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Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge


Was druidism invented by the Victorians?

VERY little is known about the ancient druids. They had an oral tradition, forbidding the writing down of their knowledge, though they were familiar with the Greek alphabet and used it for other purposes.

Knowledge in Celtic Britain was a closed shop, restricted to the higher echelons of society. Our modern notion of the druid is a product of the Romantic movement rather than of the Victorians.

Real information about the religion of the Celts is fragmentary, though scholars use it to help unravel the twisted strands of early Irish and Welsh mythology. Greek and Roman commentators from the 1st century BC refer to druidae in Gaul (France) and Britain, describing them as wise men, observers of natural phenomena and moral philosophers.

They also refer to orders of bards (bardoi) -- singers and poets, and diviners (vates), who interpreted sacrifices to foretell the future.

The visual appearance of druids is difficult to clarify. A druidic ceremony depicted by Pliny, in his Natural History, describes a white-robed druid climbing an oak tree to cut down mistletoe with a golden sickle. This picture has entered the popular imagination, but there's little proof that Pliny actually saw a druid.

One commentator who had direct contact with the Celts was Julius Caesar, who writes about them in his De Bello Gallica, though his commentaries may be biased: 'With regard to their actual course of studies, the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.

'Subsidiary to the teachings of this main principle, they hold various lectures and discussions on astronomy, on the extent and geographical distribution of the globe, on the different branches of natural philosophy, and on many problems connected with religion.'

Despite the paucity of knowledge about druids, from the 17th to the 19th centuries British scholars and artists became fascinated by everything Celtic, and neo-druidism flourished.

One of the first to promote this interest was antiquarian John Aubrey, who suggested in 1659 that the stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge had been built by the Celts as druidic temples (a theory now completely discredited).

The idea of druidism fitted into the Romantic movement; and artworks, novels and poetry involving druids abounded. A form of neodruidism entered the rituals of fraternal-order such as Freemasons as part of an attempt to develop an indigenous British mystical order.

In 1717, Irish author J. J. Toland held a meeting for druids at Primrose Hill, London, and established The Ancient Druid Order.

Other fraternal order occult groups such as Ceremonial Magicians, Ordo Templi Orientis and the Golden Dawn adopted various spurious druidic doctrines and rituals.

A central figure in 19th century neo-druidism was Welshman Edward Williams, known as Iolo Morganwg. In his writings, published posthumously as The Iolo Manuscripts (1849) and Barddas (1862), he claimed to have collected ancient knowledge of the bards and druids.

Most scholars consider his writings without merit, but they added to the deepening confusion surrounding the druids and their rituals.

In his 1927 book The Druids: A Study In Keltic Prehistory, T. D. Kendrick dispelled the pseudohistorical aura around druids, asserting that 'a prodigious amount of rubbish has been written about druidism'.

The British Museum is equally blunt: '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. …