Anecdotally, if you ask anybody what a druid is, or what a druid does, many will say they are mythological shapeshifters that are tuned with nature.

Druids were, in fact, political advisors and figures of authority for Celts around the time of the Roman empire and beforehand.

I thought relationship came from the Church trying to label Druids as beasts, trying to downplay their role and religion. This is only partially accurate. I've found that the Romans, and the church more specifically, would label druids as magicians and practitioners of magic. However, there is no account of druids turning into animals.

When in history did it become widely accepted that Druids could shapeshift into animals?

Edit: My Research

Coir Anmann

As stated by user sempaiscuba♦, Laignech Fáelad is the only referenced shapeshifter in the book. The problem is that Laignech Fáelad is considered a legendary warrior. It is reasonable to assume that Laignech Fáelad would have not been a druid in this case because druids of the celts tended to be advisors and scholars. They would be involved in political discussions and perform sacrifices. It is important to note that he was a descendant of a tribe of werewolves that were related to the kings of Ossory. This tribe was present in eastern Ireland which would place them where the Celts would practice. It is reasonable to assume that this tribe would include druids and shamans. However, it is not a definitive answer that druids were shapeshifters.

Stack Overflow

There is a reference on https://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/112244/is-the-shapeshifting-druid-an-original-dd-invention asking if D&D invented druids transforming. The answer had priests originally as the shapeshifters. It was stated that, "Gary Gygax himself has stated that the druid was based on Caesar's description of druids in Commentarii de Bello Gallico (at least, according to James Maliszewski of Grognardia). That description did not involve shapeshifting, but it does draw the connection between D&D druids and Gaulish priests of that era." It is incorrect that Julius Caesar called the Celtish druids shapeshifters. A more accurate translation can be found at http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/druids.htm and says

"The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superin­tending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions. A large crowd of young men, who flock to them for schooling, hold the Druids in great respect. For they have opinions to give on almost all disputes involving tribes or individuals, and if any crime is committed, any murder done, or if there is contention about a will or the boundaries of some property, they are the people who investigate the matter and establish rewards and punishments. Any individual or community that refuses to abide by their decision is excluded from the sacrifices, which is held to be the most serious punishment possible. Those thus excommuni­cated are viewed as impious criminals, they are deserted by their friends and no one will visit them or talk to them to avoid the risk of contagion from them. They are deprived of all rights in court, and they forfeit all claim to honors.

There is one arch-druid of supreme power. On his death, he is succeeded either by someone outstanding among his fellows, or, if there are several of equal caliber, the decision is reached by a vote of all the Druids, and the election is sometimes managed by force. At a fixed time of year they assemble at a holy place in the territory of the Carnutes, which is thought to be the center of Gaul. Anyone with a grievance attends and obeys the decisions and judgments which the Druids give. The general view is that this religion originated in Britain and was imported into Gaul, which means that any keen student of Druidism now goes to Britain for information. . .

The whole Gallic nation is virtually a prey to superstition, and this makes the serious invalids or those engaged in battle or dangerous exploits sacrifice men instead of animals. They even vow to immolate themselves, using the Druids as their ministers for this purpose. They feel that the spirit of the gods cannot be appeased unless a man's life is given for a life. Public sacrifices of the same sort are common. Another practice is to make images of enormous size, with the limbs woven from osiers [willows]. Living human beings are fitted into these, and, when they are set on fire, the men are engulfed in the flames and perish. The general feeling is that the immortal gods are better pleased with the sacrifice of those caught in theft, robbery or some other crime. But if a supply of such criminals is lacking, then they resort to the sacrifice of completely innocent victims. . . "

TL;DR: Julius Caesar was calling the Celtish people superstitious, and detailing their rituals.

There is a source http://druidsegg.reformed-druids.org/newslughnasadh10-16.htm that details Celtish myths of turning people into animals for various reasons. The source itself is by no means scholarly, but it does include scholarly references that do corroborate what the article is saying.

Indeed, there are many myths of the Celts that suggests that people are turned into animals for a variety of reasons.

A Catholic Encyclopedia, suggests that the Romans, and leadership of the church, feared the druids after they were assimilated into Roman culture. It is stated that it was common knowledge that druids were wielders of magic and able to cast spells.

I have theorized that the church suggested that druids could shapeshift into animals due to the druids affinity to magic and the myths that were already present in Celtish mythology. I cannot find a time period where this would have occurred, and cannot find any scholarly references that would back up or dispute this theory. Hence the question.

  • 6
    Hi Tyler, and welcome to History:SE. I don't think I've ever heard anyone refer to druids as shape-shifters (apart from D&D gamers). Can you link to any historical source that makes that link? Aug 28, 2018 at 17:40
  • Interesting. I've read a translation of the Coir Anmann. I hadn't realised that Laignech Faelad (the only shape-shifter I remember from the text, and supposed ancestor of the Princes of Ossory) was also a druid. Aug 28, 2018 at 18:08
  • 2
    Interesting question, but I see no evidence presented for your claim that druids ever "became widely accepted as shapeshifters (prior to Gary Gygax)?. In contrast, all accounts seem to describe them as an all-encompassing intellectual elite much more than a mere priestly caste. If you were to rephrase your question along this line I could up-vote it. Aug 29, 2018 at 11:19
  • Would you suggest changing it to first known rather than widely known? Aug 29, 2018 at 14:03
  • Dungeons and dragons ain't history - maybe you should be asking this question on science fiction and fantasy.SE - if they have one. Aug 29, 2018 at 23:48

1 Answer 1


Druids became widely known as shapeshifters in the late 20th to early 21st century due to Dungeons & Dragons. There is no prior instance of this (and we all know how hard it is to prove a negative).

In today's culture, druids are widely seen as shapeshifters since this is what they can do in D&D and D&D is a major influence on many fantasy media, be it books, movies or games. A lot of media followed the D&D model and over time the modern image of the druid as a fantasy character class is now what most people associate with the term instead of their historical role. I'd like to highlight World of Warcraft here, a game with millions of players all seeing druids as a shapeshifting mage.

What could have inspired the D&D creators to give shapeshifting abilities to druids?

1) Shapeshifting has been a part of nearly every mythology known to mankind, implementing something like this in the game was to be expected.

2) Druids closeness to nature. While there is no evidence about this for the ancient druids, modern druidry developed beginning in the 18th century holds a high regard for the natural world.

In the late 18th century, modern Druids developed fraternal organizations modeled on Freemasonry that employed the romantic figure of the British Druids and Bards as symbols of indigenous British spirituality. Some of these groups were purely fraternal and cultural, creating traditions from the national imagination of Britain. Others, in the early 20th century, merged with contemporary movements such as the physical culture movement and naturism.

Modern interpretation of Druidism

Within Druidry, Nature is considered to be unconditionally sacred and an expression or manifestation of deity and divinity.

This movement is the most likely source for the modern interpretation of druids being nature-loving and in tune with nature.

Those two points combined, make an easy connection of druids being able to shapeshift into animals. Their closeness to nature allows them to do this magic in the fantasy setting.

Finally, there is also Merlin. Merlin is a wizard in the Arthurian Legend. It is easy to portray him as a druid. There are several stories, where he shapeshifts, e.g. a 13th century poem by Robert de Boron. Taking inspiration from that is also a possibility.

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