Blood and Mistletoe: The History of Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton
Ronald Hutton is presenting the outcome of his research into the subject of Druidry, which took place between 2000 and 2007. Unlike his previous book The Druids, this book is in depth, and its format is chronological, which gives the reader time to fully integrate and compare each time period to the one preceding it. It talks about the druids from the time they were first mentioned until the modern day. In the last statement of the introduction to the book, Ronald Hutton tells us what this book is really about from his point of view.
“In the last analysis, however, this book is about neither archeology nor Druidry, but about the British, and the way they have seen themselves, their island, their species and their world.” (Hutton, p. XV)
The first chapter of the book is a very interesting one as it discusses the sources that Hutton uses to discuss the Iron Age Druids. What makes this chapter different is that it doesn’t just tell you what sources he uses, but also puts them into the context of the works they were taken from. This makes it easier to assess whether they are a good source to use or a bad one. Consider here that all sources related to the ancient druids have problems; the trick is how to strip away the untruths or exaggerations to get at the truths. The sources include the classical texts, archeology, vernacular records from the Welsh and the Irish, and Ogham. At the end of the chapter you wonder if there was ever a group called druids in the Iron Age.
The second chapter is a recounting of the druids and what the people thought of them in medieval times. It was interesting to read how it was the Germans who first adopted the druids followed by the French and then the Scots. Ireland and Britain were a bit tough on the druids and alternated between revering them to dismissing them until the eighteenth century when they finally gained some traction in Britain and Ireland. This could be because in the Irish texts the druids were opponents of the Catholic saints and in England of the authors who first wrote about them the first confused them with other pagan priests, the second was an Italian who dismissed them and the third went mad before he could publish his manuscript and it remained unpublished for two centuries. It was not until the Oxford philologists decided to write about them and make them the center of learning, and then John Aubery associated them with Stonehenge and other stone monuments, that they started to take off.
In the third chapter of the book the author tells us that by the early eighteenth century all the circumstances existed to turn the druids into major figures in the national imagination, but they needed someone strong enough to make it happen and that person was William Stukeley. Stukeley credited Britain’s megalithic monuments to the ancient druids and because of his obsession with them he was a laughing stock in his old age. Stukeley in his early academic life in the 1710s and 1720s was considered an early forerunner of the discipline of archeology, but in the 1720s he became ordained in the Church of England and tried to fit his evidence from his digs with the church doctrines. To Stukeley the druids were supreme masters of the skill of designing temples that represented the true nature of the “World Soul” of ancient Platonic traditions. Stukeley published two works one on Stonehenge and another on Abury. These two works influenced greatly two other people who left their marks on their fields of expertise. The first is John Wood, who was an architect, he was the one most responsible for turning Bath into one of the most celebrated Georgian cities and the other was William Borlase, who was the father of the study of Cornish prehistory and natural history. By 1746 druids began in poetic verses, as nature priests or bards; Welsh poets to instill an idea of pride in the Gaelic culture used this haziness. I’d like to quote Ronald Hutton here because it says it all.
“In 1740 druids had been marginal figures in the imagination of the English and the Welsh; within fifty years they and their presumed monuments were virtually everywhere. They loomed out of books, strutted in plays, and peered through shrubbery.”
In the pervious two chapters we learned of the roles of three central players that successfully and cumulatively created the conditions for the druids to reappear; they are Aubrey, Toland and Stukeley. Ross Nichols in his history of the beginning of his Druid Order tells us that Toland began it on the instructions of Aubery and yet when we look at their private correspondences we see no evidence of that. It seems that the story Ross Nichols gave of he beginning of the circle of the Universal Bond in 1717 is a splicing of two different events. The first was in 1717 when a number of local groups met in London to form a common organization with a chief and ruling council, these groups were Freemasons. The second event was in 1792 when the Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain met on Primrose Hill at an autumn equinox. The British loved their clubs though, so it was inevitable that some would spring up around the druids. As it happened only 3 appeared, the first on October 15, 1772, when 18 of the most important inhabitants of the island of Anglesey founded an association to improve it socially and economically. It was a generous order that helped the people of the island and ended the way it began, with generosity. In 1779 a Society of the Druids of Cardigan was formed. It was designed to encourage the writing of poetry, and it lasted for only a couple of years. On November 29, 1781 the Ancient Order of Druids came into being, its first leader was Hurle and it was set up the same way as the Freemasons. It spread quickly and it was dedicated to music. In 1831, it had grown considerably and it changed its purpose to increasing the present and future welfare of mankind and to gain and spread knowledge. In 1833 a splinter group came away from the AOD and was named United Ancient Order of Druids both of which continued to thrive and became poised to become major contributors to Victorian culture. It should be noted that all the “Druid” orders of the time were pretty vague on being “druid’. They were more Freemason then anything.
Chapter five is one of the very interesting chapters of this book as it talks about one of the most controversial personalities that influenced “Revival Druidry”, Iolo Morganwg. He forged a lot of the manuscripts that Revival Druids use as guidance and he was the first in Wales to make up a full order around the Druids. He described the divisions of “ancient druid orders” and the rites preformed in them. He openly held rites and initiated people as bards. Iolo’s views were taken up and altered by Edward Davies, and due to some friction between the two Davies went on to denounce Iolo as a fraud, supported by people like John Bryant. The chapter was very interesting in that it showed just how Iolo manipulated people who trusted him as an authority to get them to publish his ideas. In the end though Iolo’s work was also his trap since he could not retaliate against the people who called him a fraud.
