Book Notes for Essays

The Druids by Peter Burresford Ellis

Starting 5/15/2018:

Ellis’ A Brief History of the Druids is presented as a discussion of the archaeological and written historical record, largely from external contemporary sources (that may have been hostile) 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 acts as though the conquerors’ perspectives are unbiased by their need to justify their imperialism and that there is evidence 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 (despite Irish being the third written language in Europe) 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. There are two families of Celtic languages driving from the common Celtic ancestor language – Gaelic (Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic) and Gaulish (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton). 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 in fact a tribal, pastoral society with excellent craftsmanship in textiles, jewelry, and enamels, architectural skill, advanced metalsmithing and weapon making, and superior cavalry and fighting skills. Ellis even argues that the Celts may have been responsible for the famous Roman roads.

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 (fifth to first century BCE) 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). While there were several uprisings in many of these lands, much of the Celtic world was Romanized and most of it Christianized early in that transition. It is interesting to note that throughout all of this recorded history, beginning in fiftth and sixth centuries BCE, the first mention of the Druids does not occur until the second century BCE.

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 this group is not named until the second century BCE is claimed to be due to a fundamental misunderstanding that they are a caste rather than individuals serving different functions in they society. 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. Indeed, the oak, whose name in Celtic languages is related to the word Druid, was sacred across Indo-European cultures, often being associated with a god of thunder (e.g. Thor, Jupiter, Zeus). 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 that the Druids were a caste and in describing Druidic religion and practices. I found these items to be of particular interest 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 references Vedic lore and other incidences of the number 33 being sacred 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 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.

Continued refinement 10/13/2018:

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.

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler

I have also started Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler in audible format but unabridged. I read it once years ago in the mid-1990’s. I am only in chapter one but I am finding the discussion of Pagan and Neopagan as umbrella terms for wide ranging groups and the evolution of the neosacral movement into asceticism and back to an earthier, visionary, and connected spirituality very interesting. I am also very intrigued by her discussion so far of the idea of magic. It is an area I have significant trouble with as an empiricist. I cannot quite bring myself to embrace the idea that there is this extra step of energizing, that the law of sympathy and attraction is more than the mechanistic response of the environment that reinforces and punishes behavior in such a way as to shape outcomes. When people start using psychological research to support their ideas of the occult and magic, I get itchy– the science does not support those things at all. The science describes and infers but much of that is psych woo and physics woo. I am interested to learn more and hope it will be a valuable part of developing my knowledge of the history of the movement and my self-understanding.

4/18/18: Today I listened through the end of chapter 5/25 in the audible format. I found an interesting dichotomy between how Adler speaks of modern Neopaganism speaks of polytheism and the hard polytheism inherent in ADF. I also found it interesting how much Adler emphasizes that while enduring structures are being developed, that the religion is one of orthopraxy not orthodoxy… I perceive an emphasis on building a true religion with clergy, hierarchies, orthodox beliefs (such as true polytheism rather than soft polytheism or metaphorical polytherism) in ADF that is at odds with her description of modern Neopaganism thus far. Indeed, her speaking of the danger of polytheism becoming another authoritarian way, as in Shintoism in Japan, that is used to regulate and uphold the social order really struck me. I have a friend who speaks to me of his “faith” in the gods and how hard faith is… the implication being that if I am not a hard polytheist I am taking the easy way out. While I am still very much living the question of whether or not the gods are real, independent beings, I find such an attitude uncomfortably reminiscent of conversion based faiths and their judgement of non-believers. It is a chasm I see more and more in pagan oriented websites and forums- a chasm that is becoming a source of argument and dismissal of the other person (for example on reddit).

Some of my notes from Monday and Today: Issac Bonewitz said paganism now is taking the humanistic, ecological, and creative aspects of the past without the negatives

Neopagaism is experiential but not theological

It is not a religion of pluralism.. the gods are informing powers giving shape to what is within and around us

Our society is about unification and integration but that we need to move to a psychology of the multitudes; fragmentation is OK and that we can have a multitude of aspects of self and voices within without seeking to unify them (Miller)

Some interviews have said- polytheism makes self-delusion harder- intellectualization about gods is all self-delusion– reverence for nature and diversity and desire for freedom draw many to Neopagan paths– IS AN INTERESTING CONTRAST that so far in DDTM polytheism has been treated entirely as metaphor while ADF is seeking to build a hard polytheistic religion

The idea that pagans make up an elite of sort- people who read extensively regardless of other characteristics or demographics “hands in the dirt archaeologists, scholars without degrees” Adler says are “arguing for a world of diversity made by those able to diSown… the religious and political views dominating society. IS THE IMPLICATION THAT HARD POLYTHEISM IS JUST ANOTHER WAY OF BUYING INTO THOSE VIEWS? OR IS EVEN THAT AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION?

