Bardism

Tom Shippey

  • Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton
    Yale, 491 pp, £30.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 14485 7

When I first met Ronald Hutton, at a conference in Montana ten years ago, he remarked that if you looked at a modern book on druids, what you were likely to find was a number of chapters about ancient druids – about whom we know very little – followed by a perfunctory coda on modern druids, about whom we know a great deal. Wasn’t this, he asked, obviously the wrong way round?

That looks like a rhetorical question with only one sensible answer, but there is a case to be made the other way, as Hutton indicated in Witches, Druids and King Arthur (2003). The same could be said about King Arthur as about druids. On the one hand we have the ‘historical King Arthur’, about whom we know effectively nothing – not even whether such a person existed, for there is no contemporary evidence for him at all, and the closest approaches to it (Gildas’s sixth-century account of the ‘ruin of Britain’ and the Welsh poem Gododdin) either do not name him or may contain later legendary interpolations. On the other hand, we have a King Arthur with a secure birthdate and a clear biography, whom one can even meet and talk to. He is ‘a modern English Druid chieftain’, a Farnborough biker who, following a visionary experience, changed his name by deed poll to Uther Arthur Pendragon, formed a group of activists called the Loyal Arthurian Warband (LAW) and devoted himself to protest movements on civil liberties and environmental issues. Hutton asks who is the more real: the ‘historical’ leader who may never have existed, or the modern man whose existence is undoubted? He recognises, though, that the question does not have only one sensible answer, for while the modern man is definitely there (indeed here), his whole role ‘depends on the acting out of a set of myths’. You might say that he is only playing at being King Arthur, though that would not be quite right, since he is perfectly serious in his beliefs. Just the same, the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there ever was one, was presumably not playing at being anything. There is a difference, though one cannot exactly call it being more real, or more serious, or even more genuine: just first-order and second-order.

All of this applies to druids, and to witches too. Hutton discussed the origins of Wicca in The Triumph of the Moon (1999); The Druids – whose dust-jacket repeats the case made in the ten-year-old conversation reported above – appeared in 2007. Blood and Mistletoe is the heavyweight version of the latter, almost four times as long, with full scholarly apparatus, organised chronologically rather than thematically. It might have been subtitled ‘everything you need to know about druids’; and if someone were to ask, ‘But what does anyone need to know about druids?’, the answer would be that their history tells us a good deal about ‘changes in British culture during the past half-millennium’. It has been a great help to his project that Hutton is on good terms with modern druids, who have often had an adversarial relationship with sceptical academics.

Another way of describing Blood and Mistletoe would be to say that it reverses the traditional balance of interest between the ancient and the modern. Hutton confines himself to, not a perfunctory, but a non-inflated chapter on the ancient sources, which, as he says, could fit easily onto a dozen pages of large print. The sources fall into two groups, the classical and the Celtic, the former being much the earlier. About 15 Latin and Greek authors mention the druidae (variously spelled) of the Celts, and they include a number of famous names, Caesar, Pliny, Lucan, Tacitus and Suetonius among them. Some of them ought to have known what they were writing about, especially Caesar, who spent years fighting against and suppressing the Gauls, and Tacitus, whose father-in-law campaigned against the Celts in Britain, which according to Caesar was the heartland of the druid cult. The classical evidence is also at least moderately consistent. The druids were sacrificers, Caesar says, adding (it was to prove an enduring image) that they burned their victims alive in great wicker cages shaped like men. They were soothsayers too, one of their methods being to stab a man and tell the future by interpreting his death agonies. Pliny adds an accusation of cannibalism, and both he and Suetonius say the cult was banned by the emperors. On the other hand, it was reported several times that druids taught the immortality of the soul, like the followers of Pythagoras, and they had what would now be identified as ‘green’ elements, worshipping not in stone temples but in sacred groves, their totem plants being oak and mistletoe, the latter harvested by druids in white robes wielding golden sickles. Lucan combines the horrific and naturist elements with a much admired account of a grisly sacrificial wood, allegedly destroyed by Caesar in person, thereby overcoming his soldiers’ superstitious fears. Tacitus provides possibly the most striking image of all, as the army of Suetonius Paulinus halts on the shore facing the island of Mona (Anglesey), awed by an opposing army strengthened by women in black waving torches and druidae invoking curses. Roman discipline reasserts itself. The legionaries advance, mowing down any resistance and burning the groves with their bloodstained altars – a scene powerfully recapitulated in George Shipway’s novel of the occupation of Britain, Imperial Governor (1968).

