Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 1 – The Poseidonian Authors

By James Karran

The following three posts will be based on a paper I wrote as part of my MPhil research at Cardiff University. They are for the interest of anyone who would like to understand one way in which native Celtic religion and Christianity interacted in Britain and Ireland during the Early Medieval period (c. 3rd-10th centuries). I shall include a bibliography at the end of the complete article.


The aim of this paper is to provide a working understanding of the historical druid, including practices, beliefs and social roles, and to examine the extent to which this image has survived in Celtic hagiography. The study is based primarily on textual analysis, first of ancient Latin and Greek sources in order to establish the nature of druidism, which is the main focus, before moving on to analysing some examples of the Welsh and Irish vitae sanctorum in order to highlight any points of continuity in these later texts.


The first corpus of texts consists of those authors who, at least in part, owe their accounts of druidic practise to the writings of the Stoic philosopher Poseidonius. Unfortunately, none of Poseidonius’s writings have survived, but they are so numerously quoted by other authors that scholars such as I.G. Kidd have been able to collect the extant fragments and recreate most of his works. Most of the authors who use Poseidonius cite him directly, but others are not so obliging, and we are only aware of his influence in these texts by implication and through comparison with the cited Poseidonian texts.

The three primary druidic commentators of the Poseidonian tradition are Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and Julius Caesar. Each author was writing around the first century BC and all have striking similarities, yet their accounts are not identical. Diodorus writes concerning the Gauls that:

“They have lyric poets called Bards (Βαρδοι), who, accompanied by instruments resembling lyres, sing both praise and satire. They have highly honoured philosophers (φιλόσοφοι) and theologians (θεόλογοι) called Druids (Δρυΐδαι). They also make use of seers (μάντεις), who are greatly respected.”[1] (1)


He goes on to describe a particularly grisly method employed by the mantays of foretelling the future that involved stabbing a sacrificial victim in the chest and divining from the spurting blood. It should be noted here that it is not, according to Diodorus, the druids who perform the sacrifice, but this designated class of seers. The philosophoi (in effect druids) are to be present during the sacrifice though, for “they believe sacrifice should be made only by those supposedly skilled in divine communication.” Diodorus tells us also that the druids and ‘lyric poets’ often come between two opposing armies and prevent battle taking place, for such is the honour and esteem ascribed to these men. It is not always easy from the text, however, to make sense of which class is being referred to fulfilling which duty. Nora Chadwick points out that the distinction between ‘druids’ and ‘mantays’ in this section is especially unclear; the unqualified use of “these men” in referring to those who step between the battle lines could equally suggest either group in the context of the passage, or even both.[2]

For his part, Strabo also attests to a three-fold division of the Celtic honoured classes. This is how he describes them in his Geography:

“As a rule, among the Gallic peoples three sets of men are honoured above all others: the Bards (Βάρδοι), the Vates (ουάτεις), and the Druids (Δρυϊδαι). The bards are singers and poets, the Vates overseers of sacred rites and philosophers of nature, and the Druids, besides being natural philosophers, practise moral philosophy as well. They are considered to be the most just, therefore are entrusted with settling both private and public disputes, so that in earlier times they even arbitrated wars and could keep those intending to draw themselves up for battle from doing so…”[3] (2)

Image title:  15.?Group of Arch-Druid and Druids  Source:  Knight, Charles: ?Old England: A Pictorial Museum? (1845)  Place shown:  none  Keywords:  people, beards, monks, robes, druids, trees, astrology, greyscale  Status:  public domain in the USA, out of copyright in Canada, hence royalty-free stock image for all purposes and no usage credit required  Notes:   A group of bearded older men wearing robes sit in disputation or discussion. They are in a forest.   Dimensions:  123 x 150mm (4.8 x 5.9 inches)  Filename:  0015-Group-of-Arch-Druid-and-Druids-q75-414x500.jpg  Blog link:  http://www.fromoldbooks.org/OldEngland/pages/0015-Group-of-Arch-Druid-and-Druids//0015-Group-of-Arch-Druid-and-Druids-q75-414x500.jpg

