Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)
Chapter 1. The Druids in time and space
Every midsummer solstice hundreds of ‘Druids’ flock to Stonehenge in the middle of Salisbury Plain to celebrate the midsummer sunrise. For them, and indeed for the many others who visit just to enjoy the occasion, it is a moment to feel the timelessness of being - it gives the reassurance of stability in a frightening, ever-changing world and the sense of being part of a community whose roots go deep into prehistory. It is a place to contemplate the profound rhythms of time. Perhaps it has always been thus.
More recently, those who regard themselves to be Druids have extended their claim to the past. One group has stated its belief that the bones of a young woman, buried near Avebury some 4,000 years ago, are those of a tribal ancestor and has demanded that they should be returned to them for burial. Even the more moderate Council of British Druid Orders (COBDO) states that: ‘It is the policy of the Council of British Druid Orders that the sacred remains of our brothers and sisters should be returned to the living landscape from which they were taken.’
To most archaeologists and scientists this is a nonsense. The debris of the past, be it flint tools, potsherds, or human skeletons, is valuable, indeed unique, evidence that can be made to tell a story of our prehistory and should be curated for future generations to continue to study using new techniques as they become available. Many would argue that the modern Druids are a complete reinvention with no legitimacy - a confection dreamed up by fertile imaginations to gratify personal needs. At best, they are an eccentricity to be tolerated; at worst, a threat to rationality to be challenged.
The Druids have been written and talked about probably since well before 300 BC. Each generation has taken a view and through the vagaries of time scraps of these opinions have come down to us, allowing the fascination of picking through the morass of observations, polemics, distortions, and wishful thinkings, in the hope of arriving at a narrative of druidism as objective as the data will allow. The texts mentioning Druids are drawn from wide tracts of territory over long spans of time. To stitch together a mention in a Classical Greek source with a Welsh Tudor document in order to create a vision of ‘the Druid’ is an obvious nonsense - discontinuity and change caused by time and space must be taken into account.
Standing back from the detail - with which we will engage later - the documentary evidence available to us can be divided into three broad clusters. First, there are the observations made by Greeks and Romans, and selectively repeated in later texts. The earliest of these may date to the 4th century BC, the latest to the 7th century AD. What survives is only a tiny fragment of what must originally have been written. Then we have the vivid tales and myths of the Irish and Welsh vernacular literature - essentially a deeply rooted oral tradition that was eventually committed to written text between the 8th and 11th centuries AD by Christian clerics. Oral traditions change over time with the telling, and Christian scribes were not averse to editing and interpolation. Finally, after a period of silence, comes the rediscovery of the past as Classical texts are identified in monastic libraries and published, and the search begins for national origins. By the 17th century, Druids are frequently mentioned, and in the 18th century the notion of the ancient priesthood, intermixed with myths about the Celts, is avidly romanticized as the process of reinvention gets under way. Since our concern in this book is with the real Druids, we will necessarily concentrate on the Classical and vernacular sources. The reinvented Druids, created Frankenstein-like from a few scraps of real data and a great deal of imagination, fascinating though they are as a phenomenon reflecting human needs and susceptibilities, will be touched on rather more briefly in the concluding chapters.
So who were the Druids? The Classical texts ascribe to them a formidable variety of functions: they were philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of communal wisdoms about the natural world and the traditions of the people, and the mediators between humans and the gods. According to Julius Caesar, ‘The Druids are in charge of religion. They have control over public and private sacrifices and give rulings on all religious questions’ (BG VI.13). Yet, curiously, they are never referred to directly as priests (sacerdos). In later texts and the vernacular literature, they appear more as mystics and magicians. Given the range of attributes, it is probably best to regard them as a caste of intellectuals. Caesar’s famous generalization, that in Gaul there are only two classes of men who are of any account or importance - the Druids and the Knights - puts them on a par with the tribal elite.
