Who were the Ancient Druids?

My question is with regards to the ancient Druids and not those of the modern day. I refer to those that existed in Britain, Ireland, Gaul and other other regions of Celtic Europe in the earliest of days, most likely B.C. and leading up to the Iron Age A.D.

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An Arch Druid in his Judicial Habit by Robert Havell (1815)

Unfortunately, it is claimed that there is no known (or surviving) written accounts from them directly, but there is vibrant plethora of local legend as well as text that was written by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  One such account was that of Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), better known as Pliny the Elder.  He wrote of a ritual of oak and mistletoe, where any oak that has mistletoe growing upon it is considered blessed.  A priest (who was considered by his people to be a magician) was dressed in white and climbed the oak, he then cut down the mistletoe upon it and  sacrificed two white bulls to enact a spell to cure infertility.  According the Pliny the Elder, banqueting, the moon and sacrifice were central to many Druidic activities.

This all sounds rather savage and not very nice.  Typically, I take what the Romans (and Greeks) say with a huge pinch of salt.  Lets face it, the Romans had an alternative agenda to make the Druids sounds like a bunch of bloodthirsty savages to justify their Roman empire and obvious wish to spread the worship of their own Roman gods.  It suited them to bad-mouth the Druids as much as possible, so I choose to ignore Pliny the Elder.

In old Celtic, the word Druid originates from the word ‘drui’ (sorcerer) and in Welsh, ‘dryw’ (seer).  From these unspoilt and pure words, devoid of political and religious prejudices of the Romans and Greeks, we can gain a better insight into who they really were.   They were the spiritual guides and moral support to their local tribes.  They were (probably both men and women) who had knowledge about plants and nature, of the physical world and who were trusted to offer guidance and advice about the spiritual world.  Their knowledge of healing and plants would make them seem like sorcerers who could ‘magic up’ cures for their people.  Who knows, perhaps they were.

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