Joseph A. King, author of Ireland to North America, describes this book by Peter Berresford Ellis as "a book that separates fact from mythology." I, for one, echo these sentiments. Ostensibly written for the layman, The Druids is a treasure-trove of information for the scholar. This well-written and highly readable work is both extensively researched and comprehensive in scope. Ellis, a Celtic historian and author of several excellent books on Celtic history (including The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History and Celtic Inheritance) and two dictionaries of myth (Irish Mythology and Celtic Mythology, both published by Penguin Books), shows that the Druids were not just the "priesthood" or reigning magic workers of Celtic tribal society, but the intelligentsia, a class similar to the Hindu Brahmins. Ellis highlights and compares the concepts of Celtic and Hindu society, showing the Indo-European roots and continuity between the two. This Druidic class or caste encompassed philosophers, magicians, seers, historians, judges, physicians, poets, musicians, and astronomers. Ellis reveals the reason the stories and histories show the Druids in a wide variety of vocations. Not every Druid was a poet, or magic worker, for we are dealing with an important social strata.
Taking us back to the very foundations of Celtic culture, Ellis sees the Druid caste as originating in the "food gathering age when extensive oak forests covered Europe." The Druids, literally those with "oak knowledge," would provide valuable information to the tribe when the oak was used as a source of food (acorns), firewood, tools, and shelter. This was in the early hunter-gatherer, nomadic period of Celtic civilization.
Ellis analyzes information from the foreign sources of the Greeks and the Romans, bringing to light their prejudices, and what we can truly glean from their writings. Concerning the Celtic sources, he covers a wide range of material from early Christian manuscripts which recorded both the old stories and tales, to the social information of the societies themselvesthe third oldest European written texts, after the Greek and Roman, are the Irish.
Subjects as wide-ranging as "Druidic books" and the Celts as astronomers are touched upon in the text. Ellis covers the Druidic caste's contributionsfrom concepts in the formation of early Christianity, i.e., the trinity and free will, to the influence of Brehon law on Western civilization. Other sections cover rituals, religion, and the female Druid.
The final chapter analyzes the various Druidic revivals from the 1700sJohn Aubrey and William Stukeley, and the romantic notions and images of the Druid we are still saddled withto Sybil Leek's and Gavin Frost's Celtic witchcraft claims, Colin Murray's Tree Oracle, and John Matthews's Celtic shamanism of today. Some of Ellis's comments may seem unkind, but they are insightful and honest. Revivalists should take a long hard look at exactly what they are selling.
I highly recommend this work to everyone interested in the Druids and the Celts. You may not agree with all of it, but there is something for everyone herea springboard for further research and new directions on an old subject.
Reviewed by Murtagh anDoile
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