Book Review – Greek Religion

Introduction

Students seeking a thorough introduction to the religious practices and beliefs of Hellenic civilization need look no further than Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion. First published in 1977, Greek Religion remains the definitive survey of the theories, scholarship, and archaeological evidence related to the religion of the Hellenes. Burkert maps out the most recent and prominent theories of the development of ancient Greek religion while simultaneously acknowledging that there is much that is not known.

 
One of Burkert’s most useful contributions is his comparison of the mythological and poetic stylizations of Greek religion to existing archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert makes clear that Homeric poetry is just as likely to obscure and distort the beliefs and practices of Hellenic culture as it is illuminate them.

 
Burkert’s introduction to Greek Religion begins with an exploration of the most prominent scholarship in the field of ancient Hellenic religion. Burkert identifies the work of Wilhelm Mannhardt, James Frazer, and Jane Harrison as forces which have shaped 20th (and 21st) century ideas about Greek civilization and culture, and counts the theories of Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud among the lenses which have dramatically altered modern interpretations of the ancient civilization.

 
Burkert also spends time exploring our sources for what we do know about Greek religion, and acknowledges that literature, especially in the form of Homeric poetry, is our “principal evidence” (4). However, the picture that emerges in the works of Homer is sometimes at odds with what we have learned from other sources: ancient Greek art, inscriptions, statues, pottery, cult monuments, altars, ritual vessels, votive gifts, and temples.

 
Finally, Burkert uses the remainder of his introduction to sketch out the Mycenaean, Minoan, Indo-European, and Near Eastern influences on the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. Burkert argues that it is more accurate to speak of a “plural of Greek religions” (8) than a single unified system of belief or practice. Further, Burkert argues that “The Greeks themselves regarded the various manifestations of their religious life as essentially compatible, as a diversity of practice in devotion to the same gods, within the framework of a single world.” (8).

 

In other words, religion in ancient Greece was characterized by the mutation and proliferation of beliefs and practices as well as the influence of local customs and varying degrees of influence from other civilizations.

Prehistory and the Minoan-Mycenaean Age

In laying the foundation for a contemporary examination of Ancient Greek religion, Burkert notes that “for all periods of prehistory, the evidence of language to interpret the manifold and often confusing finds is lost forever. Moreover, what survives is always only a very one-sided assortment of remains decided by the accidents of physics and chemistry” (10). In other words, there is only so much we can ever expect to know about what the ancient Greeks believed or how they practiced their religion.

 
Burkert quickly stakes out the various influences on Greek religion, by pointing out that many of the plants and animals that are today seen as characteristically Greek were in fact imports from the East. This is significant because it means that cultures to the East of the Greeks wielded considerable influence over them from the Neolithic period onward. Burkert also calls into question the once widely popular theory of a prehistoric, matriarchal culture in which a “great Mother” goddess was widely worshipped. Burkert argues that such speculations go “far beyond the evidence” (12) and notes that this theory is being increasingly met with skepticism.

Instead, Burkert suggests that archaeological evidence from the excavations at Çatal Hüyük offer more insight into the earliest Greek cultures. From Çatal Hüyük archaeologists have learned what they do know about the earliest sanctuary sites and are given a glimpse at a tradition of religious continuity that stretches back over five thousand years.

Indo-European, Minoan, and Mycenaean Influences on Greek Religion

At this point Burkert begins to consider the second major influence on early Greek religion: the Indo-European migrations. After offering a short summary of the IE hypothesis, Burkert notes that Greece only came under the IE influence in the Bronze Age (16). From this point forward, Burkert traces linguistic evidence beginning with the first known record of the Greek language in Linear B. In staking out the significance of linguistic forensics, Burkert observes that

The vocabulary of Indo-European enshrines a spiritual world in which value structures, social divisions, and also religious ideas may be discerned. Evident is the patriarchal organization, the central position of the father within the extended family; agriculture is known, but pasturage, cattle, and horses and much more important. (17)

Burkert also considers the mingling of the IE Greek language with linguistic elements from neighboring civilizations, concluding that “there is no single origin of Greek religion (17).

