Druids: A Very Short Introduction by Barry Cunliffe

Book Review by Ursus

The Druids. Priests of a savage race who delighted in human sacrifice? Or wise men in white robes who communed with nature? These are the usual two views of Druidism served to the public; the first based on a Roman stereotype and the latter a Romantic reinvention. Somewhere between these extreme views lies a historical truth. Barry Cunliffe offers a concise overview of Druidism - both the historical and the invented.

The Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press lives up to its name. It does offer you, in fact, a rather brief outline of topics ranging from art history to particle physics. These works seem to span approximately 80 to 150 pages. They are small in size and can be easily toted around. They are inexpensive to buy. All the examples I have seen contain a further reading list, an index, a token amount of photographs and illustrations - but no footnotes. The covers are quite unattractive; they look like someone vomited an Expressionist painting. That aside, the three entries I read in the history section were useful, and I may use the series to explore topics outside of history.

Barry Cunliffe is among the world's most renowned archaeologists on the Celtic world. He is Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University, and was a Trustee of the British Museum. He has written numerous books on the Celts. Among them was an entry on the Celts in the Very Short Introduction series, which is honestly meant to be read as a prologue to this work. However, those with some basic knowledge of the Celts, either from Cunliffe's other works or from another respected scholar like Simon James, will be easily able to follow this entry on the Druids.

Cunliffe begins with a prologue. The Celtic legacy is thought to have begun with Halstatt culture in Central Europe c. 6th century BCE, which proceeded to the Le Tene culture of the late Iron Age. Cunliffe, however, theorizes the Celts may have had their antecedents in the Atlantic fringes of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. Those Atlantic communities were linked together via an extensive trading network thanks to the ocean. The hallmarks of those communities - reverence for ancestors complete with deposits of grave goods, communal rites and monuments, a reverence for nature, an advanced seasonal calendar - were also markers of Celtic society. The knowledge needed for these activities would have been exercised by religious specialists, whom Cunliffe sees as the predecessors to Druids. To lend credence to this theory, there is the tantalizing quote from Caesar that Druidism began in Britain. This is an intriguing hypothesis, but Cunliffe himself admits it cannot be proven.

The classic age of the Druids begins with the Greek trading colony of Massalia in southern Gaul. A Massalian resident named Pytheas took a tour of northwest Europe and wrote a book about it. His work no longer survives, but was quoted extensively in other works. Indeed, it is possible that most Mediterranean sources on the Druids are a rehash of Pytheas.

Pytheas and the succeeding Greeks that commented on the Druids were generally friendly. The Druids, they said, were philosophers of nature and morality, and their doctrine was similar to that of Pythagoras. Many of these Greek commentators were themselves of a philosophical bend, and were emphasizing those aspects of the Druids which they understood and supported. In the Greek mind, then, the Druids were thus the philosopher elite of the Celtic "noble savage."

This friendly, if condescending, support of Druidry ended when the Mediterranean's relationship with the Celts changed from one of trade to warfare. The next major source on the Celts - Caesar's account of his war in Gaul - is of course not free of hostility and propaganda. Tales of human sacrifice abound, and while there probably is some truth to it, Caesar's account seems overstated. But there is little need to doubt the main thrust of Caesar’s observations: the Druids were a pan-Celtic brotherhood exercising religious and judicial authority across tribal boundaries. It was this extra-tribal source of unity and identity that proved a threat to Romanization, and which would manifest as a concerted repression of Druidism under the emperor Claudius.

Caesar's comment that the only two groups that mattered in Gaul - the Knights and the Druids - are not supported by other commentators. Strabo, writing later than Caesar, claims the intellectual elite of the Celts were divided among three classes: the Bards were singers and poets, the Ovates were augers, while the Druids were philosophers and judges. This trinitarian distinction corresponds nicely to the Irish classes of baird, filid and druid. However, the three classes in Ireland were breaking down and blending in with each other by the time they became known to history. Perhaps the same was true of Gaul in Caesar's time.

Speaking of the Irish, Cunliffe next examines the vernacular literature of the Emerald Isle. This literature was a long oral tradition recorded by monks after Conversion, who inserted both classical and Christian overlays on the pagan characters and themes. However, Cunliffe sees much in those tales that still speak of pre-Christian mores. There were Druids in Ireland and they furnished much the same services as they did in Gaul. But once Christianity triumphed the Druid became regarded as little more than a witch doctor and magician (but Druidic rituals were still being observed as late as the 12th century).

Finally, Cunliffe looks at neodruidy. In the age of nationalism, "Celtomania" swept Britain and France. Visions of the Celts were influenced by bad scholarship and Romantic imagination. In Britain, upper classes formed Masonic type lodges where men dressed up in white robes and fake beards (resembling Old Testament Patriarchs more than Druids). Winston Churchill was famously a member of one of these lodges. In more modern times, the New Age crowd has recast Druidry as a kind of peaceful nature worship in tandem with the environmental movement.

This is indeed a short book, but it is written by one of the leading experts in the field. Given the paucity of hard information on the subject, I am not sure if Cunliffe says anything here that isn't said anywhere else in the field of scholarship. But what Cunliffe says here, he says well. This is an inexpensive and informative overview of the subject designed for those who want a crash course on the mysterious religious officials of the Celts and their modern reinterpretations.

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