The Druids are a group of people from ancient history about whom we hear and
read a lot, but in reality we know hardly anything about. The problem of the Druids as real historical people is that there is no tangible evidence of their existence: they left no writings; they cannot be envisaged, as there are no ancient pictures of them; nor are there any physical remains that could be positively linked to them. As regards the etymology of the word “Druid,” Philip Shallcrass argues that the word “Druid” may indeed derive from an Indo-European root “dreo-vid”, meaning “one who knows the truth”. Alternatively, it may be that the “dreo” element is an intensive prefix giving Druid the meaning of “very wise one”. In practice it was probably understood to mean simply “wise one”, or “philosopher-priest“ (Shallcrass). By contrast, Chris Witcombe remarks that the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23/24-79 A.D.) believed it to be a cognate with the Greek word “drus”, meaning “an oak”. “Dru-wid” combines the word roots “oak” and “knowledge” (“wid” means “to know” or “to see” - as in the Sanskrit “vid”). The oak (together with the rowan and hazel) was an important sacred tree to the Druids. In the Celtic social system, Druid was a title given to learned men and women possessing “oak knowledge” (or “oak wisdom”) (Witcombe). On the whole, we can say that “the word ‘Druid’ was one given to experts in magical and religious practice by the peoples speaking Celtic languages who inhabited north-western Europe around 2,000 years ago” (Hutton, “Under the Spell of the Druids”). That is all that we can unquestionably say about the Druids. Those who have tried to say more, Ronald Hutton argues, have relied on two different groups of sources (“Under the Spell of the Druids”): one group consists of the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The advantage of these works is that they were written by people who lived in the time when the Druids still existed. On the other hand, the sources of the Greek and Roman authors were not their own experiences with the Druids, but second-hand information, of which the plausibility is not known and which was already old at that time.
The second group of sources is medieval Irish literature. Not only are the references to the Druids in these texts more frequent than those in Greek and Roman works, but the Druids were once a part of Irish culture. The problem of these medieval Irish texts is that they were written, perhaps even imaginatively created, centuries after the Irish converted to Christianity. In that time, Druids by definition did not exist. Moreover, before they were Christians the Irish depended only on an oral tradition about which we cannot be sure of its accuracy. These are all reasons why it is very difficult to talk about the Druids as real historical people.
By contrast, Ronald Hutton claims that we can know a great deal about the ways in which the Druids have been regarded, and acted out, in modern times, counting the latter as beginning in the years around 1500 (The Druids xi). That is to say that the important place which belongs to the Druids in the history does not belong to a real ancient people, but to legendary figures. The present thesis focuses on how the Druids had been represented and described in British literature since the early 16th century to the 19th century, particularly how the concept of “the Druids” developed in the consciousness of British society. The objective of this paper is to examine whether the Druids made familiar by literature reflect the real figures of ancient Druids or they are fabrications that have little in common with their real models.
Various images and uses of the concept tell us a lot about the society of a certain period, as they reflect its social, cultural and intellectual aspects. “The image of the Druid becomes, in short, an image of the society that projects it” (Ackroyd). The revival of the Druids as a subject in the 16th and 17th centuries was connected with the Renaissance search for identity. They were brought back and taken as a common ground on which a national identity could be created. As the British were alarmed by having realized the destructive power of time on traditions, monuments and glory, the Druids became as well figures that provided people with a sense that antiquities had been preserved. The 18th-century zealous though immature historical research and Romantic excitement about natural beauties altered the Druids into mystical and admirable cave-dwellers with a wide knowledge of natural secrets. In addition, the establishment of Great Britain in 1707 helped the Druids to consolidate their role as national ancestors, since the identity of the English and Scots as one nation was based on them. After experiencing this heyday of their fame, the Druids became less popular in the 19th century. The lack of evidence of the Druids as ancient priests living in harmony with nature and the radicalism that seized Europe in the second half of the 18th century caused the Druids to be seen predominantly as bloodthirsty sacrificers who slay innocent men in order to foretell the future from their entrails. Despite these negative images, they found their place in universal mythology and became patriarchs who had brought to the British Isles the original religion revealed by Jehovah.
The focus of the thesis is on the period from the 16th through the 19th centuries, as these are the most important centuries for the conception of the Druids: in this period, the Druids are revived and actually created with all the images currently associated with them. The Druids have been drawn upon by authors of books as well as film makers in the 20th and 21st centuries; however, these have primarily re-used images that were invented in the preceding centuries.
