A witch writing in a book of spells

The Druids: Religious Rites and Traditions

The Druids claimed they had supernatural powers and they studied closely astrology and the heavenly bodies

Druids' role in society

A class of people who played a not unimportant part among the nations in olden times. There were male and female Druids; the latter generally called "Druides". Both men and women laid claim to supernatural power and knowledge.

The Druids were experts at legerdemain, and, by their astonishing exploits, sustained among ignorant people a reputation of being magicians. They devoted much time to the study of astrology, observing closely the heavenly bodies, through which they pretended they could predict events kept secret from ordinary mortals.

The Druids exercised the functions of magistrates, priests, teachers, and physicians. As judges, their authority was unlimited. They desired people to believe that they not only had the power of imposing punishment in this world, but that they might sentence offenders to torment in the world beyond the grave.

The Arch-Druid wore a gold chain round his neck, from which was suspended a gold plate, having engraved thereon, "The gods require sacrifice", and on the front of the Druid's cap was a golden representation of the sun, and a silver representation of a half moon.

Druids' beliefs and traditions

They believed in one supreme being; supposed that the soul was immortal; and thought the spirit of man began to exist in the meanest insect, and that it proceeded through the lower orders of existence, rising at every new birth until it reached the human body. When the soul animated the human form, a knowledge of good and evil dawned upon the being, who then became responsible for the thoughts and actions of life.

Two hands reaching each other
Those who chose good became at last so exalted that evil had no power over them | Getty Images

If one chose evil instead of good, it was asserted that the soul went after death into an inferior grade of animal life, low in proportion to the sinfulness of that existence. Those who chose good became at last so exalted that evil had no power over them, and they were happy for ever and ever.

It was also believed that the beatified soul retained the love of its country and relations, and that the spirits of the good sometimes returned to earth, and became prophets among mankind, that they might assist in teaching divine things, and oppose the evil one.

The Druids were worshipers of Bel, Beal, Bealan, from where the Beltane or Bealteine feasts come, of which they observed four of considerable importance every year. Those of May-eve, Midsummer-eve, and of the eve of the 1st of November, and of the eve of the 10th of March. Arkite and Sabian superstitions were blended with Druidical religious rites.

Dancing round the May-pole, old authors say, took its rise from the Druidical custom of dancing on the green to the song of the cuckoo. Taliesin, the Druidical bard, informs us that those who joined in the mystical movements went according to the course of the sun, as they attached much importance to the ceremony of going three times round their sacred circle from east to west.

At the celebration of sacred mysteries, there was a cauldron for the preparation of a decoction from plants held in high esteem. This liquor, being holy, possessed rare virtues, one of which was the power of inspiring those who partook thereof, or to whom it was applied.

The cauldron was kept boiling for a year and a day. During this time, at certain hours and under particular planets, plants possessed of peculiar properties were collected and added to the cauldron's contents.

Not only did the sacred liquor, properly applied, enable one to see into futurity, but it was supposed to confer immortality on those who bathed in it. Further, by its application, the dead might have been brought to life again.

All the sacred utensils and the company assembled at mystical feasts were purified with the decoction. Initiation into the Druidical mysteries was something dreadful. None but those of strong nerves could successfully pass through the ordeal, all of which took place at night.

Magic cauldron with smoke
The cauldron was kept boiling for a year and a day | Getty Images

Everyone admitted into the fraternity bound himself by a solemn oath, like a Freemason, not to commit to writing or divulge the secrets revealed to him. In various parts of the country there were "the good mane's land and the guid man's fauld", to cultivate which it was supposed would be followed by dire calamities. These places were, according to popular opinion, frequented by fairies and other supernatural beings.

Music was often heard, and dancing seen, at such places. There, too, people are reported to have been enticed into subterranean abodes, and retained for years. Places dedicated to gods and demigods lay uncultivated, though the surrounding ground bore good crops. For these acts of self-denial in permitting ground to remain[Pg 265] waste which might have been producing good fruit, "the good neighbors" sent untold-of blessings.

To secure prosperity, good manes attached themselves to deserving persons and families, making their crops plentiful, causing their cows to have calves, and giving milk in abundance. We have an account of how offerings were presented to those demigods at stated occasions.

The people made a circle on the ground, in which they kindled a fire, and then cooked a mess, consisting of milk, butter, eggs, and meal, for the beings whose favor they desired to secure for the first time, or whose continued good service was wished.

Cakes were baked and offered to the manes in this manner: piece after piece was broken off the cake or bannock and thrown over the left shoulder, while the desire was expressed aloud, that those to whom the offering was made would preserve the cattle, horses, and other animals and substance from the power of evil spirits. In the same way, or after a fashion somewhat similar, beasts of prey were propitiated.

Then there were sacred cairns, consisting of stones thrown together by passers-by, everyone adding his stone. If anyone removed these cairns, or part thereof, superstitious people predicted evil to the spoiler.

Ancient circle stones
Circles were removed because of the construction of a factory at Grandholm | Getty Images

The removal of sacred relics

The late Rev. James Rust, in his Druidism Exhumed, mentions that circles stood on the spot where one of the extensive factories at Grandholm, near Aberdeen, has been built.

The people, shocked at the removal of the Druidical works, predicted retributive justice to those who disturbed the sacred relics. For a long time every misadventure to the company, or to individuals connected therewith, was attributed to the sacrilegious action. Trees were sometimes dedicated to demons. The people worshiped such trees, holding them in the highest esteem that any earthly thing could be regarded. It was a capital offense to cut off a branch or shoot from one of them.

In the year 1649 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland appointed a commission of their own number to report to the next General Assembly as to the Druidical customs observed at the fires at Beltane, Midsummer, Hallow-e'en, and Yule. All the old customs were ordered to be discontinued, and the people warned against kindling fires for superstitious purposes.