The Druids, that is what the Gauls call their magicians, hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and the tree on which it is growing, provided that it is an oak. Groves of oaks are chosen even for their own sake and the magicians perform no rites without using the foliage of these trees…Anything growing on oak trees they think to have been sent down from heaven, and to be a signal that that particular tree has been chosen by a god. Mistletoe is, however, rather seldom found on an oak, and when it is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony, particularly on the ninth day of the moon…because it is then rising in strength and not yet half its full size. Hailing the moon in a native word that means “healing all things”, they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to the god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)
Much of the historical information we have about the Celts and Druids and their practices comes from Classical Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder and Julius Caesar. The ancient Celts, named Keltoi by the Greeks, and Gauls by the Romans, it is historically said passed on their traditions and beliefs orally and the written accounts were left for outsiders to record until Christianity arrived in the Early Middle Ages. Also we have to remember that Caesar and Pliny were most likely not eye-witnesses to many of the things they wrote about, and so cannot be regarded as conclusive evidence to what they were recording.
As new interest in Druidry grew in more recent centuries, started by British antiquarians, such as William Stukeley (1687 – 1765), those people who required information only had the Classical sources to rely upon – which were not always the most accurate of written accounts. Pliny’s description of the Golden Sickle is one such account which bears closer examination, to either confirm or dispel the Classical image of Druid practices. The Druid; dressed in white robes, cutting down mistletoe with his golden sickle and then performing a ritual sacrifice of the white bulls. Let us start with the sickle itself.
Sickles are an ancient cutting tool used for harvesting cereals and other vegetation such as herbs and heather. The sickle is small enough to be held in one hand unlike the larger scythe with its long handle and larger blade, which was also used for harvesting crops. The blades were usually curved in a slight crescent shape. Sickles were probably one of the first agricultural tools ever made by man. Originally they were made of flint but with the discovery of metallurgy they were then manufactured using bronze and then later with iron. Even today, sickles and scythes are used in many countries which do not yet rely on mechanics for harvesting crops such as rural areas in India where they are still in use every day.
The sickles in use during Pliny’s time would have been made of either bronze or iron. When the Druids cut the mistletoe from the oak trees they would have used these small hand-sized tools, reaching up and pulling the curved blade towards them, severing the parasitic mistletoe from the branches. It is highly unlikely they would have actually used a sickle made from gold as that metal is too soft to carry a cutting edge. Bronze, in its highly polished state, not only is more practical and of a harder metal, able to sustain a cutting edge for a long time, but flashing in the light of the sun it would have seemed like it was made of gold from a distance. It is also possible that some bronze or iron sickles would have been gold-plated although there is no archaeological evidence to support this theory.
A highly polished bronze sickle would seem to have been the tool used by Druids, which Pliny talks about. Archaeologists have uncovered many bronze sickles, mostly carbon-dated between 700 BCE and 100 ACE all over Europe. Britain is no exception. Bronze sickles have been found at Flag Fen in Suffolk, Blackburn Hill, and Anglesey (Ynys Mon, the Druid’s Isle). There is much evidence to suggest that such highly prized bronze sickles were ritually deposited in marshes and areas of sacred significance, some still preserved with their wooden handles or with handles incorporated into the casting. Stone casts used to make sickle blades have also been discovered.
Druids would certainly have used sickles to cut mistletoe. Mistletoe is a sacred plant and it would have been used for many purposes. Folklore refers to mistletoe as ‘all heal’ because of its miraculous healing properties. It could be used as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility, be an aphrodisiac, and used to prevent epilepsy. Sprigs of mistletoe were hung over doorways as protection against evil and the white berries when crushed become a milky white fluid. The Druids, it is said, believed this fluid to be a representation of the ‘sperm of the gods’. It may be true that the mistletoe from oak trees was the most highly prized and sacred as (especially in Britain and Gaul) as it seldom grows on that particular tree. However, mistletoe grows quite readily on apple, hawthorn and alder.
Pliny’s account of the two white bulls being used as a sacrifice during the mistletoe-cutting ritual also appears to be a misconception. There is no real evidence that the animals were sacrificed as part of this ritual although bulls have been slaughtered in connection with other festivals, such as Samhain. Whether the animals were indeed killed as part of the mistletoe ritual during the midwinter solstice celebration is probably unlikely. Pliny hints to us that the white bulls were sacrificed immediately afterwards, possibly using the sickle to slaughter them. This is also unlikely as sickles are not designed for butchery but for harvesting. The most likely conclusion was that after the ritual professional butchers would have killed the bulls and their meat and then used for the following midwinter feast.
Another possible misrepresentation is of the white robes worn by the Druids. We do not know exactly what they were wearing during such rituals, except for Pliny’s account. Emma Restall Orr, of The Druid Network, writes in her commentary on the classical image of a Druid: “in white robes, bearded, with ornate staff and golden sickle tucked into the belt… In fact, this image of the Druid in white is little more than two hundred years old, created during a period of revived interest in the tradition when one picture from the classical literature of two millennia ago was chosen from many: Pliny’s image of the Druid cutting mistletoe from the sacred oak. If Strabo had been used, the stereotype might be rather different, but his Druids – in red, adorned with gold – had not perhaps the dignity and nobility that was needed.”
Pliny’s account of the ‘golden sickle’ has led later Druid romanticists to develop sickle designs and images at odds with the archaeological finds and practicality. The shape became more like a crescent moon; more curved, more ornate, and less practical for the purpose it was originally designed for. Even so golden sickles are still inextricably associated with modern-day Druids and Pagans and they often form as much a part of their attire as the white robes do.
Copyright © Witcherman 2002/2019
First Published in Echoed Voices 2002