Thursday, 27 March 2014

Ancient Druids -- part nine

Druid's Temple 
(Geograph image)
Folly near Ilton, Yorkshire (1820)
© Copyright Gordon Hatton and
licensed for reuse under this
As the photograph of the Druid's Temple folly attests, legends that the druids had something to do with the building of Stonehenge had a lasting impact. When I first became interested in the druids, modern scholarship had dismissed the old legends but I noticed that there was little offered to replace them. Years later, ideas about an ancient Celtic culture were being similarly dismissed but through a highly nuanced set of ideas about what a culture entails.

In recent years, stone alignments in the Orkneys have inspired the idea that the traditional Celtic holidays of Samhain, Imbolc, etc. were considered important even before Stonehenge was built. While this certainly does not validate the idea of druids building Stonehenge, it suggests to me that the Celtic festivals were actually a continuation of local religious ideas that had their origin in the Neolithic.

The surviving classical histories that describe the druids start at about the time of Caesar, and Caesar gives us the most detailed information, but religions slowly change through syncretistic agencies and efforts to make the religion pertinent and workable in each time. If a syncretistic event is important enough -- something that would concern a great number of people and that would actually reinforce people's self-identity, then an essentially new religion or set of beliefs and resulting customs can emerge. This is also often reflected in a new artistic movement. A couple of thousand years later, all of the pertinent religious details have been lost (and the mystery religions kept them secret right from the start).

Sometime in the 5th century BC, the first signs of La Tène art were appearing as a result of syncretisms between Celts and other cultures in northern Italy. It seems to have been a very gradual change at first -- there is no clear line where Celtic features were first being expressed in the Golasecca culture.  We get the idea of a growing cosmopolitan centre and this increases with wealthy Etruscan patronage attracting artisans and even philosophers from far and wide. Later, powerful and generous Greek commanders like Dionysius, the Tyrant of Syracuse make way for the large Celtic military bases to be set up there.

Pythagoreanism, through its founder moving to Croton in Italy and setting up a school, had an great impact on the area. Interestingly, it received criticism from people who saw the Pythagoreans becoming too involved in local politics, and this almost put a stop to it, but it survived. The Celts who had arrived in Italy to serve in Greek military campaigns came with their own tradition of "religious tolerance". Over the centuries, they had come to realize that instead of trying to eradicate the beliefs and customs of the people they encountered in their travels, a better strategy was to insinuate themselves at the apex of the indigenous cultures and give the appearance of a supporting administration while changing things to further their own interests in its name.

Augustus did the same sort of thing with his puppet kings affecting a local cultural conservatism -- the Thracian revival (which emphasized the Mysteries in its art) being an example. Augustus also implemented the tradition of Roman troops swearing allegiance to the emperor instead (as it had been formerly) to their commander. It is not impossible that Augustus knew how the druid class in Gaul had been successful in placing themselves at the top of local cultures. Apart from his own connections with Gaul, he would have read Caesar's commentaries:
"Since I have arrived at this point, it would seem to be not inappropriate to set forth the customs of Gaul and of Germany, and the difference between these nations. In Gaul, not only in every state and every canton and district, but almost in each several household, there are parties; and the leaders of the parties are men who in the judgment of their fellows are deemed to have the highest authority, men to whose decision and judgment the supreme issue of all cases and counsels may be referred. And this seems to have been an ordinance from ancient days, to the end that no man of the people should lack assistance against a more powerful neighbour; for each man refuses to allow his own folk to be oppressed and defrauded, since otherwise he has no authority among them. The same principle holds in regard to Gaul as a whole taken together; for the whole body of states is divided into two parties." (VI, 11)
There can be little doubt that the druids took an important role in such judgements. Unlike the idea of them being priests, their roles as judges is clearly attested by the ancient authors. The system described above can be seen reflected in later Irish laws (Brehon Laws). Just how much control they did exert is argued -- Sean B. Dunham taking the side of them being the actual ruling class.

Tomorrow, we will start to put it all together...

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