A druid was a member of the priestly class in Britain, Ireland, and Gaul (France) during the Iron Age and possibly earlier. The only evidence about druids is a few descriptions left by Greek, Roman and various scattered authors and artists, as well as stories created by later medieval Irish writers.
In Galatia, the assembly of the Celts was known as the drunemeton, the oak sanctuary. All these meetings were there to argue and decide major matters of note. Possibly, the combined Gaulish decision to unify against Caesar was taken place at such a meeting. It was no accident that the Roman destruction of the main druid site on Mona (Anglesey) was a partial trigger in Boudicca's resistance to Rome. The druid sanctuary on Mona was revered by the Celts as the best center for druidical training, a virtual university.
The one ancient author to write about Druids who should have known them quite well is of course Caesar. Nevertheless, in spite of years that he spent in Gaul, it is certain that his knowledge of the subject also derives mostly from Posidonius, whom he after all probably met personally, during his studies at Rhodes. In Gallic War all the information concerning Druidic sacrifices, their role in private and public lawsuits, their doctrine of immortality and the transmigration of the soul, their teaching concerning gods, nature, the size of the earth, the movement of stars (again a very Posidonian interest), and about human victims burnt in a colossus of osiers, seems to come from Posidonius. Caesar’s, as well as Strabo’s and Diodorus’, debt to Posidonius is beyond any doubt. The analysis ofthe relevant passages in these authors makes it clear that the similarities between them do not result only from the fact that all three describe the same historical phenomenon, but from their use of the same source, which we can securely identify as Posidonius.
The question of what happened to the Druids is left unanswered in the classical literature. Suetonius and Pliny both stated that the Druids had been suppressed by imperial decree, but Pliny then proceeded to write as if they still existed, raising the possibility that only their political power and religious role had been destroyed. If that was the case, it would explain the remaining references to them in ancient texts, three of which appear in the series of potted biographies of Roman emperors written in the fourth century CE and known collectively as the Augustan History. In each of these a Gallic dryas or drydis, or a group of druidae, makes a prophecy to an emperor of future emperor that turns out to be perfectly accurate. All of these alleged incidents took place in the third century, and in all of them, although the term for the person or people making the predictions is related to Druid, the prophets concerned are clearly female.
In popular imagination, druids are associated with mistletoe, the plant under which people kiss at Christmas. Harvesting mistletoe from only the oak tree, the druids believed this was an endeavor connected with the seasons. Mistletoe was a perennial plant, and as was the soul to the body, so was the mistletoe to the oak, being part of a god incarnate in the plant.
Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; the Bards, the Vates and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy. The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and the murder cases, in particular, had been turned over to them for decision. Further, when there is a big yield from these cases,125 there is forthcoming a big yield from the land too, as they think. However, not only the Druids, but others as well,126 say that men's souls, and also the universe, are indestructible,127 although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them.
In Ireland, there were two separate groups of political institutions. Both of these groups of people were powerful in the politics of the ancient Irish, but the power was fundamentally different. These two groups were the members of the tuathas ("tribe") on one hand, and the Aes Dana (men of art) on the other. Their balance of power ensured that tyranny could not take place, nor could a true caste system be set up in Ireland as it existed in India. While the members of the tuatha would be the warriors, possibly of great power, the Aes Dana derived their power from another source: magic and art. Magic, whether "real" or not, has great sway in the minds of those who believe in it, while art can move the masses.
Julius Caesar, who led the first Roman landing in 55 B.C., said the native Celts "believe that the gods delight in the slaughter of prisoners and criminals, and when the supply of captives runs short, they sacrifice even the innocent." First-century historian Pliny the Elder went further, suggesting the Celts practiced ritual cannibalism, eating their enemies' flesh as a source of spiritual and physical strength.
Celtic lands were well populated and farmed, with smatterings of settlements, forts, and shrines. Societies consisted of small territorially based sub-tribesknown as pagi. These were essentially kin-groups and their dependents and followers,such as slaves. Even though there was slavery, there was not as much as in the Classicalworld, and slaves might have had the most value as exports. Pagi were made up of a kingor chief, warrior nobility, and men of art who included craftsmen, seers, bards and druids.Priests of their day, druids played a great role in society, connecting people to other tribalcommunities, the gods and the dead as well as keeping an oral history of settlements.
The Life presents Columba as a super druid, a holy man par excellence, with all the pagan druidic powers, utilizing them for the good of the people and the spread of Christianity.
Celtic hagiography is unique in its presentation of saints lives. Many elements hearken back to pre-Christian pagan times, especially in depicting the druids and their power versus the powers of the saints of God. Hagiographers were not historians, by any stretch of the imagination. Their goal was not to give an accurate representation of a man s life but to make him into an overpowering agent of divine force a revered, awesome individual, advancing Christianity against the powers of darkness.
Out of the Celtic tradition developed a singularly important aspect of Irish life, the bardic school, that was to have a direct impact on daily life in Ireland for about 1,500 years. The studies of the students in the bardic schools were chiefly: history, law, language, genealogy and literature. The time their foundation is unknown, for the bardic order existed in prehistoric times and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition. They were thus pre-Christain. In pagan days, Druid and poet were perhaps one. Even after they were Christianized, the some vestiges of the of Druid cult survived in them, as the pagan sensibility did, until modern times. When the schools did at last become Christian, they did not become monastic; and they are not to be confused with the famous monkish schools. The Bardic Schools were lay, officered by laymen; and existed side by side with the great schools of the clerics.