Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2000 Years of Smearing the Druids

As often is true with this blog, coincidence catalyzes a posting. This coincidence was my watching of a National Geographic sensationalist drive-by shooting of the Druids, while almost simultaneously having picked up a mid-1800s "magazine" containing a review article complaining about that same sort of small-focus "scholarship".

The TV special was a 2009 production [I believe] featuring two, maybe three, UK archaeologists such as Mark Horton of Bristol [above]. Horton is something of a TV celebrity in the UK, putting on series of public entertainment [mainly British History-based] programs. This fit that description.

The old magazine was the June 1865 edition of The National Quarterly Review, a rare old treasure the care-taking of which is my privilege. In that journal, the anonymous reviewer [basically all review articles from that age are anonymous] researched six named and several other unnamed sources to write this scholarly essay about the treatment of the Druid "character" by establishment [and, he felt, severely prejudiced] academics of his day.

The symmetrical clashing of these two sources was too much to resist, and thus this post.

Horton and his crowd emphasized their vision that the Druids were a brutal, violent people involved with barbarian rituals far inferior to the level of civilization being brought to them by the Roman conquest, and [here is some of the underwash] improperly praised vs the civilization of the Anglo-Saxons. There is an anti-Celtic underpinning to these things, it appears.

The emphasis here was "human sacrifice " [including children] plus cannibalism, with cowardly incompetence in warfare tossed in on the side. To aid in this projection, the camera lingered over "druid priests" appearing as dirty faced, universally aged, scruffy and wild haired forest dwellers with little to no apparent civilized trappings to dissuade the viewer from viewing them as brutes with primitive views.

Back in the 1860s, the establishment had sneered and smeared them in nearly twinned commentaries.

Our journalist relays a quote from the Edinburgh Review of that time: {Mocking the Celts in general}

"It is amusing to observe with what perseverance and success the Celts are proceeding with their endeavors to deserve that character which has been so liberally bestowed upon them by the most contemptuous of their opponents. { he is referring to the charge that anyone with Celtic roots has an inferior mind which just accepts things no matter how ridiculous}. .... Celtic understanding is sui generis; it readily embraces and believes whatever is rejected and laughed at by the rest of mankind. "

The Edinburgh Review goes on to view the positive image then arising of the Druids as a pathetic attempt of people of Celtic stock to seek out some fictional reason to be proud of their heritage, when "everybody knows" that the Druids were human sacrificers, baby killers, and incompetents.

The National Quarterly Review commentator replied with this:

" A critic, more than any other person, has no right to depend on mere assertions; if he differs from others, especially those who have devoted much time and study to the subject under consideration, he is bound to give his reasons for doing so. Ridicule will answer his purposes only when the arguments,  or the mode of treatment to which it is applied, are so obvious as to be at variance with common sense."

..... and he then goes on to show that the sneerers have not supported their opinions with evidence that they have made any quality attempts to read and understand the array of available scholarship, nor have taken clear facts into account.

The National Quarterly Review writer then goes on to take the "academic"/ debunking attitude apart. In doing so, he overtly uses six rather massive druid-related studies [two of which {Davies' Celtic Researches; at the top; and Higgins' The Celtic Druids; middle } I am happy to own.] He is also well read generally, being able to quote things like Maurice's Indian Antiquities, to make cross-cultural observations about ancient societies. It's quite a good [albeit embarrassing to the shallow academic] display of erudition in defense of knowledge and open-mindedness vs the knee-jerk picking of low-hanging fruit. {I can attest that this guy IS in fact scholarly due to being able to check him by reading in my own library --- the value of having one, I might say.}.


While our modern TV archaeologists uncover bones in digs which they cannot tie to the Druids [vs the indigenous non-druid locals or even the Romans], and try to make the case that these must be Druidical violence by citing things like the Roman description of the Wickerman within which people were burned to death, our much more learned reviewer points out that the Wickerman was in Gaul not Britain, and the context there is "political" not druidical. He also points out that these claims of human sacrifice are at complete variance with every other detail that the ancient writers write about the Druids as they knew them.

He repeats that Diogenes wrote that the three deepest "laws" of the Druids were: "To honor the gods; To do evil to no one; To exhibit courage in the face of danger." Caesar [our most lengthy source] says that the druids did not go to war [unlike the rest of the gaulish society.] They were painted by him as a civilizing force, with college educations stretching for as many as twenty years in their three levels of training. They were exceedingly learned, protecting their learning by embedding it in verses rather than writing. The knew of many things we would now call science or pre-science.

This "lack of sharing knowledge" with outsiders was brought up by our reviewer with distaste --- it was his main gripe about them. But it is one of the keys to understanding all of this. Both modern and  19th century scholars haven't seen the full reason for this, and therefore have missed the vision of what the Druids were doing {I don't know the whole story either obviously, but I think that I can add this small contribution.}

As I mentioned much earlier on the blog: The concept of a "college" of learner-explorers, deliberately separating themselves from the violence of "The Insane Men" who served as murderous leaders everywhere in the world, was one of the most brilliant constructs in history. It preserved the lives of these wondering pacifists, and preserved the opportunities for study of the world and to apply the knowledge advances thereby attained. But to do that, these explorer-pacifists had to have some form of power to keep The Insane Men at bay and out of their collegial forest groves.

