classed with the craftsmen, the smiths and other artisans. This may well reflect a later state of affairs; I think it does, one after the decline of the druid class with the introduction of Christianity. It appears that the filid began to take over some of the druid functions, and social prestige as the druids declined in power. I would even argue that the Irish jurist, the brithem (the brehon) was also part of the fili class. I direct your attention to the essay by Proinsias MacCana “The Three Languages and the Three Laws” in Studia Celtica 5 (1970): 62–78.
The lowest of the three groups in social status are the baird, a lower order of poets, called by the Greeks (via reference to the Gaulish varieties) bardoi and by the Romansbardi. The bards too may have suffered from the increasing stature of the filid (Williams and Ford 1992, 23). The bards have a lower honor price in the law tracts (half that of the filid). Bards performed the works composed by the fillid. There's a reference to their Continental equivalent in Latin which describes them less than enthusiastically as "parasites," implying hangers-on, even flatterers, of nobility.
While the Romans were understandably worked up about the powers of druids socially, and judicially, and very much did their best to exterminate the druids on the Continent and in Britain, (for instance, their attack on the druid sanctuary of the Isle of Mona, or Anglesy in C. E. 60), the druids in Ireland appear to have largely metamorphosed themselves into Christians, quite voluntarily.
What Did Druids Do?
There are a number of other words associated with the functions performed and the social roles of the druid class in the various languages associated with the Celts. Irishfili, plural filid is usually translated as "poet," which is not unreasonable, though the filialso had other functions. Filid comes from the same Celtic root as the Welsh wordgweled "see"; one of the functions of the filid was to serve as seers (Williams and Ford 1992, 21). Fáith, Irish for prophet (plural fátha) is often used interchangeably with filid.A medieval Irish law tract, the Uraichech Becc, describes fáithsine or "prophecy" as the function of the fili. The general interpretation of this fact is that the fili and the fáith were originally a single class, and one that was closely related to the druid class (Williams and Ford 1992, 22). This class would be an Irish equivalent to the class called ovateby Greek authors, and vates by the Romans (most notably Strabo); the words are etymologically related. Vates is related to Welsh gwawd, a word that used to mean "song" but gradually evolved to mean "satire." It seems reasonable then to conclude that the vates would be present as "seers" at a sacrifice at which the druids would officiate as priests; this would explain some of the contradictory confusion between thedruides and vates in Classical authors (Williams and Ford 1992, 22). We see the Morrígan functioning as a fátha in the medieval Irish epic, The Táin. She predicts the future, and delivers her prediction in the form of poetry.
Common Myths About Druids
1. The idea that the druids were exclusively male; this is absolutely false. The Irish king Conchobor Mac Nessa is named for his mother, a druid. There are references to women druids in Irish and classical texts, and in Gaulish inscriptions.
2. Any association of ancient Celtic druids with "the wicce" or wicca; this is a very modern invention, and absolutely not true. For one thing, there is no W in Irish; for another wice, and wicca and related words are Germanic, and originally referred to those who had congress with the dead, that is, to necromancers.
3. Assertions that the druids were a solar or lunar cult. This doesn't really seem to work out in practice; they did use a lunar calendar. But the importance of the solstice and equinox appear to have been pre-Celtic, and post-Christian in practice.
4. Assertions that the druids, and the Celts in general, worshipped "the Goddess." This is laughable in its idiocy. There are hundreds of Irish deities referred to in Irish alone; both gods and goddesses. Moreover, efforts to organize Celtic deities into a pantheon are inappropriate and artificial; Celtic deities aren't a nicely structured hierarchy with specific functions along the lines of Greek and Roman gods. They were as a rule multi-functional and multi-valent. There very much, both in Insular and Continental practices, appear to have been local tutelary deities, deities for specific places and tribal groups.
Williams, J. F. Caerwyn. Irish Literary History. Trans. Patrick K. Ford. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, and Ford and Bailie, Belmont, Massachusetts. Welsh edition 1958, English translation 1992.
Books to Avoid
I'm going to be blunt here: there are volumes of complete fiction presented as historic fact written about the ancient Celts, particularly about ancient druids. If the book is by a self-described Celtic expert who doesn't, at a minimum, know Latin, Old Irish, Middle Irish, Medieval Welsh, and German, who doesn't have training in mss. reading, then don't bother with the book. If the book cites books largely published before 1950, then don't bother. If the book only cites sources in translation, don't bother. If the book has no citations at all, then don't bother.
The list of books following are books that, if you're interested in actual, authentic information about pre-Christian Celts, won't help you at all:
Anything by Douglas Monroe
Anything by John and Caitlin Matthews
Anything published by Llewellyn or Inner Traditions
These are not books written by scholars, or by people who can actually read the words of the ancient Celts and the people who knew them.
Scholarly Books About Druids
Piggott was one of the leading British archaeologists of this century, with enormous amounts of direct dig experience. His book is an excellent introduction to what we know, and to what we speculate might be true, about druids. It's dry, but Piggott won't lead you astray.