 
For the remainder of the first chapter, Burkert focuses on what is known about the two major influences on Greek religion, the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Particularly helpful is his discussion of their places of worship/sanctuaries, including mountain peaks, caves, trees, graves, temples, and homes shrines. Also familiar to ADF members will be the practice of exchanging gifts with the deities in exchange for blessings or some divine intervention.

 
Burkert’s summary is exhaustive. One of my favorite lines from conclusion of this chapter is this:

…the fire altar which stands open to the sky is the most essential part of the sanctuary. This is not an exchange of gifts celebrated by a hierarchical society of gods, kings, priests, and commoners: together on the same level, men and women stand here about the altar, experience and bring death, honor the immortals and in eating affirm life in its conditionality: it is the solidarity of mortals in the face of the immortals. (53)

The remainder of Greek Religion consists of a catalog of what was, at the time, everything known from archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert gives ample consideration to topics such as rituals and sanctuaries, the Gods, the dead and the chthonic cult, polytheism, plurality in beliefs and practices, various cults and mystery traditions, festivals and calendars, and the emergence and impact of new philosophical traditions on the Hellenic religion.

 
Overall, Greek Religion is an essential resource for anyone interested in the Hellenic religion and in celebrating ADF Druidry in the Hellenic tradition. The book is almost encyclopedic in scope, so it serves as a both an excellent introduction to the subject as well as an indispensable reference guide.

 

 

 

Book Review – In Search of the Indo-Europeans

 

Mallory, J.P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth. 

Summary

The significance of J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans for students in ADF training programs cannot be overstated. Mallory presents a thorough overview and analysis of the Indo-European theory while simultaneously giving sufficient consideration to the various types of evidence which undermine or support it. In addition to exploring the linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence for the Indo-European theory, Mallory summarizes the various schools of thought and identifies which (if any) have the most merit.

The three most fundamental takeaways from Mallory’s work include:

  1. The idea of an Indo-European (IE) or Proto-Indo European (PIE) people is essentially a linguistic concept that attempts to trace a range of related languages to a common source language.
  1. In the process of reconstructing the original IE/PIE language, it is also possible to discover some characteristics of IE or PIE culture. These include ideas about the social structure, religion or beliefs, and economy of PIE/IE culture.
  1. Some, but by no means all, of the proposed characteristics of PIE/IE culture enjoy widespread acceptance among experts and academics. However, in the absence of supporting archaeological evidence, it must be kept in mind that virtually all of what has been postulated about the Indo-Europeans remains theoretical and in some cases, controversial.

Survey of Previous Approaches 

Mallory begins In Search of the Indo-Europeans by briefly sketching out the work of other pioneers in the field of linguistic paleontology. Mallory first acknowledges that the first serious attempts to reconstruct language assumed the historical accuracy of the Bible, and in particular depended on the related fallacy of Japhetism, in which Indo-European peoples were viewed as a singular population with a single language that exerted a unified influence of the rest of the world. Mallory also identifies the complexities that arise for linguistic paleontologists as the Indo-Europeans interact with their non IE neighbors.

Throughout the text, Mallory critiques various theories related to IE studies, beginning with the earliest, Judeo-Christian focused attempts to study the IE language. Mallory also considers the archaeological evidence as well as the field of comparative mythology. His ultimate conclusion is that most of what has been proposed about the Indo-Europeans is entirely speculative. However, he does identify those theories for which there is the most supporting evidence and academic consensus. For example, he writes that

If we must have concrete legacies, then the best claim is that of horse domestication and the social consequences this revolution in transportation and warfare brought to the world. In addition, the Indo-Europeans are at least one of the candidates for the inventors of wheeled vehicles, although a number of non-Indo-European peoples have every bit as good a claim. (270)

IE Culture and Religion

For my own study as an ADF Druid, Mallory is most illuminating in his discussion of Proto-Indo-European culture and his exploration of IE religion. In Chapter 4, Mallory argues that the central problem with using language as a means of recreating IE culture lies in its volatility. He writes that