Hutton is sceptical about most of this, pointing out that several authors seem to be copying each other or sources now lost, that Pliny appears to have been ready to believe anything, griffin-robbing Arimaspians included, that Caesar in particular had an evident agenda of imperial self-justification, and that some of the things reported of druids are not very different from the behaviour of Roman haruspices. As for the Celtic evidence, none of it, he believes, can plausibly be explained as genuinely surviving from the Roman or pre-Roman periods, and a lot of it is medieval fantasy, as likely to emanate from the Old Testament or from the requirements of hagiography as from native tradition. Archaeological evidence is no help, either, though it has often been pressed into the service of preconceived ideas. The ‘interpretative status’ of the 2000-year-old body of Lindow Man, recovered from a peat bog in Cheshire and apparently ritually killed in three ways, by club, garrotte and knife, with mistletoe pollen in his stomach, is ‘thoroughly insecure’: the garrotte could be a corroded necklace, the four grains of pollen could just have blown onto his last meal. The grisly discoveries at Gournay and Ribemont in France are as likely to be battle-sites or memorial cemeteries as relics of mass sacrifice. As for post-Roman Celts, ‘the only literary works to survive from the British Isles in the whole of the fifth century’, St Patrick’s Confession and Letter to Coroticus, never mention druids, let alone conflict with them.

That isn’t to say that there was nothing there: the Anglo-Saxons borrowed their term drycræft, ‘magic’, from Irish draidecht (or its British-Celtic cognate, if we knew what that was), so they must have been impressed by it. The important point, though, is that druids, except in Ireland, are not medieval. Despite many later claims, there was no continuous tradition in Britain. The image of Merlin as a druid is familiar from film and fiction, but there are no druids in Malory, or in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the sorcerers with whom Ambrosius contends in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, from which so much of the Arthurian legend derives, are just magi. Druids got their start in the modern imagination from humanist rediscoveries in the Renaissance and from learned speculation, from outside Britain to begin with. England especially was late to take an interest. There are no druids in Shakespeare, not even in Cymbeline. Michael Drayton repeatedly mentions them, but uses both the ‘horrid sacrificer’ and ‘wise philosopher’ images impartially. Milton seems to have first welcomed them as sagacious fellow poets, but then either caught up with Tacitus or had his anti-papal feelings roused by Caesar’s report of an archdruid, consequently writing them off as ‘part of a barbarous and lunatic rout’ on Anglesey, and after 1647 never mentioning them again. For some considerable time after that, druids functioned in Britain mainly as tokens in religious polemic. They could be exemplars of a noble native religious tradition, extirpated or corrupted by Rome, or terrible examples of an exploitative celibate priesthood, contemporary morals to be drawn accordingly.

