Much has been written about the Druids and their place in history and it can be a bit bewildering to know what books to buy if you want to read up about them.
Druids: A Very Short Introductionby Barry Cunliffe would be my recommendation as one good place to start. It is short, succinct, well written and – more to the point – looks at fact rather than fiction.
And Barry Cunliffe should know his facts when it comes to Druids, Celts and anything else to do with Ancient Britain. He is Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University, Commissioner of English Heritage and has been a Trustee of the British Museum, Governor of the Museum of London and President of the Society of Antiquaries. He has also written numerous other books on that area of history including Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000,The Ancient Celtsand The Celts: A Very Short Introduction.
His latest book, Druids: A Very Short Introduction, came out just a couple of weeks ago and is intended as a stimulating way in to the subject. In it, he takes the reader through the archaeological, historical and literary evidence relating to the Druids, examining what can be discerned. He also looks at how people have interpreted this data over time.
The difficulty in finding out what the Druids really did, and what they believed, is that they didn't actually write anything down about themselves. They were part of an oral culture, which transmitted information verbally.
Written accounts of them come from outside sources – Greeks and Romans who might not have understood exactly what they were witnessing and may also have had their own agendas in describing what they saw. And even then, little survives of what was put in writing.
However, what we do learn from those ancient sources is both fascinating and seemingly contradictory. It can be hard for people living in modern times to reconcile accounts of Druids as wise philosophers with tales of them committing bloody sacrifices or burning humans alive in giant wicker men.
I hope it isn't too much of a spoiler if I try to sum up what Barry Cunliffe concludes about the Druids at the end of the book.
He says that: “There is sufficient evidence to suggest that a religious class, among whom were practitioners called Druids, was in existence in western parts of Europe by the 4th century BC, but it is not until the 2nd and 1st centuries BC that the structure of that class comes more clearly into focus with its broad threefold division of Bards, Vates and Druids.”
Bards were influential poets and songwriters, Vates were diviners and Druids were philosophers, teachers and intermediaries between humans and the gods. By the 1st century BC these roles were changing under Roman influence. However, accounts written by Caesar could be correct in saying that druidism originated in Britain.
The beliefs of the Druids could stem from the Neolithic period, from the time that the great stone circles were built. However, the fact that there was a lot of social and economic change from Neolithic times to the first mentions of the Druids, together with archaeological evidence that burial practices changed a lot, means that religious beliefs and practices probably also changed.
Barry Cunliffe also states that modern Druids cannot claim any continuity with those of ancient times. And I should warn any modern Druids wanting to read the book that Barry Cunliffe isn't always very polite about what he describes as: “The reinvented Druids, created Frankenstein-like from a few scraps of real data and a great deal of imagination...”
Just remember, this is a history book, not a book about spirituality. As a history book, it is very good.
Druids: A Very Short Introductionis published by Oxford University Press and is available to order through Amazon
Druids: A Very Short Introduction
The Celts: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Ancient Celts
Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000