Book Review – The Druids


The Druids. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Constable & Co. London: 1994.


Ellis’ book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Druids or Celtic society, but it is especially helpful for those exploring ADF Druidry or beginning their Dedicant Program. Ellis is clear from the very beginning that the historical information available about the Druids is incomplete and that what information we do have may have been distorted or fabricated. Ellis provides an excellent overview of the historical writings which describe the Druids and/or Celtic society while at the same time remaining in conversation with other recent or current scholars and their interpretations of these writings.

In his own words, Ellis acknowledges from the beginning that “no Druid, nor sympathetic contemporary observer, ever committed to writing the necessary unequivocal information” (11) of the sort that would provide an undisputed, historical account of who the Druids really were. Instead, he reminds us that that “one person’s Druid is another person’s fantasy “(11) and that in the pursuit of any sound understanding of who the Druids were or what they believed depends upon the quality and scope of the inquiry.

Ellis also uses his introduction to sketch out his own theory about the Druids. According to his argument, the Druids were a kind of specialized group within Celtic society, a “parallel caste to the social group which developed in another other Indo-European—the Brahmins of Hindu culture” (14). If Ellis is correct, then the Druids may have served a number of functions throughout Celtic Europe, occupying such specialized occupations such as judges, lawyers, teachers, poets, political advisers, historians, or musicians.

From this starting point, Ellis embarks upon a thorough survey and analysis of the few written records regarding the Druids. In his second chapter, Ellis reviews theories about the origins of the Druids, including several possible meanings of and sources for the word “druid” itself. Ellis is convinced that the term druid means something akin to “[those with] oak knowledge” (39). He argues that the “Druid caste” (39) originated among forest dwelling societies as a group of men and women(!) who accumulated practical knowledge and survival techniques, and who became associated with the oak tree because of its role as a source of food and shelter and its prominence in native folklore and mythology. Ellis spends much of the chapter exploring the veneration of the oak tree throughout Europe and concludes that “the symbolism of the oak is all-pervasive in ancient Celtic culture” (42).

One critical point that Ellis makes in this chapter is that, as MacCulloch observes elsewhere, “there is no reason to believe that Druids did not exist wherever there were Celts” (46). He goes on to argue that throughout the Celtic world, there were groups of men and women who appear to be “Druids by other names” (46). This is especially significant considering the extensive influence of Celtic culture throughout Europe and the influence of a common Indo-European language. For those interested in ADF Druidry, this insight cannot be overstated. Since ADF Druidry includes the whole of the Indo-European spectrum, it is helpful to remember that the Celtic peoples and culture were not restricted to the British Isles or Western Europe.

The third chapter of The Druids provides a survey of Classical writings which describe (however inaccurately) the Druids, their practices, and their beliefs. The real value of the chapter lies in the way it traces written texts on the Druids to their common sources, and dissects the information through which modern understandings of the Druids have come into being. Ellis explores the political impulses behind many such writings, as in the case of Strabo and his Geographica. Ellis observes that the work “was a pointed attack on the Celts, which was written as a justification for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and the subsequent attempts to suppress the Celtic intelligentsia and their centers of learning” (53).

Ellis also focuses on criticism by other historians including Chadwick, who describes one passage of Pliny’s account of the Druids as “picturesque fantasia” (61). However, Ellis detects some truth in Pliny’s writings, particularly with regard to the association of the Druids with oak groves. Ellis notices that other authors similarly describe this association and concludes that it does not derive from a common source; he thereby enlists its support in defending his own position.

In chapter 4, Ellis examines the Christianization of Europe and its impact on Celtic culture. The first salient point he makes here is that it was the insular Celts (i.e., those of the British Isles), who most absorbed Druidic knowledge and practices. Ellis gives proper due to the Celtic monastic tradition and its emphasis on writing for providing access to our most illuminating insights into both Celtic and Druidic culture. Two insights presented by Ellis that were new to me include the incorporation of the Druidic tonsure into Celtic monasticism, and the relative omission of the Druidic tradition from Welsh narratives when compared to the Irish. The chapter focuses on the historical and cultural relationship between Druidism and Christianity, and concentrates on the literary traditions of the insular Celts.

Chapter 5 of The Druids is perhaps one of the most significant in terms of ADF Druidry. Not only does Ellis provide substantial proof that women were included in the ranks of the Druids, he also pays attention to the role of women in Celtic society in general. Ellis points out that the portrayal of Celtic culture by classical writers was distorted by their own biases towards women. He writes that “what we are actually looking at is a more permissive and open society, not fully understood by the foreign observers” (95).
Ellis reviews a selection of Welsh and Irish literature in which female figures are depicted as leaders, warriors, and sources of community power.

The first impressive moment of chapter 6 occurs when Ellis takes MacCulloch to task for a passage in The Religion of the Ancient Celts in which he describes the Celts as submissive to the will of the Druids. Ellis argues that what MacCulloch is doing is projecting his own experience as a Christian minister onto a culture that he does not fully understand.

