Dedicant Path Week 4 – First Book….Draft Report

9 04 2013

So I know I said I’d do the report by next week but I managed to finish the book today and write the report too. So here’s my first draft….

Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

This book looks at the historical evidence for the ancient Druids in order to make the argument that they were the intellectual class of Celtic society. The author, a historian, looks at sources from across the ancient world including classical authors in Greece and Rome, Celtic (especially Irish) sources, archaeological evidence and the similarities with other Indo-European cultures. He brings all the evidence together to present a fascinating picture of what the historical Druids were really like and cuts away the myths that have built up around them, especially since the Druid Revival in the 17th Century.

The book begins by looking at the world of the Celts and their culture and goes on to describe how the Druids probably arose within the culture to become the intellectual caste of Celtic society. He then looks at what different authors in the ancient world said about the Druids and what the Celtic mythology suggested. Key to the authors argument is that many of the Roman and Greek sources should be treated with caution because they were written by people who were trying to conquer the Celts at the time and so were probably propaganda designed for this purpose. The most fascinating chapter is when he looks at the evidence for female Druids and the place of women in Celtic society. He very convincingly shows that they were quite progressive compared to what came later. After this there are chapters on the religion and rituals of the Druids explaining some of the details of their polytheism and showing some of the evidence for the rituals they did surrounding baptism, funerals and fire walking. He also shows how they maintained their authority through the use of “geis” prohibitions. He looks at the evidence for Druids performing human sacrifice and finds little to support the assertions made by the classical writers. After this is a very long chapter, almost a separate section of the book, in which he looks at the evidence for their schools and books, as well as each of the roles the Druids carried out – Philosophers, Judges, Historians, Poets/ Musicians, Doctors, Seers, Astronomers and Magicians. Finally he gives a history of the Druids after the coming of Christianity, explaining how they adapted to the new culture and religion, how traces of them survived throughout the medieval period e.g. as poets, and how the idea of the “Druid” was revived in the 17th century as a romantic reaction against the Enlightenment.

I found the book a fascinating read and it has opened my eyes to just how civilised, cultured and progressive the ancient Celts were. From their attempts at a limited form of democracy to their creation of a simplistic and local welfare system, from their equal treatment of women to their legal system based on compensation instead of revenge, they appear to be quite an advanced people. The author shows how the Druids were sophisticated in their art, poetry and music, religious and moral beliefs, legal system and medicine. His explanation of how the ideas of reincarnation and the Otherworld worked in Celtic society helped make things clearer in my mind and his information about the various members of the Celtic pantheon and how they fitted together coherently gave me a much better understanding of the gods for incorporating into my own Druid practices. His details about the centrality of “truth” to Druid teachings has shown me that it needs to be the central value in my own life.

There were a few things that surprised me in the book, including that the Celts invented soap, that they probably used Stonehenge and similar sites even if they didn’t actually build them, that the Druids used meditation (Dercad) and that they baptised people. However, I did not feel that he made some of his arguments particularly well. For example, his claim that Pliny made up the stories about Druids using forest groves – he doesn’t back this up with any evidence. And he does this to other statements put forward by classical authors without ever giving real reasons. In other places he doesn’t really make clear his own opinion or what he is arguing and seems to present both sides of the argument or just pose questions and this was frustrating. I would have liked to have seen more evidence for his assertion that the bards were part of the Druid class rather than separate as many classical authors had suggested, as well as more similarities between the Druids and the Brahmins to show the common Indo-European roots. Finally, I think he doesn’t really explain how the Druids are connected to nature or their role as natural scientists in any great detail which is a pity.

It wasn’t too difficult a book to understand, although I get put off reading the Celtic myths because of the strange and hard to pronounce names and I find my eyes glazing over when he mentions these names in the book. However, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who was interested in the ancient Celts or the Druids. The information is excellent, it’s well researched and, on the whole, well argued and it really opened my eyes and overcame some of my prejudices about this unique Iron age society. When there is so much incorrect information around regarding the Druids, this is a book that goes back to the evidence to clear the mists of time and give us a clearer understanding of the true role of Druids in the ancient Celtic world.

Dedicant Path Week 4 – First Book Started

8 04 2013

One of the requirements for the Dedicant Path is to read three books from a selected menu – one book on Indo European Culture, one book on a chosen hearth culture and one book on the history of Modern Paganism. The Sixth part of the ADF Dedicant Path “Through the Wheel of the Year” Supplement is to start reading the Indo-European Culture book, however I have already chosen my hearth culture as Celtic (probably Irish) and saw a copy of the book “A Brief History of the Druids” by Peter Berresford Ellis going cheap on Amazon so I bought two weeks ago and I’ve decided to do Hearth Culture first. I started reading that last week and I am now half way through it. We are not due to write a report on it till much later in the course but I can see myself finishing it this week so next week I will probably put up the report. I’m really enjoying “The Druids” and have learned a lot.  There are some really interesting and exciting ideas in there which I’ll explain more about next time.