Celts: Pliny the Elder on medicine, rites and Magian skill among Druids (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Celts: Pliny the Elder on medicine, rites and Magian skill among Druids (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 20, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17154.

Ancient author: Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History 16.248-251; 24.103-104; 29.52-54; and, 30.13 (link to vol. 3 and link to vol. 5 of translation; link to Latin).

Comments: The Druids, who constitute the so-called priestly class of the Celtic peoples of northern Europe, have been shrouded in mystery since antiquity. The handful of Greco-Roman sources that attest to the Druids agree that they functioned both as priests and healers (link to Druids search on this site). Yet beyond these general performative descriptions there is little consensus on other aspects of their role within Celtic society. As you’ll see in another post, Julius Caesar suggested (6.13) that the Druids held a high position within the social hierarchy of the Gauls, describing them as one of the two governing social classes alongside the nobles (equites = “horsemen”) (link).

In general, Greco-Roman sources tend to paint the Druids in a negative light, partially in consequence of traditional biases against northern “barbarians”, but mostly on account of the Druids’ reputation as trouble-causers. They are sometimes viewed as responsible for undermining Roman authority and galvanizing Celtic populations into acts of rebellion (see, for instance, Tacitus, Annals 14.29-31 at this link). So some sources tend to ascribe to the Druids what they perceive as the morally “bad” cultural habits of the Celtic peoples (see Diodoros 5.31 at this link).

Pliny the Elder’s discussions of Druids – gathered below – are interspersed throughout his volumes on animals, plants, medicine and Magian skill (books 8-32). With the exception of Pliny’s account of the Druids as an example the dissemination of Magian skill (30.1), the Druids emerge incidentally in most passages as agents responsible for the discovery and application of the natural properties of Pliny’s subject flora or fauna. When providing a rationale for the significance of each subject plant or animal, Pliny reveals a significant amount of ethnographic data on the Druids. His comments are usually tempered by a mixture of negativity about northern “barbarians”, complaints about Druids’ track record of undermining Roman authority, and skepticism about the fraudulent behaviour of practitioners of Magian skill generally (e.g. 29.12; 30.4).

Pliny’s consistently negative evaluation of Druids (as with Persian Magians as well) places him firmly in the camp of those attempting to refute other Greeks and (less so) Romans who viewed Druids or similar foreign experts as “wise barbarians.” So we have also placed this in that category of the website despite Pliny’s negative stance about the category.

For more on the terminological issues surrounding “Magian” (for magi) and “Magian skill” (for ars magica), see the comments of other posts on Pliny the Elder’s full passage on Magians (link), Apuleius’ defence against charges of engaging in Magian practices (link), and the Pseudo-Clementine narrative (link).

Work consulted: W. Spickermann, DNP (Brill New Pauly), s.v. “Druids.

Source of the translation: J. Bostock and H.T. Riley, The Natural History of Pliny, 6 volumes, London: H. G. Bohn, 1855-1857), public domain, adapted by Daniel Mitchell. Section 20.13 is from W.H.S. Jones, Pliny: Natural History, vol. 8, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1963), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Mistletoe, birdlime and the veneration of oak trees]

(16.248-251) Birdlime (viscum) is made from the berries of the mistletoe, which are gathered at harvest. They are gathered in an unripe state because, if the rainy season arrives, they actually lose their juice even though the berries increase in size. The berries are then dried and, when shrivelled, they are pounded first and then put into water, in which they are left to rot for around twelve days. It is this one berry of all things that improves by rotting. After this, when the berries have been pounded again, with their skin detached in flowing water, they become thickened. This thickened pulp, after it has been pressed with oil, is birdlime, used for snaring the feathers of birds upon contact, whenever a person should feel inclined to set up the traps.

On this subject we must not neglect to also mention the admiration of the Gauls for this plant. The Druids (Druidae) – for that is the name they give to their Magians (magi) – held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, provided that the tree is an oak (robur). Even now, they pick out groves for the quality of their trees and they do not perform any sacred rites without the foliage from these trees. This is so much the case that it is very probable that the Druids themselves may have received their name from the Greek term for that tree [i.e. “drys” = oak]. Moreover, the Druids consider anything sprung from these trees to be sent from the heavens and to be a sign that the tree was chosen by the god himself.

