Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Caesar's Druids

Caesar's Druids: Story of an Ancient Priesthood

Miranda Aldhouse-Green
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Caesar's Druids
    Book Description:

    Ancient chroniclers, including Julius Caesar himself, made the Druids and their sacred rituals infamous throughout the Western world. But in fact, as Miranda Aldhouse-Green shows in this fascinating book, the Druids' day-to-day lives were far less lurid and much more significant. Exploring the various roles that Druids played in British and Gallic society during the first centuries B.C. and A.D.-not just as priests but as judges, healers, scientists, and power brokers-Aldhouse-Green argues that they were a highly complex, intellectual, and sophisticated group whose influence transcended religion and reached into the realms of secular power and politics. With deep analysis, fresh interpretations, and critical discussions, she gives the Druids a voice that resonates in our own time.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16588-3
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. viii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    Miranda Aldhouse-Green
  6. CHAPTER 1 The Moon and the Mistletoe: IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT DRUIDS
    (pp. 1-19)

    A very beautiful tree-lined lane runs between the Monmouthshire villages of Tredunnock and Llanhennock near Caerleon. About halfway along it is a small clump of gnarled and twisted trees whose bare winter boughs writhe tortuously towards the sky, like human arms reaching to a god in supplication (Fig. 2). The trees are hosts to spectacularly large and copious balls of mistletoe that look too heavy to be supported on their narrow branches. I first encountered these in midwinter and became very excited because the tree-trunks resembled those of the young oaks with which the area is densely populated. Imagine my...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Noble Savages and Barbarous Enemies
    (pp. 20-38)

    Herodian’s startling description of Britain and its inhabitants is all the more incredible given that it was written in the third century ad, probably around 250,² when the province of Britannia had been established for two hundred years.³ Little is known about Herodian; there is even doubt about his birthplace, although it is most likely to have been Asia Minor, perhaps in western Anatolia.⁴ He certainly does not seem to have known Britain very well, and the passage quoted has all the hallmarks of barbarian stereotyping that would be more understandable had it been written in the first centuries bc...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Priests and Power
    (pp. 39-58)

    Athenaeus, a Greek who lived in Egypt and at Athens, was writing around ad 200. The passage describing Louernius and his ostentatious largesse belongs to his treatiseThe Learned at Dinner, whose main theme was feasting.² Strabo also makes reference to Louernius and his son,³ adding the information that they belonged to the ruling class of the Arverni, a people living in the Auvergne of Central Gaul, and placing them in the second century bc.

    Athenaeus’ colourful testimony provides many insights into the way polities (or non-urbanised states) worked in the second–first century bc: rulership and religion, feasting and...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Blood, Thunder and Precious Gifts: THE DRUIDS AND SACRIFICE
    (pp. 59-80)

    In ancient Gallo-British society, in common with much of the ancient world, a harmonious relationship with the supernatural world depended upon the propitiation of its inhabitants by means of prayers and gifts. In the passage quoted above, Caesar is emphatic in assigning such responsibilities to the Druids rather than to any other priesthood or class within the Gallic society of the mid-first century bc with which he was familiar. Clearly, it would be nonsensical to assume that every single sacrificial procedure, whose signature we can identify in material culture in Iron Age Britain and Gaul, involved the Druids. However, certain...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Druids, Oracles and Shamans
    (pp. 81-104)

    This chapter will explore the visionary element in ancient Druidism and how it might connect with the system of ecstatic relationship with the supernatural world widely known as shamanism. In most, if not all, traditional shamanistic communities, the agency enabling communication between earth and spirit worlds is the attainment of the state of trance – the capacity, of certain ritualists, to access out-of-body experiences in order that the spirit might engage with other, higher supernatural forces for the purposes of healing or protecting the community. The mystical experiences undergone by several divine functionaries in the Classical world – notably the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Time Lords: Calendars, Festivals and Sacred Knowledge
    (pp. 105-123)

    Strabo conjures up a colourful picture of noisy night-festivals, carousing in the streets, entire families turning out to sing and out-sing their neighbours, in honour of the full moon, in activities tantamount to ‘lunatic’ behaviour. In fact, there is little literary evidence for indigenous cult-practices in Iron Age and Roman Celtiberia,² and we have to be cautious in our acceptance of the Greek geographer’s testimony. After all, it is part of a scathing dismissal of Iberian people who, he tells us, have a ‘slovenly character’ and live ‘on a low moral plane’. He even includes a discussion of an unlikely...