The Revival of the Druids
In the Middle Ages the Druids were neglected because they did not inspire knights to great heroic deeds nor exalt Christianity. They neither functioned particularly well as heathen figures that could be zealously hated. Hutton claims that there was nothing particularly exotic or demonic about them. Therefore there was simply no point in writing about them (Origins of Modern Druidry 5).
Nonetheless, this situation changed significantly in the 15th century when the Druids came back to life. The awaken of the interest in the Druids was connected with the arrival of the Renaissance, as one of its key concepts was the pursuit of national identity grounded not only on common culture and language, but also on common history. Thus scholars started to look eagerly into the ancient past in order to find common ancestors whose bravery and glory would provide history great enough for a nation to be based on it. Among them there were the Druids.
national history, a new approach of studying the history emerged: antiquarianism. The focus of the antiquarianism was the distant past and detailed recordings of its material evidence. Since the society of the late Elizabethan/ early Jacobean England became preoccupied by “the Renaissance feeling of the wreck and destruction accomplished by Time upon beauty, and power, and noble visible monuments, and the glory of the great...” (Curran 498), the scholars started struggling to preserve the ancient British history and its continuation to their own age. They desired for continuity. However, the history needs to be documented in order to be considered that it really occurred. History which has never been written is history that does not exist. That was what worried British scholars: there was no documented history that could be provided.
In the 16th century two great works of history were written, both of them
mentioning the Druids. The first work is Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which describes the history and geography of the British Isles from the Flood to the Elizabethan age. Hugh Cahill calls this work a product of a growing English nationalism at the end of the 16th century (Cahill), as the work responds to the quest for national identity. The other great work was also historical and geographical study of the Isles, Britannia by William Camden. He provided the Elizabethan readers with a picture of Roman Britain pointing out that its traces can still be found in the landscape. Thanks to these two works that enabled contemporary people to look inside the history of their country the Druids found their place in the consciousness of the British by the beginning of the 17th century.
One of the most significant 17th-century literary works dealing with the Druids was Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, poem glorifying British landscape and history written in 1612. Drayton was an idealistic patriot who was distinguished by being devout to England and its traditions. He esteemed history for what it could offer to people and to a nation. In his opinion, it was history that gives people in any century the feeling of having common traditions and past of which they can be proud. That is why he was intrigued by England’s past, but also by hope in a great future of the kingdom. The aim of Poly-Olbion was to collect “the memories and sagas of Great Britain and to fight with Time and save Antiquity” (Curran 498). The Druids have an important role in the poem since Drayton perceives them as providers of British history. Curran claims that it is they [the Druids] who comprise Drayton’s best evidence for continuity (507). They represent for him sustentation of ancient British history from prehistory to his own time. The fact that preoccupied the poet was that what his contemporaries knew about the Druids was from Roman sources since there was no documentation left by the Britons themselves or the priests, who kept their learning, lore and history only in an oral tradition. The purpose of such practice was to improve the memory and guard the access to their knowledge. Nevertheless, thus the sources of information on new British national heroes were texts produced by a foreign culture, which is connected to the question of how accurately the real ancient Druids were pictured in those texts. Moreover, the Romans were those who destroyed the Druids. Drayton’s awareness of this paradox is also noticeable in the poem:
That to the Roman trust (on his report that stay)
Our truth from him to learn, as ignorant of ours
As we were then of his; except ‘twere of his powers:
Who our wise Druids here unmercifully slew (Drayton, Vol. 1 157).
How could dead Druids be supposed to communicate the history, unaltered, through centuries by an oral tradition? As Drayton claims the Britons themselves were silent about their ancestors. Gildas, the oldest British author accessible, remarks that if any histories of Britain had been written, by his time it has long been destroyed or lost. He confesses that what he knew about the ancient Britain and its inhabitants was from foreign writers. Therefore the texts of ancient authors, such as Caesar or Pliny, were the only sources of information about the ancient Druids until the Renaissance. Whether Drayton and his contemporaries liked it or not, they had to rely on Roman texts to get any information about their distant past. Then, paradoxically, “druids also represented the poet‘s anguished sense that this [ancient British] culture had not been preserved at all“ (Curran 499). Renaissance scholars attempted to build their national identity and the future of their country on these reports, however accurate or close to reality they were. Therefore we can agree with Curran’s observation that the Druids are creatures born from the Renaissance discovery of Roman Britain (499).