The reason for our inability to recover with certainty some of these words lies embedded in the basic Indo-European hypothesis. An expansion of Indo-European speakers over a vast area took many of them out of their earlier environment so that they experienced radical changes in their cultural ecology before they emerged into history. By this time they had often abandoned those parts of their vocabulary that they no longer needed and the remaining trace of a particular PIE word may be left in only a handful of languages. These may be preserving an old inherited word, but they may also be later creations confined to a particular area of the Indo-European speaking world. (113)

In other words, as the IE peoples migrated, their language changed to reflect their new environments. These changes make it difficult to piece together the original IE language because each migration resulted in new mutations in the language, thereby making it difficult to compare the different languages with each other and with the original source.

Nevertheless, Mallory does consider the most commonly accepted evidence that provides some insight into the lives of the Indo-Europeans. He provides summaries of the academic consensus on the IE environment (the discussion of tree names is compelling), economy, technology, and social organization.

In the following chapter, Mallory turns his attention to the topic of Indo-European religion, relying once again on linguistic paleontology to reconstruct what we can regarding their belief systems. It is at this point that Mallory delves into Dumézil’s theory of tripartition: that IE society was divided into three distinct social classes/social functions: the herders & cultivators, the warriors, and the sovereigns/priests. Dumézil finds the pattern of tripartition in the mythologies and rituals of a variety of Indo-European peoples. My favorite is his consideration of the Greek myth of the apple of discord, in which each of the three bribes offered to Troy signify one of the three functions of tripartition: sovereignty, military prowess, and fertility.

Another important insight with regard to tripartition is that of the nature of the triple sacrifice that appears to be somewhat common among IE peoples. In sum, the deities were divided and ordered in a reflection of the social divisions of tripartition: deities of the celestial realm (sovereigns), deities of war, and chthonic deities. Distinct forms of sacrifice were required depending on which type of deity was being honored. Celestial beings received victims by hanging, war deities received victims killed by sword or fire, and the chthonic deities received victims who had been drowned. In some cases, a triple sacrifice was also made. 

The Indo-European Homeland Problem 

In the second half of the book, Mallory makes two significant (and related) points which are both essential to any mature discussion of IE history and our own current political climate. Both relate to “the” origin of IE peoples and the continuity (or lack thereof) within the history of IE culture.

With regard to the IE homeland, Mallory points out that what theorists are really discussing is “essentially a spatial expression of a vaguely defined temporal division of that linguistic continuum (145). In other words, the IE homeland has been hypothesized in different locations at different times based on the best (but always evolving) understanding of linguistic paleontology and archaeological evidence. While academics and researchers continue to debate the precise location of any IE homeland (is there only one?), Mallory does acknowledge “A recurring pattern of support for a homeland which should lie between Central Europe and the east Caspian” (158). Finally, it is worth noting that, according to Mallory, the linguistic evidence for IE migration suggests that such a movement was “broadly centrifugal from a central homeland rather than linear from one of the extremes (155). In the context of ADF, this means that there is evidence for a core IE language and culture that diffused throughout Europe and Western Asia, although it certainly mutated and proliferated as time passed.

The Aryan Myth

Given the persistence of racism and the recent resurgence (reemergence?) of Neo-Nazi sentiment, Mallory’s epilogue is a refreshing reminder of how insubstantial any claims of Aryan supremacy (or even identity) must be. Mallory reminds us that the Aryan myth was the creation of “a handful of Nazi fanatics” (266) and was based on a tradition of poor research, disregard for archaeological and linguistic evidence, and imaginative re-workings in popular culture.

Instead of the rubbish that constitutes the Aryan myth, Mallory argues that the “best claim” (270) for a IE legacy is that of horse domestication, although other non-IE peoples may have “every bit as good a claim.” He also suggests that the trifunctional ideology of the IE peoples may be considered to be part of their legacy, but notes that this theory has drawn criticism from those who believe it is too universal to have any real meaning or value. Finally, Mallory concludes by returning his focus to the best established legacy from the IE, their language.

Book Review – Drawing Down the Moon

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America.  Penguin Books. New York: 2006.

