Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 2 – The Alexandrian Authors

Apart from a reliance of Poseidonius, another reason for grouping Diodorus, Strabo and Caesar together is that they share a general tone. Emphasis on grizzly rituals that include the most hideous forms of human sacrifice, cannibalism and homosexuality combine to give an impression of the Celts, and especially their druidic masters, as being violent, barbaric and generally in desperate need of the cleansing flame of Imperial civilization. However, the later Greek authors give an altogether different impression. These were the scholars who trained at the University of Alexandria from about the first century AD and include Dio Chrysostom, Diogenes Laertius, Polyhistor and Clement of Alexandria. Although writing comparatively late, these authors all draw frequently from much earlier sources. The tone of their references to the druids is less negative than that of the Poseidonian authors, even appearing respectful. It is clear that for the writers of Greece, the druids were a noble caste of learned philosophers from whom the Greco/Roman civilizations can and should learn and seek wisdom.

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Arguably, the point most dwelt upon in the material from this group is to do with the philosophical beliefs of the druids and a number of sources liken the druids to similar classes in other barbarian cultures. For example, Diogenes Laertius says:

“Some say that the study of philosophy first developed among the barbarians. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Celts and Galatae had those called Druids and Semnotheoi, according to Aristotle in the Magicus and Sotion in the 23rd book of his Successions.”[1]

Dion Chrysostom ranks the druids of the Celts alongside the Magi of Persia, the holy men of Egypt and the Brahmins of India.[2] Clement of Alexandria says that “the very useful study of philosophy flourished in the past among the barbarians…”, before giving a list of the most important adherents to this practise which includes the prophets of the Egyptians, the Chaldeans of the Assyrians, the Druids of the Galatae, the Samnaeans of the Bactrians, the philosophers of the Celts and the Magi of the Persians.[3] There is also an emphasis on the association between druidic belief and Pythagorean philosophy to an extent that goes beyond what has already been noted in the Latin sources. Hippolytus writes:

“The Celtic druids eagerly took up the philosophy of Pythagoras, having been introduced to the study by Zalmoxis, a Thracian slave of Pythagoras. He came to those lands after his master’s death and explained to them his philosophy. The Celts hold the druids as prophets and foretellers of future events because they predict certain events by Pythagorean science and mathematics…The druids also use magic.”[4]

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Clement of Alexandria goes further than this, noting that Alexander asserts in his book on the symbols of Pythagorean belief that Pythagoras learned his philosophy from the Galatae and Brahmins.[5] However historically unlikely this conclusion may be, such a statement at least shows that the Celtic druids were known for their philosophical learning enough for the idea not to seem unbelievable to those who would read it.

It is impossible for us to know the precise relationship between the druids and Pythagorean doctrine, but one thing seems to be suggested in both the Poseidonian and Greek texts: the druids were primarily philosophers of some ilk and any other roles that they may have fulfilled were sufficiently ambiguous to appear confused and contradictory in the accounts. However, as time goes by, the idea of the druid as philosopher becomes less and less prominent and in the early centuries of the first millennium, the term druid is used more and more to refer to a mysterious and dangerous group of social outcasts. The Emperors Augustus, Tiberius and finally Claudius all passed repressive measures that curtailed the influence of the druids, the latter outlawing druidism completely, as we are told by Suetonius.[6] Opinion is divided over why increasingly harsh measures were taken against them. Nora Chadwick believes that it was to separate the citizens of the Empire from an influence that was “wholly nationalistic”, where as Hugh Last sees no evidence for such political motivations in the sources, attributing the repression merely to a Roman distaste for “savage practices”. Whatever the reasons might be, from the first century onwards outside Alexandria, druidism is seen increasingly as secretive and secluded. Lucan, in his famous poem Pharsalia, paints a very vivid picture of druidic practise:

“To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,

O druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.

To you alone it is given to know the gods

And the spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.

You dwell in the distant, dark and hidden groves.

You say that shades of the dead do not seek

The silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,

But that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.

Death, if what you say is true, is but the mid-point of a long life.”[7]

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We can see in this text some vestiges of the old philosophical emphasis; the transmigration of souls idea comes through strongly, yet here the druids dwell in “distant, dark and hidden groves”, performing “barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies”. Again, Pomponius Mela affirms that the druids teach, but they do so in “caves or hidden groves.”[8] Tacitus records that, once the Roman army had overcome resistance on the druidic sanctuary of Mona, the garrison “vanquished and destroyed their groves, places of savage superstition.”[9] The most likely conclusion to be drawn from this, as both Chadwick and Ann Ross suggest, is that after druidism as an integral part of Celtic society was abolished, the druids themselves were forced to find a new identity. This they did by withdrawing to the periphery of Roman civilization. Here, they became to be seen as hermitical soothsayers, fortune-tellers and hedge wizards.

[1] Diogenes Laertius, Vitae, Intro.

[2] Dion Chrysostom, Orations, 49

[3] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.15.70.3

[4] Hippolytus, Philosophuma 1.25.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.15.70.1

[6] Suetonius, Claudius 25.

[7] Lucan, Pharsalia, 1.450-58

[8] Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis, 3.2.18-19

[9] Tacitus, Annals, 14.30

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