Druids. You really don't know what you think you know.
“The Druids may well have been the most prominent magico-religious specialists of some of the peoples of north-western Europe just over a couple of thousand years ago; and that is all we can say of them with reasonable certainty. They left no accounts of their beliefs and practices, and so our impressions of them depend ultimately on images produced in other cultures or at later periods. These images are the foundation of all that follows in this book; the basic material from which later concepts of Druidry were constructed. They are vivid and compelling, which is why their effect has been so enduring. They are also, without exception, problematic, controversial and possibly fallacious, and there is no sure way out of the problems that they present to a historian.”
And so begins the wonderful scholarly look into what people have created for a history of the Druids. Professor Ronald Hutton, a Reader in history at the University of Bristol, is one of the leading scholars with a particular angle on Pagan Britain and has written volumes on the subject, with much more rigour than the subject has ever been afforded previously.
It is no wonder that people desperately want to believe in magic and Druids and a pre-Christian religion. We humans are a superstitious lot, ever looking for the mysterious and the hidden. I suppose you could call us curious, too. Except for the most part, people come to a conclusion they want to see – and leave it at that. I believe it is called confirmation bias and unfortunately it is rife in the deepness of time.
I will personally never understand why people hear one thing about a subject and simply leave it alone, as if that were the perfect fact and it could never be countered. But time and time again that is precisely what happens. It is why the prevailing (and wrong) ideas about Druids and pre-Christian religious ideas in Britain and Northern Europe have such a hold I suppose. It is fanciful, mystical and magical and totally invented. I suppose most people just simply don’t care if it’s false. It’s a good rip-roaring story and so, that suffices.
But that’s never been me. I think I did believe it twenty years ago when I first began reading about ancient European history and history of Ireland, the Celts and Britain. But as time goes on and new archaeology surfaces and new studies surface and thanks to Ronald Hutton (and others) a new scholarly light has been shone on the subject, well, new facts are now upon us. I cannot explain my appreciation for the skepticism Professor Hutton attends to his work. It has changed what we understand about the ancient British people in every way possible.
Having discovered that the “sources” (if you can call them that truly, but I digress) of where every bit of our understanding of the Druids comes from number a dozen pages only and none of them, I repeat, none of them are contemporary accounts, I have to say my own personal skepticism was satisfied.
Yes, it’s a blow to realize that everything that’s been invented in the last two centuries was bollocks, but isn’t the light of truth a better pill? Aren’t we tried of archaeologists just making stuff up and “interpreting” with high concept ideas? None of it has borne out through a lens of scholarly attention. In all honesty, it has just never really been done. The flimsy dozen pages where the word “Druid” and some random writing appears and that has been used as “sources” for centuries has just been accepted as complete fact and perfect truth. When attacked with actual rigour, however, it falls apart.
I understand that for most people, it is irrelevant. The facts (or no facts) surrounding the Druids of prehistory makes no difference to anyone except perhaps practitioners of neo-Paganism. I feel a bit sorry for those members but it really is not to them that I speak.
In the very first chapter of Blood & Mistletoe, by Professor Hutton, he describes in great detail the problems with each element of each “source” used to research the Druids of prehistory.
“Their very scarcity has lent them an additional importance and prominence. As they are to feature repeatedly throughout the rest of this book, it is necessary to summarize them in chronological order and to point out the problems of each as evidence. Such an enterprise may seem an obvious one, yet it has rarely been undertaken. The passages concerned are, to scholars of Iron Age and Roman Britain, among the most familiar and frequently quoted in ancient literature. For the most part, however, they have been lifted from their original texts and then submitted to analysis by comparison with each other and with relevant data provided by archaeology and medieval Irish sources. There has been little attempt, especially in recent years, to look at each in the context of the work that contained it, and in the light of what experts in Greek and Roman culture currently think of the authors concerned. Without such an attempt, however, no real appraisal of their value can be made.”
It is worth reading the introduction at the very least, to get the full exegesis of every single source that has been used to create the history of the prehistoric Druids. Hutton goes on for fifty pages detailing, with careful attention and resource, on precisely how each source has been found, what was in it, how it was recorded in history and how it has been summarily interpreted and the problems that crop up therein.
What Caesar wrote about the Druids is everyone’s favorite source. It has been quoted and believed for centuries. There are very large problems with it, however, and all of these gaping holes are pursued avidly by Hutton in the introduction.
Caesar does make one single account of the Druids, in one brief survey. This appeared in a compilation of his Conquest of Gaul, collected from all his writings from the battlefront. As was popular at the time, geographers wrote about the history of places they visited (or more often, heard of) and Caesar wrote in this style about Gaul while he was in the process of conquering it and the brief account of the Druids appears in that.
It is amazing to me how easy it is to pierce holes in these sources when given the merest and most tender prodding of a scholastic poker.
Peter Beresford Ellis, in his excellent book A Brief History the Druids quite aptly summarizes;
“The sad fact remains that no Greek or Latin writer composed a work solely on the Druids or was completely explicit as to their position in all Celtic societies. Or, rather, no such work has survived for us to examine. But one point cannot be impressed too many times. No classical writer ever referred to the Druids as priests, nor is Druidism depicted as a religion.”
These prehistoric people and their beliefs are lost to us. Oral tradition being to blame. The Celts certainly could write – they wrote in Greek of their every day dealings and contracts. But of their mysteries nothing remains with solid evidence.
After doing this research and reading many tomes a growing seed of an idea began in my deeper meanderings. I wanted to know where their oral stories ended up. The lore and beliefs could not have died out it just transferred. My mind went to the folklore, so rich and abundant in the British Isles. It has to be left over. And indeed in my first nascent steps into researching this idea I found that I was not alone in my thought. There have been a few others with a need to dig deeper and find out where this hidden knowledge dispersed. Very few others indeed :) Who has these kind of ponderings but the most specific and niche thinkers? No one cares about Folklore except folklorists – but they’re out there. Once you begin learning about what Folklore is to a culture and to its history, a true understanding begins to appear. There is nothing more elemental than a people’s folklore. And British and Irish folklore is some of the richest the world over.
That is where my sights have led me and where my thoughts dwell. The ancients speak through crevices and cracks, some of which (very very little in fact) have squeezed and traipsed their way even through the barrier of Christianity. It can be found, if looked for.
So while we do not know, and probably never will really know for a fact what the Druids and prehistoric people of Britain and Ireland and parts of northern Europe believed, we can be assured that there are at least glimpses in the tales and rituals of the passing year.
To this my endeavor focuses. I bend my will toward the finding. More to come.