They were Priests and Prietesses.
Although since Christian times Druids have been identified as wizards and soothsayers, in pre-Christian Celtic society they formed an intellectual class comprising philosophers, judges, educators, historians, doctors, seers, astronomers, and astrologers. The earliest surviving Classical references to Druids date to the 2nd century B.C.
The word "Druidae" is of Celtic origin. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23/24-79 A.D.) believed it to be a cognate with the Greek work "drus," meaning "an oak." "Dru-wid" combines the word roots "oak" and "knowledge" ("wid" means "to know" or "to see" - as in the Sanskrit "vid"). The oak (together with the rowan and hazel) was an important sacred tree to the Druids. In the Celtic social system, Druid was a title given to learned men and women possessing "oak knowledge" (or "oak wisdom").
The Druids emerged from the ancient Celtic tribes, at a time when the people had to live close to nature to survive. By the light of the storyteller's fire, and with the play of the harp, the Druids dreamed magic for their people. In the deep woods they would gather, bringing together their mysticism and philosophy, their insight and learning. Their spirit emerged from the the tides of the sea, the light of the sun, the wind in the Oak, the cry of the deer. In this way, they created an institution that inspired, frightened, and uplifted their world.
Druids filled the roles of judge, doctor, diviner, mage, mystic, and clerical scholar - they were the religious intelligensia of their culture.
To become a Druid, students assembled in large groups for instruction and training, for a period of up to twenty years.
The mythologies describe Druids who were capable of many magical powers such as divination & prophesy, control of the weather, healing, levitation, and shapechanging themselves into the forms of animals.
Their education was so rigourous that at the end of it they were virtually walking encycopaedias. A good word for them would seem to be "priests", yet I am reluctant to use it for two reasons: The Romans never used it, and because Druids didn't minister to congregations as priests do.
Rather, they had a clientele, like a lawyer, a consultant, a mystic, or a shaman would have.
Caesar and his historians never referred to them as priests, but perhaps they could not recognise them as priests since the Roman priesthood, officiating over an essentially political religion, were primarily teachers and judges, with less emphasis on being seers or diviners, whereas the Druids appeared to have both legal and magical powers and responsabilities.
Some scholars have argued that Druids originally belonged to a pre-Celtic ('non-Aryan') population in Britain and Ireland (from where they spread to Gaul), noting that there is no trace of Druidism among Celts elsewhere - in Cisalpine Italy, Spain, or Galatia (modern Turkey). Others, however, believe that Druids were an indigenous Celtic intelligentsia to be found among all Celtic peoples, but were known by other names.
With the revival of interest in the Druids in later times, the question of what they looked like has been largely a matter of imagination. Early representations tended to show them dressed in vaguely classical garb. Aylett Sammes, in his Britannia Antiqua Illustrata (1676), shows a Druid barefoot dressed in a knee-length tunic and a hooded cloak. He holds a staff in one hand and in the other a book and a sprig of mistletoe. A bag or scrip hangs from his belt.
The main sources we have on what Druids did are the teachings and writings of Roman historians, such data as archeological remains can provide, and mythological literature recorded by monks in the eighth through twelfth century. Also, analogies can be drawn between the Celts and such Indo-European cultures that existed around the same time and had the same level of cultural achievement, such as the Hindu people.
Archaeology is an excellent resource for the study of celtic history. Scientists have uncovered the remains of votive offerings to the Gods in lake bottoms, bogs, and "votive pits" (a narrow hole dug deep in the ground in which votive offerings are buried), which tell us about Celtic religion. There are also the remains of celtic fortresses, habitations, temples, jewelry and tools. These remains speak to us not of events and people in Celtic history, but what life was like, what their technological capeability was, what food they ate, what crafts and trades they practiced, what products they made and traded (which in turn tells us about their economy), and where they travelled and how they got there. These facts about Celtic social life are an important element for understanding Druidism, because it is necessary to understand the whole culture in which Druidism was situated.
The Roman historians are another important source, though they wrote on the Celts from their own points of view; Julius Caesar, for example, was in the process of conquering Gaul (what is now France; a variant of Gaelic is still spoken in Brittany) and therefore would have written a highly prejudiced account. Posidonius was trying to fit the Druids into his own Stoic philosphy. There is also an attempt to cast the old Celts in the role of the innocent and wise noble savage, uncorrupted by civilisation and close to nature, as in the case of the writer Tacitus. Romans are usually under stood as "hostile witnesses", but they are the only eyewitnesses that we have.
Nevertheless they were often impressed by the Druids' grasp of mathematical and astronomical skill. One Roman author, Diogenes, placed the Druids on a list of the ancient world's wisest philosophers; a list which included the Magi of Persia, the Chaldeans (the priesthood of the Babylonians) and the Gymnosophists (an Hindu sect which preceded the Yogis), all of whom were selected for their skill in mathematics, physics, logic, and philosophy.
One of the problems with studying Druidism academically is that the Druids were the subject of a number of persecutions and conquests, not only by the Romans, but also by Norsemen, Normans, Saxons, and Christians. Much Druidic wisdom was censored, evolved into something unrecognisable, or just plain lost; although it is true that the Romans never invaded Ireland, so that country became a haven for Druidic learning for a while.
A modern person seeking the Druid's path must attempt to reconstruct the wisdom based on some or all of the sources discussed above. Yet in doing so, one discovers that despite the enormous amount of cultural data presumed lost, the truly Celtic disposition of the sources remains strong and clear. Much Druidic magic also can be found in the writings of contemporary Irish and Scottish artists. The Irish Literary Revival, with such authors as William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and James Joyce, is one of this author's favourite expressions of Celtic spirit.
- Brendan Myers
Sammes's drawing was subsequently copied and modified by William Stukeley who shortened his beard, removed the mistletoe, turned the bag at his side into a sort of bottle or gourd, and placed an axe-head in his belt.
Besides observing that the name 'Druid' is derived from "oak", it was Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia (XVI, 95), who associates the Druids with mistletoe and oak groves: "The Druids...hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows provided it is an oak. They choose the oak to form groves, and they do not perform any religious rites without its foliage..." Pliny also describes how the Druids used a "gold pruning hook" or "sickle" to gather the mistletoe.
"Anything growing on those trees [oaks] they regard as sent from heaven and a sign that this tree has been chosen by the gods themselves. Mistletoe is, however, very rarely found, and when found, it is gathered with great ceremony and especially on the sixth day of the moon... They prepare a ritual sacrifice and feast under the tree, and lead up two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest attired in a white vestment ascends the tree and with a golden pruning hook cuts the mistletoe which is caught in a white cloth. Then next they sacrifice the victims praying that the gods will make their gifts propitious to those to whom they have given it. They believe that if given in drink the mistletoe will give fecundity to any barren animal, and that it is predominant against all poisons."