None of this now dead debate seems, however, to have much bearing on modern images of druids – as seen for instance in Panoramix (in English versions, Getafix), the village druid of the Asterix the Gaul cartoons – which I would sum up as white robes, general green-tinted benevolence, strange botanical powers, eisteddfods and midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge. How was that image created? The Stonehenge connection goes back to John Aubrey, who first recognised the monuments at Avebury in 1649 and then spent nearly fifty years writing and talking about, but never quite finishing, his projected Templa Druidum. He was followed by William Stukeley, Anglican clergyman and ‘pagan Neoplatonist’, whose book on Stonehenge came out in 1740, and to whom we owe such basic concepts as ‘trilithons’ and ‘long barrows’. Just the same, the connection is thoroughly bogus. Stonehenge far predates any mention of druids: Hutton suggests that ‘the first stone temple ever built in the name of Druidry’ was the Circus at Bath, with its giant acorns, built between 1754 and 1768 to an esoteric design. John North noted in Stonehenge that the layout of the site is much more likely oriented not towards midsummer sunrise but midwinter sunset, which one might well think a time of fear and propitiation for Neolithic farmers rather than the joyous life celebration of modern culture.

In any case, no one tried to revive any ceremonies until Victorian times. In 1860, the Earl of Caernarvon turned up to watch the midsummer sunrise, but he was on his own. By 1872, 35 people were there; by 1900, large crowds came and the pubs stayed open. The modern druidical takeover began in 1905, but soon ran into problems of ownership, access, crowd control and conflicting claims from different orders of druids: much of Hutton’s book is devoted to following the confusing splits in the modern movement, which created an Order of Druids, an Ancient Order, a United Ancient Order, a Secular Order and several Loyal Orders, with American and Australasian offshoots. Their eclecticism is well exemplified by the leader of the Universal Bond, founded by George Watson Reid, who at various times called himself ‘the messenger from Tibet’, ‘Abu Magrigor’ (he took the name MacGregor and had an interest in mystical Islam) and ‘Ayu Subhadra’; he also pronounced himself the archdruid, claimed (like several predecessors) unique continuity from ancient times and, in spite of marked Scottish resistance to what had come to be seen as a Welsh movement, in 1918 redesignated his group in Gaelic An Druidh Uileach Braithreachas, the Universal Druid Brotherhood. One sees why there have been several occasions when the irreverent soldiery from Salisbury Plain have staged mocking parodies of such false-beards-and-cake Stonehenge scenarios.

The eisteddfod connection has worn distinctly better, though as far as philology is concerned it too rests only on sand. In his engagingly contrarian way, Hutton argues that the developing interest in Welsh language and tradition was not caused by defiance of English cultural colonisation, but by ‘the sheer success of the 16th-century Welsh in integrating themselves into a larger British superstate’. As the Tudors, Cecils, Cromwells etc went off to London, native Welsh culture retreated to village level, the elitist bardic tradition lost its patrons, and by the late 17th century even keen collectors of medieval Welsh poetry could not understand it. The reaction characteristically started among the prosperous Welsh community in London. The Society of Ancient Britons was founded in 1715, and created imitators who by the end of the century had revived the old institution of the eisteddfod. In 1764, a literary recovery process began with Evan Evans’s Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards, which among much else asserted that ‘there is a great deal of the Druidical Cabbala intermixed’ in Taliesin’s works, ‘especially about the transmigration of souls’. As it happens, that claim is an error, though an honest one. But at this point a seriously gifted fraudster put his imprint on the growing movement: Iolo Morganwg.

He was born in Glamorgan and christened Edward Williams in 1747. The bardic name by which he is known was not a total invention, for Iolo is a short form of the Welsh form of Edward, Iorwerth, and Morganwg just indicated his native area – ‘Glamorgan Eddie’. He was a marginal member of the culture, for Glamorgan was borderland rather than heartland Welsh, and his native language was English. Just the same, he soon became bilingual and acquired a good knowledge of bardic Welsh. The trouble was, he was an able and unscrupulous forger. Having failed at several trades, he got in touch with the London Welsh community and offered to help them in their project of publishing the medieval masterpieces. He began by foisting on them a number of poems said to be by the 14th-century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, went on to print an ‘account of the ancient bardic and Druidic tradition’, of which he claimed to be (with a friend) the last initiate, and eventually took over much of the three-volume Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (completed in 1807 and named for its sponsor Owen Jones, aka Owain Myfyr) with his many interpolations into the genuinely ancient ‘Triads of the Island of Britain’. His forgeries – for there is no doubt about his literary talent – were only slowly unravelled.

