The Druids

 The Druids, by Peter Berresford Ellis

I can't help collecting books like this.  I love to read about neolithic/ancient Britain, and I also like dodgy anthropology.  I wasn't sure if this book would be woo-woo dodgy silliness about druids, or reputable scholarship about druids.     It turned out to be late 90s reputable scholarship about druids, which was nice!  That was slightly unexpected, because the cover has Stonehenge on it, and Stonehenge way pre-dates the druids.  I suspect that was a publisher thing.

Anyway, Ellis goes through the famous historical sources about the druids -- Caesar and the other Romans, and so on.  He points out that the Romans really hated and feared the Celts, and can't be trusted to be accurate.  They made a big deal out of the famous wicker man sacrifices, but it's difficult to pin down any real facts about that -- and the Roman sources don't mention that they weren't exactly strangers to human sacrifice themselves.

Ellis then goes through his ideas about who the druids were and what they did.  He figures they were the elite caste of Celtic society; the philosophers/teachers/priests/doctors and so on.  He compares them to the Brahmin caste of India, theorizing that the societies sprang from common Indo-European roots.  We do know that becoming an educated druid was a long and intensive process of up to 20 years.  It was all oral; the material was too sacred to write down.  Scholars therefore have to pick up clues from terms that exist in Old Irish -- for example, there are Old Irish terms for nebula and parallax (!), so they must have been pretty good in astronomy.

Celtic societies was a good deal more equitable than the Romans were.  Druids were not only men.  There were plenty of women druids as well, and women had much more power than they did in Rome (which was practically none).

Ellis finishes up with a fun chapter about the history of how people have thought about the druids and how they got such a romantic and mysterious reputation.  If you want to sell something about ancient wisdom, just put the word Celtic in front of it and watch the money roll in.  There have also been several modern groups who claimed to practice druidism as their religion.  Though there are fewer groups now, druidism is alive and well as a religion, as anybody can see at Stonehenge during the summer solstice.  (My ambition is to go at the winter solstice -- it's open just as it is in summer, but there aren't nearly as many people there!)  Oh, and what about Stonehenge, anyway?  Ellis is quite firm that it pre-dates the druids, but does concede that the builders may have been proto-Celts.

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot!  I liked his style, though I did sometimes think he was taking too long to get to the point.  It was nice to read some serious information about the druids and not have it turn out to be nonsense.


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