Monday, March 11, 2019
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“BLOOD AND MISTLETOE – The History of the Druids in Britain” by Ronald Hutton (first published 2009)
You might have picked up from earlier postings on this blog that I have fairly firm views on the matter of History. I am aware that much historical evidence is uncertain and that there are many things about the historical past which we simply cannot know. I am aware that every history book ever written was written from a particular viewpoint, but this fact does not seduce me into the false assumption that therefore any one viewpoint is as good as any other. I know that historians are reliant on sources, and that the best histories are written after the historian has consulted as many relevant sources as possible.
But taking all this into account, and knowing that history will always be revised as new sources come to light and as attitudes change, I still maintain that it is the firm duty of the historian to be a spoilsport. Whenever there is a demonstrably untrue popular belief about history, it is the historian’s duty to call it out, no matter how much it may offend some people’s sentimental view of their historical past. This does not mean that the historian is a reckless iconoclast. Nor does it mean that the historian is disdainful of views and beliefs that were held in good faith in past ages. It simply means that the historian is bound to show where real evidence ends and where unverifiable legend and fabrication take over.
Forgive this pompous introduction (come now! you’ve read this blog often enough to know how pompous I can get). But it is really relevant to Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe which I recently had the great pleasure of reading. Ronald Hutton, distinguished Oxbridge graduate and Professor of History at the University of Bristol, has written a history of Druids in Britain which never belittles or ridicules those who call themselves Druids, or who imagine that they belong to some very ancient religion with a continuous tradition. But he is very clear about the two facts, viz: (a.) we know very little indeed about who or what the orginal Druids were 2,000 years ago; and (b.) all groups that now call themselves Druids, and most images we have of Druids’ beliefs or customs, are fabrications of the last few hundred years, with no real connection to the ancient world.
In his first, long chapter, which he calls “The Raw Material”, Hutton points out that the only ancient documents we have about Druids come from Roman sources, and comprise at most about 12 written pages. Worse, these few pages are clearly re-hashes of one another, repeating the same few facts. Caesar wrote about Druids, for a very few pages, in his Gallic Wars. What he said was basically plagiarised and re-used by Diodorus Siculus who was in turn plagiarised by Strabo and Pomponius Mela. And that’s it for ancient documentation. These very few, and probably inaccurate, pages are the only contemporary documents we have on Druidry. Later historians like Tacitus wrote a few sentences on Druids in Britain, and declared that Druids led Briton resistance in the first century AD when the armies of the Roman general Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law) defeated them in a “last stand” at Anglesey in Wales.
The very, very few Roman sources, says Hutton, have a very self-contradictory attitude to Druids. On the one hand, they are the enemies of Roman civilisation which, naturally, Roman writers regard as the acme of human achievement. Druids are depicted as sinister figures indulging in human sacrifice. But then, as Hutton fairly points out, it was common for Romans to suggest the inferiority and barbarity of other peoples by accusing them of human sacrifice. Romans said the same thing about Carthaginians. On the other hand, Romans also depicted Druids as “wise men” who congregated in oak groves, studied the stars, and took over twenty years to train their acolytes by getting them to memorise all the wisdom they knew. (As they had no written language, the Druids have of course left us no accounts of themselves and we do not know what exactly their beliefs were.) These two contradictory images – malign sacrificers of human beings or benign mystic scholars – were, as Hutton shows in his book, to influence different fictionalised versions of the Druids in recent centuries.
These few scraps of Roman writings are our only historical records of ancient Druids – and we have no physical evidence of them either. Says Hutton “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids” (p.23). Of course this also means there is no archaeological evidence to connect them with Stonehenge or other neolithic monuments, no matter how much modern imagination places them there.
Having forthrightly established this, Hutton then proceeds to show, through the rest of his capacious and well-docmented book, how and when the myth of the Druids grew. When Shakespeare wrote plays supposedly set in ancient Britain (King Lear, Cymbeline) he made no mention at all of Druids because Druids did not yet loom large in the popular imagination. It was only in the 1650s that amateur “antiquarians” like John Aubrey began to associate Stonehenge and Avebury with Druidism – on no evidence that would now be considered credible. By the eighteenth century there was a rush to identify stone rings and megaliths as Druid temples – again with no credible evidence. Much of this had to do, as Hutton sees it, with a chauvinistic British desire to create a “civilised” ancient past for Britain not dependent on Mediterranean people such as Romans. The growing image of Druids was also conflated with the myth of the “noble savage”. More pervasively, pre-Christian Druids were conflated with medieval bards of the Christian era. An English “Ancient Order of Druids” was founded towards the end of the eighteenth century, but as Hutton notes, it was more in the nature of a self-help club like the Oddfellows, with little use for rituals supposedly related to the mystic past.
The man who really got modern bogus Druidism going was a Welshman, Edward Williams, who rebranded himself as Iolo Morganwg. Between the 1790s and the 1830s he produced genuine translations of medieval Welsh bards, but he interpolated among them forgeries of his own, which he claimed showed a secret tradition of Welsh Druidism that had persisted since ancient times. From this basis, he devised a religion which he claimed was the authentic monothesitic religion of the ancient Druids. It may disappoint some ardent Welsh nationalists to learn this, but it was Williams who invented the whole concept of the bardic Eisteddfod, which is not an ancient tradition at all. As Hutton shows, the true Welsh bardic tradition was Christian and medieval, had nothing to do with Druidism, and had died out by the 16th century.
