On my portrayal of the Druids
When (if) people read my new book, The Spear of Crom, sooner or later they are bound to wonder what I have against the druids. Its fair to say that the druids who appear in my book are frightening, strange and superstitious and at least two of them are villains in the piece. Fergus, the hero of the book, hates the druids and with very good reason. As a Celt, shouldn’t I be portraying those Iron Age religious leaders (and leaders of the British opposition to the Imperial might of Rome) in a more favorable light?
The common picture of the druids is of philosopher/gurus with long white hair and beards and robes to match, full of New Age wisdom and the authentic lore of the land. Where did I come up with these strange priests dressed in animal hides or bird feathers, with odd haircuts, distinctive head dresses and a predilection for human sacrifice?
In a word, research. I should start by saying that I am fascinated both by Celtic culture and religion (I studied it at under graduate level) and also by modern New Age revivals of the old pagan faiths. Each month I very much enjoy the new episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Druidcast (http://www.druidcast.libsyn.com/). Nor do I see Roman “civilisation” as a favourable alternative to the native culture. In the book Fergus has to come to terms with the realisation that the Roman army he has joined is every bit as “barbaric” as the tribes they are fighting. However the issue with our modern perception of the druids is that it is just that: Modern. In reality we know very little about the ancient druids and most (almost all) of what we now think of when we talk about them is a modern construction. I don’t believe this will get me in trouble with OBOD (the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids) as they openly admit that the roots of their order lie in the twentieth, rather than the first, century, though they are inspired by older sentiments.
What we do know about the druids from contemporary sources comes largely from classical writers who came from the Greek and Roman cultures. Given that the Romans were largely responsible for the suppression of the druids, their opinions need to be viewed in that light. Apart from classical references there is precious little other written evidence. The reason we have no druid records is because they did not write anything down- the ancient Celts had an oral culture and the druids were responsible for safeguarding the history and lore of the tribes preserved in their memories. The problem with that is that when the person dies, the knowledge dies with them, unless they have passed it on. There is, however, a body of not contemporary but certainly very old literature that contains many references to druids. Early medieval Irish literature has a host of tales in which druids appear and it was from them, and particularly the Táin Bó Cúailnge, that I decided to base my depiction of the druids. You are probably wondering why I thought these would be more trust worthy than classical authors. After all these tales were written down by Christian monks who would have had an axe to grind against their pagan predecessors in the religious hierarchy. However they were at least descendants of people within the same culture as the druids (or at least the Irish druids anyway) leaving the possibility of the descriptions being at least half-remembered traditions. We can also guess that the tales are a reasonably authentic record of pagan traditions as the 11th century monk who compiled one version of the Táin felt obliged to add a disclaimer that the contents included “deceptions of demons”, lies and things for the enjoyment of fools.
I chose not to follow the standard portrayal of druids as clad in white. I am unsure where the idea of the long hair and beards come from -most memorably portrayed by Getafix in Astrix the Gaul- but the white robes seem to have come from the Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s description of a particular druid ritual, i.e. something they only wore at a certain time of year. Instead I followed the medieval Irish depictions of druids clad in the hides of animals, particularly the bull or the horse, or wrapped in cloaks made from the feathers of birds. To me this relates better to the possible shamanic origins of the druids.
Another concept I chose to include was a weird haircut. It seems the druids possibly had a form of tonsure in the same way Christian monks do. One of the bones of contention in the dispute between the Celtic church and the Roman one that resulted in the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD was the difference between the way the clerics of the respective churches wore their tonsure. What the differences were is obscure but what is obvious is that the Celts did not wear their hair in the the way modern monks do with the top of their heads shaved. They were accused of having their hair cut in the “tradition of Simon Magus”, and it is surmised that in Ireland the Christian church had carried on the tradition of the druids in the way they had their hair tonsured. Simon Magus, while a villainous magician of the Christian tradition, in early Irish literature is often a sort of euphemism for druids. There are various theories about what this haircut looked like (no descriptions have survived) but I went for the one where the druids shaved the front of their heads, leaving a strangely high-looking forehead and elongated face.
The druids commitment to human sacrifice is recorded by classical writers and Christian hagiographies and also seems born out by archaeology. The numerous bog bodies found across northern Europe are reckoned to be testament to this practice. I will deal with this topic further in a future post about the God Crom, who also appears in the book.
I realise that its probably a risk to portray the druids in an unfavourable light. However I think that we have a tendency to think that anyone who is opposed to something we are opposed to is automatically like us or at least have values that match ours. Unfortunately there are many examples from history and the present day that show this is not the case. If we look for a modern analogy to the druids resistance to the Roman army in Britain, the concept of a religiously motivated priesthood leading a guerilla insurgency against the most technically advanced military machine of the time inevitably points in the direction of Iraq and Afghanistan. I really wonder how this will go down with readers. At the HNS conference in London last September, the common reaction of agents and publishers to my pitch that I had portrayed the druids as “a bit like the Taliban” was greeted with almost universal consternation, or in the case of one bes selling novelist, a sort of half shocked laughter.
However while I've gone slightly against the grain, I have striven to create an image of the ancient druids that I believe to be as authentic as I can make it based on the research I undertook. Hopefully no one will take offence, as at the end of the day its just a novel anyway. All that said, the druids in my book are not all bad. The female druid, Ceridwyn could well be seen as the heroine of the book.
The Spear of Crom is available now from Amazon on Kindle and is coming soon in paperback.