 

Summary

In the preface to the 2006 revised edition of Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler observes that “the dominant spiritual trend of our time is militant fundamentalism” (x). From this point of departure, Adler begins a survey of Neopaganism in the 21st century that explores not only the history of this spiritual movement but also the political forces from which it arose and which continue to shape it.

Adler considers the political implications of a polytheist system of belief in a world in which monotheism prevails, explores the relationship between the Neopagan movement, the earth, and environmentalism, and provides a thorough historical overview of the relationship between witchcraft and feminism. In the new edition, Adler covers additional topics such as Heathenism and the intersection of the LGBT movement and Neopaganism.

Adler’s warm style, her inclusion of firsthand interviews as well as personal stories, and the scope of her research make Drawing Down the Moon a delight to read and a critical starting point for anyone who wants to understand Neopaganism. Adler sorts through the current state of academic research in order to distinguish fact from fantasy, and she does so without ever diminishing the importance of the imaginative aspect of Neopaganism. Many of the most well-known leaders and figures from across the Neopagan spectrum are interviewed here, and most of the major Neopagan organizations are described in detail. Adler also captures the remarkable diversity of the Neopagan movement: she considers a range of philosophies, approaches to ritual, and life experiences.

What I enjoyed most about Adler’s book is the emphasis she places on the relationship between Neopaganism and the political forces that continue to shape it. Her consideration of the works of Arnold Toynbee and Lynn White provided a crucial introduction to (or reminder of) the stakes for Neopaganism in the debate over environmentalism. Adler uses the question of earth-centered spirituality as an entry point to another illuminating topic: the differing political repercussions of polytheistic and monotheistic systems of belief.

Adler focuses on the political elsewhere as well. Chapters 4 – 8 explore the history of witchcraft and the related questions of women’s oppression and feminism. This section of the book covers a great deal of historical ground and sets aside many of the popular misconceptions about witchcraft, Wicca, and witches. I found the section on Heathenism in Chapter 9 to be extremely helpful when it comes to understanding the different branches of Heathenism as well as the variety of Heathen perspectives on the topics of race, family, and conservative values.

Finally, one real gem of the book is that it is filled with insights from Isaac Bonewits. It is clear from the beginning that Adler held his opinions in high regard, but she also notes his sometimes turbulent relationships with other personalities in the Neopagan movement. Adler even provides a brief overview of Druidry in North America and summarizes the founding of ADF (pp 336-343).

Neopagans and the Environment

The value of Adler’s first chapter lies in her ability to clearly identify and define the concepts and terms crucial to an understanding of Neopaganism. In addition to examining terms such as “pagan,” “Neo-Paganism,” and “witch,” Adler begins by setting forth a few ideas that are shared across the Neopagan spectrum. She observes that “most Neo-Pagans sense an aliveness and ‘presence'” in nature…they share the goal of living in harmony with nature and they tend to view humanity’s ‘advancement’ and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation” (3-4).

The Neopagan relationship to nature is given a more thorough analysis in Chapters 2 and 13. First, Adler points to Toynbee’s 1972 article “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis,” in which he argues that the monotheistic worldview and value system have encouraged the exploitation and abuse of the environment and our natural resources. Adler also cites Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” and identifies similarities with Toynbee’s article. She quotes White’s assertion that “by destroying Pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects” (17).

As a bookend or complement to the question of Neopaganism’s relationship to the natural world, Adler closes her book with a chapter titled “Living on the Earth.” At this point, Adler argues that while most Neopagans do share an interest in environmental causes, there is no consensus on how to approach the issue. She notes a “deep split between Pagans whose commitment to ecological principles was strong and practical and those whose commitment was limited to a religious view” (396). In other words, there are Neopagans whose spiritual and political values are so indistinguishable that political action on behalf of the environment is an integral part of their religion. On the other hand, there are also Neopagans whose connection to the environment is of a purely spiritual nature: political activity is an entirely separate matter.

