A Review of Ellis’ The Druids: an Introductory Argument
-Michael J Dangler
Peter Berresford. The Druids. Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995.
I first read this book four years ago, when I was starting on my own path through paganism. When I read it then, it was like a godsend, showing me, clearly and without error, the path through Druidism as an historical religion. On this, my second reading of the book, I noted some problems that I hadn’t seen before, though the book is still a very good exploration of ancient Druidism.
I start with Ellis’ introduction because it is here that Ellis gives his opinions, which are vital to discovering his biases in the text. Ellis mentions his opinion of the New Age movement’s impact on Celtic studies and the druids, who he believes the Druids were, and how he views his sources.
On page 13, Ellis tells us that Druids have been “hijacked” by New Agers, and I believe he is absolutely right. There are several “Druid Orders” out there, each claiming to be the right path, and each growing out of the Druid Renaissance of the late 1700’s. Ellis’ opinion of the New Aged movements is not a terribly high one. They have diluted the Druid’s teachings into whatever they pleased, with no regard for history or what really happened.
This being said, Ellis gives us some information on who he believes the Druids were. Ellis states that the Druids were not just priests or priestesses. His theory, which is presented in his book as the thesis, is that the Druids are a parallel class to the Brahmin caste of the Hindus. I will return to his proof of this point later in my review, but it is important to note that the success of the book depends on his proof of his thesis.
Finally, the introduction includes a short history and a review of the sources. Ellis cuts apart several of the Classical sources he uses later as evidence, and often refuses to accept that these sources could be correct in their assumptions, just because they were not Celtic. While his introduction makes a point or two about accepting Caesar on some counts, but being weary on others, the rest of the book occasionally rejects Caesar out of hand as a horrible source all around.
There are conflicting reports of the Roman’s attempt to repress the Druids within the introduction alone. First, Ellis states that there “is plenty of evidence that the Romans attempted to abolish the Druidic caste,” (p. 15) while he later quotes Nora Chadwick, another eminent Celtic scholar, as saying, “No Roman legislation against the Druids has come down to us.” (p. 36) Ellis dismisses this as “Mrs Chadwick’s almost dewy-eyed worship of all things Roman.” (p. 36 again) From the tone of the book, and from some other books written by Ellis, it looks like Ellis is guilty of an almost “dewy-eyed worship” of all things Celtic. I’ll mention this later, as well.
Ellis does something that I find very useful, however. On page 16, there is a long quote from Prof. Jean Markle’s La Femme Celte which gives us a window into the reasons for the Roman repression of the Druids. Markle states that the Romans did have a remarkable talent for ridding themselves of the Druids, but he states also that “it was a matter of life and death to Roman society.” To understand the implications of that statement in full, a deep and difficult study of the Roman war machine would have to be discussed. Ellis ignores the point, however, and presses right on without giving the point a thought.
On page 20, Ellis makes his first assertion about Caesar, which is continued throughout the book: that not only did Caesar have to justify his expedition into Gaul, but that he had a cynical attitude about the Gauls’ religion, dealing mostly with their after life theory. I will come back to this when we encounter it again.
Ellis begins this chapter by establishing Indo-European (IE) ties for all those cultures that fall under IE. Through language, we see that the languages are related to each other, expanding this through to Northern India. This is important because it is this linguistic (and thus cultural) tie that is the basis for his comparison between both Hindi and Irish societies. With this theory, Ellis is able to prove things previously unproven. Unfortunately, I do not know how well this IE theory is accepted, or how well it is proven.
Ellis begins to discuss the various migrations and invasions of the Celtic people, as well as the sources we hear from them in. Ellis also discusses how they could move across the world, pointing out their superiority in weapons and skill with iron. At one point, on page 27, however, he states that the Celts stopped their conquests “inexplicitly.” Ellis makes no conjectures on how or why they stopped, despite mentioning a possibility in the preceding paragraph (the Celts had sacked Delphi and plundered it). Being an historian, he could not accept that reason, clearly, but he makes no mention of social pressures or military reasons, leaving the breakup of the army as historical fact, and ignoring the possibilities.