    (pp. 124-145)

    Can we believe any part of Strabo’s bizarre account, or was it pure invention? Whether or not he is describing a genuine ritual re-roofing ceremony it is clear that in his account of the weird, ecstatic behaviour of these holy women the author was profoundly influenced by the Maenads, the demented female followers of the Dionysiac cult.

    Sacred space is important for it is the arena where the world of the spirits touches that of humans. Holy ground belongs to the gods and it was here that ancient priests were able to access the supernatural world. So where did the...

    (pp. 146-168)

    Healing must have been fundamental to the ancient Druids for, on the one hand, religious leaders in other societies are often expected to heal bodies and minds – using a combination of medicine and spiritual powers – and, on the other, we have specific testimony to their curative activities from Pliny who repeatedly connects the Druids with the healing arts, albeit in a somewhat sneering, ‘barbarist’ manner.

    Early in the twentieth century, Henry Wellcome assembled an extraordinary collection of curative equipment from all over the world that allows us a glimpse into possible meanings behind incomprehensible groups of material.³ Among...

    (pp. 169-185)

    In his poem thePharsalia, Lucan refers to the Druidic belief in the rebirth of the soul after death. By contrast, Book 6 of Virgil’sAeneidpaints a ghastly picture of Hades, the Classical Underworld, full of monsters, demons and lamenting, unshriven souls. One of the most terrible images in the poem is that of Charon, the unkempt and aged ferryman, who rows the dead who have been given the proper funeral rites across the River Styx. On his journey through Hades to visit his dead father, Anchises, Aeneas meets the ghosts of countless people, young and old, whose pale...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Images and Tombs: DRUIDS FACE TO FACE?
    (pp. 186-209)

    So, according to the Venerable Bede, wrote Ceolfrid, abbot of the monastery at Jarrow in Northumberland inc. ad 710 to the Pictish king Nechtan, who had requested guidance on particular religious practices, including the proper observance of Easter and the correct tonsure (a circular shaven area on the top of the head surrounded by hair)² to be worn by Catholic Christian clerics. A tension existed in the British Church at this time for alongside the official dogmas of Roman Christianity were indigenous practices, on the northern and western fringes of the Roman Empire, that included a different kind of...

    (pp. 210-230)

    Can we identify gendered ritual behaviour among the Druids and their fellows? Analysis of iconography on southern African San (Bushman) art shows a strong link between gender and symbolism. In particular, the significance of ‘bored stones’, used as weights for digging sticks,² appears to be connected with fertility rites, for these pierced pebbles symbolised the vagina and the ‘reamer’, the pointed tool used to make the perforation, the phallus.³ One might extend the sexual symbolism further, in so far as the digging stick itself, boring into the soil to enable planting, might be perceived as a penis penetrating the female...

    (pp. 231-250)

    The Peter Gabriel song ‘San Jacinto’¹ explores the bitter ironies arising from the theft of land from indigenous Americans by white colonialists. The song focuses on the perspective of the local shamans, or ‘medicine men’, in their sweat-lodge, invoking the spirits, and Gabriel constructs a pair of parallel universes that converge in the inevitable destruction of one by the other. In the first ‘universe’, the local shaman assembles his liturgical equipment, his buffalo cloak, his shaman’s bundle and his body-paint; the second universe, that of the incomers, is referred to as ‘cut-up’ land, seized from its rightful inhabitants and used...

  18. Epilogue: Druid Afterlife
    (pp. 251-267)

    What of the Druids beyond the ancient world? How did they come to be reborn and reinvented over the centuries so that, today, there are groups calling themselves Druids in all parts of the globe? Present-day western Druidry takes its place among other ‘new’ pagan religious movements such as Wicca and Odinism. It is possible to track a constant, chameleon-like, transformation of the Druid phenomenon during the historical period not only in its form but also in its geographical arena for, after the end of Roman Gaul and Britain people called Druids emerged in the pagan mythic stories of early...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 268-299)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 300-320)
  21. Index
    (pp. 321-338)