Monday, 17 March 2014

Ancient Druids -- part one

Imaginative illustration of 'An
Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit' from
"The Costume of the Original
Inhabitants of the British Islands"
by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815
Rather than just presenting an abridgement of what anyone can find on the web about the ancient Druids, I have decided to present my own hypothesis using classical sources and what little archaeological evidence we have. However, some background information is essential because most definitions focus on them being priests of a Celtic religion and, as the evidence is limited, there is much speculation which is not always labelled as such. I have picked two sources for this introduction, the first being the entry for Druidism in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which I feel is about as good a general introduction as it gets, especially in the etymology of the word. My second choice is a personal favorite of mine and although some Celticists do not agree with it fully, even they think that it is worthy of including in their compilations of the material. It is Sean B. Dunham's Caesar's perception of Gallic social structures in B. Arnold and D. B. Gibson (eds) Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State: The evolution of Complex Social Systems in Prehistoric Europe, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 110-15 and its author has made it available for free download on I also highly recommend including the entire book in your library.

Sad to say, I must start with what has been lost: Posidonius the Stoic (sometimes given as Poseidonius) was not only one of the greatest minds of his day, but it is generally believed that he was an important uncredited source for later authors writing about the Druids. Only fragments of his work has been recorded and none of it explicitly mentions Druids. He did write about the Celts, however, and there is one passage in Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists Book 4,36. which contains a clue that many will miss:
"The Celts place food before their guests, putting grass for their seats, and they serve it up on wooden tables raised a very little above the ground; and their food consists of a few loaves, and a good deal of meat brought up floating in water, and roasted on the coals or on spits."
In the above passage, we might be reminded of the fate of the first-born Dionysos: having been chopped to pieces by the Titans after he took took the form of a bull, Dionysos was boiled in a cauldron as a prelude to being placed on spits, roasted and eaten. Zeus managed to rescue the heart and from this he made a potion that he gave to the moon-goddess Semele. This made her pregnant and she gave birth to the second-born Dionysos. This time, he was the God of the Vine. In his previous form as Zagreus, he was a much earlier deity: a lord of the animals, the master of the hunt. We see the mythological change of theme from hunter to agriculturist.

The slaying of Dionysos in his bull form by the Titans
(Gundestrup Cauldron)
The Gundestrup cauldron blends Dionysian and Celtic iconography in an example of Thracian native style silver, and this plate appears to show a triple depiction of the slaying of  Dionysos Zagreus by the Titans. Note the presence of other animals and the Dionysian ivy-scroll. Triplism is a distinct feature of early Celtic art and later Celtic iconography. On the round base plate of the cauldron we also see a sacrificed bull.

Dionysianism, through various syncretisms, had its elements absorbed into other beliefs -- we can track it through Orphism and Pythagoreanism (Pythagoras had been an Orphic). We can also see its evidence in less obvious religious beliefs -- even Christianity (Robert M. Price, Deconstructing Jesus, Amherst, New York, 2000, p.234.):
“Thus in the Gospel of John Jesus repeats the water-to-wine miracle of Dionysos (2: 1-11) and describes himself, like Dionysus, as the life-giving grapevine (15: 1-10). (Of course the Synoptics bear many of the same traces of Dionysus influence: Jesus’ blood is wine, his flesh bread, since he is a Dionysian corn king.)”
Of course, certain religious texts include resistance to Dionysian influence. In Judaism we see this creep into the directions for the Passover Sacrifice: there are two versions of the Passover sacrifice in the Old Testament. The earliest, dating to the seventh century B.C. is in Deuteronomy XVI:

2. Thou shalt therefore sacrifice the passover unto the LORD thy God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the LORD shall choose to place his name there.

3. Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.

4. And there shall be no leavened bread seen with thee in all thy coast seven days; neither shall there any thing of the flesh, which thou sacrificedst the first day at even, remain all night until the morning. 

5. Thou mayest not sacrifice the passover within any of thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee: 

6. But at the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to place his name in, there thou shalt sacrifice the passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that thou camest forth out of Egypt.”

In about the middle of the next century there is this version in Exodus XII:

3. Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house:

4. And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb.

5. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats:

6. And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.

7. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.

8. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.

9. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof.

10. And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.

11. And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD's passover.”

In order to understand the importance of the differences between these two accounts let us create a scenario that would be allowed by the first and yet prohibited by the second. Let us assume that we take a bull, cut it into parts and place the parts in a cauldron. After boiling the flesh for a while we will remove them and then roast them. In other words, we will symbolically reenact the fate of Dionysos after he changed into a bull and was killed and devoured by the Titans. We could also reenact the ceremony of the women in the Dionysian cult and tear a beast into pieces and consume it raw.

The later version would not allow this: it could not be a bull, it has to be a lamb; we cannot cut it up for it has to be whole and complete; the meat cannot come into contact with water so we cannot boil it; we must make sure that if we do not eat all of it, then what is left must be burnt afterward. If we did not eat it all, perhaps we might leave the heart and Zeus could use this to affect the resurrection of Dionysos. Resurrection was not part of Judaism at that time and did not appear in Biblical texts until the Book of Daniel in the mid second century B.C. When one died, the soul died as well. The time of the writing of Exodus was the same time that the Dionysian cults were spreading throughout the Mediterranean.

Tomorrow should bring us down to Caesar's account of the Druids.

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