The next chapter, chapter six, talks more about the images of the Druids in Georgian England and especially about two men who have influenced it the most, William Blake and William Wordsworth. It seems that in the eighteenth century writers who tended to naturally favor religious ritual and a powerful clergy were inclined to admire the druids and present them in a good light, while those who preferred a religion based more on scripture and on evangelical preaching or resented pretentions of established churchmen tended to be hostile to the druids. William Blake in his poems followed this formula very well. He was hostile to the druids in his writings, at the same time making up a “new” history for Christianity making it seem like it started in England. Wordsworth on the other hand never offered a real opinion on whether the druids were good or bad, he presented the two sides of the story, the philosopher-priests and the priesthood that sacrificed humans with equal enthusiasm.
During the period between 1800-1870, the druids were portrayed in two roles, the first as patriots and prophets of British glory and the second as nature priests. The formations of clubs and societies bearing the name Druids continued from the Georgian era to the Victorian era, with one society for women springing up as well. Since the druids seemed to have dominated the scene in that period, it is only natural that they were portrayed in a variety of attitudes in literary treatments, like poems and books. It is noticeable however, that the most common way that the druids were regarded with was hostility.
During the nineteenth century Druidry and Wales became two faces of the same coin. This was thanks to Iolo’s influence that came through in two different ways, the first was through the literature that was inspired by his take on Druidry and the second was the use of his famous eisteddfodau. The ideas presented in the literature of the times were either inspired by Iolo or shared by him. The five main strands were as follows; the ancient druids were wise and high-minded people who believed in the one true god and in salvation, the detestation of the Romans who misrepresented the druids, that Christianity had blended with Druidry to give us the early British Church, the hatred of Roman Catholicism, and finally that medieval Welsh literature had preserved druidic teachings. There were some voices of criticism of the ideas put forward by Iolo and his many followers but they were not many, and Iolo was even defended by the established Church. It was also during this time that Myfyr Morganwg developed his concept of Druidry based on Iolo’s work, which was more pagan and he was able to worship out in the open. Myfyr had a successor in Owen Morgan who was a journalist but after Morgan died there were no successors and the order died, but not before he influenced some one else who did not consider himself a successor to Morgan but to Myfyr. This was William Price. Of all the people from the nineteenth century the only one that is well known for his flamboyant ways and his impact on social issues was William Price. The rest were only known among scholars or became footnotes in books.
The chapter entitled “The Downfall of the Druids” talks about how after being a dominant presence in British history for a hundred years, the situation changed suddenly from the 1860s onwards. There were always some voices that did not think that the druids were a major part of British history most of them were from Scotland and that didn’t change after the 1860s. What caused the big downfall was something that was inevitable in my opinion. The Danes discovered the three ages of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, Darwin wrote his book “The Origin of Species” and archeology was being developed. Writers of the 1850s onwards knew that the druids could not have built the megaliths and archeology took care of the rest. Of course there were still misconceptions, after all archeology was still developing and so were theories of what is history and pre-history. A new view of British pre-history was being written with the druids being marginalized.
The next chapter in the book discusses the individuals and groups that still worked with the images of the druids, as they were when they were still popular. These individuals and groups still impacted their contemporary societies. The image of the druids as nature-priests underwent some development between the middle of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. The places attributed to them (both man-made and natural) were given a sense of real sanctity and their religion was recognized as both genuinely pagan and having enduring appeal. This prepared Druidry for being a fully formed modern pagan religion at the end of the twentieth century. This was an interesting chapter because in it you could see the elements of what makes the Druidry of today.
Chapter eleven is called the Universal Bond and it talks about a druid order of the same name. Hutton traces the spiritual journey of its colorful leader and the role this order played in the history of Stonehenge from 1912 to 1931. The founder of the order, Reid, was a very pompous and greedy man who wanted more and more privileges from the people who owned or took care of Stonehenge. In the end his outrageous claims to history for his order and his attitude sabotaged his own order. In 1932 he stopped identifying himself as a druid and even changed his order’s name to reflect that change. This chapter is a good example of how one larger than life character can make history; the Universal Bond may have been a small order in numbers but its leader made sure it made a lot of noise. Its association with Stonehenge certainly made sure it was on the “druid historical records” of Britain.
After the death of Reid the Universal Bond was continuing to get the public’s attention more so than before. As Reid had abandoned the Druids of his group these druids split and formed a new group, which after the death of Reid re-took the name of the Universal Bond. The order caused a national controversy. It achieved an adversarial relationship with archeologists in a way, which reveals the nature of both. This relationship was not the same as before though because the druids, the archeologists and the parent society and culture had all changed in nature. This chapter was interesting as it explains the origin of one of the most famous of the “modern” druid orders the OBOD. It had an interesting look at the history of British archeology and the role they played in the fight for Stonehenge. It also gave us a small but illuminating look at Stuart Piggott and the reason he wrote his book “The Druids”.
The final chapter of the book was the conclusions that the author had come too, which were already incorporated within the previous chapters. I think anyone reading this book will come to the conclusion that not everything is as it seems. People from the modern druid orders might not like what they read in this book because it shows just how much REAL evidence we have for ancient druid orders and how the “modern” druid orders came about. The origins of some of the orders will certainly surprise the members who are in them now. This is an illuminating book that is a must read for anyone who is interested in Druidry and druids. As for the goal of the book which is a look at the British and how they saw themselves and their island I think that Hutton has done an amazing job of fulfilling that goal. I don’t think I will look at the British, the druids or the druid orders in quite the same way ever again.
- Posted in: Book Reviews