I had tried unsuccessfully to read the Sister Fidelma murder mysteries by the author Peter Tremayne, but had a difficult time getting into the stories. It seemed too pedantic. Later, in doing a little research on the author for my Amazon review, I discovered that Peter Tremayne is the nom de plume of Peter Berresford Ellis, a Celtic scholar of some ability. Given my preference for expository prose anyway, I decided I might enjoy his more serious books in the field, so I bought A Brief History of The Druids for my library. As I suspected, I enjoyed this book much more than the mystery.
At the outset, let me say that The Druids is not a new age discussion of mystic powers, etc and anyone looking to "get in touch" with the ancient past will be profoundly disappointed. The book is a very carefully researched study of what the author has determined was a social class of Celtic society. These were the "philosophers, judges, educators, historians, doctors, seers, astronomers and astrologers; in fact,...the native intellectual class of Celtic society (p. 35)."
Ellis freely admits that very little of written documentation on the druids remains and much of what there is has come down to us from external sources not always favorable to the Celtic world, for one reason or another, or at best simply not "in the know" about it. He cites various primary sources from the Greek and Roman world: Hecateus and Herodotus, Poseidonios and Diordorus, Strabo and Laertius, Pliny the Elder and Julius Caesar among them. He also refers to various 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, by quoting a number of secondary sources whose theories he discusses at some length. The works of Rhys, Wagner, and Chadwick as well as others are all given a pro and con inspection for the benefit of the reader.
For myself, I found my interest most engaged when the author kept to the historic or mythic data for the Celts and the Druids, but early history and mythology happens to be the area of my personal interest. When Ellis delved more into poetry and an examination of Celtic words and their meaning-something about which I have absolutely no knowledge-I tended to veg out. With little underlying knowledge of the material, I found the words just so much nonsense and his discussion tended to be meaningless to me. To someone with a Celtic family background or a knowledge of the language and culture of the time, these might be the passages that were the most interesting and informative.
One of the things the author discusses is the similarities between Hindu and early Celtic cultures, suggesting that the common factors between the two may reach back to their common Indo-European heritage. He 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 author's discussion of the origin of the Celts at the head of the Danube reminded me of the book I'd read on the mummies of the Takla Makhan desert. Here another author suggested that an enclave of Celts may have settled as far east as China!
For those looking for TERM PAPERS in HISTORY, WORLD RELIGION, CLASSICS, ENGLISH LIT, etc. The Druids is an interesting book on a fascinating subject. It is well and thoroughly researched. The bibliography is lengthy and includes journal articles as well as books. For classical references, the author simply refers the reader to the Penquin Classics series. (I would tend to prefer the Loeb Classic series). Bibliographic material is dedicated almost entirely to modern secondary sources some of which are perhaps a little old and may be difficult for the interested reader to find unless he or she has access to a university library. Some of the sources are in French, a very few in German, but most are in English.
Few figures flit so elusively through history as do the druids. Enigmatic and puzzling, the paucity of knowledge about them has resulted in a wide spectrum of interpretations. Even today, the lack of information has allowed the rise of an extensive "druidic" movement, particularly in Great Britain. Scouring through a wealth of resources and applying many years' work in this attempt to clarify the image of the Druids. He applies solid resources, assessing them rigidly and uses well the evidence has come to light. He's keen to revoke commonly held views. Druids weren't a savage priesthood practicing human sacrifice or arcane mysteries. Instead, Ellis finds them the intellectual elite of the Celtic world.
In sweeping away false beliefs about the Celts and their Druid "priesthood", Ellis provides a fine overview of Celtic society. Instead of nomadic warriors, the Celts were generally pastoralists and farmers in a stable society. Displacements and opportunitistic alliances resulted in societal changes. From an egalitarian society in which leaders were democratically chosen, a hierarchical structure developed as a reaction to intrusions. Christianity, of course, sounded the knell of their open society by demanding an end to "pagan" beliefs. Once forced into this new role, the democratic society became patriarchal.
One major change he notes resulting from this change was the role of women. Unlike their Mediterranean counterparts, Greece and Rome, the Celts held women in high regard, even granting them leadership status in peace and war. How many women gained status in the Druidic elite remains unclear, but he asserts it was only logical that leadership would include intellectual capacity.
Inevitably, Ellis concludes with the "revival" of the Druid concept in modern times. He sees many direct comparisons between the Celts and Hindu society as a modern example. The "caste" system he finds in both societies underwent changes in their respective locales. The mythology of a "mystical Druid" imagery was revived in Western Europe. This image permeated thought among British intellectuals beginning in the 17th Century. From a view of Celts and the Druids as savages, a new concept arose portraying them as "keepers of wisdom". Welsh, Cornish and Irish traditionalists enhanced this view leading to today's outlook of Druidism as a spiritual revival.
This thorough and insightful account of an unknown, but highly mythologised element of Western society is fundamental to an understanding of the Celts and their Druid sub-culture. Ellis keeps the account lively and captivating. Although his scholarship is thorough, it never overwhelms the reader. It should remain an important work for some time. [stephen a. haines, Ottawa, Canada]