In Search of the Druids

I think the first time I heard about the druids was when I first encountered the Stonehenge in one of the Reader’s Digest books.

Stonehenge_DistanceAs is usual with Reader’s Digest, the article was filled with all kinds of pseudo-scientific balderdash that is the trademark of that group of publications: but my gullible preteen self swallowed it whole – about strange rituals and esoteric ceremonies conducted during the equinoxes and solstices, and the group of mysterious individuals who presided over them. The article hinted that these pagans knew secrets about the universe which we were not privy to, and I was thrilled – because it was similar to what many Indians believed about our ancient sages called rishis.

The first druid I encountered in person was Getafix, the venerable old gentleman who inhabits the village of Asterix and Obelix in Gaul. He cuts mistletoe at the time of the full moon with a golden sickle to use in his potions and has regular meetings with fellow druids in the Forest of the Carnutes. He brews a magic potion which gives superhuman strength to the Gauls – and thus, is a thorn in the side of Julius Caesar who is trying to subdue the whole of Gaul.

Well, most of the things mentioned above (except for the bit about the magic potion) is true, it seems. However, things are not as clear cut as one would think when it comes to druids. Quite a lot is lost in the mists of antiquity.

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In Druids: A Very Short Introduction, Barry Cunliffe gives us a very brief tour through the realm of the druids, in time and space. The actual historical data available is very meagre: They have left behind no written records, and the only two people who have written about them, who we can assume with reasonable certainty had personal contact, are the stoic philosopher Posidonius and of course, Julius Caesar. Posidonius’s works are now lost, and we know him only at second hand now – but being a stoic, it is quite possible that he romanticised the druids as “noble savages”. By the same logic, Caesar may have purposefully demonised them, as savages with “altars steeped in human blood”, to be brought under the civilised control of Rome.

Getafix_brewingFrom archaeological evidence, we can know of the pagan Celts as a people who inhabited Western Europe and the British Isles. It seems that they worshipped the sky, the earth and water, as evidenced by the various burial mounds containing sacred objects – as well as some sacrificial victims consigned to bogs and water bodies. Corpses were both cremated and buried, and the head has been “singled out for special treatment”, as the skulls ritually preserved in many instances eloquently demonstrate. It seems that they were experts in gauging the seasons and time, and the lunar calendar played a special role in their rituals. Since they left behind no narrative art (except possibly for the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, most of what we envision about pagans is educated conjecture.

So we have to fall back on the tales of the people who encountered the druids to piece together their picture. There are three traditions which mention them:

  1. The Greek Tradition
  2. The Late Republican Tradition
  3. The Imperial Tradition

The Greeks’ interaction with the barbarian tribes of Western Europe was by and large prompted by trade and largely peaceful. It seems that the Greeks had real respect for the druids – our popular image of white-bearded wise men stem most probably from the Greek accounts, according to which they were wise philosophers who believed in the transference of the soul, and studied astronomy and nature.

An_Arch_Druid_in_His_Judicial_Habit

An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit” – aquatint by S. R. Meyrick and C. H. Smith which popularised the image of the druid

The Late Republican Tradition (to which Posidonius belongs), as we saw earlier, was rather partial towards the druids: but his Histories, quoted by other writers such as Strabo, gives us a detailed insight into Celtic society. Strabo says there are three classes of men comprising the elite: the Bards (singers and poets), the Vates (interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers) and the Druids (the moral philosophers).

(I feel that the Vates were the pagan equivalent of ordinary Brahmin priests in India, while the Druids were the equivalent of the ascetic rishis. However, it’s a personal interpretation.)

Julius Caesar, who opined that druids were originally from the British Isles, does not divide the class of wise men into functional categories – for him, there are only two privileged classes in Celtic society, the Knights and the Druids (again, roughly corresponding to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of Vedic society). He acknowledges the power of the druids, who can excommunicate whole communities and make it impossible for them to live; it seems that they kept education to themselves, initiating only the select few into their ranks. His main concern, however, is that the druids are a pan-national brotherhood ruled by an Archdruid who has control cutting across tribal boundaries.

Caesar goes on to demonise the druids with the description of their horrific sacrifices, including the notorious wicker man, where sacrificial victims are placed into a huge wicker effigy and burnt en masse.

Caesar was victorious in crushing all pagan revolts and bringing the whole of Gaul under his control – but the Celts survived in Ireland, until they were assimilated into Christianity through a slow process, spanning centuries.

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Wicker_man_(Britannia_antiqua_illustrata)

Famous illustration of “The Wicker Man” by Aylet Sammes

Pagan religion has had its renaissance in Britain and mainland Europe since the Seventeenth Century onward, with romantics seeing it as the “natural” heritage of Europe (in contrast to Christianity which is a foreign import). Based on this, a lot of romantic ideas have sprung about the druids which, according to the author, is more fit for the realm of fairy tale than history. After its heyday in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, Druidical Religion seems to have faded into the background as just another faith. However, its innate earthiness and strong ties to nature may be just what the doctor ordered for a planet which is moving inexorably towards ecological disaster – provided it also does not pick up the aggression of many of today’s main belief systems.

This book is a very concise introduction to a vast subject. It is highly readable (as most of the books in this series are) and manages to hold the reader’s interest. But if you are looking for an in-depth study of the druidical religion, this may not be the place to come to. This is only a springboard.

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