Peter Berresford Ellis is an English historian and novelist, holding a Master Degree in Celtology.
In the introduction Ellis states his main theory, that the Druids were the “intelligentsia” of the Celts, comparable to the Brahmin of the Hindus. Already here I sometimes have the impression that Ellis interprets some sources according to his gusto, while rejecting others. There certainly is a point that the Romans did some propaganda writing, but they could as well be right on some points and it is simply difficult to tell where the kernel of truth is. I find the comparison with the Hindus quite interesting although it is not explained why others are left out, especially the neighborly Germanic-Norse connection. The facts still remain quite “hidden” fitting the translation of Keltoi.
The next two Chapters cover the world of the Celts and the provenance of the Druids.
He first states how the Celts were identified only through their language, which brings us to the point, that the Celts were mainly a linguistic conglomerate. I would have liked to read a clearer differentiation, knowing that there are some Germanic tribes like the Chatti, which have merged with the unknown Celtic tribe living in what is Hessen today and being a mixture of both. He assumes that the Celts were advanced (sophisticated, wealthy) but doesn’t give a comparison. The lengthy clause about why Nora Chadwick is wrong seems to me a bit out of place and too personal. I found myself wondering if there was actually a personal quarrel expressed in the book. The migrations and conquests of the Celts are shortly explained and where the word “druid” might derive from.
In the next two Chapters the view of the Celts from the outside and the inside are presented. The outside are the classical sources and despite his ambivalence, he uses quite a lot from Caesar. Interesting is that the confusion about Celts and Germanic tribes is taken up in this chapter. The inside is the Celts themselves who only started writing down their view after Christianization. I do miss some historical data here. The most important sources are from Ireland, with some minor ones from Wales. I especially liked the references to the druid’s egg.
Chapter 5 is about female Druids and stands a bit apart. The Chapter starts by stating a few examples of Celtic women with power who could have been “Dryades”, and some who most definitely were.
Now we finally come to the chapters about religion and ritual of the Celts. He mentions that there are about 20 names of Gods mentioned in different Celtic regions and makes the assumption that there could have been 33 paralleling Hinduism and ancient Persians. I really would have liked here a source cited to look up the names and especially at least the 20 names given. I’m grateful for the information about a possible Celtic genesis and he then goes on comparing Danu to Aditya, followed by some short presentation of a few Gods like Bel, Dagda, Nuada, Lugus, Ogmios and Esus. It does give me the impression that he sees Danu in the role of the Dumézilian transfunctional Goddess, but it’s not explained and I do miss a few more Goddesses. The chapter about the rituals is quite well compiled and he goes on making different points and theories about possible Druid rituals. I especially liked the connections with the well, although it is interesting that Goddesses become the river, while the Gods function as the keepers, makes you wonder what the source could be. There are quite some further implications, which should be looked at through comparison with other IE myths. Ellis puts a strong claim against human sacrifice by the Celts, but I am not yet entirely convinced.
The penultimate chapter about the wisdom of the Druids is the most extensive, culminating in the “proof” of Ellis’ theory that the Druids were the intelligentsia of the Celts. In this it is one of the best researched. He actually quite convinced me on this point. Again many parallels to the Brahmin are found. I especially liked the part about Astrology, though some of his “proofs” e.g. words being taboos and that’s why they haven’t been passed down, could be taken up to proof nearly anything. Sometimes I had the impression Ellis tried to put the Druids on the same wisdom level as the Mesopotamian Astronomers, but with fewer hard references.
In the last chapter the Druid revival is analyzed. His thesis that the Druids as the intelligentsia never really disappeared fills my heart with joy. I found it quite a good summary, though his negative opinion does shine through sometimes, but he’s not always wrong. At the end I believe him to go a bit overboard again by saying that only the people now still speaking a Celtic language are the progenies of the Celts and we watch them go down with their native language. Looking at the strong expansion the Celts did, although not seeing themselves as an empire, I find it too narrow just looking at the remaining insular Celts as their progenies.
I liked the book and would recommend it, but on some of his thesis I do have some doubts. Additionally I have the feeling that he sometimes goes a bit overboard and as the sources are not quoted, I cannot double check. A few notes and references wouldn’t damage the popular appeal of the book. It left me with many things I want to believe in my heart, but I find myself not always able to trust him. Still I cautiously integrated some of his findings into rituals, like naming Polaris the star of Wisdom.
Addendum not in the DP: I haven't finished reading "die Druiden" by Francoise Le Roux and Christian-J. Guyoncarc`h, but I have to say that i am a bit amazed about the structural similarity of some of the chapters especially the one on the different roles of the Druids. The original "Les Druides" has been published earlier and this book and is far more scholarly written.