Book Review: Hearth Culture

3. Short book reviews.  (325 word min. each)


Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. Robinson, 2002.

Ellis’ A Brief History of the Druids is a discussion of the archaeological and historical record, largely from external contemporary sources and post-Christianized Irish sources, explicating the roles, beliefs, and practices of the ancient Celtic intellectual class known as the Druids. The author argued that much of the treatment of the subject unjustifiably treat the conquerors’ perspectives as unbiased and that evidence exists that the Druid class existed much longer than many historians suppose. He also makes clear the lack of trustworthy primary source material due in part to the druidic prohibition against recording sacred material, the timing of the recording of the extant records, and the occasional destruction of Celtic texts by various factions throughout history. The author proceeds to present what is known about the Celts, their worldview, and cultural practices, how the Druids evolved in that culture, the source materials and the impact of their historical contexts, and then to discuss specifically female Druids, religious practices, and roles in Celtic society, before ending with a discussion of Druid revivals, which the author is clearly scornful of.

The Celts are Indo-European in origin and the IE hypothesis began the discussion of the history of Celtic movements across Europe into Anatolia. They were the first European culture north of the Alps to enter the written record and the dominant civilization from Ireland to Anatolia, the Danube to northern Italy, down into the Iberian peninsula. They also had a settlement in Egypt. The Celts are often portrayed as barbaric or as the romanticized “noble savage” but were a tribal, pastoral society with excellent craftsmanship in many area, architectural skill, advanced metalsmithing and weapon making, and superior fighting skills.

Ellis illustrates the Celts as having a caste system similar to that of many IE cultures. They lived within a complex law system that included care and protection for all members of society and the sick, had women in positions of power and learning, held ownership to be communal, and elected their leadership at all levels. Their military might and wealth, being traders around the Mediterranean, led to constant contact with the Greeks and then Romans. After several centuries of fighting, political alliances with enemies of the Romans, and conquest on both sides, Rome was able to incorporate all of the Celtic lands to the Danube, through Gaul, and across Southern Britain into their empire (by 100 CE). It is interesting to note that throughout this recorded history, beginning in fifth and sixth centuries BCE, the first mention of the Druids does not occur until the second century BCE. The history with the Romans is particularly interesting given the arguments made regarding the unreliability of many of their reports, particularly those by Caesar.

The central thesis of the author regarding the origins of the Druids is that they are a caste common across all Celtic societies made up of functionaries in a variety of intellectual, philosophical, leadership, and priestly capacities. The fact that they are not named until the second century BCE is claimed to be because chroniclers of the time misunderstood the nature of their society and did not recognize them as a caste. They arose, he argues, from those in pre-Celtic societies who had knowledge about the environment vital to survival, especially the oak, which provided warmth, shelter, and a key food item, the acorn. This is hypothesized to be the same origin as the Brahmin caste of Hindu culture, where trees are similarly venerated as homes of the gods. The Brahmins conducted similar functions in that culture.

Ellis frequently drops tidbits of information relevant to broader proto-Indo-European culture as evidence in his argument and in describing Druidic religion and practices. I found these items to be interesting but sometimes used overly much to support his own thesis without referencing additional support, as when he claims that there were 33 gods in the Celtic pantheon and uses Vedic lore and other incidences of the number 33 in myth as evidence. Indeed, the biggest concern I have with the work as a whole, despite its readability and breadth of coverage of Celtic hearth culture, is the lack of systematic referencing. I have no way to identify the primary source material on which he bases each claim except in rare instances where he quotes, and I may thus be able to search a name and quotation. This is deeply problematic in a scholarly work, especially one intending to argue a thesis as his does. It makes it difficult to rust his extensive writing about Druidic religion, ritual, and wisdom when he simultaneously acknowledges that very little verifiable information is available to illuminate our understanding of these topics.

Still, there was much of value in the work. Ellis’ assertion that the Celts do not “abrogate their will to anyone but themselves” provided an interesting context for much of the material. What I have read of Celtic myth does appear to support the idea that the Shining Ones are ancestors, heroes, rather than beings entirely divorced from human development and lineage. I found much to consider in relation to the Core Order and the Nine Virtues in the importance of the waters, the Otherworld, sacrifice, and fire as well as the complex of philosophies they taught. Certainly, there appears to be reason to believe that education, the rule of law, and social custom were powerful tools in the hands of the Druids and the common person, with personal liberty and justice seeking balance against hierarchy and military and economic might. There are some potentially useful lessons there as modern Druids in a time of turmoil, injustice, and fracturing social structures. Overall, I found this a valuable and important read that will form a useful overview from which to develop further explorations of the Celtic hearth culture.

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