Blood And Mistletoe: The History Of The Druids In Britain

2 mins read

Many archaeologists regard Druids with disdain, as cranks or romantics who claim to have roots deep in the ancient past, but whose practices are largely invented in relatively recent times. This may be so, but archaeologists and Druids share a huge amount of DNA: certainly in the early years of the 18th century, it was difficult to tell an archaeologist (or more strictly an antiquary) and a Druid apart.

Hutton argues that the modern Druidic order arose out of the same two forces (and in many cases was driven by the same people) as created the Society of Antiquaries or the Royal Society: the post-Act-of-Union enterprise to create a British (as distinct from English, Scottish or Welsh) national identity, and the Georgian love affair with the club (of which, according to the main historian of this phenomenon, there were some 25,000 in the English speaking world during the 18th century).

Hutton reveals how the quest for a shared heritage to represent a single United Kingdom of Great Britain led back to the wise and cultured Druids, who were idealised as our common ancestors — intellectuals, scientists, philosophers and theologians, respected as judges and as teachers (Caesar records that Britain was a place of unusual learning, where would-be Druids from Gaul went to study), yet also fiercely patriotic, rallying resistance to foreign invaders (Tacitus describes the ‘druidae, raising their hands to the sky and shouting dreadful curses, which terrified our soldiers who had never seen such a thing before’).
Modern Druidry thus took shape as the prime movers, many of whom were also antiquaries, took what suited them from classical sources and made the rest up, devising dramatic initiation ceremonies, secret oaths, white robes and false beards. A typically British mix of patriotism and clubbable joviality made Druidry enormously popular in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1807, in Birmingham 7,000 members took part in a grand meeting of Druid lodges, parading through the city’s streets, cheered by huge crowds. In Dartford, the annual Druidic festival took over the town — the parish church rang bells in honour of the event, streets and pubs were decked in oak boughs and banners, and local brewers contributed bowls of punch (alcohol was an integral part of many Druidic meetings, which is why the Methodists attacked them — as much for their ‘alehouse conviviality’ as for their heathenism).

The period from 1740 to 1860 marked the high point of Druidry’s popularity and vitality. There have been several subsequent declines, revivals and redefinitions of Druidry, which Hutton anatomises in compelling detail. A master story-teller, Hutton stresses that the very lack of detailed sources for ancient Druidry are the key to seemingly limitless reinvention and he loves the details that other commentators might dismiss as eccentricity or charlatanism (of the three characters who have had the most powerful influence on modern Druidry, he says that each has ‘a degree of disreputability … the hall of fame and the rogues’ gallery seem strikingly similar’).

The Druids whose ceremony initiated the Darvill and Wainwright Stonehenge excavations in April 2008, and those who shivered in the cold to watch the sun rise at Stonehenge   at the spring equinox just a few days ago, are a reminder that the scanty records left by Caesar, Tacitus et al have had a lasting grip on the imagination. Druidry appeals to those who want to remake the world with reference to the past and 21st century adherents emphasise those aspects in the sources that portray Druids as close to nature, worshipping at springs and in groves, living in balance with the earth and the cosmos. Except for the most rational and scientific among us, these Druidic concerns with the natural and historic environment are ones that archaeologists share — though, as Hutton wisely says, few things can divide people more effectively than common enthusiasms.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.