Idealised Past: a Thorny Path To Nowhere
“Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better.” Oscar Wilde
Much of the basis for contemporary Paganism is based on the cultures and religions of a number of European cultures and tribes such as the Celts, Saxons, Scots, Irish, Germanic, Nordic and Greco-Romans, and although it may be true that these culture had developed social and religious structures, we should not ignore the fact that these ancient people were not “noble savages”.
In reality, the “good old days” were not as wonderful as we imagine them to have been.
In ‘War Before Civilisation’, Lawrence H Keeley, a professor at the University of Illinois, calculates that 87% of tribal societies were at war more than once per year, and about 65% of them were fighting continuously. He writes “The attrition rate of numerous close-quarter clashes, which characterise endemic warfare, produces casualty rates of up to 60%, compared to 1% of the combatants as is typical in modern warfare.”
Steven Arthur Pinker, a Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author wrote “One half of the people found in a Nubian (a region along the Nile river) cemetery dating to as early as 12000 years ago had died of violence.”
And this was not unique to ancient Western and north African societies.
“The Yellowknives tribe in Canada was effectively obliterated by massacres committed by Dogrib Indians, and disappeared from history shortly thereafter. Similar massacres occurred among the Eskimos, the Crow Indians, and countless others. These mass killings occurred well before any contact with the West.”
In ‘The fraud of primitive authenticity’ by Spengler it is stated that according to anthropologist Dr Lawrence H Keeley “Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples.”
The ancient world, and its wars, were rather bloody and far from noble.
HUNTER GATHERERS AND NATURE
The idea, or ideal in this case, that paganism was born at the time when humans lived in harmony with nature and everything around them who did not exploit nature etc. is a myth, if not a modern construct to be blamed on poor research.
We are told that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were fitter, leaner and healthier than we are, and that they did not suffer from cancer, heart-disease, high-blood pressure, obesity, etc. In fact there is little evidence of that. What many tend to ignore is that these ancestors often starved, died of infections due to injuries, were lunch for wild beasts and most probably did not live beyond the age of forty.
In ‘Hunter-gatherers Noble or savage?’ an article in the Economist, “The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest. Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the mega fauna in North America 11 000 years ago and Australia 30 000 years before that. This was also true in Eurasia. The earliest of the great cave painters, working at Chauvet in southern France, 30 000to 35 000 years ago, was obsessed with rhinoceroses. A later artist, working at Lascaux 15 000 years later, depicted mostly bison, bulls and horses – rhinoceroses must have been driven close to extinction by then.”
And our pagan ancestors were mostly scavengers and carnivores of the worse kind.
“Dental isotopes of Neanderthals show them to be just below the wolf in their carnivory; they passed from the scene about 35 000 years ago. But Cro-Magnon (Homo sapiens) dentition reveals that they were only slightly less carnivorous. And they are the predecessors to us all.” (‘Why Our Ancestors Were Not Vegetarians’ and excerpt from ‘The New Evolution’ by Arthur De Vany, Ph.D)
When it comes to history among many contemporary Pagans everything Celtic tends to be one of our weaknesses. Most Pagans do not seem to have the foggiest idea of what or who the ancient Celtic tribes really were – especially when it comes to the so-called British Celts to which many Pagans, paths and traditions claim a link or even ancestry to.
Dr Simon James a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Leicester, who specialises in Iron Age and Roman archaeology, Celtic ethnicity and the archaeology of violence and warfare, writes that calling the British Iron Age Celtic is “so misleading that it is best abandoned”.
According to him, and other historians, coining ancient Brits as Celtic is an invention of the 18th century – in fact the name “Celt” was not utilised when referring to people of Britain until that century.
It seems this misnomer came from the discovery around 1700 that the non-English island tongues related to that of the ancient continental Gauls, who really were called Celts. However, James says that language does not determine ethnicity.
By 300 CE, almost everyone in Britannia was culturally Roman, even though of indigenous descent and speaking a number of dialects. After Rome collapsed in about 410 CE, Romanised civilisation vanished. By the sixth century, most of Britannia was taken over by Germanic kingdoms.
“The Germanic settlement of Britain resulted in Anglo-Saxon, or English, displacement of and cultural assimilation of the indigenous culture, the Brythonic speaking British culture. As in what became England, indigenous Brythonic Celtic culture in some of the south-eastern parts of what became and areas of what became the Northwest of England succumbed to Germanic influence, due to the extension of overlordship and settlement from the Anglo-Saxon areas to the south.” (Wikipedia)
Between the 15th and 17th centuries Scots spread into Galloway, Carrick and parts of the Scottish Highlands, as well as into the Northern Isles – the Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland were nominally part of the Kingdom of Norway until the 15th century, and a version of the Norse language was spoken there from the Viking invasions.