The territorial extent of druidism is not easy to define. The Classical texts tell of Druids only in Gaul (France) and in Britain, while the vernacular sources make it clear that Druids were also to be found in Ireland. Strictly, then, druidism is to be seen as a phenomenon restricted to the northern part of Atlantic Europe. However, the absence of reference to Druids in other parts of Europe does not necessarily imply that they were not more widespread. Indeed, some writers have assumed that Druids were coterminous with the Celts of the La Tène period (after c. 450 BC) and that the caste spread with the migration of Celtic communities into the Po valley, the Carpathian Basin, Transylvania, and along the Danube into the Balkans, and eventually, in the 3rd century, into Anatolia. In support of this is often quoted the place-name Drunemeton where the Council of the Galatians met in central Anatolia. The name may roughly be translated as the ‘sanctuary in the oak grove’ and belongs to the group of ‘nemeton’ place-names found across the Celtic world signifying a sacred place. While this could allow that Druids served the Celtic immigrants in Anatolia, it does not imply that they did. There is no need to suppose that this highly specialist caste of wise men (assuming they were in existence at this time) chose to migrate with the mobile factions of the community who moved out of their western European homeland in the 5th century. A sacred place suggests the presence of priests but not necessarily Druids.
If, then, we take the cautious view in locating the Druids in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, the question arises where and when did druidism arise? Julius Caesar is quite explicit:
It is thought that the doctrine of the Druids was invented in Britain and was brought from there to Gaul; even today those who want to study the doctrine in greater detail usually go to Britain to learn there.
Since there was no particular propaganda value in this statement, we may accept that Caesar was directly quoting either what he had been told by Gaulish informants or had read in a source no longer extant. How valid this belief was it is impossible to say but there is no reason why it should not have been true. We will return to this matter again below, in Chapter 2. On the question of when druidism emerged, there is little that can safely be said. There are reasons to suggest that Druids existed in the 4th century BC (see Chapter 4) and it could be argued, as we shall endeavour to do later, that the caste has its roots deep in prehistory, possibly as far back as the 2nd millennium. There is no reason at all to assume that druidism was solely a feature of the La Tène Iron Age.
How, then, do we know about the Druids? The earliest sources are Classical writers living in the Mediterranean region who chose to write about the barbarian peoples of western Europe. Principal among them are Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), Diodorus Siculus (late 1st century BC to early 1st century AD), Strabo (c. 63 BC to AD 21 + ), Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), Tacitus (AD 55-120), Athenaeus (fl. c. AD 200), and a number of Greeks who, in the first few centuries AD, were compiling encyclopaedic works using an array of texts available to them in the libraries of Alexandria. The intriguing problem is that, with the partial exception of Julius Caesar, all were using second-hand sources whose authors had probably never encountered the Druids for themselves. Their quotations are partial, selected, and are coloured to suit the viewpoint of the author and the prejudices of the time. Thus they need careful handling. It is necessary to identify the original sources and to assess the processes of transmission. We must also try to understand how druidism changed over time and how the Classical perception of the Druids changed. We are dealing with highly dynamic processes of change, the only clues to which are the surviving words of a few Greek and Roman writers.
It is quite conceivable that the number of original sources - that is, people who actually observed Druids - was very small. Julius Caesar is certainly one. He was present in Gaul subduing its inhabitants from 58 to 51 BC and made two brief expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC. During this time, he had ample opportunity to observe the Gauls and Britons and, while he may have had access to earlier accounts, it is likely that his famous account of the Druids in his war commentaries, De Bello Gallico VI.13, was based, in some part at least, on his actual first-hand experiences. One of the Gauls he befriended, Divitiacus, was himself a Druid.