The mistletoe, however, is exceedingly rare to encounter. When it is discovered, it is gathered with great ceremonial rites, which are performed first and foremost on the sixth day of the moon cycle (which to them marks the beginning of their months and years) and also after a thirty-year generational cycle, because at that time the moon has a great deal of strength but is not yet half of the its full size [i.e. the moon is waxing]. Calling the moon by their own name, which signifies the “all-healing”, the Druids prepare for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, bringing forward two white bulls, the horns of which are then bound for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is caught below in a white cloak. Then they sacrifice the victims, while offering up prayers, that the god may render his gift favourable to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fertility to any animals that are sterile, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. So immense is oft the superstitious reverence of peoples towards frivolous affairs.


[Medicinal remedies from plants]

(24.103-104) Similar to savin juniper (herba Sabina) is the herb known as selago. Care is taken to gather it without the use of an iron tool, with the right hand being passed through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though by a person committing an act of theft. The gatherer should be dressed in bright white clothing, with feet bare and washed clean. Before gathering the plant, he should make a sacrifice consisting of bread and wine. The selago is carried also in a new napkin.

The Druids of Gaul have asserted that this plant should be carried on one’s person to ward off all kinds of dangers, and that the smoke of it is extremely good for all ailments of the eyes. The Druids have also given the name of “samolus” [i.e. “brook-weed”] to a certain plant which grows in humid areas. They say that this plant must be gathered with the left hand by fasting people to ward off the maladies affecting pigs and cattle. The person who gathers it must be careful not to look behind them and they must not set the plant down anywhere except in the troughs from which the animals drink.


[Magian properties of the “wind-egg”]

(29.52-54) There is another kind of egg, which is held in high renown by the people of Gaul but totally omitted by the Greek writers. Snakes writhing together in great numbers in an artificial embrace form these balls with the saliva of their mouths and foam from their bodies: the product is called “wind-egg” (urinus). The Druids tell us that the serpents toss an egg into the air by their hissing, and that it must be intercepted in a cloak to prevent it from touching the ground. They also say that the egg-snatcher must instantly escape on horseback, as the serpents will be sure to chase him until some intervening river has placed a barrier between them. They say that the test of the genuineness of the egg is whether it floats against the current of a stream, even when bound with gold.

As it is the resourcefulness of Magians to be cunning in keeping their frauds hidden, accordingly they recommend that the egg should be seized on a certain day of the moon cycle, just as if it depended entirely upon the human will to make the moon and the serpents accord as to the moment of this operation. For my part, I have seen this egg: it was about as large as an apple of moderate size, and the shell was notable for its cartilaginous texture abounding with little depressions, just like the suckers on the arms of a polypus [i.e. an octopus or similar].

The egg is praised wondrously by the Druids as a means to achieve victory in law-suits and as a means to gain access to kings. The untruthfulness of this is so great that a Roman knight, who was a member of the Vocontian people (Vocontii), as I understand it, was put to death by the divine emperor Claudius [c.a 41-54 CE] for no other reason than he was holding an egg in his pocket during a law-suit.

Nevertheless, this embrace of the snakes and their fruit-bearing union seem to be the reason why foreign peoples, when in peace talks, have fashioned the herald’s staff (caduceus) with an effigy of snakes set all around it. In fact, it is not common practice for these snake-figures in the effigy to be crested.


[Magian skill among the Druids – for the full passage on Magian skill go to this link]

(30.13) The two provinces of Gaul certainly possessed it [Magian skill], and that continues in living memory. For the principate of Tiberius Caesar [14-37 CE] did away with their Druids, this group (genus) of prophets and medicine men. But why should I speak of these things when the skill has even crossed the Ocean and reached the empty voids of Nature? Even today Britannia practises it in awe with such grand ceremonies that it might seem that Britannia gave it to the Persians. It is so universal throughout the world, even though the peoples disagree or are unknown to each other. It is beyond calculation how great is the debt owed to the Romans, who swept away these monstrous things, in which to kill a man was the highest obligation (religio) and for a man to be eaten a passport to good health.

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