Monday, 24 March 2014

Ancient Druids -- part six

Chariot of Dionysos. Side A from an Attic
red-figure pelike by the Pasithea Painter
380–370 BC. Louvre, Paris.
The commonest misconception about the druids is that they were  priests. No ancient author makes this claim. Caesar (VI,13) says they:
"...officiate at religious ceremonies, supervise public and private sacrifices, and expound on religious questions. ... [concerning their judicial decisions:] If any individual or tribe does not abide by their decision, they are banned from sacrifices. This is regarded by them as the heaviest possible penalty, and those under such a ban are reckoned to be impious criminals: everyone shuns them, avoids going near them or speaking to them, in case they come to some harm through contact with them."
Diodorus Siculus (V,31) says:
"There are also philosophers and theologians called Druids to whom they accord great honour. ...   It is also their custom never to make a sacrifice without a 'philosopher'; for they say that thank offerings should be given to the gods by means of those who are experts in the nature of the divine, and, as it were, in communion with it. They also believe it is through these people that blessings should be sought. Nor is it only in time of peace that these people, together with the singers of songs, are given total obedience, but even in time of war, and by friend and foe alike."

Strabo (IV,4) gives:
"... the Druids engage in moral as well as natural philosophy. They are considered the most just of men. For this reason they are entrusted with deciding both private and public disputes, so that in earlier times they acted as arbitrators in war and made those on the point of going into battle stop, while cases of murder especially were handed over to them for decision. Whenever there is a large number of such murders, they consider there is also a large crop in store for them from the land. ... They would make no sacrifices without the Druids."
Cicero, De Divinatione (I, 90) comments:
"Not even among barbarians is the practice of divination neglected since there are Druids in Gaul, one of whom I knew myself your guest and eulogist Diviciacus the Aeduan. He claimed to have knowledge of nature, which Greeks call 'physiologia' and he used to tell the future partly by means of augury and partly by conjecture."
Lucan, in his play Pharsalia (I,450), has the following lines:
"And you Dryadae [Druids] set aside your arms and sought again your barbaric rites and the sinister practice of your religion. To you alone is granted knowledge of the gods and the powers of heaven, or you alone are ignorant of them. The depths of groves in far off forests are your abode, your teaching that the shades of the dead seek not the silent home of Erebus and the pallid realms of Pluto deep below: instead the same soul controls a body in another world, and if what you sing of is true, death is but the mid point of a long existence."
Pliny the Elder, Natural History (XVI, 249), and referring to mistletoe says: "The Druids (this is what they call their magicians)..", but in XVI, 251, continues, "The priest, dressed in a white robe, climbs the tree, reaps the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is gathered up in a white blanket. They then sacrifice the victims praying that the god makes this gift of theirs propitious for those to whom he has given it.". While the latter might be seen as an identification of druids as priests, it is not explicit and could also mean a priest under the authority of a druid. Pliny is mainly giving "Celtic home remedies" in his Natural History and seems to be only reporting what he has heard about them without offering any corroboration. He also derives "druid" from the Greek and says that it means "oak". Later, (XXX,13), he adds: "Magic undoubtedly had a hold on Gaul, even down to living memory for it was in the reign of Tiberius Caesar that their Druids and that type of soothsayer and healer were abolished.", so his mention of "priest" seems not to be defining the druids.

Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia (III,2) says:
"However they have their own brand of eloquence and in the Druids teachers of wisdom."

Ammianus Marcellinus (XV,8) wraps up our Druid definitions with:
"The Drysidae were men of greater intellect, bound together into close communities as laid down by Pythagorean teaching. They were inspired by investigations into questions of a secret and lofty nature and, scorning things human, declared the soul to be immortal."
The roles played by druids in Celtic society are judges, philosophers, magicians, teachers, and with regard to formal religious structures, seem to have a supervisory capacity over both priests and their followers. Their religious/philosophical  beliefs seem to have been applied through the medium of a mystery religion. The imagery of the Gundestrup cauldron focuses on two of these: mainly it focuses on Dionysianism, but there is also a lesser reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The connecting theme of both being journeys to the Underworld and the return, either as in a new life, or as a returning heroic "explorer". The ancient authors give most credit to Pythagoreanism which not only appears to have also been a "Mystery" but its founder had been an advocate of Orphism, which is closely related to Dionysianism with regard to Underworld matters.

It is easy for anyone to imagine that such a belief, with its ideas of the immortality of the soul, would have been very attractive for those engaged in warfare as an occupation. Diodorus Siculus (V, 28) is explicit:
"The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them (the Gauls), namely that the souls of men are immortal and that after a period of years they live again, since the soul enters another body. "

and a number of the other authors say, or allude, to the same. Caesar cites the idea's practicality:
"A belief they particularly wish to inculcate is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one person to another. This they think is the greatest incentive to bravery, if fear of death is thereby minimised."
The Wikipedia entry for Pythagoreanism contains: "After attacks on the Pythagorean meeting-places at Croton, the movement dispersed, but regrouped in Tarentum". The latter is the Romanized name of Taras and Celtic warriors took part in its defence under Pyrrhus.

I think it most likely that the druids adopted a supervisory position over the local religions and priesthoods that they encountered in their migrations. Offering military support and negotiations between rival chiefs of tribes, they engaged in a sort of religious tolerance over indigenous beliefs as this was the best way to gain full support of the people. Celticists have long been puzzled by the great number of Celtic names given in later religious inscriptions where the deity had gained an identity to the Roman gods because of Augustus' formalization of the Roman religion and its economic value to its priests where greater income could be derived from supporting the more important deities. The indigenous deities which were borrowed, kept the support of the locals in  religious matters. One explanation given for all of these different names for the same Roman god is that each of the Celtic deities represented a different aspect of the god. However, in many cases, the different names are just too numerous for this to be the solution. Instead, I maintain that each name is derived from an indigenous deity and that these deities are connected through one of Joseph Campbell's "mythogenic zones". Supporting this idea is Euan MacKie's observation of stone alignments to the "quarter days" which became the later Celtic festivals. These alignments are very ancient, dating long before the emergence of Celtic culture.

Tomorrow, we will start to look at the elements of the Mystery religions adapted by the Celts and their own receptors which made such syncretism possible. The first subject being the Dionysian/Celtic ivy scroll.

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