Two broadly contemporary writers, Strabo and Diodorus, together with the 2nd-century AD writer Athenaeus, used an earlier text that is generally agreed to be the lost works of Posidonius (c. 135-c. 50 BC), a Stoic philosopher born in Apamea in Syria. Posidonius travelled widely in the western Mediterranean including coastal Gaul to collect information first hand for his great work Histories, published in the early 1st century BC. Histories no longer survives in its original form but was widely quoted and seems to have been the major source from which Diodorus Siculus and Strabo obtained their information on the Celts and the Druids. Athenaeus also used the work, and some have argued that Caesar may have augmented his first-hand knowledge with details derived from Posidonius.
The communities with whom Posidonius would have come into contact in his travels in southern Gaul in the early decades of the 1st century BC had been exposed to the influence of the many Greek cities which developed around the shores of the Golfe du Lion following the foundation of the first colony of Massalia (Marseilles) around 600 BC. They had also experienced the movement of the Roman armies, marching to and fro across their territory to the wars in Iberia throughout much of the 2nd century BC. Finally, in 123 BC, the Roman armies moved in to take possession of the whole coastal region and the lower valley of the Rhône, creating what was to become the Roman province of Gallia Transalpina. Unless Posidonius had managed to penetrate far inland, the Gauls he encountered are those most likely to have been influenced by their long exposure to Mediterranean culture. Posidonius, clearly an acute observer, was well aware that he was seeing a people in a state of transformation. This sense of change is made explicit when in one description of Celtic behaviour (quoted by Strabo) he uses the phrase ‘and in former times’ to preface his account.
The Posidonian tradition was clearly influential in late 1st-century BC accounts of Celts and Druids, but once the Roman armies had taken control of Gaul during Caesar’s campaigns in the 50s, and 90 years later had spread through much of Britain following the Claudian invasion of AD 43, many Romans - soldiers, administrators, and traders - would have had the opportunity to have come face to face with Druids, should they have so chosen. We have already suggested that Caesar’s account of Druids is likely to have been largely based on his first-hand experiences, and we know that one Gaulish Druid, Divitiacus, visited Rome and had conversations with Cicero. A century later, the Roman armies fighting their way across Britain faced resistance led by Druids. These encounters fed in new knowledge which may have informed the descriptions of 1st- and 2nd-century AD writers like Lucan (AD 39-65), Pomponius Mela (fl. c. AD 43), Tacitus (AD 55-120), and Suetonius (early 2nd century AD). But in the new Imperial age, there was a new imperative - to depict the Druids as the leaders of a vicious sect that revelled in human sacrifice - thus providing a moral justification for conquest. While, in the Posidonian tradition, the Celts and Druids were presented in the comforting, if patronizing, guise of ‘the noble savage’, under the Imperial tradition they had become the enemy who must be destroyed in the name of humanity. The demonization of others to justify aggression is a familiar political ploy.
The travels of Posidonius and the Histories he wrote undoubtedly contributed considerably to knowledge of the Druids, but in the surviving Classical literature, particularly the writings of the Alexandrian encyclopaedists, there is evidence that earlier sources were available in the libraries of Alexandria. The process of transmission is open to debate (and we will explore this later), but it is widely believed that among the earliest sources to be used were the works of Timaeus (c. 356-c. 270 BC), a Greek historian and ethnographer who lived at Tauromenium in Sicily and wrote extensively on Sicilian history and the west Mediterranean.
The writings of Timaeus are known to us only through quotations surviving in the works of others. Not only was he a primary source on the Druids for the later Alexandrian historians, but he was also quoted widely by Diodorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder on matters of Atlantic geography. Where, then, did this Sicilian, who spent the last 50 years of his life in exile in Athens, learn of Gaul, the Atlantic, and the North Sea? The most likely answer is from a book, On the Ocean, written by his near-contemporary, Pytheas of Massalia, about 320 BC. Pytheas travelled widely along the Atlantic coasts of Gaul, circumnavigated Britain, and was the first to write about these distant regions. It was probably largely through the works of Timaeus and the astronomer and geographer Dikaiarkhos of Messene that the writings of Pytheas became known to later authors in the Mediterranean: both quote him as a primary source.