Anglo-Saxon is a term used by historians to designate the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled the south and east of Great Britain beginning in the early5th century CE, and the period from their creation of the English nation to the Norman conquest. The Anglo-Saxon era denotes the period of English history between about 550 and 1066 CE.
The Germanic domination over most of the British Isles was to remain in force until the Norman conquest of 1066. The Viking raids and settlement changed very little in the customs of the British people as the Germanic culture and Viking Norse culture were very similar.
According to Dr Simon James in ‘Peoples of Britain’, in Gaul the Franks “merged with an intact Gallo-Roman society to create Latin-based French culture, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain represented no such cultural continuity; they drew their cultural inspiration, and their dominant language, almost entirely from across the North Sea” .
People referred to as Celts first appear, in Greek texts, during the period archaeologists call the Iron Age. This was the last phase of prehistory, which in Europe North of the Alps comprises roughly the last 600 to 800 years BCE.
Many of the peoples of Europe at the time, from Spain in the West to the Balkans in the East, and from Northern Italy to the English Channel, were regarded by Greeks and Romans as related to each other, under the names Celts (Greek: Keltoi; Latin: Celtae, Gauls (Latin Galli) or Galatians (Greek Galatae).
The idea that all Ancient Celts were basically alike is also wrong.
The Celts only arrived in what is now the British isles in around 600 BCE, and Celtic referred only to the Ancient Gauls of France and related Continental peoples. The concept that the Scots, Welsh, Irish and some other groups in the British Isles may be called Celtic evolved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – as such it is pretty much a modern invention imposed on the past.
A druid was a member of the priestly class in Gaul and later in Ireland and possibly other parts Britain and Celtic western Europe, during the Iron Age. Very little is known about the druids because they left no written record, and the only evidence of them is a few descriptions by Greek, Roman authors and medieval Irish writers.
While archaeological evidence has been uncovered pertaining to the religious practices of the Iron Age people, according to historian Ronald Hutton in ‘Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain’, “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids”.
The earliest known reference to the druids dates to 200 BCE, although the oldest actual description comes from Julius Caesar in his “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”. Later Greco-Roman writers who also described the druids, including Cicero, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder.
According Hutton “we can know virtually nothing of certainty about the ancient druids, so that – although they certainly existed – they function more or less as legendary figures”.
However, the sources provided about them by ancient and medieval writers, coupled with archaeological evidence, can give us an idea of what they might have performed as a part of their religious duties.
One of the few things that both the Greco-Roman and the Irish sources agree on was that they played an important part in society. In his description, Julius Caesar claimed that they were one of the two most important social groups in the region (alongside the nobles), and were responsible for organising worship and sacrifices, divination and judicial procedure in Gaul society. Two other classical writers, Diodorus Siculus and Strabo also wrote about the role of druids in Gallic society, claiming that the druids were held in such respect that if they intervened between two armies they could stop the battle.
But what was taught to druid novices anywhere is pure guesswork: of the druids’ oral literature not one certifiably ancient verse is known to have survived, even in translation.
The earliest recorded mention of the druids comes from 200 BCE, when two Greek texts, one of which was a history of philosophy written by Sotion of Alexandria, and the other which was a study of magic that was widely albeit incorrectly attributed to Aristotle, mentioned the existence of “Druidas”, or wise men belonging to the Keltois (Celts) and Galatias (either the Galatians or the Gauls). While both of these texts are now lost, they were quoted in the 2nd century CE work Vitae by Diogenes Laertius.
Another classical writer to take up describing the druids was Diodorus Siculus, who published this description in his Bibliotheca historicae in 36 BCE. Alongside the druids, or as he called them “drouidas”, whom he viewed as philosophers and theologians, he also remarked how there were poets and singers in Celtic society whom he called “bardous” or bards. Such an idea was expanded on by Strabo, writing in about 20 CE, who declared that amongst the Gauls there were three types of honoured figures: the poets and singers known as “bardoi”, the diviners and specialists in the natural world known as “o’vateis”, and those who studied moral philosophy the “druidai”.
During the Middle Ages, after Ireland and Wales were Christianised, druids appeared in a number of written sources, tales and stories such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, but also in the hagiographies of various saints. These were all written by Christian monks, who according to Hutton “may not merely have been hostile to the earlier paganism but actually ignorant of it”, and so would not have been particularly reliable, but at the same time may provide clues as to the practices of druids in Ireland and Wales.
The Irish passages referring to druids were “more numerous than those on the classical texts” of the Greeks and Romans, and paint a somewhat different picture of them.
