We cannot discuss the Druids without also exploring the Celts themselves. Who were these tribal peoples who have captured the imaginations of so many people today? A widely held theory, favoured by historians like Dr Anne Ross, holds that, at some point in the distant past, groups of early Celts swept across Europe. They settled in various locales en route before ultimately reaching Britain and Ireland. Their intellectual and priestly caste, the Druids, went with them. When they arrived in Britain they found small native tribes, descendants of the builders of Stonehenge etc, and either killed or intermarried with them. One wave spoke dialects of a language called Goidelic (from which modern Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx derive), whilst a later wave spoke dialects of Brythonic (from which Welsh, Cornish and Breton stem). Linguists point out the similarities between the two language groups shows a common ancestry, probably evolving separate characteristics when one collection of tribes migrated to Ireland and the other remained behind in Britain.
Alternative theories of British and Irish history, as put forward by historians like Simon James and Barry Cunliffe, allow for migrations across the Continent but suggest a different account for Britain and Ireland. They suggest that Britain and Ireland were not actually invaded by large waves of Continental Celts at all. Rather, the old native Bronze Age tribes simply evolved more and more complex societies. A small number of Celtic traders may have moved here (and native Britons gone over to the Continent), exchanging ideas, technologies, language, and religious/cultural beliefs in the process. However, this was done on a largely friendly basis, rather than as a hostile mass invasion.
This theory implies that the British tribes are actually much older than previously suggested. Which of these theories (if either) you choose to believe, is entirely up to you. It is these British and Irish tribes that are often referred to by modern writers as the Insular Celts, to distinguish them from the continental tribes.
Julius Caesar11, Pliny and a number of other Classical writers, suggested that Britain was the home of the Druids’ religion, and that Continental Celts sent their sprogs to Britain in order to learn
to be Druids. This has always seemed rather odd, if Britain (as often supposed) was the last place the Celts got to, and therefore the place where Druidry was actually youngest. However, if we
suppose that the migration of religious ideas actually went in the opposite direction then it makes a little more sense. This would accord with Pliny’s claim that Druidry originated in Britain. It is
an intriguing possibility that the Druid religion may have been about the only one to evolve from Britain’s soil. In a subsequent chapter we will look in more depth at what Druids were historically,
and what they might be today.
It is worth bearing in mind that the tribes of Britain and Ireland never actually called themselves ‘Celts’, or felt any great loyalty to each other. The word Celt derives from the Greek word Keltoi, and was used alongside the term Galatae (which means either ‘spearthrowers’, something that might fail to amuse white supremacists, or perhaps ‘fierce’) ~ a title favoured by a number of continental tribes. The old tribes were independent political entities, and most likely evolved their own local customs, styles of dress, favoured recipes etc, but were probably united by a common religion. A comparable situation can be seen in medieval Europe, where there were lots of rival nations (French, German, Italian etc.) who were all under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church.
The story of Amergin Óg being expected to make a judgement about the divisions of Ireland between his own people (the Milesians) and that of the mystical Tuatha Dé tribe may suggest that the authors believed that Druids were expected to be free of tribal loyalties. He was warned that if his judgement were unfairly biased towards his blood relatives, he would be killed. The earliest
surviving version of the Lebor comes from the CE 1150 Book of Leinster, and many may well wonder how accurately a late 12th century monk would understand the role of Druids, most of who
had died out about 400 years earlier. It would be lovely to think this story of Amergin does accurately reflect the ambassadorial nature of Druids, but it would be more cautious to say that what
it shows us is how 12th century Christians viewed their spiritual predecessors.