While it is tempting to expand upon the intriguing paths by which knowledge of the European barbarians was transmitted in the Classical world, we must restrict ourselves to what is relevant to the Druids. To summarize: Pytheas wrote extensively on the peoples of north-western Gaul and Britain whom he knew from first-hand observation, and his book was used as a primary source by Timaeus, who was himself quoted as the source of information on the Druids by the later Alexandrian writers. It is not unreasonable therefore to suggest that Pytheas may have been the ultimate origin of the Alexandrian tradition. But Pytheas was also the source of information on the Atlantic regions used by Diodorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder. Could it be that these writers also derived their information about the Druids directly from him? Pliny’s famous description of white-robed Druids cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle (see below) is so unlike the Posidonian and Imperial traditions that it could well have come from something much earlier. It is even possible that Posidonius, and after him Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, derived some of his information on the Druids directly from Pytheas to augment his own observations. These issues are entertaining to debate but are unlikely ever to be resolved with any degree of certainty.
Leaving aside the detail, we may conclude that the corpus of knowledge on the Druids available to the Classical world derived from first-hand observations made by Greek travellers like Pytheas (c. 325 BC) and Posidonius (c. 125 BC), and by Roman generals like Caesar (c. 50 BC) and those who followed him - soldiers and administrators - into the barbarian regions of north-western Europe. What they learned was selected and nuanced to suit the mood of the time and the political imperatives that prevailed. Clearly, this is material which needs to be handled with great care.
The vernacular literature of Ireland and Wales provides a totally different set of sources complete with their own problems of interpretation. The position with regard to the Irish literature is succinctly summed up by Barry Raftery:
… the Irish sources present us with an immense body of material combining fact and fantasy, myth and legend, ancient lore, Classical interpolation, pan-Christian fables and medieval folk tradition. As a source of information on the Irish Iron Age it provides us with a challenge of exceptional complexity.
(Pagan Celtic Ireland, p. 13)
This is not the place to engage with the challenge, but something must be said of the nature of the surviving texts in relation to the information they provide on the existence and practices of the Druids.
There are two broad categories of texts - the sagas and the Law tracts. The sagas can be divided into four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. Of these, the Ulster Cycle is the oldest of the early Irish sources: it consists of about 80 separate stories, the most famous being the Táin Bó Cuailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’); the others are much shorter and are ancillary, though linked, to the theme and characters of the Táin. There are several manuscripts which contain versions of all or part of the Táin. The earliest of these (Recension I) is preserved in a manuscript known as The Book of the Dun Cow which was composed in the monastery of Clonmacnoise at the end of the 11th century. A fuller version (Recension II), incorporating additional material but omitting interpolations and duplications, is given in the Book of Leinster, dating to the end of the 12th century, which may have been the product of the monastic establishment at Oughaval in Co. Laois. Recension I was composed from two earlier manuscripts, now lost, and there are reasons to believe that the tales may first have been written down as early as the 7th century. Before that the sagas were kept alive by oral transmission through the performances of storytellers. How deeply rooted in the past they were it is impossible to say for certain, but scholars are generally agreed that the sagas of the Ulster Cycle were being proclaimed at least as early as the early 5th century AD and are likely to be considerably older.
What survive for us to enjoy today, in the vigorous and colourful texts translated from the 11th- and 12th-century manuscripts, are the end products - the fossilization - of continuously changing stories, each retelling and, later, each rewriting creatively modifying what had gone before. The oral tales, proclaimed in heightened dramatic form to enthralled audiences in the 5th century, were no doubt very different in emphasis, structure, and detail to those written down by medieval Christian monks mindful to mould the stories to conform to the structure of Greek epic and the teachings of the scriptures and to include details of familiar material culture like Viking swords and silverwork.
