Ethnic Studies Book Report, no. 2
By Peter Berresford Ellis
This is a very comprehensive survey of current knowledge on the ancient Druids as well as a critical look at the ancient sources normally used as the basis of books of this nature. The main point Mr. Ellis makes about the Roman and other contemporary accounts of the Druids is that these authors were antagonistic to the Celts and their writings often may have been colored by the need to spread propaganda against the Celts during the times of the Gallic Wars.
One long-standing charge leveled against the Druids is that of human sacrifice. Caesar and other writers brought it up and indicated that it was quite common. However, Mr. Ellis noted that there was virtually no mention of it at all in Celtic myth or tradition, and most classical writers were quoting Poseidonios who may have got it wrong originally. Mr. Ellis states that there are other references “which might imply the existence of human sacrifice but as a very ancient custom long since abandoned by the end of the first millennium B.C.” So the entire concept of human sacrifice as anything other than rare is put in doubt.
On the subject of the Celtic Gods, Mr. Ellis states that “I would go so far as to argue that the main Celtic pantheon numbered thirty three,” while not telling us which ones they were! As there are extant 374 names of Celtic Gods out there it would have been helpful to have a list. But more important is the concept that the Celts looked upon their gods as their ancestors, not their creators, similar to the Hindu myths and sagas. This is quite a switch for people like ourselves raised in the current Abrahamic culture at large.
As for the philosophy of the Druids, Diodorus Siculus and Diogenes Laertius stated that the study of nature was tied to moral philosophy, and that the Druid's chief maxim was that people should, “worship the gods, do no evil and exercise courage.” Old Irish texts indicate that the Druids were greatly concerned with Truth and that an Act of Truth had magical power.
One of the more fascinating concepts, though, deals with the Celtic idea of immortality of the soul. In contrast to the Christian ideas of heaven and hell, the Celts believed that a death in this world led to a re-birth in the fabulous Otherworld (Avalon, Isles of the Blest, etc.), and that a death in that Otherworld led to a re-birth again in this world. So a constant exchange of souls took place between the two worlds. Philostratus of Tyana wrote that the Celts celebrated a birth with mourning for the death in the Otherworld, and regarded death with joy for the birth in the Otherworld!
As for legal authority, it seems that the Druids had power even greater than that of the kings, and that as an arbiter of the law their word had equal weight in Galatia , Gaul , Britain or Ireland , indicating a widespread international institution. Several sources confirm their role as international arbiters and ambassadors, both male and female.
Druids were historians. Their lore was of the oral kind, only, but it is known that in 69 A.D., the Druids of Gaul had kept a knowledge of how Celts had, in c. 390-387 B.C., sacked Rome , capturing the city but not the Capitoline hill, something the Roman historians attested to. And in Irish mythology, the Druids are the ones to turn to for information and advice on history and genealogy.
Druids were also physicians, poets, musicians, seers and magicians. The documented medieval colleges of Ireland , considered at the time to be the best in Europe , were obviously based on older, Druidic ones. One almost haiku form of teaching was called in Ireland, Deibhidh. An example of this from a 10 th century poem reads as follows:
takes too much time, and too much care,
when at the very end of all,
Death catches each one unaware.
In both Irish and Welsh mythology, the telling of fortunes or the forecasting of the future is an essential part of each story. And usually it is the Druid fulfilling this function. Even the goddess Brigit is portrayed as both a poet and a diviner and so seems to be the patron-goddess of divination.
Most ancient Irish literature is full of Druids casting spells and using magical power. In the story of the Battle of Magh Tuireadh the Druid uttered his curse standing on one foot, with one arm outstretched and one eye closed. Cuchulainn also used this same method when threatening Medb.
Mr. Ellis closed his book by briefly covering the “Druid Revival” of the last few centuries, particularly pointing out the fabrications and distortions of the facts by so many people, down to the modern day. He also decries the tendency of new-age types to put a superficial Celtic gloss over their activities, calling themselves “New Age Celts”, preaching harmony with nature and fighting to protect animal life while at the same time ignoring the fact that Celtic culture itself is in danger. Once the Celtic languages disappear the very cultures themselves will follow. This is a very uncomfortable fact that many of us will have to confront.