“The Druids” by Peter Berresford Ellis – a book review

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This is the preferred ethnic studies book review I did for the ADF Dedicant Pragram when I rejoined in 2011. Since that time, I have changed my hearth culture to Anglo-Saxon (with some Celtic hold-overs), but I plan to include this review in addition to an Anglo-Saxon book review.

Preferred Ethnic Studies (Celtic) Book Review:
“The Druids” (also marketed as “A Brief History of the Druids”)
by Peter Berresford Ellis
ISBN 0-8028-3798-0

“The Druids” by Peter Berresford Ellis is an in depth introduction of what is known of the historical Druids. It begins by describing the Celtic world, it’s culture and origins, including etymology of the word Celt (hidden people) and etymology of the word Druid; “oak wise”- the Druids may have been the first to discover that acorns could be ground up and used to make bread. He examines, in quite a bit of depth, how the Druids were seen through foreign eyes and gives reason as to why we can’t quite trust foreign sources, as there usually isn’t evidence to back them up, and because foreign writings were often propaganda to justify Roman military campaigns. We also learn what the Celtic peoples had to say about the Druids, the role of female Druids and the heightened role of women in Celtic culture in general, as compared to other cultures of the time. Then the actual religion and rituals of the Druids is thoroughly examined. Chapter eight goes into the details of the many roles that the druids played in Celtic society; the Druidic schools, Druidic books, Druids as philosophers, judges, historians, poets and musicians, physicians, seers, astronomers and astrologers, and magicians. The book concludes with a review of the emergence of renewed interest in the Druids in the 1600 and 1700’s, and the Druid revival groups of the 1800’s that continue to this day.
My first thoughts were that it is obvious why this book was suggested in Ár nDraíocht Féin dedicant reading, and that is because it gives a thorough and accurate review of the historical Druids. However, another item of relevance for ADF that I see as standing out in this work is the many references to the commonalities among Indo-European religions. Since ADF is rather unique among modern Druid groups in that we include all Indo-European pantheons as possibilities in our worship, I think the mention of this is significant. Our tradition is often “under fire” for such inclusion and it can be hard to explain to outsiders. This book demonstrates, in many instances, a common Indo-European denominator. Its not a far leap to say that a variety of Indo-European peoples may have found common ground in the religion of the Druids. The Druids were a unifying factor among the many Celtic cultures. It stands to reason that due to the historical Druids’ widespread renown and respect, if history had played out different, they may have emerged as a spiritual authority of many Indo-European cultures in addition to the Celts.
A third point of relevance for ADF, that I see in the book is the discussion of Druidic rituals; the origins and nature of water reverence and worship is given much attention in chapter seven, as are fire customs. Add this to the plentiful evidence of tree worship given in chapter two, and we find the historical basis of ADF’s well, fire, and tree sacred center concept.
“The Druids” by Peter Berresford Ellis holds quite a bit of significance for me, as a person who has chosen to follow the ways of modern day Druids. There is a lot of information packed into this slim, readable volume. It has become my source book on what the Druids were and were not. Upon finishing this work I am struck by the sheer excellence and accomplishments of the historical Druids and the Celtic peoples and the sheer tragedy of their eventual and prolonged oppression.
The author paints a picture of the Druids being a class of people much like the Brahmins of India. They are depicted as a class of scholars and philosophers, authorities in legal matters, as well as doctors, poets and musicians. He emphasizes that the Druids were not necessarily priests, but that they were a class that the priests came out of. I see a spiritual component in nearly all these roles held by the Druids.
In this book we are given a glimpse of what Druid religion and ritual was really like. The tripartite nature of their cosmology is clearly defined, as are the fire, water and tree worship mentioned earlier in this review. In other words, this book can be used as a source of demonstrating that a “truer to history” method of worship can be found in ADF’s style of ritual than in the romanticized 19th century traditions of Druidry.
It is unfortunate, yet understandable that the author paints an unfavorable picture of modern Druid revival groups, given that his only examples are the romantic revival groups of the early 1800‘s and the witchcraft movement of the 1960‘s. However, modern American Druid groups such as ADF and Henge of Keltria, as well as scholarly-focused Pagan movements like Celtic Reconstructionism are not given any mention in this book. As the book it was first published in 1994, it may be that these groups had not become prominent enough to reach the author’s awareness for inclusion.
I would recommend this book as beginning reading for anyone wanting to pursue a Celtic Pagan or Druid path. Although this is not light reading, neither is it too difficult for the average layperson.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: The Druids, by Peter Berresford Ellis « WiccanWeb

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