Yet behind all the accretions and editings, there remains a saga rooted in the values and behaviour of pre-Roman Iron Age society familiar in the writings of Classical authors describing Gaulish and British society. It is a time of heroes, of Druids, of raiding, chariots, and head-hunting, and of great feasts at which the honour and status of individual warriors were proclaimed, contested, and affirmed in front of the assembled masses. It is tempting to think of this as a reflection of Iron Age Ireland - but is it? There are a number of inconsistencies, not least the evident importance of the chariot in the Táin and yet its total lack of visibility in the Irish archaeological record. The uncomfortable possibility remains that the stories around which the Táin was constructed were gleaned from a pan-European saga and made their own by Irish storytellers nostalgic for a distant heroic age. The Druids, as they appear in the Irish sagas, may, then, in part be memories of a caste modified by pagan Irish storytellers and emasculated by Christian monks. These issues are by no means settled, but it is as well to raise them lest we are drawn to use the Irish sagas too simplistically.
That said, there were Druids in early Ireland—they are attested in the Lives of the saints, in hymns, and in Law tracts codified in the 7th and 8th centuries—though by this time they are so reduced by Christianity as to be regarded as little more than magicians and witch doctors. The mood is captured by one 8th-century hymn that asks for God’s protection from the spells of women, blacksmiths, and Druids! This is among the last contemporary references we have until the Druids of the Classical world begin to enter the consciousness of the late medieval age.
In the late Middle Ages, as the monastic libraries of Europe were being opened up to wider scholarship, the Classical texts which they had preserved for centuries came into the wider domain. With the advent of printing, they became further available in multiple copies to scholars throughout the Continent. Thus it was that Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War burst on the world in a version printed in Venice in 1511, while Pliny’s Natural Histories appeared in translation in 1601.
The French were the first to make use of the texts in the 16th century to bolster their quest for nationhood: a common Celtic ancestry became a powerful political tool at a time when Brittany was being incorporated into the French state. In England, the impact of the newly available Classical literature was delayed, and it was not until the end of the 16th century, when English translations of the Latin originals were becoming widely available, that Celts and Druids began to seep into the public consciousness. Speculation about our British ancestors was greatly stimulated by reports of ‘savages’ brought back from the New World by John White who, in 1585, had accompanied the group of Englishmen sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to found a colony on the coast of North Carolina. White’s carefully observed drawings of Native Americans became the inspiration for Theodor de Bry’s spirited images of ancient Britons published in 1590 - the first attempts to visualize prehistory.
It was during the 17th century that field archaeology began to develop in Britain with the travels of antiquarians through the countryside. The wonder of the great prehistoric monuments of Wessex - sites like Avebury and Stonehenge - soon made a firm impression on those who were trying to conceptualize prehistory, and inevitably debates about Druids and Stonehenge began to play a prominent part. While some writers like Inigo Jones, whose work was posthumously published in 1655, believed that the sophistication of Stonehenge meant that it had to be a Roman construction, others, like John Aubrey, believed it to be earlier. Writing in 1649 of Avebury and Stonehenge, he offered ‘a humble submission to better judgements … that they were Temples of the Druids’. So it was that the long association in popular belief of Druids and Stonehenge grew out of the fertile minds of 17th-century antiquarians.
Many other writers warmed to the theme, most scanning the Classical texts for colourful detail they could weave into their constructed visions of the Druid priesthood. John Toland was an exception in that he also had a knowledge of the Irish vernacular literature which he used to good effect to fill out the picture. His views were finally published in Critical History of the Celtic Religion in 1740, later to be reissued under the more engaging title of The History of the Druids. It was in the same year that the antiquary William Stukeley published his famous Stonehenge, a Temple Restored to the British Druids and three years later, Abury, a Temple of the British Druids, with Some Others Described. By the mid-18th century, then, the Druids had become firmly established in the consciousness of literate Britons. In this age of romanticism, they were presented as the wise priests of our noble savage ancestors, white-robed and bearded, practising their arts in sacred groves and in the many megalithic monuments scattered throughout the British countryside. This amusing confection has proved to be resilient and is still widely accepted in the more popular literature even today, 250 years after its creation.
