Druids: Adepts or Savages?
By E. A. Holmes
The question is: if Druidism is a “failed” religion, in the sense that to all intents and purposes it no longer exists, why should we concern ourselves with it? As the mayor of Caernarfon has said, the race to which he belonged was a civilized people three thousand years ago. This was a time when Druidism flourished — perhaps not its heyday for, if William Blake had insight, it is older than Adam. Remember we are talking about Druids, and not the races of men whom they taught.
No doubt the Bardic fraternity had its hierarchies, its teachers and novices, including greater men and lesser minds. So do we laymen include many individuals and types, many races of men, each potentially capable of evolving to the highest, but equally capable of inhumanities of the most cruel order. If these men should happen to be nominal Christians, would we judge Christianity by their deeds? Heaven knows the terrible atrocities committed down the ages in the name of the Christian or some other faith, but must we lay these crimes at the feet of the Masters of those faiths? For instance, do we blame Christianity for two devastating world wars, because Christianity was the predominant religion amongst the contestants? Let us get things in perspective: a religion and our ability to follow it, likewise Druidism and the races of people in which it was taught, can be very much apart. Is it not singular, if not unjust, that Druidism should be looked upon as cruel and savage because the people themselves were sometimes cruel and savage?
Julius Caesar, who is usually quoted as an authority on Druidism, in spite of being an interested party as contender against it, wrote with a curious mixture of admiration and odium. It is recorded that he counted Divitiacus, a Druid among the Aedui, as one of his friends, and may well have learned from him about Druidic knowledge of “the stars and their motion, the magnitude of the world and the earth, the nature of things, the force and power of the immortal gods.” He would know personally that “the Druids usually abstain from war,” that they were the lawgivers and that “if any private or public person abides not by their decree, they restrain him from the sacrifices. This with them is the most severe punishment.” Yet elsewhere in his Gallic Wars (VI, 13-16), he says: “Some have images of immense size, the limbs of which, interwoven with twigs, they fill with living men, and the same being set on fire, the men, surrounded by the flames, are put to death.” One would wager that this is one spectacle which Julius Caesar never actually saw. Such immense images, built of twigs, could not support even two tiers of human victims, let alone contain them. Maybe, in centuries to come, the huge masks paraded around today at Mardi Gras festivals will be described as fabrications designed for incarceration of human victims!
One cannot doubt that some of our ancestors may have been headhunters, or that they made blood sacrifices. We are not all vegetarians, even today. There are instances of blood sacrifices in the Christian Bible, and the annals of Rome include all manner of what we today call atrocities. It is interesting that one of the most virulent of disparagers of Druids was Tacitus, who lived at the time of Nero. He it was who gave us the picture of woad-painted Druids, and furious wild women, whose shrieks and cries unnerved even the hardened veterans of the army of Suetonius Paulinus when they invaded Anglesey, and eventually subdued and laid it waste. This, according to Tacitus, was a “just” incursion against a people accused of barbaric practices abhorrent to the Roman Empire.
We must distinguish between the teachings of the Druids, and degenerated tribal rituals deriving from them. According to Morien M. Morgan, “no Cromlech was ever seen in any part of the world bearing a trace of fire upon any one of its three upright props, nor on the horizontal boulder upheld by them. Therefore,” he continues, “we conclude no burnt offerings were ever associated with any Cromlech” (The Royal Winged Sun of Stonehenge and Avebury, pp. 133-4). However, he goes on to show how later fraternities, which he calls Phoenician, made burnt offerings at a place near Pontypridd, in South Wales, after destroying the cromlech.
John Sharkey, in his Celtic Mysteries (p. 8), mentions the classical sun god Hercules, who was sacrificed every midsummer in a circle of twelve stones. The tribe would then partake of his body and blood to make it vigorous and fruitful. Strangely enough, he was reborn every following December. Still more strangely we find the same story in Egypt, in Samothrace, amongst the Druids, and in the Christian rites of Easter and Christmas. The sun at the beginning of the year was called Horus by the Egyptians, and in the course of the same year came to be called Osiris, who was annually slain by Set; but the divinity in the sun, Amon-Ra, always escaped in the divine boat, to be reborn as Horus the following year. We have seen how, in the Romance of Taliesin, Gwion Bach was annually swallowed by the high-crested hen Ceridwen, who gave birth nine months later to the sun god Taliesin.
There is no need to detail the remarkable parallels present in the Christian Communion and in the story of Jesus, which indeed give us the clue to what it is all about. It is a Mystery story of initiation, and if Orpheus, for instance, met his death at the hands of frenzied women, Maenads, supposedly celebrating the rites of their god Dionysus, it was not the real Dionysian philosophy that was to blame, but an utter and vile degradation of it, of such a nature as if a Christian congregation were to fall upon the priest, as vicar of Christ, and rend him limb from limb in order to partake literally of flesh and blood communion.
It has seemed necessary to take up this defense of the ancient Druidic fraternity, not from any spirit of querulousness, but because you will hardly find any book by a learned author that does not assume and take for granted the hypothesis that that fraternity, at best, consisted of “noble savages.” The Welsh people seem ashamed of them, just as the modern Hindu looks indulgently and skeptically at the ancient wisdom in his own books, preferring the latest theories of modern science. One day, perhaps, we in the West may begin to get an inkling of what the old Bards were trying to teach.
Truth does not change, and the world will catch up with it, under whatever guise and system it then presents itself. It is probably thereunder our noses in the various religions and philosophies extant today, if only we could see it. Verily we are told, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” But increasingly it becomes obvious we have to give the right knock, and how can we give the right knock until we learn what it is? We shall not learn it from the commentaries of the classical authors. Can a few words, however just they may be, describing the exterior worship of a religion, teach us its spirit? Can they show us the invisible golden chain back of, and holding together, its different tenets and precepts? We can learn nothing at all from Caesar, Strabo, or Tacitus, about the Celtic mysteries. Maybe we can glean something of the Druidic inspiration from the Bards themselves, or from what we can find of their works. This must be our next endeavor.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)