On p. 29, we hear of a group of people in celtic society, a “caste” consisting of “those who had forfeited their civil rights, sometimes wrongly called slaves. This last group consisted of criminals undergoing punishment, prisoners of war and hostages.” Since Ellis does not explain their conditions at any point during the book, it is hard to understand why he says this “caste” is wrongly called slaves. By their social standing, I can see how criminals, prisoners, and hostages could all be treated as slaves. Is his point only that they aren’t called slaves, or is this more of his “dewy-eyed worship” of the Celts, believing that they could not possibly have slaves?
Ellis’ contention that the Celts were a sophisticated society (p. 35) is unsupported by his previous statements, though he makes the point as though proof were not needed. Ellis is basically saying that it is proven fact that the Celts were advanced, though not proving it himself.
On ps. 37 and 38, Ellis discusses the derivation of the word “Druid” itself. Ellis presents us with several meanings, from “backwoodsman” to “oak knowledge” to “very knowledgeable.” Which derivation or translation he prefers, however, we are left to guess. Later in the work, we note that Ellis does make a play for “oak knowledge,” though he does not tell us why the other theories are flawed, any more than he tells us why the “oak knowledge” school is flawed. Here I would have liked to hear an opinion.
Ellis then shows how the Oak was important in all Indo-European cultures. Occasionally, however, Ellis will mention a connection and not cite an authority or source; such is the case on p. 41, where he speaks of the Anglo-Saxons bringing oak worship with them, rather than inheriting it from the Celts, as other scholars have (apparently) pointed out. Interesting to note, that on the same page the word “Druid” clearly is stated to mean “oak knowledge,” while the derivation of the word was unclear only a few paragraphs ago.
Aside from these few points, the chapter is a very good explanation of where the Druids came from, leaving little else to be desired.
My first point to make is a purely technical one: from 146 BC to 81 BC, Rome was a Republic, not an empire, and thus had no “imperial history” during this time. (p. 50) In this chapter we also find that Caesar, formerly considered a poor source, is used as a decent source, if somewhat annoying to the author.Point after point is made on Caesar’s authority, and he is apparently in a “better position to know” than his fellow authors at times. (p. 56)
Caesar also did not have to justify his invasion of Gaul to the Roman populace. Not only was he incredibly popular with the plebs, but Roman politics were centered on virtus, or the amount of military victories a politician had. People with more virtus were expected to hold higher offices, and the only way of getting virtus was to go to war. Because of this, Caesar cannot be expected to need to justify his incursions into Gaul: anyone else would have done the same.
Caesar’s comment about the Druids teaching that life after death was a good one, and that they would be reborn is not necessarily a “cynical soldier’s” comment. In fact, if you look at religion from a purely functional point of view, that is what religion is designed to do. Ellis picks and chooses his manner of looking at Druid religion, sometimes from a functional, Marxist, or structural view, and sometimes from a view that allows for the exceptional. He never explains rituals in more than one of these terms, though.
In this chapter, several important points in the work are to be noted. First, on p. 73, we learn that the Gods were taught by the Druids originally. This would be important when studying the link between the humans and the Gods of the time.
Second, and also on p. 73, we note that a God (Magh Ruith) had only one eye. Apparently described as an Odin type figure, Ellis never illustrates him as such. Since the Norse were also an IE culture, it makes me wonder if Ellis is picking and choosing how he wants to represent the Celts, and with whom he identifies them. In several other places in the text we can see this trend.
Third, we see Ellis fluctuate between what his sources state and what he guesses about them. On p. 80, he admits that the Druids of Britain had a tonsure, “though it is not specifically stated.” Later, on p. 83, we find that, “Coincidentally, or perhaps not,” one of the Irish heroes was named the same as a God. Statements like that tend to cast doubt on his hard evidence, causing a reader to wonder why such statements are necessary, given the presentation of the work as entirely supported by sources, with no gaps, loose stones, or pitfalls.
In this chapter we find more of the same. Ellis seems to strive to find sources that corroborate his “dewy-eyed worship” of the Celts, making them seem to be perfectly unbiased in the gender department. Numerous times we see “was obviously a Druidess” or “she is clearly depicted as the Christian concept of a Druidess.” Many times, these appear to be conjecture and guess, not supported by the sources.
To be fair, Ellis does make several points that are real Druidesses, according to the myths. It is these guesses that continue to bog down the work.
Here is the meat and potatoes that interest me in the book. This chapter on the Druids’ religion is very well written, with only a few minor problems and one major problem. Aside from these, and with these thoughts in mind, you can glean an amazing amount from the text.
