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The Dungeons & Dragons druids have been largely defined by their ability to change into an animal form in every edition, e.g. through the Wild Shape ability in Dungeons & Dragons 5e.

Is the druid's role as a shapeshifter powered by nature an original creation of D&D, or is this trope borrowed from an earlier source?

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Druids have been shapeshifters from the beginning

The D&D Druid ability to shapechange showed up originally in their first appearance in the game, as a monster in the Greyhawk supplement for original D&D. At that time, they were known as "priests of a neutral-type religion", had both cleric and magic-user spellcasting, and had "barbaric followers". "Powered by nature" does not appear to have been included at that time. They were later added as a class in Eldritch Wizardry, where the connection to nature was made more clear.

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.

Near-contemporary to Caeser's work, Pomponius Mela, writing De situ orbis libri III in AD 43 or so describes a group of female priests of a Gaulish god. "They call them Gallizenae, and they believe them to be endowed with extraordinary gifts to rouse the sea and the wind by their incantations, to turn themselves into whatsoever animal form they may choose, to cure diseases which among others are incurable, to know what is to come and to foretell it." As those were likewise priests of Gaul, they'd also have qualified as druids.

We can't know for absolute certain that the D&D shapeshifting druid was inspired by any other source, but we can at least be quite sure that they weren't the first to come up with the idea.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 25 '17 at 3:56
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Historically, the word druid generally refers to Celtic religious figures, but most of our legends around druids come through Roman conquerors and Greek historians who studied them. Most of the original legends were transmitted orally and corrupted (sometimes deliberately) by the Greeks and Romans who wrote about them. Exceptionally little of the original myths survives because the Celts of that period did not place a heavy emphasis on writing and much of what little was written by first party sources was destroyed. The word itself entered English from Latin. (Yes, there are some later historical Irish myths that grew up around druids, but many of those formed after the Romans largely exterminated the original druids and suppressed much of the oral history that the druids themselves were largely responsible for transmitting.)

With that noted, some historical legends do associate druids, or at least groups associated with druids with shapeshifting. The Gallizenae, which are arguably a specific group of druids, were associated with shapeshifting. Some Irish myths, which largely were developed after the original historical druids around which the myths grew had been effectively exterminated, discuss druids turning both themselves and others into animals. While animal transformations definitely appear in the old stories, druids were more associated with augury and were strongly associated with advisory positions. They were also strongly associated with Bards, in the old pre-D&D meaning of that word where they were associated with poetry, storytelling and entertainment, but also with the spreading of news.

If we look at modern literature, The Iron Druid Chronicles centers on druids and shapeshifting is one of their canonical powers. While this was written after the early versions of D&D and thus could not have possibly inspired them, Kevin Herne takes pains to reflect what is known of the original Celtic myths.

Now, for the direct connection to what inspired the designers of D&D, I have not found an interview that discusses it. However, it is likely they were inspired by the old myths or the Roman and Greek corruptions of them in which animal transformation did feature. I think it is safe to assume that later fictional appearances of druids, with certain exceptions for authors like Kevin Herne that do extensive historical research, are often largely inspired by D&D, which has now successfully suffused the culture.

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No, it isn't.

The idea of shapeshifting druids existed before D&D. According to Wikipedia:

  1. Shapeshifting is a well-known trope in folklore, including Celtic mythology, which druidic legends came from:

    The idea of shapeshifting is present in the oldest forms of totemism and shamanism, as well as the oldest extant literature and epic poems, including works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, where the shapeshifting is usually induced by the act of a deity. The idea persisted through the Middle Ages, where the agency causing shapeshifting is usually a sorcerer or witch, and into the modern period.

  2. Merlin the wizard has druidical characteristics:

    early references to Merlin describe him as possessing characteristics which modern scholarship (but not that of the time the sources were written) would recognize as druidical

    He also was a shapeshifter according to some medieval sources:

    Robert de Boron lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift

  3. Druids had "assorted mystical abilities" in Irish folklore:

    Druids also play a prominent role in Irish Folklore, generally serving lords and kings as high ranking priest-counselors with the gift of prophecy and other assorted mystical abilities

    including shapeshifting:

    Ulster cycle

    This cycle is, in some respects, close to the mythological cycle. Some of the characters from the latter reappear, and the same sort of shape-shifting magic is much in evidence, side by side with a grim, almost callous realism.

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At the time, it was the Riddlemaster Trilogy by Patricia McKillip that best defined the Druid's shapeshifting ability for us -- though I don't recall mention of the word "Druid" in those novels. Interestingly, it came out the same year as did Eldritch Wizardry, in which D&D's first PC Druid appeared. So not exactly an earlier source itself, but possibly suggestive of a common earlier source from which both originate. Either way, the trilogy is an excellent read for shapeshifting tropes.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Was that before or after "The Forgotten Beasts of Eld" was published? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 16 '18 at 17:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ After! The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is from 1974, a year or two prior. It's my favorite book of McKillip's, but doesn't contain anything regarding shapechanging magic, as far as I recall. \$\endgroup\$ – user29876 Oct 17 '18 at 17:41

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