4/20/2018: Listening to and reading more of Drawing Down the Moon. I fin the chapter on The Wiccan Revival especially interesting-it seems to really emphasize that the Neopagan movement is one of resonance… people whose families had practices of occult or folk religion sorts, people who came across Wicca, etc and felt as though they were coming home, as though there was now a name for home they embody belief in the world. I think that the scholarship is really important as well. Bonewitz’s prominence in the early criticisms and dismissal of Gardner is indicative, I think, of much of the attitude towards reconstruction versus revivalism and the relative role of scholarship between ADF, which B founded, and Wicca and some other Neopagan movements.

I found Aiden Kelly’s dismissal of the relevance of the historicity of the practices of Wicca interesting; I also find that personally I agree to a great extent. For one thing, while I think it is important that we be knowledgeable and truthful, I also think that ultimately the purpose of religion or spirituality is not necessarily to be historically accurate but to be a living, growing, personal shape in the life of the practitioners of that system. Again, how to situate the relative role of faith in such as perception is another question entirely and probably an immensely personal one. Still, Kelly hit it on the head when he said that it is more about what Gardner brought to use- goddess worship and the embodying of divinity in ritual are things I cannot imagine paganism without… although ADF does not seem to practice in this way generally.

4/23/2018: Listening through the end of the discussion of the history of wicca today… it was illuminating to say the least. I was involved as a solitary practitioner of an eclectic Wicca highly influenced by Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf as an adolescent and the myth of Wicca was still quite prevalent. Although we haven’t gotten quite that far as yet, I can see how ADF’s emphasis on scholarly work is an anodyne to this mythology; I must admit that the highly individual nature of Wicca and the deeply personal path it can allow you to create have always appealed to me, as have the ecstatic aspects. I hope that my time in ADF walking this Dedicant Path will help me to establish the same sort of sense of personal divinity and spirituality that once so pervaded my sense of the Universe and which I have so thoroughly lost. I got an email today from the OBOD seed group in San Antonio and they really do have a much less strict and structured path that is not so focused on any mandated beliefs- this remains my sticking point, the faith required by ADF’s policy of true polytheism. Regardless, there seem to be a lot of personal mythologies bound up in the development of Wicca and Adler’s book itself is heavily focused on Wicca thus far. The deeper theme, however, seems to be an emphasis on personal gnosis, ecstatic relationship with divinity, and orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.

4/25/18: was not a fan of the interview in Chapter 6. I almost think it could be harmful to scholarship about Neopaganism .. I do not think it was very representative of the ideas and beliefs of most of the Neopagans I know nor of most of the writings I’ve read There were also ethical issues I think with some of it.

The chapter on magic and ritual is interesting and challenging. Bonewitz has a significant impact on this chapter, which provides some insight into ADF… The idea that we are practicing a religion of rational or secular humanism resonated with me My own epistemology is highly empirical and mechanistic. The idea that magic as such can and does have a place on the world is deeply challenging at least in part because I yearn for it and I am always suspicious of what I desire.

The art and science is causing changes in conformity with will… The mind is the insuring of magic… Attention is the key to magic… Magic as arising from developing our mental strength and attentional capacities… It is simply acting in accordance with your trust self and desires in a targeted way, using and honing your natural senses and connecting with the world around (environmental and social) you through those senses at a nuanced level.

Idea of ritual elements as stimulants of senses to engage wider perceptions of reality. Ritual as psycho drama. Orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy arising from experience and demanding a creative response… A mystery tradition is about passing through experiences not believing certain things. Ritual versus creed keeps it small but adaptable… Hmm… So as ADF grows and develops an organizational structure is it becoming less flexible? “An item metaphysics… Aiden Kelly” your experiences are a metaphor or a mask of yours but there are always more experiences, more to reality… His assertion that all truths are metaphors resonates, “leaves you free to learn and to grow.”