Occasionally Ellis will discuss an “earth mother” figure, which there is no evidence presented for. This particular omission of evidence makes me suspicious. The Reader may wonder where the figure came from and what it does in the myth. Ellis never tells us.
Ellis describes several Gods, and one Goddess. There is his first problem. Remembering that this work is designed to define the Druids as a caste, not define their religion, we can still take issue. Ellis is clearly more interested in the Gods than the Goddesses. In fact, the only Goddess he describes is Danu, who is the “mother goddess” of the Celts. The other goddesses are summed up in one paragraph, which only mentions their names.
Something interesting in the myths related about the rivers Boyne and Shannon is the implication is that women are incapable of holding knowledge. Each time the Goddesses attempt to gain knowledge from the well, they are drowned for their “crimes.” (p. 135)
Ellis mentions that the Celts did not believe in reincarnation in the traditional, New Age sense, of Death and Rebirth in this world. His case is argued that the Celts celebrated death as a birth in the next world, not in this. (p. 137) I find this intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, New Agers have taken the idea that the Celts were fervent believers in reincarnation in the Eastern sense way too far, and this seems a response to that. Second, the theory makes sense as referenced with other IE cultural beliefs (Roman, Greek, Norse, and Vedic), which Ellis does not point out.
Another interesting note is that, on p. 156, we see that “one has to look at the Romans’ expression of profound disgust and distaste for human sacrifice, as applied to the Druids, as rather meaningless and an act of high political cynicism.” This makes me wonder whether this statement undercuts the idea that the Roman sources were pure propaganda, since such displays of sacrifice were so common. This issue is not addressed in the chapter, however.
The chapter as a whole is a very good one, with few problems and many good points, such as the connections between modern or 18th century rites and ancient ones, or comparison to other IE cultures to fill in the gaps.
This particular chapter shows an incredible amount of good research on the part of Ellis. Throughout I am impressed with his knowledge and his conclusions. I am impressed, that is, until his section on Druids as Astrologers.
Though Ellis gives thorough and exhaustive findings, I found myself inexplicably unconvinced as to the practice of Astrology by the Druids as a native science. One of his prime sources, the Coligny Calendar, is often seen to be a fabrication of the Druids, created in response to Roman influences. The use of Stonehenge, unproven to be used by the Druids, is also a questionable source. There is no proof that the Druids used the megaliths to divine anything, though it is often thought that they “might” have used the site.
The use of board games to show proof of mathematic advancement also does not impress me, since I have to wonder if this could not be an effect of imported methods of astrological divination, rather than a cause. Saying that the words for the horoscope do not exist in modern Irish due to every one of them being taboo is also an odd statement. (p. 240)
Aside from this small part of the chapter, the rest is very well founded and extremely convincing.
Ellis does not appear to hold New Age movements in terribly high esteem, with the exception of a few (notably the one his is part of). Personally, I found this chapter to be the most boring, and didn’t finish it the first time I read the book. Having fought my way through it, Ellis does seem to be right on most of his accounts, and the chapter is remarkably free of contradiction (unlike several other places in his work).
All in all, the book is an enjoyable read, and probably the best read on Druids out there. Despite having some flaws and a bias he attacks other writers with, the book needs to be read carefully by a good scholar. Because I have not done all the background reading Ellis has, it is possible that some of my conclusions have been wrong. Ellis is obviously more well read than I.
I didn’t like his focus on the Irish, at times making it seem like the Irish Druids were the only ones that mattered and only taking the time to focus on Gaul or Briton when he had to use classical sources.
His use of other IE cultures to fill in gaps is impressive, though I fear that sometimes it is over done. India is not Ireland, and language does not make culture. His rare use of Norse sources makes me wonder, because of his extensive use of Indian sources, and the closer proximity to the Celtic world to the Norse sources.
Ellis’ thesis at the beginning of the book was to prove that the Druids were a caste in Celtic society, and I’m not sure that this thesis is proven, though Ellis certainly is. I’d have to read it again to be certain of the proof, but it looks like there is more padding than proof of his thesis.
When it comes down to it, I would recommend this book to anyone starting out studying the Druids, and then recommend they read it again several years later. The foundation work is excellent. His advanced topics are sometimes thinly stretched.
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