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Portrait of a druid wearing a hooded cassock next to a large tree

10 fascinating facts about ancient druids

The Romans were terrified of them, they could make it rain fire on their enemies - and they were exempt from tax. These facts about the ancient druids will surprise you.


The druids were the priests of the ancient Celts, dwelling long ago in the British Isles and Gaul (an ancient region comprising chiefly of modern-day France). The image of the druids handed down to us over the centuries is of mysterious figures in white robes performing strange gory rituals and casting magic spells with outstretched arms.

But what do we really know about them?

The ancient Celts themselves didn’t leave historians and archaeologists a lot to go on, unfortunately. Much of what we know about the druids comes from Celtic literature and ancient Greek and Roman accounts (although the reliability of these is debatable).

Here we look at 10 facts about the ancient druids.

1. Their origins are a mystery

Druids probably originated in Gaul or the British Isles, as these were the lands in which they are known to have lived, but historians cannot say for certain whether their roots were there or further away.

Scholars are also unsure exactly when druids first emerged. The earliest written mentions are from the 4th century BC, but their origins likely go back to at least 1000 BC and possibly earlier. Despite the association with druids and Stonehenge, there is no direct evidence to link ancient druids with the building of Stonehenge, which dates back about 5,000 years.

The druids were suppressed by the Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD after they had conquered Britain and Gaul. By the Early Medieval Period, they had essentially vanished. A form of modern-day druidism, with roots in an 18th-century revival, continues to this day, but the real ancient druids are long gone.

2. Oaks were very important to druids

Oaks and all things oak-related were incredibly sacred to the druids. The word ‘druid’ means ‘knowing the oak tree’ in Gaelic. For centuries oaks were associated with strength, power, fertility, endurance, and wisdom, not just among the ancient Celts but everywhere the tree was native to.

One of the most sacred rituals of the druids involved gathering in oak groves at night and cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle. The mistletoe couldn’t touch the ground, so as the druid wielding the golden sickle cut a piece off, two others were ready underneath to catch it with a white cloth held between them.

3. Druids were famous for being scary

The people of the classical world, particularly the Romans, believed that the further north you travelled, the more ‘barbaric’ the people got. They thought the British Isles was home to wild and terrifying people.

The Roman historian Tacitus, referring to the Roman invasion of Anglesey in Wales in the middle of the 1st century AD, said that the Welsh druids ‘struck terror into the Roman soldiers’. The druids, he continued, would stand in the midst of battle ‘screaming horrible curses, with their hands raised towards the heavens’. The legions got over their fears, apparently, as the Romans ended up conquering Anglesey and most of Wales.

4. Druids had short hair

Contrary to popular belief, druids wore their hair short, in contrast to ordinary Celtic people of that time who tended to wear it long. Druids did sport long beards, though.

5. Druids were said to be magicians

Roman and Greek writers, such as Pliny, stated that the druids were magicians.

Details of the magical powers of the druids can be found, not just in ancient sources, but also in Celtic myth and legend. These skills of wizardry included time travelling, shapeshifting, invisibility, controlling the weather, levitation, and fortune-telling.

One writer on the history of druids said that ‘every druid carried in his hand a wand or staff’. Druids were also present at many of their people’s battles, assisting the army by use of their ‘magical arts’. Examples of this include causing it to rain fire over the enemy and inflicting blinding snowstorms on them. They could also change day into night, and some were even able to ‘throw mountains’ at opposing troops, and make trees and stones appear to be armed men.

Celtic legends go into great detail about the magical abilities of druids, telling stories of their use of magical potions and powerful incantations, recited while standing on one leg and with one arm outstretched.

6. Druids were soothsayers

As well as magicians, druids were also soothsayers. There were said to be many different forms of divination practised by the druids. Animal sacrifice was a particularly common and gruesome method.

In one divination ritual, the druid would recline on a bed of rowan branches and use the skin of a freshly slaughtered bull as a bloody duvet. They then went to sleep thinking of a particular question, and their dreams would give them the answer.

A similar method involved fortune-telling by dog. An unfortunate canine would be killed and the divining druid would then eat some of its flesh. The druid would then either sleep or close their eyes momentarily. In these states, they would see visions of the future or other signs which would answer the questions they had in mind.

7. Druids may have practised human sacrifice

One area of intense debate about the druids is whether or not they practised human sacrifice. The famous ‘Lindow Man’, discovered in a Cheshire bog in 1984, is the remains of a man who died a brutal death about 2,000 years ago. Some experts claim that the Lindow Man was a victim of human sacrifice by druids.

The Roman author Lucan painted a horrifying picture of the druids, saying that they engaged in the ritual sacrifice of humans and that in their lands ‘the trees were sprinkled with human blood’.

When the Romans finally conquered Anglesey in Wales under their commander Suetonius Paulinus, killing many of the local people and druids as they did so, they discovered evidence of the ritual murder of humans. Tacitus said that druids killed here for the purpose of divination, writing that ‘the druids read the future by slicing open humans on their altars and watching which way they fell!’. The victims’ entrails would also be inspected for divine signs.

8. It could take up to 20 years to learn to become a druid

The druid tradition was kept alive orally, passing between generations for centuries. Young people would start as apprentices under a master and would learn the secrets of druidic knowledge – the ancient druid wisdom of magic, philosophy, religion, and law. This apprenticeship took up to 20 years. Britain must have been seen as an important centre of druidism, as apprentice druids from the Celts of Gaul went across the Channel to be trained.

9. Druids weren’t just priests

The druids were a priestly order, but their role in Celtic society extended well beyond religion. They were also learned men – philosophers, historians, storytellers, and advisors. Kings made laws, but they were advised by druids, and druids held a great deal of power in society. They were well-respected, considered a part of the higher class, and were often knee-deep in the political and military life of their community.

Julius Caesar detailed many of the rights, roles, and customs of the druids, including the fact that they were, in Gaul at that time at least, exempt from paying tax.

10. There were female druids

We usually think of druids as men, but the fact that there were female druids is perhaps not as surprising as you might think. Ancient Celtic women generally had a great role in society and had far more rights than their Greek and Roman counterparts.

Ancient Roman and Greek sources refer to ‘dryades’, or druidesses. Several Roman emperors, such as Diocletian and Aurelian, are recorded as having met with Celtic druidesses in Gaul to hear prophecies regarding their fates.

There are also many legendary and mythical druidesses. Irish mythology features many 'bandrui' (female druids). Bodhmall and Liath Luachra, for example, are two mythic warrior druidesses who were key characters in early Irish myths.