Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,
Each Summer Solstice the news media releases a handful of articles on a modern group of Druids worshipping near Stonehenge. The photos are of regular looking people wearing long white robes and sometimes white head coverings that look more akin to Egyptian head dresses. They stand in a circle and perform their ritual to the Gods. One has to ask whether what they are doing is historically accurate or not. To answer such questions, Peter Berresford Ellis’ book, A Brief History of the Druids, is an excellent starting point.
Ellis’ book is earnest in admitting that he does not know everything about the Druids. In fact, there is very little in which he could possibly know in our modern times. Relying on archaeology, linguistics, history, and lore, Ellis explains what is and isn’t known about this mysterious group of people while debunking several myths at the same time. The book is organized in such a way that he starts with a generalized introduction and then narrows the topic down chapter by chapter.
He begins by describing what is generally thought about the Druids. Most of our perceptions are shaped by the reports of foreigners such as Caesar and Pliny and are therefore often full of anti-Celtic propaganda (11). Much of the remaining evidence comes from Christianized Celts. Everything else must be surmised through linguistics and archaeology for the Druids left no literature of their own due to a taboo against writing (13). It is therefore difficult to fully understand the Druids. Everything examined must be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.
Having provided a few disclaimers, Ellis explores the world of the Celts beginning with what little is known of their origins. These people lived “north of the Alps … from Ireland and Britain in the west, as far east as the central plains of what is now Turkey” (23). They are defined as Celts based on the similarities of the languages they used which survive today as modern Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (25). The Celts, Ellis explains, lived in a society divided by classes: workers, artisans, warriors, and the Druids who represented the highest level of academia in Celtic society (29).
So what of the Druids themselves and where do they come from? Ellis first delves into the etymology of the word Druid to come to various possibilities. The first is that the word Druid means “oak knowledge” as drus is Greek for “an oak” and wid means “to know” (37). Another meaning could be “immersed in knowledge” due to the similarities found between old Celtic and Sanskrit words for water and dew. Either way, the Druids are already connected with knowledge, trees, and water – three very important things in both ancient and modern Druidry. However the Druids evolved, they came to be the priestly class who oversaw religious, judicial, medical, political, scientific, and educational matters of the Celtic people. According to the Greeks and Romans, the Druids were divided into three subclasses: Druids, Vates, and Bards. The Druids were basically the teachers, philosophers, and scientists. Meanwhile, the Vates focused more on nature and divination and the Bards were historians, musicians, and poets (51). This special class of intellectuals, which was made up of both men and women (91) held a lot of power – so much so that not even a king was allowed to speak before a Druid (75).
No discussion of the Druids would be complete without a chapter or two dedicated to their religion and rituals. So many of the ancient texts refer to them as performing mysterious rites and worshipping various deities that we know religion played a large role in the life of a Druid. Ellis explains that the Celts were polytheists although several modern men have tried to mold the Druids into proto-Christians who worshiped a single God (114). There are actually over three hundred known Celtic deities, and several are localized meaning that they are associated with only one place (114). There are a few Gods who were known in many places. Ellis provides brief descriptions of some of the better known deities such as Danu, Dagda, Bel, Cernunos, Nuada, Lugh, Taranis, Ogma, and the Mórrígán. Although the explanations are short, they are fitting for a work dedicated to the Druids rather than the Gods. There is the possibility that the sudden deluge of Celtic Gods and mythology could confuse and overwhelm a novice, but I’ve found that further reading will help to better familiarize the curious mind.
In dissecting the wisdom of the Druids, Ellis breaks the chapter down topic by topic so that we are given an in-depth look at what we know of their skill in various areas such as magic, astrology, and medicine. I found this section of the book to be the driest, possibly because I am most interested in the Druids’ function as priests rather than judges and astronomers. However the section should not be overlooked as it truly shows the rich knowledge of the Druids. They were not simply a barbarian people as the Romans were so fond of thinking. The Celts and their Druids were very well versed in science and enjoyed many accomplishments. Anyone of Celtic background should feel a sense of pride when reading about such feats.
A Brief History of the Druids should be essential reading material for anyone aspiring to the knowledge of the Druids. It first provides a good historical background of the people we in ADF are hoping to emulate and also grounds us in our practice by providing the context for our rituals. Ellis’ discussions of holy wells, trees, divination, and fire in connection to the landscape, festivals, and mythology help to make sense of our liturgical practices. A good understanding of why a person practices what he or she does is essential for a truly spiritual, intelligent, and introspective human being. Aspiring Druids should hope to be all three of those things.
The book ends with a discussion on the Druidic revival that has been going on for a few hundred years. It is an interesting although lacking explanation of modern Druidry. I say that because Ellis focuses on the romantic Druidic groups and only briefly mentions the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, one of the largest Druidic groups today. There is no reference to Ár nDraíocht Féin or even Celtic Reconstructionists. This is too bad because he leaves the unknowing reader under the impression that many modern Druidic groups rely on poor research to create their traditions. He ends the book by reminding the reader that many Celtic countries are forgetting their language and losing their social customs which is truly sad. He bemoans the fact that many modern Druids are more concerned with the esoteric aspects of Druidry and not the cultural. I believe that this is a legitimate concern, however, once more, by failing to explore Ár nDraíocht Féin or Celtic Reconstructionism he is overlooking groups who do require learning about the cultures and at least a minimal amount of language study. Although students of Druidry must be aware of the historical realities of their Druidic homelands, I feel that the pessimistic ending spoiled what was otherwise a very well-written, informative book.