For the Hearth Culture book, I have chosen to read A Brief History of the Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis. The first edition was published in 1994 (under the previous title The Druids) and my copy is the second Edition (2002). Peter Berresford Ellis is a historian, literary biographer, and novelist who published many books based on his Celtic Studies interests. In the first four chapters of A Brief History of the Celts, Ellis quickly describes the basic roles of the druids for the ancient Celts. He explains the difficulty to trace a truthful portrait of the druids as several references to Druids are far from absolutely knowledgeable. Most of the texts consist of the anti-Celtic propaganda of the Roman Empire, with extremely biased opinions and views, relegating the Druids as bizarre and barbaric priest indulging horrendous human sacrifices or looking for augury in the entrails of their victims. Another issue encountered by scholars like Ellis, is the fact that many stories sees the Druids as romantic figures like Merlin in the Arthurian Legends. To Christians, the Druids are often reduced the status of the Druids as wizards and soothsayers. Ellis quickly and describes that “Apart from a vague acknowledgement that the Druids were the intellectual class of the ancient Celts, they are usually perceived as variations of religious mystics and priests.” (p. 12). Ellis later decodes the etymology of the word ‘druid’. The book is a very carefully researched study of what Ellis has determined was a social class of Celtic society. Ellis defines the functions of the Druids, which is comprised of “philosophers, judges, teachers, historians, poets, musicians, physicians, astronomers, prophets, political advisers or counselors” (p. 14). Ellis goes further by explaining the origin of the Druids and by elaborately describing them through foreign eyes, and also through Celtic eyes.
One fascinating chapter is dedicated to female Druids and it strengthened my knowledge about the fact that Celtic women were distinct in the ancient world for the liberty and rights they enjoyed and the position they held in society. Compared to their counterparts in Greek, Roman, and other ancient societies, they were allowed much freedom of activity and protection under the law. By contrast, Roman law dictated that a woman was the property of her husband. Ellis also explain the religion of the Druids in a chapter, and refers to numerous Irish, Welsh and Scottish mythologies regarding early leaders and ancient deities, various law codes still in existence into the Christian era, and rounds off his own conclusions regarding the nature of the druids. An interesting note by Ellis is the similarities between Hindu and early Celtic cultures, and suggests that the common factors between the two may reach back to their common Indo-European heritage. It rejoins the ADF vision, which is based on ancient Indo-European traditions, which also includes Vedic culture. Ellis also mentions an enclave of Celts living in Turkey and the degree to which Celtic traditions remained constant between this group and those with which Caesar was familiar.
The book is interesting; yet, not everything in that book is remarkable. The biggest chapter is about the wisdom of the Druids, and is somewhat hard to follow or understand. Ellis offers many hypotheses about what was considered as wisdom for the Celts, but he seems to mix many topics at the same time, and seems to deviate from his basic ideas when he goes to explain something in too much details. Ellis does references to many other sources, but he doesn’t always have source citing. The index could have been better. There are many specific words in this book, and when I was referring to the index to see other parts of the book dealing with that particular subject, I sometimes found absolutely nothing about it. Ellis is also a very good historian, but he could have used the help from an editor to reorganize the whole book. Ellis goes back and forth with themes from chapters to chapters, and I would have liked to follow a more chronological approach, like A History of Pagan Europe, written by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick.
Ellis also elaborates some rather vivid views on certain polemical subjects. As a dedicant to the Morrígan (spelled Mórrígán by the author), I must say that I was rather shocked and disturbed by Ellis’ simplistic definition of that her. He says that she is a triune goddess who “…embodies all that is perverse and horrible among the supernatural powers” (p. 128). Oh, come on Ellis! My vision of the Morrígan is probably at the exact opposite of what Ellis wrote there! In the chapter about the Druid revival, Ellis does not appear to be very fond of ‘Hippies’, ‘Alternative Religions’ or the ‘New Age’ Druids. He even mocks Celtic witchcraft which is describes as something “arrived out of all the mishmash and hocus-pocus of Druidism” (p. 277). It is okay to dispute the veracity of the scholarship from some authors, but to completely ignore something being real, is something completely bad! Ellis explains that these revivals exist because of our sad and sorry contemporary world with people wanting a quick fix on spirituality preferring simple answers.
In conclusion, I find this book to be very informative from an historical point of view. However, my opinion of the book is fairly diminished when I observe it from a religious or a spiritual perspective. This book being included in the ADF Reading list is understandable for the cultural information about ancient Celts, but I find it harsh to read the closed views of a stoic scholar about modern spirituality. The last chapter of the book made me think about an awful ending of a very good movie! Ellis, please continue to admirably write about the ancient Celts, but please, leave the topics about modern Druidry to more knowledgeable Neopagan authors!
Word Count: 975 words
- Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids [The Druids]. London: Constable & Robinson, 1994.