The Pagan Worldview

In Chapter 3, Adler sketches out what distinguishes a Neopagan philosophy from those of other religions and traditions. She writes that “at some level, Neopaganism is an attempt to reanimate the world of nature; or, perhaps more accurately, Neo-Pagan religions allow their participants to reenter the primeval world view, to participate in nature in a way that is not possible for most Westerners after childhood” (23). This is a passage with which I can readily identify. I too was drawn to Neopaganism because it offered an opportunity to experience the world in a mystical sense, as opposed to an inanimate landscape to be used for the benefit of myself and other humans.

Another benefit of Neopagan philosophy which is particular relevant during times of conflict is its openness to multiple worldviews and value systems. Adler writes that “polytheism has allowed a multitude of distinct groups to exist more or less in harmony, despite great divergences in beliefs and practices” (23). She also notes that the decentralized nature of Neopaganism and its flattened hierarchy of leadership may have “prevented these groups from being preyed upon by gurus and profiteers” (23). In other words, the Neopagan openness to new ideas, its rejection of fundamentalism, and relative lack of structure allow for an environment in which individuals are free to adopt ideas that work for them while discarding those which do not.

Finally, Adler uses part of her third chapter to consider theories of anthropology which claim that systems of belief evolve in “linear fashion” (24) and that monotheism is therefore superior to polytheism. Throughout this chapter, Adler gives voice to those who see the benefits of polytheistic religion and who are critical of the influence of monotheism, including Theodore Roszak, David Miller, and Isac Bonewits. Adler quotes Bonewits’ assertion that monotheism is “particularly useful in history when small groups of people wanted to control large numbers of people” (Adler, 32).  Further, Adler quotes Bonewits’ elaboration on monotheism that appeared in The Druid Chronicles (1976):

“far from being the crown of human thought and religion as its supporters have claimed for several bloody millennia, it is in fact a monstrous step backwards–a step that has been responsible for more human misery than any other idea in known history.” (Bonewits in Adler, 32)

Another salient point that arises in this chapter is the possibility that some traditions, including Wicca, could be perceived as monotheistic. This is especially true of Neopagan groups which focus exclusively on the worship of a great mother goddess. According to Adler, “one truly serious criticism of feminist Witchcraft has emerged…the fear that exclusive goddess worship can lead to a transcendent monotheism” (213). Put another way, a Neopagan system of belief that does not accommodate multiple points of view and which denies the validity of polytheism is no different than other forms of monotheism. Such a system of belief risks incorporating the very fundamentalism it denounces.

Witches

Adler devotes more than a third of Drawing Down the Moon to the history and theories of Witchcraft. Her survey of academic and historical accounts of witches and the craft offers a unique glimpse into a religion (or practice, depending upon your point of view) that has been plagued by misconceptions, poor scholarship, false narratives, and controversial figures. Adler relies on interviews with leaders in various witchcraft traditions as well as her own research and personal experiences. The result is a gentle but through account of the origins of Witchcraft and an overview of the diversity among those who consider themselves to be witches.

Of all the information Adler presents in this section, Bonewits’ attempt to classify witches into three categories is some of the most useful. In doing so, Adler helps break open the spectrum of witchcraft and the various traditions/sources/histories that accompany it. Bonewits identifies three primary witchcraft traditions: Classical, Gothic, and Neopagan. According to him, Classical witches were those for whom the craft was a practice rather than a religion, a way of dealing with the world that called upon wisdom, insight, and cleverness. These were the wise women of the village: resourceful, shrewd, and knowledgeable. Gothic witches were those whose practice was an inversion of Christianity, a popular notion of witchcraft but one with few actual practitioners. Neopagan witchcraft is another term for Wicca.

Other insights in this section include Adler’s overview of the “family traditions” of witchcraft, feminist witches, and the politics of the larger witchcraft movement. She argues that “most revivalist witches in North America accept the universal Old Religion more as a metaphor than a literal reality, a spiritual truth rather than a geographic one”(82). She also points out that for many witches, belonging to a particular tradition such as Alexandrian or Gardnerian is of no import; newer traditions are just as valid as those with lineages.

Finally, Adler repeatedly uses the term “bending” when referring to the craft, For her, witchcraft is adaptable, creative, and resourceful. As a result, it is a practice/religion that naturally mutates and proliferates.

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.