Even more significant, though, is that Iolo institutionalised bardism and druidry. He revived the idea of the gorsedd, ‘a mound’, then ‘a meeting on a mound’; he announced the grades of bard, druid, ovate and apprentice, with their different-coloured robes; he created striking ceremonies, with much crowning and unsheathing and sheathing of swords, which in spite of uncertainty from bishops and official clergy (yr hen bersoniaid llengar, ‘the old literary parsons’) soon established themselves in the eisteddfodau, to the civil surprise of observers like Matthew Arnold. In doing all this, Hutton says flatly, Iolo ‘at once betrayed his friends and his country’, while there is a special irony in his personal motto, Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd, ‘The Truth against the World’. Nevertheless, his institutions have persisted, even more than his writings. Two of Iolo’s ovates produced the words and music for the Welsh national anthem, ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’, sung at every rugby international.

Iolo was not by any means the only inventor of tradition, and Hutton says a good deal about others, noting once again the way in which iconic images of Welshness were often created by English ironmasters’ wives. Augusta Hall introduced the female Welsh national dress to eisteddfods, established the triple-strung Italian harp as the Welsh national instrument and gave the Cardigan trickster Twm Sion Catti, sometimes known as the Welsh Robin Hood, a wider audience. Charlotte Guest edited and translated the Mabinogion, a genuinely medieval Welsh wonder-tale anthology which had been ‘crowded out of the Myvyrian Archaiology by Iolo’s forgeries’. Hutton further discusses a whole series of power struggles, between the various modern orders of druids, with several claimants of ‘supreme authority’, ancient descent, sole right to initiate etc; between different branches of Celticism, with notable Cambro-Caledonian hostility; and, showing that some things don’t change, between opposing class and generation groupings in the history of modern archaeology. Yet another way of describing Blood and Mistletoe would be to see it as a riposte to Stuart Piggott’s classic but, as regards modern druidism, resoundingly negative book, The Druids (1968).

Still, one might ask, what is there not to be negative about? Hutton’s work is studded with people who went clinically insane (Henry Jacob, John Leland, William Price), with claims that Homer was born near Caerphilly and that Britain was evangelised not by any Roman mission but by St Paul in person, and with amiable innocents and the fraudsters who preyed on them. Blood and Mistletoe certainly proves, as Hutton’s earlier works have also done, that what has been regarded as tradition handed down from time immemorial and so no longer researchable can in fact be checked and treated historically. It also shows how manipulable ‘tradition’ can be, and usually is, in the service of regionalism, nationalism, imperialism, religious controversy and more approved modern causes as well. What might be even more interesting – I suspect it was cut out of this very long book for reasons of economy – would be a demonstration of how deeply the resurrected phenomenon of druidry has sunk into and shaped the modern countercultural imagination, from Asterix the Gaul to The Mists of Avalon, Bernard Cornwell, Merlin in John Boorman’s movie Excalibur, the 1973 Wicker Man movie and, no doubt, hundreds of other works in contemporary circulation.

It has been said that no modern medievalism does not have some scholarly origin – though it may well be at 20th hand – for in spite of many claims to the contrary there is no real right-through continuity at all. That is why this often dangerous phenomenon needs to be studied, if only so that scholars know they may be playing with fire; why academics furthermore need to show where populist movements come from and what needs they supply; and why they need to do so sympathetically but honestly, without sneering or ducking responsibility. Blood and Mistletoe is a model of such a procedure, and my only regret is that although it extends to a quarter of a million words, it is not a few score thousand longer. If it still seems too long, the thing to do is turn back to its much shorter predecessor The Druids, where one can read about druids ancient, modern and future, sorted into such categories as ‘wise’, ‘demonic’, ‘green’, ‘fraternal’ and several more besides.