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Monday, February 23

The Real History of Druids

There's been a lot of confusion lately about Druids. I have a feeling people decided the issue was settled after interest peaked with the issue of Stonehenge, and the Lindow Man. The Druid mystery supposedly solved, interest seems to have died out afterward, except around St. Patty's Day where the more learned among us (or those who have Celtic roots) poke around the ancient tomes (reprinted mind you) to see if they have anything to tell us.

And indeed they do. Druids have been utterly mangled by role-playing games. In fact, the Druid has become so disassociated from his original roots that they've transformed into a quasi-modern image of environmental activists who zealously protect the woods, the animals, and run around viciously mauling people as lions, tigers, and bears. I won't say it.

This is partially true. Druids did worship trees in the sense that they revered them as nature spirits. They did have a healthy respect for the animal kingdom, after all any animal could be a god or another heroic Celt in animal form. Zoomorphism was common enough to justify druids transforming into all kinds of animals. But nowhere did Druids decide animals had to be protected exclusively. Nor, for that matter, were humans exempt from this protection.

There's no way a role-playing game is going to tell you that Druids sacrificed; they sacrificed everything they got their hands on, and they sacrificed a lot. Bulls, dogs, stags, slaves, criminals, gold, silver, you name it they burned it, drowned it, strangled it, or examined its entrails (except for the gold). Druids would stab people in the backs and divine the future based on how they twitched when they died. They believed in regicide, utilizing the fabled triple-death of strangling, drowning, and stabbing with a spear. They crammed gigantic wicker colossi (I love that word) full with people and torched it.

Druids did believe in the sanctity of trees. In fact the name Druid probably comes from a root meaning oak. Druides use druideachta, which means magic. One did not trifle with druids if he knew what was good for him. The Oghams, their runic language, revolved around the various trees and their properties.

Much of our information comes from Caesar, who, while he must be respected for his views, was undeniably biased. Mr. Ellis spares Caesar no sympathy: "Imagine...the commander of a foreign army which has been sent to conquer and destroy a people then writing a book about the culture and customs of those people and it being regarded by subsequent generations as written totally without prejudice. Yet we are asked to accept Julius Caesar's accounts of the Celts and Druids as totally accurate."(p. 15)

Caesar immediately assumed that the gods he saw in the Druid beliefs had a Roman parallel, and that the belief in transmigration of the soul was really just to bolster the courage of the Gaulish troops. After all...if you know your soul doesn't die, what's so bad about death? Caesar's generation also made the terrible mistake of assuming the Druids believed in reincarnation as Pythagoras saw it, because on the surface the ideas seem similar. They're not. Likewise, Druids did not worship the four elements. This only makes sense, as Druids considered spirits to be in everything, and the Druids also held the number three to be sacred. When you hold three to be sacred, six, nine, and twelve are appealing numbers, but four? Four simply doesn't fit into the equation. Neither does five (the five elements of Pythagoras, fire, water, air, earth, and spirit). An interesting note: Captain Planet's five pals must call on those very five forces to summon the big C. himself.

Druids could be classified as neutral alignment, if you take into account that Druids are on both sides of morality. The Celtic stories are filled with accounts of Druids on both sides, undoing each others spells, and battling in fantastic magical combats that would make any role-player envious. When it comes to being truly neutral and aloof from petty affairs of civilized men, that's just more modern role-playing poppycock talking. Druids were just as passionate about one ethos as anybody else.

Despite their seemingly barbaric practices, Druids did not spend all their time sitting around chewing on raw animal flesh, talking with spirits, and otherwise doing things that would shock the modern reader. They were "...no simple, mindless group of savage, barbarian tribes wandering Europe willy-nilly in a ruthless and bloody orgy as many writers over the centuries would have us believe." (p. 35) Druids were the keepers of knowledge, advisers to rulers, and the judges of their time. They utilized the Brehon Law, a Law which is admittedly biased towards the more powerful individuals of society, but a law nonetheless which they had absolute jurisdiction over. Druids were highly respected. Respected so much, in fact, that the Romans did their best to wipe their power base out.

Contrary to popular belief, the Romans didn't go after the Druids due to their moralistic disgust of human sacrifice. This would indeed be the ultimate hypocrisy, as the Romans ritually sacrificed people as well. More likely, it was because Druids as a group were a threat to Roman rule: Where the Romans were materialistic, the Druids were spiritual; the Druids treated their women as part of political and religious life, the Romans saw them as child bearers; the Druids believed in a collective ownership, the Romans in a hierarchy. Druidic beliefs were simply too dangerous to be allowed to exist. They were only partially successful, and it wasn't until the Church came about that a clash of ethos really happened.

And what a clash it was. There are incredible tales of St. Patrick (and his saintly allies) dueling the Druids, miracle vs. spell, chant vs. prayer. It is interesting to see another supernatural belief system which is not divine being portrayed as very real and dangerous - except when it comes to Christianity. Saints merely had to say a prayer, and Druid spells collapsed. There's something you won't find in your role-playing rule books!

What about the neo-pagan Druids of today? Mr. Ellis doesn't think very highly of them: "Indeed, Druids have also been hijacked by the 'New Age' movement and conjured to their philosophies...Any half-baked philosophy can have the word 'Druid' or even 'Celtic' attached to it and be assured of an enthusiastic, if somewhat gullible, following."(p. 13)

The neo-pagans of today are well aware of these beliefs, and understand them within context - what the Druids of the past did should in no way reflect upon the ethics of Neo-Druids today, any more than the Crusades reflect upon Christianity. While Wicca borrows somewhat from the Druidic heritage, don't be misled to believe Druidism spawned Wicca. Crystals, candles, and Tarot have naught but a passing relevance to Druidic practices. But don't rule out Stone Henge, the Druids DID practice there, they just didn't build those stones.

Shadowrun makes an admirable attempt at creating Druids that resemble the beliefs of the ancient Celts, but they can't manage to shake that Pythagorean elementalism. Still, it's a lot closer to the mark. Next best is the Rifts supplement, "England". Rifts takes some liberties, but it's also obvious they did their homework. They're very careful to create a separate O.C.C. called "Blood Druids" who manage to embody all the nasty things nobody wants to hear about. TSR products (from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons line) are the worst when it comes to Druids, pandering to the "shiny happy" Druids, as I call them, who have their own fuzzy charm about them that makes them appealing. One product, the Celts Campaign Sourcebook, is definitely a cut above the rest, and I recommend it highly. It sums up AD&D Druids quite nicely: "The druid as presented in the Player's Handbook bears little resemblance to the historical Celtic priesthood of the same name, and requires substantial changes to fit into a Celtic campaign."

No kidding.

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posted by Mike Tresca at 9:08 PM

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  • I have read your comment about Druids and that I am shocked to say that even with my African American background I have some amounts of DNA of Orkeny, French, Spanish, Russian and Romanian. These are more awake in me than the African. I have to admit that when i was younger I believed that the trees were alive a painted a face on them with anyone telling me about my background. So when I got older I started reading about Wicca, which right now completes me. So I just want to say is that no matter what your background is, if you have DNA of the ancient culture then it would take precedent of your life.

    By Blogger Unknown, at Friday, March 08, 2013 9:31:00 AM  

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