The druids in Irish literature – for whom words such as “drui”, “draoi”, “drua” and “drai” are used – were sorcerers with supernatural powers, who are respected in society, particularly for their ability to perform divination. At the same time, the term druid is sometimes used to refer to any figure who uses magic, for instance in the Fenian Cycle, both giants and warriors are referred to as druids when they cast a spell, even though they are not usually referred to as such; as Hutton noted, in medieval Irish literature “the category of druid is very porous”.
Whilst druids featured in many medieval Irish sources, they were far rarer in their Welsh counterparts. Unlike the Irish texts, the Welsh term commonly seen as referring to the druids, “dryw”, was used to refer purely to prophets and not to sorcerers or pagan priests.
As the historian Jane Webster stated, “individual druids… are unlikely to be identified archaeologically”, a view which was echoed by Hutton.
In ‘Who were the Druids?’ by AP Fitzpatrick, in examining what he believed to be astral symbolism on Late Iron Age swords, expressed difficulties in relating any material culture, even the Coligny calendar, with druidic culture. Nonetheless, some archaeologists have attempted to link certain discoveries with written accounts of the druids, for instance the archaeologist Anne Ross linked what she believed to be evidence of human sacrifice in Celtic pagan society – such as the Lindow Man bog body – to the Greco-Roman accounts of human sacrifice being officiated over by the druids.
From the 18th century, England and Wales experienced a revival of interest in the druids. John Aubrey (1626-1697) was the first modern writer to connect Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments with the druids. John Toland (1670-1722) shaped ideas about the druids during much of the 18th and 19th centuries. He founded the Ancient Druid Order in London which existed from 1717 until it split into two groups in 1964.
John Toland was fascinated by Aubrey’s Stonehenge theories, and wrote his own book about the monument without crediting Aubrey. The roles of bards in 10th century Wales had been established by Hywel Dda and it was during the 18th century that the idea arose that druids had been their predecessors.
The 19th-century idea, gained from uncritical reading of the Gallic Wars, that under cultural-military pressure from Rome the druids formed the core of 1st-century BCE resistance among the Gauls, was examined and dismissed before World War II, though it remains current in folk history.
Chateaubriand’s novel Les Martyrs (1809) narrated the doomed love of a druid priestess and a Roman soldier; though Chateaubriand’s theme was actually the triumph of Christianity over Pagan druids.
A central figure in 19th century Romanticist Neo-Druidism was the Welshman Edward Williams, known as Iolo Morganwg. His writings, published as ‘The Iolo Manuscripts’ (1849) and ‘Barddas’ (1862) are not considered credible by contemporary scholars. Williams claimed to have collected ancient knowledge in a ‘Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain’ he had organised.
Many scholars deem part or all of Williams’s work to be fabrication, and purportedly many of the documents are of his own fabrication, but a large portion of the work has indeed been collected from mesopagan sources dating from as far back as 600 CE. Regardless, it has become impossible to separate the original source material from the fabricated work, and while bits and pieces of the Barddas still turn up in some contemporary Druidic works, the documents are considered irrelevant by most serious scholars. (Wikipedia)
In ‘The Druids: A Study in Keltic Prehistory’ TD Kendrick dispelled (1927) the pseudo-historical aura that had accrued to druids, asserting that “a prodigious amount of rubbish has been written about druidism”.
The British Museum says “Modern Druids have no direct connection to the druids of the Iron Age. Many of our popular ideas about the druids are based on the misunderstandings and misconceptions of scholars 200 years ago. These ideas have been superseded by later study and discoveries.”
The archaeologist Stuart Piggott, author of ‘The Druids’ (1968), accepted the Greco-Roman accounts and considered the druids to be a barbaric and savage priesthood who performed human sacrifices. This view was largely supported by another archaeologist, Anne Ross, author of ‘Pagan Celtic Britain’ (1967) and ‘The Life and Death of a Druid Prince’ (1989), although she believed that they were essentially tribal priests, similar to shamans.
Ross’ views were largely accepted by two other prominent archaeologists to write on the subject, Miranda Aldhouse-Green, author of ‘The Gods of the Celts’ (1986), ‘Exploring the World of the Druids’ (1997) and ‘Caesar’s Druids: Story of an Ancient Priesthood’ (2010) and Barry Cunliffe, author of ‘Iron Age Communities in Britain’ (1991) and ‘The Ancient Celts’ (1997).
A lot of this confusion also stems from the equally pseudo-historical presentations of ancient structures found in much of Europe and the British isles. Stonehenge was built in stages over several millennia, with the final megalithic stage completed in possibly 1600 BCE – as such it unlikely to have been connected to early druids.