The chapter on feminist witches seems historically suspect in terms of claims that feminist politics and witchcraft are intrinsically linked… Why certainly there is reason to believe that witch is a term used to justify theft and harm of others, to say that historical witches share a set of characteristics and beliefs and actions is to create a myth that might be powerful but ultimately may also alienate many, make and female, in Neopagan groups. I do really like the idea of finding actions that we do to create a symbolic language that has mutual meaning… It implies a level of communication that can only increase our connection to each other, ourselves, and the world. Still, it’s interesting that we often see people in wealthier countries taking “primitive” practices such as moon huts and natural birthing, things that lead to risk and death among those people, and romanticizing them.

4/26/2018: The church of aphrodite is an uncertainty warning to me… I see the strength of Neopaganism as its opened and flexibility, it’s welcoming of myriad peoples and paths, it’s plurality rather than dogma. To me the idea of a conservative monotheistic paganism is strange, but then I think about that same plurality and realize that such faiths exist because they met someone’s needs and I am still free to find one that meets mine.

4/27/2018: I found the chapter on reconstructions integrating. For one thing, many of them make visionary claims or have almost dogmatic practices that do not appeal to me, personally. It’s interesting that she sees Heatgenry as especially important.

4/28/2018: I really was stirred by the idea that we can and indeed are responsible to choose the myths we live by and the way we embody them. Worship is a firm of communication and communion not a basement… What an interesting idea.

4/29/2018: I find it interesting that the discussion on ADF focuses on Bonewitz as a personality and the needs he sought to address for himself. I can see that it arose from the new reformed offer, which aside from a playful spirit.. And my experience this far has been one of people maintaining that sense of humor and joyfulness but adding in scholarship and genuine dedication to building a spiritual relationship and path. The chapter on queer spirituality and male spirituality was noticeably shorter than the section on feminist movements within the pagan community. They also provided a lot to think about in terms of inclusiveness and living my whole self, as a queer individual, within my religion. The next Chapter is one of the best thought provoking in my opinion… Bonewitz statement about pagans needing to live their religion and to think deeply about how their daily life expresses their beliefs.

4/30/2018: the chapter on the material plane has been deeply thought provoking. The idea that the energies and processes we study in science and psychology are the same we use in magic is one I have generally scoffed at… But this is where the challenge to my epistemology and ontology come from. These are the questions I feel most strongly the need to live my way into the answers… I refuse to lead two lives. Its like the aspect of the path about what you are doing to live more integrated in nature. I seek to live my ethics. I am not always good at it, sometimes I find myself even being downright bad at it. But if I am responsible for the meaning of my life, I want that meaning to be ultimately in line with my own values and the balance of life. What does it mean to live as a druid? How does one drive a car, use plastic, so in native grocery stores, use medication, pay taxes… And still live your ethics?

The discussion of scientolatry really challenged me as well. I can honestly say that I have held empiricism and science as the only real way of knowing, in complete rejection of my own experiences in my own life when I was younger. I have, in trying to prove myself sane and well balanced, rejected anything which could not be backed up by data, ignoring the highly biased methods of the scientific process (in terms of funding, grant competition, and even the choice of theory or subject).

5/1/2018: I find the discussion on the development of a culture very helpful… Community is an important aspect of the function of religion more broadly in many people’s lives. I have wondered whether the many growing pains in the development of festivals and other outlets for broader pagan culture is part of why people drift in and out of active practice and involvement. I personally feel a draw towards community service but I must answer whether that is sincere or another way for me to prove my work as an individual. The discussion of music was especially poignant… I think music is a thread weaving us together, both in ritual and in life. A shared liturgy and collection of songs and stories helps build a culture. Festival fire ecstatic events versus intellectual ritual events means paganism can meet needs of all.

5/2/2018: does community require dogma? Can we grow without community? Can we build services for our needy and elderly? The idea of adapting paganism for other planets and for astronauts… as we seek to move beyond our physical world it is interesting to consider whether another planet would have spirits we could recognize, honor, and connect with, especially if we colonize that planet by force