In Brittany, too, enthusiasm for the Druids became infectious. In 1703, a Breton priest, Paul-Yves Pezron, published his L’Antiquité de la Nation et la Langue des Celts in which he put forward the view that the Gauls were descended from Celts who had migrated west from Anatolia and that the Bretons and the Welsh were their direct descendants. Pezron’s theories were widely accepted, particularly in Brittany, not least because they offered an acceptable origins myth at a time when Breton culture was coming under pressure from the centralizing authorities in Paris. Megalithic tombs were soon ascribed to Druids, and in 1796 La Tour-d’Auvergne published his Origines Gauloises celles plus anciens peuples de l’Europe in which he introduced the word ‘dolmen’, based on the Breton dolmin, as a general term for megalithic tombs. By the turn of the century, celtomania had gripped the imagination, and in his Monuments Celtiques (1805), Jacques Cambry wrote enthusiastically of Breton megaliths and their deep Druidic and astronomical significance.
The antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries can be forgiven for their indulgences - they were groping in the dark, attempting to build a prehistory from the few scraps of data they had to hand - field monuments and artefacts devoid of a chronological framework and isolated references in the Classical sources. The narrative they created was of its age, and that Druids should feature so prominently is hardly surprising given the vividness with which they were treated by the ancient sources.
While many 18th-century scholars were striving for a truth, others were not afraid to invent. One of the most famous was a Welsh-born London stonemason, Edward Williams, or Iolo Morganwg as he preferred to be called. As an expatriate he became passionate about Welsh culture and tradition. But frustrated by the paucity of genuine sources, he began to fabricate what he felt ought to exist, claiming to have discovered early Welsh literary sources as well as traditions of lore and wisdom which, he said, linked directly back to the prehistoric Druids. Another of his colourful inventions was a Druidic ceremony which he called the Gorsedd. It was first enacted by expatriate Welshmen on Primrose Hill in London on the autumnal equinox of 1792 and used as props a ring of stones and a central stone altar on which lay an unsheathed sword. The extravagance could be excused as harmless nonsense and might have sunk into obscurity had it not been for the fact that in 1819 Iolo managed to have it added to the genuine ceremony of the eisteddfod, in that year held in Carmarthen. Thereafter it has remained part of the eisteddfod. Many observers today, unaware that the Gorsedd is entirely a figment of Iolo’s opium-fuelled imagination, believe that the performing Druids are a genuine survival from the past.
Another 18th-century invention was a series of poems ascribed to Ossian, a semi-legendary Gaelic bard, and published by a Scot, James Macpherson, between 1760 and 1763. While Macpherson was well versed in Gaelic oral tradition and may even have had access to documents from the 16th century, it is evident that the ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry’ which he published as genuine are largely fictitious. He longed that a great oral tradition had survived in Scotland and in its absence set about creating one.
The early 18th-century Romantics and the later 18th-century fabricators created a heady mix of fact, speculation, and sheer invention to fuel 19th-century enthusiasm for all things Celtic. The gentle, almost wistful, nostalgia of scholars like Ernest Renan, Matthew Arnold, and Lady Gregory for the tenuous and fast-disappearing Celtic heritage kept the subject very much alive, while archaeological discoveries began to add a new component - material culture - to the debate. The Druids could now be pictured holding aloft famous artefacts like the Battersea shield or the Waterloo Bridge helmet, as they offered prayers before consigning them to the gods of the River Thames!
From the time of the Romantics, there have been people who have believed themselves to be descendants of the ancient Druids and others who have been content to join in with invented ceremonies in the belief that they are taking part in rituals deeply rooted in time. Neodruidism is growing in popularity, as a glance at the internet will show. While of interest to those studying the sociology of belief, it must be stressed that neodruidism is a recently created phenomenon. Since it has no continuity with ancient druidism sketched for us by Classical writers, the two are best treated as totally separate subjects.