The Druids


The Druids

Peter Berresford Ellis

Ellis’ “The Druids” a a study of the ancient Druids, combining archaeology and references from classical literature in order to describe what is and isn’t known about the intellectual caste of the ancient Celts. Ellis explicitly states that he wants to dispel some of the wild speculations and popular myths that surround the Druids, and give us “the reality of what was once Druidism.”

This is one of those books that is on every reading list of every Druid group there is. It’s always held up as important reading for the scholarly-minded student of Druidry. The ADF reading list calls it “the best modern survey of what we know and don’t know about the Celtic Druids” []. My own order, the AODA, has it first on the list of recommended books for Second Degree studies of historical druids [].The Henge of Keltria has it as one of the top 5 picks on the subject [].

See what I did there? I made a particular claim – that it is considered important reading. Then, I named several well-respected sources to back up that claim and included specific information allowing the reader to check my sources. This technique accomplishes several things. First, it shows that I have done my research on this subject – I’m not making it up. Second, it shows that I am relying on particular sources – not my neighbor Joe, not some guy’s blog, but the actual websites of the Druid groups in question. Third, and most importantly in my opinion, it shows a level of respect both for my own writing and for the reader. I respect my own writing enough to assume that the reader is taking it seriously, and I respect my readers enough to provide them with an easy way to get more information if they want to find out what else is on those reading lists. This is why we cite sources. It’s not some arcane scholarly practice; it’s just good common sense, especially when doing the kind of writing that Ellis does in this book. Drawing from multiple sources both ancient and modern, Ellis synthesizes this material and adds his own interpretation to give us an overview of what is and isn’t known about the ancient Druids.

Except, he doesn’t cite his sources. Most of the time the reader has to guess as to whether what we’re getting is Ellis’ interpretation or someone else’s. He sometimes makes vague comments in the text – “Diodorus Siculus says that…” or “Pliny writes that…” or “Nora Chadwick claims…” . Even then, without some kind of citation, the reader is left to flounder around – there’s a quote from Strabo on page 174 that is a perfect example of this. “An examination of this… in Strabo’s work has been translated as:” followed by a quote in English. This is extremely frustrating. I’m assuming it’s the Jones translation of 1923 because of the language style, and because that’s the commonly used one (it might be the only complete translation – I’m not sure.) I shouldn’t have to guess, though. As a Greek scholar, I would love to look up the passage and read it in the original; the translation as given looks a little odd – what would Greek for “trousers” be? or “plaid”? I would have to look to another source to find out, though, because Ellis not only leaves out the name of the translator but entirely neglects to cite where in all of the Geography the passage appears. Ellis apparently assumes that his readers don’t actually care where he got all this information. This is just one example of something that happens over and over again in the book – an interesting tidbit is held out, but only a little nibble is offered. So, in spite of what some have claimed, this is not actually a scholarly work at all (edit: though, to be fair, Ellis himself never makes this claim). It’s a popular history, intended for those who won’t be interested in reading much else on the subject.

This is OK – popular histories certainly have their place. Generally, they are light, breezy, easily digested and interesting to people from many walks of life. Parts of this book succeed very well in that respect. I loved the chapter on “The Wisdom of the Druids,” after I had resigned myself to the citation issue. Others are far too heavy-handed; he makes it clear that he does not think classical sources can be trusted and that he does not believe that there is any evidence for human sacrifice among the ancient Celts. Then he makes it clear again. And again. I found his contortions to try to explain away the Lindow Man to be kind of funny – he is so completely invested in the idea that the ancient Celts did not do human sacrifices that he cannot face the fact that human sacrifice is a perfectly legitimate interpretation in that case. This particular hobby-horse of his is problematic, because it reveals his particular biases on the subject, and the reader is left to wonder about whatall of the less-obvious biases might be. Popular histories are the most fun when the author’s voice comes through clearly, as long as the author is bright and witty and charming. When Ellis’ voice does come through, he just sounds peevish. This book has all the charm and verve of a scholarly work, with the scholarship level of a popular history.

He has the usual concluding chapter saying the usual ridiculous things about modern Druidry. I came to the conclusion long ago that authors use this sort of thing as a shield. Certain topics are highly suspect in the academic world: Druids, witches, goddesses, drugs, the occult, and magic can ruin a scholar’s reputation. By clearly indicating that they think that the vast majority of what is written on these subjects is trash, and by making fun of people who take these things seriously, the scholar says to his peers, “See, l’m not one of those people. Those people are nuts. I’m serious, I’m not like them, I’m like you.”

With all of that said, I would still recommend this book to anyone studying Druidry. It’s been very influential among people that Ellis would call “New Age Celts” and I think it’s appropriate that we read this as part of our education. If I were to recommend just one book about the ancient Druids, it wouldn’t be this one, but if I were to make a list, this would be on it. There are, as I said, good parts – you just have to wade through the speculation and vague references to get there.

Edit – I just took out some bits that I felt in retrospect were inappropiately snarky and read like personal put-downs of Ellis – I’m perfectly ok with putting down parts of his book but putting down the author is kind of tacky. I left the full review up over on my vox page, since I’m allowed to be snarky and tacky over there – that’s what that blog is for.