The Druids were either an intellectual class or priestly class of Celts living in Gaul (a region that encompassed the majority of Western Europe and the British isles) around 1200-600 BCE and beyond. While modern neo-Druids have a tree-hugging, pagan, hippie vibe, the reality is that the original, historical Druids are sort of a mystery. Scholarly research and historical accounts suggest, though, that the Druids were more intellectual than they were religious, and that they spent more time establishing a socially just society than they did worshipping at places like Stonehenge, which, spoiler, wasn't even theirs. But what little we do know about Druid history and Druid beliefs is pretty fascinating.
If the original Druids weren't forest-dwelling wizards, then what did they believe? What facts about Druids do historians say we know for sure are true? Who had the motivation and the power to pen anti-Druid propaganda? Read on to find out.
Long before the Nazis perverted the swastika to a symbol representative of ethnic cleansing, cultures from around the globe considered it a symbol of good fortune. (Notably, some scholars attribute the contemporary shape of the Christian cross to the swastika, as well.) The Druids were among this swastika-fortune-bearing group. The so-called Battersea Shield, pictured above, discovered in 1857 CE in the river Thames, features several swastikas and is attributed to the Druids. Archeologists believe it was likely not used in battle but was instead an offering or gift to the gods created around the 1st century BCE. Ancient texts - possibly just propaganda - also claim so-called "Arch-Druids" shaped tree branches into swastikas as part of their rituals.
Not only were women allowed to be Druids, many Druid warrior-queens were skilled military leaders. Women were also ambassadors, judges, and lawyers, a phenomenon that perplexed the much more male-centric Greeks and Romans. Women could even "divorce their husbands if they felt like it" and "did not suffer in status or reputation" if their husbands became convicts - a novel idea that assigned women's reputations to themselves. Unfortunately, domestic life wasn't completely liberating; Celtic wives, like their Roman counterparts, were ultimately controlled by their husbands.
Caesar, along with other Roman and Greek writers, claimed the Druids practiced human sacrifices - like burning them alive in the terrifying but totally made-up Wicker Man above - but those claims are dismissed today as mere propaganda. Scholars say "there is not the slightest evidence in any old Celtic documents that human sacrifice was ever carried out." So, the fabulous violence associated with some of their religious practices is solely the stuff of skeptical Christian propagandists. In reality, there's evidence that "capital punishment for murder was against the Celts' ideas of justice and court punishment."
According to scholar Peter Ellis, the idea that the Druids were responsible for building and worshipping at Stonehenge is "one of the most enduring myths" about the Druids. In reality, the structure was built "well over a millennium before we can identify the emergence of the Celts," so it can't be a Druid sanctuary. This hasn't stopped neo-Druids from adopting Stonehenge as a backdrop for celebrating the Summer solstice (and occasionally complaining about the price of parking).