Druidism was the ancient magical religious faith found to be
operating in Gaul and later England and Ireland as the Romans
pushed northward that has been revived as a twentiethcentury
Neo-Pagan religion. The name derives from an old
Welsh term for oak, implying that they are the people who
know the wisdom of the trees. Julius Caesar encountered the
Druids in Gaul in the first century B.C.E. where, among other
duties, they oversaw the human sacrifices that were then part
of the Celtic religion. From that time forward, a number of Romans
chronicled their life, especially after the conquest of Britain
in the next century. Gradually, Christianity was introduced
into England and then in the fifth century into Ireland. Over
the next few centuries, it replaced the Druid religion.
The ancient Druid tradition, largely passed through the oral
tradition, was rendered into written form in the Middle Ages
in two primary texts, the Mabinogion and the Book of Taliesin.
Various elements of Druidism passed into folklore and survived
in local customs and folk songs. Numerous archeological remains
have been discovered and through the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, efforts to reconstruct the history and belief
of the Druids have proceeded. It is now generally believed that
the Druids were firmly in place by the sixth century B.C.E., and
evidence has emerged that suggests that Druidism may be
traced to the time of the monolithic culture that built Stonehenge
and related structures across the British Isles. Druidism
may have survived in remote corners of rural Britain, and some
have suggested that it could be found on the island of St. Kilda
as late as the eighteenth century.
The fragments of literature on ancient Druidism leave considerable
room for interpretation of Druid belief and practice
(thus providing the base for the broad spectrum of belief and
behavior among contemporary Druids). It is known that the
community was organized around the three groups of functionaries.
The bards were the keepers of the wisdom tradition.
They memorized the key material of the tradition, much of
which was put into poetic form and made it available to the
people. The Ovates were the mediumsshamans of the community.
Among their duties was the establishment of contact with
ancestors in the spirit realm. They also engaged in divination
of various kinds, including the reading of entrails, in attempts
to predict the future. The Druid priests were the most powerful
leaders in the community. They presided over worship and
group ceremonies, and often served as advisors to the secular
The Druid religion was nature-based and its worship cycle
was marked by the movements of the Sun and Moon. The year
was marked by the changing positions of the rising sun, the solstices
and equinoxes, and the four additional festivals halfway
between these four that marked important points in the agricultural
seasons. These were known by different names in different
locations and at different times. Among the major contemporary
British Druids, these are known as
Samhuinn (October 31–November 2)
Winter Solstice (December 21 or 22)
Imbolc (February 1)
Spring Equinox (March 21)
Beltane (May 1)
Summer Solstice (June 21 or 22)
Lughnasadh (August 1)
Fall Equinox (September 22)
Today, the most notable date in the calendar is the summer
solstice, when British Druids gather at Stonehenge for a sunrise
The Druids were especially associated with oaks and the mistletoe
that grows as a parasite on it. According to Pliny, they
gathered the mistletoe in a ritualized manner, used it in their
rites, and drank its juice for its medicinal value.
Among the most controversial practices associated with Druids
was human sacrifice. In their priestly service among the
Celtics in Gaul, it was noted by Julius Caesar and Strabo that
they oversaw the sacrifice of humans. Caesar mentioned the immense
images which they filled with living victims and burned
to death, a practice that was vividly pictured in the 1975 movie
The Wicker Man.
Modern Druidism
Modern interest in Druidism can be traced to an amateur
antiquarian, John Aubrey (1676–1697), who delved into the
classical Druid texts and suggested that the Druids had worshiped
at the old stone monuments in Wiltshire. His work
began the association of Druidism and Stonehenge. A modern
Druidism emerged into public notice in the next century when,
in 1717, Deist writer John Toland (1670–1722) was elected the
chief of the first modern Druid order, An Tigh Geatha
Gairdeachas. Reportedly Druids from previously existing
groups from across England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and
Brittany attended the inaugural meeting in London. Toland
spent the last years of his life working on a history of the Druids,
excerpts of which were posthumously published.
Building on Aubrey’s work, the physician William Stukeley
(1687–1765) did extensive observations in Wiltshire and
brought the monumental structures to public attention. He
published a book on Stonehenge in 1740 and on Avebury
three years later. He described Druidism as the aboriginal patriarchal
religion and reputedly succeeded Toland as the second
chief of the modern Druid order. Stukeley was himself reDruidism
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
putedly succeeded by the likes of poet William Blake and
writer Geoffrey Higgins.
Interest in Druidism as the traditional pre-Christian religion
of the British Isles led to the formation of several Druid
organizations through the eighteenth century. The most important
was the Ancient Order of Druids founded in London
in 1781 by Henry Hurle. It is the largest Druid body in England
with some 3000 members. Of interest, the order is primarily a
male group, with women not permitted entrance to the majority
of their lodges. There are some all-female lodges. Also
founded at the end of the eighteenth century was a uniquely
Welsh Druid tradition centered in the channeled material of
Edward Williams, better known by his Druid name Iolo Morganwg.
A controversial figure, Williams offered his channeled
material as genuine remnants of ancient Druid wisdom, and
they were so accepted by some who did not understand their
origin. When their origin was discovered, many dismissed Morganwg
as a fraud; however, his group, the BardiDruidic Eistedfoddau,
still exists.
In the nineteenth century, the Druid movement spread
across Europe and through the British Empire, though the
groups that formed remained small and ephemeral. It was only
in the context of the emergence of a larger Neo-Pagan movement,
spearheaded by the new Witchcraft created by the British
witch Gerald B. Gardner, that Druidism has found a friendly
environment in which to grow and proliferate. Among the
important groups to emerge in England in the postGardnerian
context are the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids
founded in 1864 by Ross Nichols and the Golden Section
Order founded in 1975 by Colin Murray. Recently, a Council
of British Druid Orders has emerged to provide fellowship
among the many independent Druid groups.
In America, a new and separate Druid tradition was initiated
in 1963 by students at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota,
as part of a protest of compulsory chapel at the churchrelated
school. In order to gain permission not to attend chapel,
the students fashioned a separate religion based upon their
reading of books on ancient religion. Once the rules on compulsory
chapel were dropped, the Druids discovered that they
liked what they had created. Thus was born the Reformed Druids
of North America that spread through the Neo-Pagan subculture.
In Berkeley, California, the movement found a new
leader in the person of Isaac Bonewits, who emerged as the
most visible spokesperson of Druidism in North America. In
1983 he left the loosely organized Reformed Druid coalition to
found Ar nDraiocht Fein, currently the largest Druid group in
North America. It has in turn given birth to additional groups
such as the Henge of Keltria.
Carr-Gomm, Philip. The Elements of the Druid Tradition.
Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK Element, 1991.
Matthews, John, ed. The Druid Source Book. London Brandford,