Fifteen centuries ago, the mysterious religion of the Druids that had long pervaded the life of Iron-Age France, was driven to extinction by the advance of Christianity as it systematically wiped out all forms of paganism.
Surprisingly little is known for certain today about this lost religion.
The Druids passed their wisdom down by word of mouth, both to keep their mysteries in select hands and to train the memory of their initiates.
The Celts, in general, kept no written records about their civilisation and all we know about their religion is what Greek and Roman writers, notably Julius Caesar, chose to tell us.
These early historians were not only outsiders but often hostile to native culture. They reported what they wanted to report.
Piecing the evidence together, we know that the Druids dominated tribal society in Britain, Ireland and Gaul from at least the 4th century BC.
It has been suggested that the origins of their beliefs and practices are much older.
Although it is mistaken to think of megalithic monuments and Druids as contemporaneous, there may have been a continual mystical tradition in France from the painting of the prehistoric caves of the Dordogne and Pyrenees to the arrival of the first Christian missionaries.
The Druids formed a priesthood but they were more than merely intermediaries between the people and the gods.
They were a professional elite that advised and steered their societies. Druids seem also to have performed the functions of judges, soothsayers, teachers and natural philosophers. They had knowledge of plant lore and of healing.
Details about their practices are scarce and not necessarily reliable.
We only know the name of one individual Druid, Diviciacus of the Aedui, who Roman writer Cicero knew personally.
The only description of a Druidic ceremony comes from writer Pliny the Elder, who explains that on the sixth day of a new moon, a druid in white robes would climb an oak tree to cut the sacred mistletoe plant down with a golden sickle.
The mistletoe was caught below the tree in a white cloak and two white bulls would be slaughtered. It is possible, but not certain, that they carried out human sacrifice on some occasions.
Druidism was tolerated under the Roman occupation of Gaul as long as the Druids did not present themselves as a rival power to the emperor.
As the Empire disintegrated in the first half of the first millennium, however, Christianity spread through Gaul displacing the panoply of pagan gods with one.
The new religion often incorporated elements of its predecessors by converting pantheistic deities into saints and building churches on sites of Druidic worship. The old ways became obsolete and the Druidic priesthood disappeared.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a reawakened interest in pre-Christian Europe. New groups of druids began to appear, first in Britain and later in France. They were reacting to the age of Enlightenment that tried to place man at the centre of the universe and in control of it.
Today there are thought to be around a dozen Druid organisations in France.
The longest-established of them is the Gorsedd of Brittany, an offshoot of the Gorsedd of Wales that was founded in Cardiff in 1899, under the auspices of the Archdruid of Wales. It is now led by Peri Vari Kerloc’h, the Sixth Grand Druid of Brittany.
The largest international druid organisation is the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which currently has 19,000 members in 50 countries, including many members in France.
The head of the order is Philip Carr-Gomm who sees education as the main objective of OBOD: he oversees distance learning for people who want to learn more about druidry.
Adepts of Druidry divide into three roles or specialisations that were first described by the ancient Greek writer Strabo: bards, ovates and druids.
Bards were the storytellers or songwriters of the tribe and the guardians of the collective memory.
Today this category (distinguished by blue robes) suits people who work in the media or the law. Ovates, who wear green robes, were the healers and seers of old, who also engaged in study of the mysteries of life and death.
Today people whose work is the transformation of matter in the widest sense (craftspeople, scientists, farmers) become ovates. Druids, meanwhile, in their white robes, are teachers, philosophers and sages.
Druidry is, in essence, a philosophy that sees humans as part of nature, not apart from it. It emphasises the need for rituals – alone or in groups – to reconnect individuals with the rhythms of natural life.
Beyond that, contemporary druids have their own beliefs. Some believe in reincarnation – the Celts saw death as part of life – but it can be interpreted symbolically, as in the death and rebirth inherent in the changing of the seasons.
Spiritual, not religious
All druids are keen to separate themselves from the word ‘religion’ because of its connotations of structure, hierarchies and a fixed system of faith.
It is more accurate to describe Druidry as falling under the heading of ‘SBNR’ – “spiritual but not religious”. “We prefer not to see it as a religion,” explains Peri Vari Kerloc’h. “It is up to the individual. We don’t talk about gods. We stand in silence and each person says what they want inside.”
It may be argued modern practitioners are making much of the scant information available from classical times and that there is no connection between druids ancient and modern, but Philip Carr-Gomm says the truth is more complicated.
“Some people say all this is invented because the druids were wiped out around the 6th century… but Druidry went underground, and for a thousand years it percolated into our culture.
“Besides, from a mystical perspective, a spiritual tradition doesn’t operate in linear time; it comes from another level. Druidry answers people’s need for a spirituality that reveres nature and has some historical context and roots.”
Among OBOD’s French members is Dany Seignabou who discovered Druidry in 2007 and has been studying it ever since.
She now lives in Brittany, near Mont St Michel, and is restoring a house as a gîte for guests who want to enjoy the peace and beauty of the place, especially if they want to learn about or practice Druidry.
She plans to name it after that most well-known of Druids, Merlin, who is associated with Brittany.
“The one quality that I most like about Druidry,” she said, “is that there is no dogma.
“You can do it alone or as part of a group. It is based on nature – water in its different forms, the forest, the mineral and animal realms and the ever present connection to the ancestors – and you work with the elements using your own experience and intuition.
“There is something vibrantly alive about it.”
For more information on the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) see www.druidry.org
Philp Carr-Gomm’s latest novel, The Prophecies (The Oak Tree Press) is set in France.
For information about the Gorsedd of Brittany see www.gorsedd.bzh
To find out about Dany Seignabou’s druid-orientated Gîte du Druide Merlin: write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org