Tuesday, 2 November 2010
CASE 140 - Druids
Though Druid beliefs relate to people, places and myths dating back thousands of years, the history of Druidism is relatively young. The oldest surviving account of Druids can be found in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), written between 59 and 51 BC. However, Caesar’s account of the Celtic faith he encountered, as with many other Druidry records of that time, have been strongly criticised for their inherent opposition to the faith and subsequent tendency to focus on the more sensational and bizarre areas of the faith that they came across.
What is known is that Druidry was a pantheistic belief, drawing many parallels with Hinduism. Over 400 gods were worshipped, and gods tended to carry their own cult following; much like the Ancient Egyptian religions which preceded it by some 3,000 years.
The Druids’ pagan faith permeated many areas of local life, yet not much is known about specific practices due to the word-of-mouth nature of the religion. Yet what is known is that the beliefs centred on nature, and many Druid sacraments were based in secrecy, in forests or caves. Caesar even noted that it would take some twenty years for an apprentice Druid to complete his training. One of the faith’s most controversial practices was human sacrifice, and the Roman historian Tacitus noticed in 61 AD that the altars of the Druids of Anglesey were ‘drenched with the blood of prisoners'. As a localised and ostensibly barbaric religion, Roman Britain and Gaul saw the banning of Druidry – to suppress the sense of nationalism it invoked in its followers.
Thus the Romans effectively drove Druidism out of existence under their occupancy, and it wouldn’t be until the 17th century that the faith began to once again garner any mainstream popularity. The writings of the likes of William Blake, twinned with the Renaissance occurring all over Europe, promoted nature as the hub of all knowledge. The idea of nature worship gathered pace with the time’s intelligentsia, yet Druidism was seen as a mere throwback. It took until the next century for the Romantic ponderings of the likes of Keats, Shelley and Byron to promote Druidry in a more positive light. The Welsh poetic tradition is said to have been inherited from the Druids, and the Eisteddfod festival of dance, literature and music still survives today. Other pagan revivals, such as Wicca and German Neo-Paganism, are said to have sprung initially from Druidry.
In the 20th century the rise of New Age and a newfound desire for all things natural brought Druidry back into the public conscience, and today the religion at its most popular in over two thousand years. As well as Britain, there are also many practising Druids in North America and Europe.
Modern Druids are an eclectic bunch
The Druid faith is centred on a love and respect for the natural world. This includes (deep breath): the love of peace, beauty and artistry, justice, story and myth, history and ancestors, trees, stones, truth, animals, body, sun, moon and stars, and the love of life itself.
There are both polytheistic and monotheistic Druids, who either worship a variety of natural gods or one spirit which embodies all of nature. Worship is practised through song, word or dance, and many festivals and occasions focus on natural phenomena such as the summer and winter solstices.
Druids also belief in reincarnation, and insist that after life, the immortal soul reaches another land known simply as the ‘Otherworld’, which draws parallels with the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Frequently either the single or multitudinous ‘Sun God’ is worshipped, so stone circles and several other prehistoric monuments are of obvious interest for the practising of their faith. And the foremost of these sites is Wiltshire’s famous Stonehenge.
Stonehenge & Controversy
The famous antiquarian John Aubrey, who located his eponymous holes in the Stonehenge complex in the 17th century, suggested, rather spuriously most scholars agree, that the Druids were in fact responsible for the building of the monument. Then, at the beginning of the 18th century, William Stukeley – an expert on sacred history – would take Aubrey’s exclamation and run with it; claiming that Stonehenge and its related sites at Avebury were manifest in the prehistoric traditions of ancient Druids, and that many of the local monuments appeared to form the shape of a serpent. Thus, in conjunction with his 1717 founding of the first Order of Druids on London’s Primrose Hill, Stonehenge became the centre for Druid worship, and pilgrimages to the site to worship during the equinoxes and solstices became a tradition.
By the late 18th century, Stonehenge and Druidry were gaining popularity fast – so much so that the actual site itself was incurring hefty damage from its newfound adorers. In 1900, the falling of two stones prompted Stonehenge’s owner, Edward Antrobus, to fence the site off and charge an admission fee. This obviously angered the Druid community – an anger that was inflamed when the High Court upheld Antrobus’ decision in 1905. And though Stonehenge changed hands several times since Antrobus’ controversial measure, leading to National Heritage’s ownership beginning in 1984, the monument has always been under guard; fenced off to those who do not pay a fee to view the stone complex.