“No stage of the building of Stonehenge is later than about 1200 BCE, and any connection with the druids, who flourished a thousand years later, is purely conjectural.” (Atlas of Ancient Archaeology – Jacquetta Hawkes ed).
“The early belief that the monument was built as a temple for sky worship has never been definitively proved. Even more fanciful was an earlier notion that Stonehenge was connected with the druids, a caste of Celtic priests.” (Compton’s Encyclopedia. )
The first historic references to Celts settling in Britain are to migrations in 100 BCE of Belgic tribes from the area between the Rhine, the Seine and the Marne rivers.
The archaeological record provides a bit more evidence, but even then, the earliest reference found to a Celtic-language speaking people in Britain is 600 BCE with the arrival of the so-called Iron-Age A peoples. Stonehenge was already finished, and had been for centuries before that. (Powell, The Celts. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983; reprinted 1991. 52.)
Julius Caesar and other Roman writers told of a Celtic priesthood who flourished around the time of their first conquest (55 BCE). By this time, though, the stones had been standing for almost 2000 years.
The erroneous connection of the Stonehenge to the druids was first made around three centuries ago by the antiquary John Aubrey.
The best guess seems to be that the Stonehenge site was begun by the people of the late Neolithic period (around 3 000 BCE) and carried forward by people from a new economy which was arising at this time. These new people, called Beaker Folk because of their use of pottery drinking vessels, began to use metal implements and to live in a more communal fashion than their ancestors. Some think that they may have been immigrants from the continent, but that contention is not supported by archaeological evidence.
Of course the Celts might have used Stonehenge, but there is not a lot of archaeological data to support heavy use in the later Bronze age.
• Cairns and Tumuli: Tumuli are dolmens covered over with earth, sometimes to form a pyramid-like shape; and cairns are composed of stones piled up around dolmen-type openings to create small rooms or chambers in their interior. The stone cairns are believed to date back to around 4700 BCE. The tumuli are believed to be more recent than the cairns –dating back to around 4000 BCE.
• Menhirs and Dolmens: Stones set vertically into the ground (one third below the surface and two thirds above) ranging in height from a few centimetres to several metres. Dolemns, also known as stone tables, these typically consist of two vertical stones set in the ground supporting a horizontal stone balanced across them. The oldest menhirs and dolmens are believed to be at least as old as the oldest cairns, but it is thought that new menhirs were still being erected up until 2000 BCE.
• Allées Couvertes: These are effectively a series of dolmens placed beside each other to produce a corridor-like space inside. Some are believed to date back to 3200 BCE and it is thought that structures of this sort were still being built up until around 2000 BCE.
According to an article by Gareth Lewis, first published in the Central Brittany Journal, it must be borne in mind that these dates are based on highly circumstantial evidence: there is no proof that the people who left these relics in and around the megaliths were the people who actually built them.
People who are not expert in this field often assume that it ought to be a simple matter for modern science to determine the exact age of each specific megalith. This is not the case and there is, in fact, no known technique that will give even the slightest indication of when a particular stone was quarried, moved or set in place. As far as science is concerned, a stone that one sees in a field could have been placed there a hundred years ago, or a hundred thousand years ago. Similarly, it may be possible, by matching the composition of the rocks to determine where a particular stone was quarried, but it is not possible to tell when. Nor is it possible to tell how many times a stone was moved before being placed in its current position.
It is for these reasons that modern experts have been unable to completely dispel ideas that the megaliths are not stone-age in origin but date back to a far older civilisation.
Yet there is an obvious difference between the Celtic druids and the megalithic priests before them – one of these differences was that the druids did not, as far as is known, used great stone temples, using rather natural shrines, springs and groves.
Some, if not many, Pagans seems to hold on to historical concepts and ideals that, academically speaking, are known to have been fabricated – and sadly continue to be fabricated.
It may be our duty to remember and respect our past, but we should never blindly long for it. As Pagans it is important that we KNOW our past, but, I also think that one of the surest – and easiest – ways not to change and adapt as a contemporary religion is to idealise lies.
Contemporary Paganism is not an ancient religion, it is a modern construct, and as such it should be allowed to keep on evolving, and this development should be, and can only be, based on facts and not fiction.
“The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealised past.” – Robertson Davies
– The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mac Cumhaill by Jones, Mary
– Fosterage, Kinship, & Legend, Cambridge University Press, Comparative Studies in Society and History (2004), 46: 587-615 by P Parkes
– Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2009 by Ronald Hutton
Theories on Stonehenge Druid Megaliths and the Celtic Calendar by James Hamilton
– Hunter-gatherers Noble or savage? The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest from the Economist
– Pagan Romanticism and the Examined Life by Star Foster
– Noble savage article –Wikipedia
– The Celtic Druids by John Michell