What they had, probably all they could possibly have had, was knowledge and the ability to apply it. ... and that knowledge had to be "secretly" their own. That knowledge, their unique contribution, "what they brought to the table" that was too valuable to blot out, was their leverage. Their unwillingness to share their secrets, while still being willing to share the results of those secrets was the tricky line they tread to stay free. Not until economic advancement and rampant urbanization brought urban-centered guilds of technological craftsmen was such knowledge universalized and the Druids were no more a force to be catered to.

Still, our misfiring substantially-ignorant moderns want to take shots at them. These sort-of scholars revel in Caesar, as it is he who, in violation of all else he says about then, accuses them of human sacrifice and cannibalism, and a brutalism not to be honored. You can hear him saying: it is Rome's glory to have slaughtered these people.

The early western historians of the Roman Empire and its relations with Gaul saw a bit more clearly. Gibbon himself flatly stated that this phony image of the Druids was put forward by Caesar and Tiberius and Claudius as a rationale for ROME's brutality, not the other way around. By the way, as late as the 12th century, an English king tricked the majority of the leading druids in Ireland into a council and slaughtered them. Even that late The Insane Men feared what they stood for.

In the end, both the ancient and the modern smearings of the Druids are "politics". Weirdly, this has always been right in front of our faces. At the very moment of Caesar's conquest of Gaul [c.45bc], a member of the Roman Senate issued a coin [a silver denarius, equivalent to a legionnaire's month pay] commemorating the Gaulish chief Vercingetorix --- admiring his qualities as an honored opponent.

All throughout the mentionings in Caesar or Diodorus Siculos are descriptions of Druids well-dressed in ceremonial robes and accoutrements of high civilization --- why the TV pictorializations of scruffy, dirty countryside dwellers?

The siege guns of the smearers: Lindow Man, a unique finding of a bound man not tied to druidism, and generally rejected by anthropologists as druid-related human sacrifice, was touted; a mass grave, also not tied to druidism, could readily be due to military slaughter, clan vs clan violence, unique disease, even the Romans themselves --- no alternatives mentioned. And cannibalism? One split bone --- ONE, and no tie to the Druids. One of the almost nerd-like anthropologists [sorry but that's exactly what he projected] displayed a giggling joy in his own speculations, gushing into a statement that the mass grave was done by Druids in the desperate  attempt to kill a hundred of their own people in the hopes that their gods would kill a hundred Romans.

When an academic creates his own baby theory, there is almost no statement crazy enough that he will not make in support of it [I have seen it too many times.]

On the left, my poor holding of the coin honoring Vercingetorix. Not pretty, but just holding it takes you back in time and reminds you of truths you may be forgetting.

On the right, a bit nicer coin of the Armorican Celts of the "Gaulish side" of the channel. It reminds us of another fact: Gaul was quite different tribe-to-tribe. One group was not like even its neighbor, let alone any alleged druidical underpinning. Caesar writing about "Gaul" does not necessarily widely apply, nor perhaps to druidry at all. If he was talking of Armorica, however, we might pay closer attention. The Armorican Celts were the French cousins of our British Celts, and play a close across-the-channel role right through the Legends of King Arthur, Merlin [the druid?] and all of that.

"My" Druids were gentle pacifists who did what they could to enjoy the Universe and not contribute to its strife any more than necessary.

I hope that one day we'll quit trying to beat up on them.

Peace, folks.


  1. hi
    interesting article.
    have you seen the recent publication by Graham Robb, the Ancient Paths.
    think it's of interest to you

    1. life's pretty full. Maybe I'll accidentally have it cross my forest path. Thanks for the reference.

  2. hello, I've just read, & enjoyed this blog entry very much. I like the notion of the druids preserving useful knowledge against the destructiveness of the insane men. It seems very apposite to all times in history. It does seem that knowledge has now become generally available, but without the ethical or intellectual substrate for it's appropriate & sustainable use. what now for druid leaning people?

    1. In reality, I believe that it's easier today to be a "druid-like" person than in their own day. Today the deeper specialized knowledge has been opened up and {sadly} the Insane Men have complete access to pursue their power and greed. ... and cause huge amounts of trouble. So, the Insane Men have no reason to attempt to control the modern "druid" as he/she has no knowledge/technology that they don't already have. Therefore, unless one lives in a non-Democracy or is in a situation where there is a military draft, the modern "druid" is generally free to pursue spirituality and knowledge and communion with Nature without much interference. Many people go into academia and the Arts and separate their souls as much as they wish from the Insanity in an environment of relative peace. That not many actually do this is more that they are manipulated into thinking like greedy egocentrics by the economic/media forces than because of the security problems the Olde People faced. Since even the Insane Greedy Men don't really want to blow everything up, the rest of us COULD opt for a simpler life of spiritual communion without fear of mass or chronic warfare killing if we could just clear our minds.

      Some people have done precisely this by coming together in small ecovillage communities designed to live softly, spiritually [and CHEAPLY!] on the Earth. "Community" like "family" takes work however and the typical high-economic society citizen is programmed to a form of me-ism that must be expunged to make this work. The Druids were not loners. That's one thing that we know for certain. No truly sane person can be. Love IS in the end the name of the game of human existence.



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