The winter solstice powerfully connects us to our physical life on this planet so it is an auspicious time to contemplate trees, weather and light. My ancestors were Druids before they were Christians and The Druids, by Peter Berresford Ellis, takes a run at deconstructing what we believe and what we know about the early Celts and the Druid class. Because Druids avoided written records, much of what is accepted about them is imagined, hearsay or misinterpreted. Ellis has produced an accessible study without endless footnotes but with references to explore if you need academic corroboration.
The Romans wrote about the Druids they hoped to subsume and obliterate as they conquered Celtic strongholds. Roman accounts were not flattering—they painted Druids as cannibals, sorcerers and barbarians. In reality, Druids were the intellectuals of Celtic society, its judges, priests and leaders. Their culture was the most egalitarian of any in its time. Women were chattel in Greece, subservient to their husbands in Roman and completely free to own property, lead troops into battle, marry and divorce at will, serve as judiciary, priestesses and political chiefs in Celtic lands. Ellis has a section stuffed with examples of women Druids who were powerful and history-changing figures.
Druids were scientists and philosophers, in many instances possessed of far greater knowledge than Romans. Druid beliefs and practices were seen as a destabilizing influence on Roman hegemony. Druid physicians and astronomers were sophisticated and they were smart enough not to self-destruct under Roman oppression. Instead, they cloaked themselves in the imposed Christian beliefs and rituals, keeping to their practices under the guise of celebrating Roman festivals in place of Celtic ones. There is no evidence, aside from Roman assertion, that Druids ever embraced human sacrifice. Some Druids, apparently, converted to the new religion from Rome and became high officials in it, bishops and other clergy, as they had been in their own Druidic culture.
The Druids were poets and accomplished bards. What is left of their lyrical utterance remains in the vanishing Celtic languages, the last heritage to be suppressed by domineering cultures from Rome on through history. Ellis examines the resurgence of interest in Druidic practices by New Age groups and writers and is somewhat dismissive of its lack of rigor. But he does make the point that the obliteration of Celtic identity, the ground that nurtured Druidry, will be complete once the languages are stilled. Meanwhile, there are groups like the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, attempting to recapture the essence of Druidry through study, ritual and reinvention. Wiccan groups, witchcraft and pagans hark back to ancient Druidic truths and incorporate them into modern interpretations of earth- and magic-based spiritual systems. Druids, by being elusive and evanescent, are seductive elements of many new and old beliefs.
The Druids is not a Ph.D. dissertation and Ellis speculates where he finds only shreds of hard facts. The speculation is logical, for the most part, and the facts he does cite in support of his conclusions are fascinating. It’s a good book to launch an investigation of what is known—and what is fabricated—about Druids. A trip to New Grange, Stonehenge or Chalice Well would be a nice follow-up. I’ll have to keep reading to find some way to conjure those journeys in this concrete, consumer-mad, materialistic and fiscally-blasted world.
The Druids Peter Berresford Ellis | W. B. Eerdmans 1995