Not only do both authors agree on a three-fold division, but, as the this quotation reveals, they also agree on the functions that these different classes performed. The only difference between the accounts is that the ‘priestly’ class, i.e. the group described as being involved with ritual practise, are called mantays in Diodorus but vates (greek euatays) in Strabo. However, Strabo’s account does not make such a clear-cut distinction between the functions of druid and vate as both are said to be natural philosophers, the only difference being that the druids also practise moral philosophy. It is also interesting to note that, according to Strabo, it is the vates who oversee ‘sacred rite’ and, as far as he tells us, the druids had no part in it. This is different from the account of Diodorus. The lack of clarity here could be the result of a misunderstanding by one of the authors of the common source that they were no doubt drawing upon; unfortunately however, we have no way of telling who is correct, if either are. It also means that we can draw no firm conclusions as to the relationship between the druids and ritual practise.

Caesar’s account of the druids presents further problems in trying to extract a consistent picture. The most obvious difference is that Caesar only recognises two elite classes, the druids and the equites. Obviously the second class has no relevance for the present discussion, being a purely ‘secular’ class and, as far as is possible to tell, having nothing to do with the druids. The druids, we are told, “intervene in divine matters; they look after public and private sacrifices; they interpret religious matters: to them a great number of young men rush together for the sake of instruction, for the druids are great in honour before them.”[4] These functions, all to do with ritual practise, are basically the equivalent of those performed by the vates and mantays as described in Strabo and Diodorus.[5] This being said, the fact that we are presented here with a further divergence from both of the previous authors means that it is still very difficult to draw any conclusions.


Another function that is dwelt upon by Caesar and is also noted by Strabo is that of the just judge. Caesar says that the druids “settle all public and private disputes and, if some crime has been committed, or if a slaying done or if it concerns inheritance or a border dispute, the same druids decide.” This should be compared to Strabo’s statement that “they are considered to be the most just and therefore are entrusted with settling both public and private disputes, so that in earlier times they even arbitrated wars and could keep those intending to draw themselves up for battle from doing so.” Diodorus picks up on this last point in saying that druids often came between two opposing armies as they were about to join battle and prevented any bloodshed.

However, the most concrete role of the druids that all three authors emphasise is that of philosopher and teacher. Caesar claims that, due to the social benefits enjoyed by the druidic class, such as exemption from military service, taxes and all lawsuits, many young men went to them for teaching and instruction. The training period, however, was twenty years and included memorising a huge number of verses. Caesar writes that they “debate concerning the heavens and their movement, concerning the size of the universe and the earth, the workings of nature, the strength and power of the immortal gods, and these things they hand down to the young men.”[6] Both Strabo and Diodorus agree with this fundamental understanding of the druids. Strabo says that the druid is versed in both natural and moral philosophy and Diodorus also calls them “highly honoured philosophers and theologians.” Of all the doctrines taught, Caesar tells us that the foremost tenet was that the soul is immortal and crosses over upon death to continue existence in another place. This ties in with an interesting association between druidic belief and Pythagorean philosophy, an idea found expressly in a number of sources including Diodorus, who also claims that the druids believed in the transmigration of souls. Nora Chadwick notes that the very clear emphasis in these texts on the druid as learned teacher, in comparison to the ambiguous statements concerning their role in ritual practise, suggests that their primary function in Celtic society was philosophical and not priestly.

[1] Dio. Sic., Histories, 5.31

[2] Chadwick, The Druids, p. 23

[3] Strabo, Geog., 4.4.4

[4] Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 13

[5] See above

[6] Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 6.14

One response to “Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 1 – The Poseidonian Authors”

  1. Mary says:

    Fascinating- look forward to the next two articles!

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