I had always thought that Druids were ancient magicians: Merlin and his group of men skulking in the shadowy forest. But Graham Robb, in his book The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, has described a surprisingly sophisticated culture.
Here's the historical snapshot: "Fifty generations ago the cultural empire of the Celts stretched from the Black Sea to Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. In six hundred years, the Celts had produced some of the finest artistic and scientific masterpieces of the ancient world.
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar marched over the Alps, bringing slavery and genocide to western Europe. Within eight years the Celts of what is now France were utterly annihilated, and in another hundred years the Romans had overrun Britain. It is astonishing how little remains of this great civilization."
Robb ― called "one of the more unusual and appealing historians currently striding the planet" by the New York Times -- planned a bicycling trip along the Heraklean Way, the ancient route from Portugal to the Alps, and discovered a beautiful and precise pattern of towns and holy places based on astronomical and geometrical measurements: the three-dimensional "Middle Earth" of the Celts. (Honestly, a lot of historians write compellations of other people's work or might have a unique idea based on other people's discoveries but here's a guy on a bicycle with his maps, uncovering something genuinely new. Kudos.)
Let's look at four common misconceptions about the Druids:
First, they were crude forest dwellers. While we tend to believe that the Romans brought the first roads and architecture to Europe, the Celts had sturdy and well-designed roads before they arrived. "Caesar found roads and bridges already in place wherever he went… In Gaul, the marching speed of the legion was always well above the average for the Roman empire… Which gives some idea of the resilience of the road surface.[i] The Romans could no longer take credit for the first roads."
And the roads were just the most visible manifestation of surprisingly sophisticated mapping. "This cartographic pattern deduced from the early Iron Age sites may be the oldest detectable sign of large-scale territorial organization in northern Europe (which) implies a collective project almost too ambitious to be credible: it would mean that only a generation or two after a recognizably Celtic civilization arose, the Celts were attempting to survey and measure regions that spanned many tribal territories."[ii]
Second, the Druids were for men only. Robb mentions apprentice Druids and Druidesses…"[iii], notes that Alesia "which in Breton folklore, was the island to which the souls of the dead processed at low tide. (But) in the days of the ancient Celts, it was the home of nine female Druids."[iv]
Third, it was all shadowy magic: In fact, the Druids had highly advanced schooling for both initiates and the public. To believe otherwise "was the civilized person's fantasy of hermits' glades and wizards' glens assessable only to some Celtic equivalent of Platform 9 ¾."[v]
Druid school required 20 years of liberal studies, "the longest education in the ancient world" and involved medical instruments, measuring equipment and writing tablets. "Apart from history and geography, they studied moral philosophy, religion and theology…The keystone of the Druidic creed was the Pythagorean belief in the immortality of the soul and a life after death."[vi]
"Like university professors, the Druids taught, but they also conducted research and modified their teachings to take account of the latest gauge of scholarly debate."[vii]
One possible reason we don't know much about them is that "the Druids banned all written expression of their wisdom, but their society was certainly literate since writing implements have been found all over the Celtic world."[viii]
Fourth, they built Stonehenge. "The ancient Celts are not …the nameless faceless shadows who built Stonehenge. To the Celts, Stonehenge was a mysterious ancient monument."[ix]
The Roman Slaughter of the Celts, Gauls and Druids
I had been taught about the wars of conquest by the Romans but Robb is the first historian I have read to label it genocide. "The wholesale massacre of Celts was not a result of the fortunes of war and the circumstances of particular battles," Robb says. "On three occasions, Caesar applies the word depopulate to Roman operations. Caesar's report to the Senate on the German massacre appalled Cato, who thought that it brought shame on the Roman people. Pliny later described Caesar's career total of '1,192,000 men' killed as a 'crime against the human race.'… Within eight years, a large percentage of the population of Gaul was wiped out… and 1 million enslaved, which is the estimate given by Plutarch in his Life of Caesar. The number of Gauls and Germans sold into slavery probably exceeds the number of slaves shipped to the American colonies in the 18th century."[x]
Forgotten or Underrepresented Women
As I am always looking for mention of forgotten or underrepresented women, here are a few findings:
· "Following Celtic tradition, property passed through the female line."[xi]
- The largest vessel ever found in the ancient world is the bronze a wine-mixing urn of La Dame de Vix, a fabulously wealthy woman, named by archeologists after the local village near Chatillon-sur-Seine. "When she died in her early 30s, she was laid out on her state-of-the-art chariot (proof that the technology existed, and that the beauties of mechanical efficiency were appreciated, 400 years before the Romans brought their civilization to Gaul.) She had beads of blue glass and amber, bracelets of bronze for her ankles and arms, and a microscopically detailed, 24 carat gold torc that would have been almost too heavy to wear. Objects from all over the known world had been delivered safely to her home: the beads came from the Baltic and the Mediterranean, the torque from the Black Sea; the tableware was Etruscan in Greek, and she owned a comprehensive range of imported wine paraphernalia."
- "In France, [many street names] are conveniently ascribed to a semi-mythical Queen Brunehaut."[xii]
- "Sometimes, all that separates Celtic from Christian religion is a change of clothes and gender. The Three Mother Goddesses of the Celts appear as the three Marys or as Jesus flanked by two angels. In their hasty disguises, the Celtic gods are everywhere."[xiii]
- "In Irish mythology, the great mound called Emain Macha (Navan Fort) was said to have been founded by a certain Queen Macha (identified with a goddess of that name) in 668 BC. This was considered impossibly early until archaeologists dated the oldest feature of Emain Macha to c. 680 BC."[xiv]
[i] The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, Graham Robb, (WW Norton) 2013, pg. 28-9
[ii] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 56
[iii] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 124
[iv] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 146
[v] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 110-111
[vi] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 116
[vii][vii] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 132
[viii] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. XV
[ix] [ix] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. XV
[x] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 194-195
[xi] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 151
[xii] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 29
[xiii] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 74
[xiv] The Discovery of Middle Earth, op. cit., pg. 9