Ellis also warns his readers that “no clear knowledge of the Druidic system of worship or ritual has come down to us in spite of romantics such as Edward Davies…” (114). He goes on to say that “having said this…we can glimpse some of the religious ideas and rituals connected with the pantheon of the Celtic deities and their roles by studying insular Celtic literatures and comparing them with the archaeological evidence and place-name references” (114).

The remainder of the chapter focuses on Irish and Welsh myth, including an examination of the great mother and the relationship between god/esses and heroes. Here, Ellis touches upon more well-known figures such as the Dagda as “the patron of Irish Druidism” (123), Cernunnos, the Gundestrup Cauldron, and the Stone of Destiny, as well as Celtic origin myths.

One last note on this chapter: Ellis observes that “the ancient Irish bards deemed that the river’s edge, the brink of water, was always that place where éicse, wisdom, knowledge and poetry was revealed” (118).

Chapter 7 is particularly fascinating for its insights into Celtic ritual practices. Ellis explores a range of rituals including “Druidic baptism” (133), the veneration of wells and springs, the ritual use and importance of fire, and Celtic funeral customs.

Another important point that Ellis brings up in this chapter is the dubiousness of Pliny’s description of the ritual significance of mistletoe. Ellis points out that Pliny is the only source of this information and directs his readers’ attention to similar practices in ancient Egypt. In other words, Ellis wonders whether or not Pliny has simply confused (deliberately or not) a practice of one foreign culture for that of another.

With regard to human sacrifice, Ellis concludes that “the idea of widespread human sacrifice among the Celts was mere Roman propaganda to support…imperial powers in their invasion of Celtic lands and destruction of the Druids” (154). Ellis takes strange turn here and redirects his argument toward supposed evidence of human sacrifice “occurring widely both in Greek and Roman civilizations” (154). Other scholars, including Elisabeth Vandiver, have observed that human sacrifice was detested by the Greeks and the Romans. Even though Rome was famous for its gladiator battles and blood spectacles, the ritual sacrifice of humans was rare.

The most illuminating insights from The Druids are presented in Chapter 8, ‘The Wisdom of the Druids.” Ellis begins by asserting that “there is certainly enough evidence to show that the Druidic caste was in charge of Celtic education” (157). But what I find most intriguing in this chapter is the frequency with which Ellis points to the relationship between Druidic philosophy and Indo-European philosophy. He writes that “the Druidic concept of Truth as the supreme power [is]…a basic Indo-European thought” (162).

Ellis examines the Irish teaching tradition and points out that the Druidic influence in the lay schools remained intact far longer than it did in the ecclesial schools. He also claims that the bardic schools lasted until the 17th century, when they were finally suppressed by the Christian Church. Ellis also points out that the Irish and Welsh proscriptions on written records was abandoned when they began writing in other languages. As a result, some of the Irish and Welsh keepers of Druidic wisdom began to write in Latin.

In the section devoted to Druidic philosophy, Ellis offers the following summary of Druidic teaching: “the Druids taught that one should live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan, and that the only evil is moral weakness” (168).

Throughout this chapter, Ellis points to similarities between Celtic and Hindu belief systems. For example, he observes that the modern Irish language the dead are referred to as being “in the place of Truth now” (169), a saying which has “an exact parallel in Persian-Iranian Parseeism” (169). As further evidence of the connection between Druidic philosophy and Indo-European thought, Ellis explores similarities in Celtic and Greek philosophy, patterns in mythology, taboos or geasa, and comparisons between Brehon and Hindu legal systems. For example, Ellis writes that “it seems very likely that the Druidic immortality of the soul was indeed a development from a common Indo-European idea, which developed with its own particular cultural attributes parallel to the Hindu philosophies and certainly to the metempsychosis of Pythagoras” (179).

The remainder of this lengthy chapter explores various functions of the Druids in Celtic society, including their work in the legal system, preservation of history, their work in music and poetry, medicine, divination, astrology, and magic.

Ellis begins the ninth and final chapter of the book by repeating and clarifying his thesis. He writes that

“My contention, which I hope I have demonstrated, is that the term Druid, in pre-Christian Celtic society, referred to social stratification, depicting the intellectual class. This division of social groups occurred in all Indo-European societies and is seen at its most obvious in modern times in the Hindu caste system. However, when Christianity established itself, the generic term Druid became corrupt, being connected with pagan society, and only applied to wizards, magicians, prophetic poets, and bards. (251)

The remainder of this chapter (and book) explores some of the ways in which the Druids have been romanticized and reconstructed. Ellis conducts a survey of literature related to the Druids, including some “historical” accounts that were the product of fantasy rather than research. Among his observations are instances in which the Druids were portrayed as “still in their gloomy oak groves with an oak-wreathed Druid, suitably robed, wielding a blood stained sacrificial knife” (253) and alternately, as “patriarchal Old Testament figures” (258).

Ellis also looks at the sources for many of the modern misconceptions about the Druids, including works by William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg, William Blake, John Wood, and Simon Pelloutier. He then explores some facets of the Druid revival, including the Assembly of the Bard of Britain (1792), the Ancient Order of Druids (1781), the National Eisteddfod Association (1880), as well as more recent examples of uninformed scholarship and fantasy.