Druid Redux

I know I’ve talked about this book before.  I had cause to learn about the Druids again, and Peter Berresford Ellis’ book was handy.  I’m pretty sure I have Stuart Piggot’s book somewhere, but I haven’t seen it since the move, so I turned to Ellis again.  The first time I read him I was commuting and couldn’t take notes.  (My specialized form of research has its limitations.)  This time it took several days’ more reading, and doing so with more active engagement.  One thing that really stood out to me this time was the Indo-European connection.  Druids, according to Ellis, were essentially Brahmins—the intellectual class in a stratified society.  Having derived from a common ancestor, the two societies diverged with Brahmins surviving in India and Druids going extinct with the somewhat genocidal treatment of various other groups against the Celts.

Druids were egalitarian as far as the sexes went.  This is one of those examples where Christianity’s masculinist orientation furthered a trend that led to women being treated as inferior.  Evidence points to early female Druids, and even female political leadership among the Celts.  As the male godhead took over the remaining influence of women eventually evaporated.  The Druids, you see, were extremely focused on learning the truth.  Their pre-Christian judicial system was oriented toward fairness and finding out what really happened.  In other words, ethically they required no conversion.  That was a matter of theology, and theology often brings its own set of issues.  

The Romans, who’d had a long and protracted war against the Celts, drove them to the fringes of their empire.  Britain (and Brittany in France) were far enough removed from the base of power in Rome that the Celts survived in the edges of the islands: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland.  As a distinctive culture, Celts have been in fashion for some time now, but that’s a new development, historically speaking.  Ellis’ book explores this angle quite a bit since understanding the Celts is essential to comprehending who the Druids were.  The lack of native written accounts (Druids forbade writing their wisdom, passing it on by memorization over the centuries) hampers our ability to have a coherent history.  Ellis, however, seems to have reconstructed well.  Modern Druid revivals necessarily contain speculative elements, and historically the Druids wouldn’t have been perfect either—nobody is.  They do seem to have had a reasonable and just society for the most part, something we’ve managed to lose, along with much of their wisdom.

By Jove!

When Zeus is taken seriously in the New York Times, even the open minded scratch their heads. It’s not because any of us really believe Zeus is up their hurling thunderbolts, but because anyone would even dare raise the question. Yes, Gary Gutting’s Opinionator article is lighthearted and perhaps even a little cynical, but it does raise serious questions. Did our ancestors believe in the gods with no “proof”? I can’t help but think of the phenomenally expensive video, I Still Worship Zeus. There are, in this day of high technology and low tolerance for non-scientific outlooks, people who continue to believe in Zeus. Well, his name does come from the same root as the old Indo-European word that gives us the Latin Deus, or “God.” And, let’s face it, the stories of the Greek gods can be pretty cool (despite sub-par big screen renditions). But to take any of this seriously…Seriously?


As Gutting points out, some of the great minds of Greek science didn’t question the existence of Zeus. I certainly wouldn’t care to pit my puny wit against that of Plato. Those scientifically minded Greeks, apparently, believed in the gods because of their explanatory value. Too many coincidences and synchronicities and epiphanies suggest something more than meets the eye. We don’t see gods today, so Gutting asks how we know the world hasn’t changed. Now, I take uniformitarianism seriously. It is the basis for geology and much of evolution. Our old, old earth shows no evidence of a sudden change in the way things happen. What is malleable is human interpretation. As recently as a century ago, belief in some kind of divine world was very pervasive. Only in the past few decades—since World War Two, I would guess—has the premise of the Judeo-Christian god become suspect. The daily experience of living in a world where theodicy just can’t explain all the suffering has led us to a kind of stalemate with the gods.

I once had a scholarly exchange with a colleague over the nature of the word “evidence.” Our little tiff was published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. My colleague had suggested that Yahweh—the god of Israel—was considered a solar deity. I averred that evidence did not exist. With rejoinder and riposte, we had to agree to disagree. The evidence I was seeking was stringent, but as we all know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that is the point that Gutting makes, whether seriously or not. The question is not “Is Zeus there?” but “Was Zeus there?”. I decline to offer an opinion. I do applaud the New York Times, however, for attempting to get us thinking about serious issues once again. If Zeus did exist, then it behooves us to consider all the implications. And perhaps to reconsider home-owners’ insurance in a world where gods may roam at large.

Just Druid Again

It would be difficult to suggest an ancient class of people with greater New Age credibility than the druids. Although I spent three years among the Celts, I claim to have no special knowledge of the druids, and when I saw Peter Berresford Ellis’ book on the subject, I decided to learn more. Not really a straightforward history—not enough of the druidic culture survived in any material form for the writing of such a history—Ellis instead summarizes a complex gallimaufry of evidence and speculations into a reasonable facsimile of who the druids might have been. Ellis suggests that the druids were more a caste of society, rather like the Brahmin caste among Vedic culture. Should that seem far-fetched, it would be difficult to read A Brief History of the Druids without noticing the obvious connections between the cultures. The Celts, of which the druids are a subset, have their origins in eastern Europe rather than the usual supposition of a homeland over the sea in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. Connected to India via a common ancestral language, Indians and Celts both derive from the same Indo-European linguistic family tree.

Ellis’ book is so full of information that it is unwieldy at times, especially for those of us who find the formidable Gaelic names intimidating. Nevertheless, it is an excellent source for learning about the religion of the druids, insofar as it may be reconstructed. One of the most striking aspects of Celtic culture that emerges from the book is how it differed from the Roman culture that would come to dominate the western world. An obvious example is that Celtic society offered a much more enlightened place for female rights and leadership than would emerge along the Tiber. Another important difference was the Celtic antipathy to abuses of private property ownership. Gaelic bishops earned the ire of Rome by declaring that egalitarianism is the will of God. In the words of a fifth century Celtic bishop:

“Do you think yourself Christian if you oppress the poor?… if you enrich yourself by making others poor? If you wring your food from others’ tears? A Christian is [one] who… never allows a poor man to be oppressed when he is by… whose doors are open to all, whose table every poor man knows, whose food is offered to all.” Words a Perry or Bachmann might do well to read.

So noble were the druids in the eyes of eighteenth-century antiquarians that many suggested Abraham was the original druid and that the great figures of the Bible were part of the druidic heritage. The world, alas, has gone after Rome instead. Rather than druids we have CEOs and politicians worth a mint before they ever “swear” an oath of office. If the current Celtic revival brings back some powerful druids, perhaps the world might just become a more tolerable place.