Today is June 21st , which, in the northern hemisphere–where the majority of humankind lives–is the summer solstice.  This is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night).  Rejoice!  Now is the time of light and warmth.

Druid

Druids!

Of course it would hardly be the solstice if we didn’t talk about druids, but here, suddenly things get tricky, because, despite their long-standing popularity, we don’t actually know very much about druids.   There are no writings left to us from actual druids and although we have some archeological finds from Iron-age Western Europe which relate to the religions of the time, we do not have any objects which are directly connected with druids.  Some scholars question whether they ever even existed.

What is known about druids, therefore comes from Roman and Greek writers (including no less a person than Julius Caesar).  Druids were the priestly caste of polytheistic Celtic society.  Druid lore was passed down orally and it was no mean feat to become one of these elite priests:  it could take decades to master the complicated plant lore, ceremonial forms, and other esoteric druid knowledge.

Druids are associated with sacred groves and augury.  Roman writers also believed that druids practiced human sacrifice.  Julius Caesar wrote of druids placing prisoners in huge men made of wicker and then burning the victims to death.   However druid-sympathizers (which is apparently a real thing) dispute this idea and assert that Roman sources were guilty of cultural propaganda.  In fact, an even more extreme faction of scholars asserts that druids were entirely made up by Romans as a sort of fantasy of the other in order to highlight Roman superiority.  To me this seems like an unwarranted assumption: the concept of the hard headed Julius Caesar making up fantastical stories to drive home Roman superiority (which was an indisputable fact to him)  seems suspect, and there is archaeological evidence to support a tradition of human sacrifice, although it too is controversial.

"The Victim" An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson's poem (engraving,1868).

“The Victim” An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson’s poem (engraving,1868).

The only description of a druid ceremony comes from Book XVI of Natural History by Pliny the Elder.  This single highly colorful passage is responsible for most of the popular image of druids.  Pliny describes

“The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing … when it [mistletoe] is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to god to render his gift propitious to those whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

Whether he heard about it and thought it sounded neat or just made it up is anyone’s guess.

Neodruids (hahahaha)

Neodruids (hahahaha)

So wait, what does any of this have to do with the solstice?  Why are druids associated to an astronomical event in the way that Santa goes with Christmas?    Druids became greatly popular during the 18th and 19th century Celtic revival.   As romantics and neo-pagans invented rituals they looked towards the Roman sources (and certain Irish Christian sources which set up druids as being the opposite of Christian saints). Druids became associated with the great stone monoliths such as Stonehenge, and, since those ancient constructions are focused on the solar calendar,  it  was logical to assume that druids were too.

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