Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Druids - crazy wizards, scientists or judges?



History seems to mostly give the Druids a bad rap. Roman historians wrote endlessly of the hideous forest glades filled with the blood and gore of their ritual sacrifices. And if that's not bad enough, now modern culture has them dancing around Stonehenge every solstice dressed in funny clothes doing their best to impersonate a Tolkien wizard. Sadly the 19th-century revivalism and most of the Roman commentary is so wide of the mark we will probably never know what a true Druid looked like or how they acted. In truth these guys were the intellectual pinnacles of the Celtic world, they spent decades in training - studying complex mathematics, philosophy and various sciences while committing all of it to memory. By Caesar's account they paid no taxes and were exempt from military service - evidence enough of the sophisticated culture the Gauls had created prior to the Roman conquests. But is this possible evidence they weren't the blood-thirsty human auguries that history has saddled them with?

First of all, lets fix the Druids in a time and place. Druidism appears to have originated in Iron Age Britain sometime prior to the 4th-century BC and had spread into Gaul by the 3rd-century BC when Greek historians first began mentioning their 'Pythagoran' teachings. By the time Julius Caesar arrived in 58BC, the Druid class had cemented itself as the law-givers and legal adjudicators across all levels of Gallic life. Caesar himself doesn't seem to have much of an issue with them, in fact, he even befriended some, as one powerful priest (he was the Pontifex Maximus at the time) would another - which doesn't seem to suggest he thought their practices the abomination of human existence.

Okay, so what about these human sacrifices? Well, lets get into the 'Classical' mindset. You might be thinking that's hard, but essentially, the Judeo-Christian beliefs of morality that has shaped the modern world's lists of 'good and bad' originate from the Iron Are. What we think is bad, was mostly bad back then, just as what we think is acceptable now was mostly acceptable to a Greek or Roman as well. There were some exceptions, the Romans frowned on homosexuality while the Greeks didn't, but the big things like murder, rape, theft and human sacrifices were stock standard crimes. And in the case of human sacrifices, the Romans saw this as a primary motivation for attacking their neighbours if they believed it was being practiced - a slightly strange argument if we mention Gladiators - but we'll leave that alone today.

When the Romans besieged Carthage for the third time in 146BC, one of their driving ideological reasons for what was a largely an unjustified attack was to end the child sacrifices to the Punic god, Beelzebub - if that name sounds familiar that ought to show how well Roman PR worked at the time. Now considering the Carthaginians were an advanced sophisticated Classical society with similar geographic origins to the Judeans - the chances of them still carrying out child sacrifices in 146BC seem slim, and although a child necropolis has been found in the city, there hasn't been much convincing evidence the children were ritually slaughtered.

Fast forward to Caesar's conquests of Gaul between 58BC and 51BC, and the suggestion of human sacrifice occurs again. Coincidence? Or was this Caesar building a case for his actions in Gaul, which at the time were largely unsanctioned and held to be illegal in Rome. Was that little bit of bad press he wrote enough to see the total destruction of the Celtic world's religious, science and judicial class? I guess we'll look at that next time...For more on the Druids you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links