Even in Williams’ time, there were scholars who realised that his work was imposture. But this didn’t stop the newly-invented image of Druidism from having a huge cultural impact. Romantic poets (such as Blake) presented Druids in the same way that Williams did. As nationalism began to rumble in Ireland, English writers chose to identify more with their Anglo-Saxon forebears and to denigrate the “Celtic fringe” as culturally inferior. In response, in Ireland, Scotland and Wales there was a rise in national consciousness and a desire to build up distinctively non-English national identities. This often took the form of a created past. In Wales the “traditional” Welsh women’s costume – including the high hat – was invented in the early nineteenth century by Augusta Hall (an Englishwoman!). The fiction that there was a link between medieval Welsh bards and Druids was perpetuated with the creation of the National Eisteddfod. Sometimes real stone megaliths were set up where the Eisteddfod was held. As Hutton remarks ironically “they became permanent monuments to modern Welsh nationalism… and probably the first megalithic structures ever erected by Druids.”
In great detail, Hutton charts how many rival Druid groups, and many cranky theories, flourished in the Victorian era. He also notes that by the middle of the nineteenth century, real archaeology was developing and fewer experts believed there was any connection between Druids and the ancient stone monuments. However, there was a time lag in the acceptance by the general public of this new scientific consensus. Even in the early 20th century there were still popular books and pamphlets asserting that Stonehenge was a Druidical temple.
By this stage, no respectable scholar believed in the antiquity of Williams’ made-up 18th century Druidical religion as it was then acted out, with its “Archdruids” and Druids in long white garb, and sickles and oak branches and rubrics and mid-summer performances. But ironically it was in 1905 that, for the first time, one of the Druidical orders took over Stonehenge for a day. Hutton remarks waspishly “it is a great, and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids had arrived at Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting ancient Druids from it.” In 1912 a crank called George Watson Reid, claiming to be a modern Druid and the head of a universalist religion that united all religions, held a “service” in Stonehenge on midsummer’s day. Even though official guidebooks now said ancient Druids had nothing to do with the monument, Reid had aristocratic backing and was able to continue his performance for a number of years. In the process, he often quarrelled with other groups claiming to be more “authentic” Druids.
On and off, and sometimes with opposition, “Druids” did their thing on midsummer’s day at Stonehenge. By the 1980s, Profesor Glyn Daniel of Cambridge University was denouncing what he called “alternative archaeology, lunatic archaeology and bullshit archaeology”. Along with a new generation of archaeologists, he was eager to debunk the validity of new Druidical orders and possibly to have them expelled from Stonehenge. But increasingly the general public saw the Druidical mummery as harmless “heritage”. Unfortunately for the Druids, midsummer was now celebrated on the site by large crowds of New Age pagans, hippies and other lost souls as well as the Druids. It all became an increasing danger to the archaeological site itself, and finally both Druid and New Age rituals were banned from Stonehenge. At the time Hutton’s book was published (2009), there had been no Druid perfomance at Stonehenge for nearly 20 years.
While Hutton gives a comprehensive history of how modern Druidism was fabricated, he also discusses in detail why it flourished at the time it did. At first, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was the patriotic desire to prove that Britain had a “pure” monotheism, a sort of ur-Christianity, before Catholic missionaries arrived in the late Roman Empire. This played to dissatisfaction with the awkward fact that Protestant England was demonstrably built on a Catholic foundation. More recently, whatever survives of Druidism is more allied to the various neo-pagan groups that have sprung up. Druidism is one of many desperate attempts to “prove” that there was an ancient, stately, ethical religion in Britain before Christianity in any form arrived. Antiquity is connected with respectability, hence the desire to invent antique foundations for a newly-devised sect. In this, Druidism is on the same page as the equally fabricated New Age religion of Wicca (mainly devised in the 1950s and having little to do with any known ancient religion).
In the current age of fashionable hostility to Christianity, there are many fictions about the Christian era and especially about the Christian Middle Ages. Nonsense books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code tell credulous readers that “about five million” witches were burnt in the Middle Ages. The most reliable sources tell us that very few witches were executed during the Middle Ages, but that about 60,000 were executed in the Reformation era (between c.1580 and 1650). Another nonsense theory (see my post Faggots Fakery andUp Yours) claims the homosexuals were regularly burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages. Again, this is egregious bullshit. Modern Druidism isn’t as vindictive or malign in its effects as these fabrications. It is essentially harmless crankery. But it is still an example of a fiction that has warped many people’s views of the real historical past.
An image of the Druid as the benign village shaman, clothed in white with a long white beard, cutting oak-leaves with his golden sickle, concocting magic potions and dauntlessly defying the power of imperial Rome? But of course – this is the image of the Druid Panoramix in the delightful “Asterix” comic books (in English translations he is called “Getafix”). This comic book invention is just as historical as those orders which describe themselves as Druids.