Sunday, December 5, 2010

Caesar’s Druids Review

Caesar’s Druids; Story of an Ancient Priesthood
Miranda Aldhouse-Green
2010, Yale University Press

I’ve read rather a lot of books about the ancient Druids over the years, and it’s delightful to see this excellent new piece. The first edition hardback is handsomely produced, with dozens of illustrations of artifacts. The 267 page text is supported by 30 pages of notes and 20 of bibliography, plus a useful index. While Green’s style remains personable and occasionally humorous, this is in every way a scholastic treatment of the subject and not a popularization.

“Caesar’s Druids” is a survey of what we know about the ancient Gallo-British category, the Druids. It begins with the classical authors’ discussion of the Druids, laying out the ‘noble savage’ and ‘merely savage’ schools of comment. However the author is an archeologist, and she concentrates heavily on the archeology of the questions of who the Druids were, and what they did.

The book begins with Pliny, and sets the tone for how the subject will be approached. The famous description of Druids in white robes cutting mistletoe after sacrificing a bull is deconstructed in detail. Using the best current archeology of Gaul and Britain, she looks at bull sacrifice practices, sickles, and lunar symbolism in Celtic artifacts. She also brings cross-cultural comparisons into play. Throughout the book she is willing to seek to understand what a Druid might have been doing by examining what other tribal, polytheistic peoples have done, or do today. So she finds a perfectly apt quote concerning white robes among an African cattle-culture quite acceptable as support for the idea of Druids in white robes. She is careful to use such things only as suggestive hints, however, and she refrains from trying to tell us ‘what the Druids really did’ at all times through the book.

The book assumes that the classical authors were describing what they knew of a culture and religious system that actually existed. A few pages are spent dismissing the argument that Druids are a classical literary construct, and then that idea is considered finished. Caesar is considered a reliable witness (as he is throughout the scholastic world, now) though he may quote/plagiarize older sources. Still, Caesar was on the ground among Druids, and wrote about it. Green uses classical description as her starting point as she combs the archeological record for traces of the Celts’ religious professionals.

One thing that will please Pagans is Green’s total acceptance of the Druids as religious professionals – that is, as a priesthood. From the title on through, Druids are described as priests, physicians, bards and possibly engineers, the archeology nicely supporting classical descriptions of the multi-skilled intellectual class. Green looks for material evidence of religious activity – sacrificial practices (animal and human – the book assumes that Druid human sacrifice did occur), temples and sanctuaries, Druidic tools and regalia, actual depictions of Druids and their tombs. She finds some remarkable stuff, including possible divination tools unknown to moderns.

The author is also interested in situating the Druids as the magico-religious practitioners of a traditional people. She examines the idea of ‘shamanism’ among them and while reaching no conclusions finds interesting parallels that may illuminate some archeological finds. She looks at calendar-keeping and festivals. Her discussions of the power of sacred groves, and of musicians and singers as religious specialists are excellent. She neither accepts nor scoffs at the cultural descriptions of sacred things, often reporting spirit or spiritual events without comment.

The book rounds out with a fine chapter on Druidic afterlife teachings, and an interesting look at what Druidic survival and resistance might have been like under Roman rule. There is also a good chapter on the question of women Druids, and finally a short and rather whimsical history of British Druid revivals. While the author treats these a little lightly, she does not disparage modern Paganism, and in fact takes its (our) side against those who would dismiss it (us) as merely silly.

This excellent survey should be on the shelf of any student of Druidry who wants to keep up with recent archeology. It may also just kick up some new ideas. Three cool things I learned:
1: “Crane Bags” may be legit.
2: Druids may actually have used rattles for trance (if not drums…)
3: Wands are just as important as I thought they were.
Thanks, Miranda, for the teaching and the inspiration.


druidkirk said...

I've owned the book for some time, and now that my dissertation is done, I think I'll finally get around to reading it. Thanks for the review, Ian!

Pallas Renatus said...

Wow, this sounds excellent; I'll have to pick up a copy soon.