When Drayton mentions the Druids in the poem for the first time he describes them as people who lived in darksome groves communicating with sprites and took people’s lives (Vol. 1 3). The tradition and hard-heartedness of human sacrifices practised by the Druids is intensified when Drayton writes that instantly they take one body they go and take another one. However, as the poem goes on, the image of the Druids that is emphasized is of fearless native British priests and judges who cultivated learning and practiced mysterious rites by which they learned secrets of nature. Drayton cannot deny that the Druids sacrificed people either to win gods’ favour or to foretell the future. Yet the purpose of mentioning them throughout the whole poem is not to portray them as barbaric and bloodthirsty, but to put stress on their wisdom and secret skills. In the ancient history of Britain there are no other figures who would so significantly stand out for their importance and who scholars could draw upon than the Druids. For the Romans they were barbarians who foretold the future from entrails of sacrificed humans, but at the same time Roman authors writing about the Druids also mentioned their wide knowledge of religious as well as profane matters. He uses the Druids because they help him “establish the monumental idea that things British are the oldest and finest around. The very cultivation of learning in Britain seemed to make the idea of continuity more believable” (Curran 521). Drayton emphasizes the prominence of cultivation of learning in Britain since ancient times and stresses the role of the Druids as its purveyors. In various places of the poem Drayton writes that the Druids instructed the people of Gaul in their skills and rituals. He lets his readers have the impression that Britain is the cradle of ancient knowledge for countries that have origins in old Gaul. In the sixth song we read:
And after conquests got, residing them among,
First planted in those parts our brave courageous brood,
Whose natures so adher’d unto their ancient blood,
As from them sprang those Priests, whose praise so far did sound,
Through whom that spacious Gaul was after so renown’d (Drayton, Vol. 1 154).
Drayton indicates that the British nation sprang from the same blood as the Druids who were lauded for their wisdom not only in Britain, but in other parts of Europe as well. And it was them who taught their wisdom to Gaul. British culture is the culture of the people who gave knowledge to Gaul and countries that originated from that area. Acroyd mentions in his review for Hutton’s book Blood and Mistletoe that in England the Druids were also praised as the original founders of the University of Cambridge (Acroyd).
Nevertheless, the Druidic practice of sacrifice has also its place in Poly-Olbion. Reading Drayton’s description of the sacrificing of people we can with no doubts perceive the horror of the rituals. On the other hand, there is no aversion expressed. What he creates is a sensation of mystery while describing procedures of stabbing people and offering them to gods or foretelling the future either from their viscera or convulsion of dying bodies. The poet understands human sacrificing as part of the secret skills of the Druids. In the ninth song Drayton describes more thoroughly one of the rituals: on the sixth day of the Moon when the beginning of their year was approaching, they found an aged oak on which mistletoe grew, erected there an altar and brought two white bulls. They placed them on the altar and sacrificed them praying to gods that they make their medicines powerful against all poisons and charms.
The fearless British Priests, under an aged oak,
Taking a milk-white bull, unstrained with the yoke,
And with an axe of gold from that Jove-sacred tree
The Mistletoe cut down; then with a bended knee
On th’ unhew’d altar laid, put to the hallow’d fires:
And whilst in the sharp flame the trembling flesh expires,
As their strong fury mov’d (when all the rest adore)
Up to th’ eternal heav’n their bloodied hands did rear:
And, whilst the murmuring woods ev’n shudd’red as with fear,
Preach’d to the beardless youth, the soul’s immortal state,
To the other bodies still how it should transmigrate,
That to contempt of death them strongly might excite (Drayton, Vol. 2 14).
Drayton does not portray the Druids as bloodthirsty neither does he disdain them. He speaks highly of them and depicts the rite with great respect. The Druids were great people upon whom Drayton draws in order to maintain the continuity of history. Hiller writes in his essay that:
When Drayton draws a picture of a Druid sacrifice he elaborates on Pliny’s description to emphasize the macabre horror of the ceremony; but his images of animal flesh quivering in the fire and savages in inspired and frenzied prayer reveal not repugnance but a certain fascinated horror at the spectacle (12).
The importance of history for Drayton was in the lesson it could give. In Poly-Olbion he exhibits the greatness and uniqueness of the country and of the people who lived there. This is where the British should see inspiration for the future. As the Druids pronounce their prayers and they rear their bloodied hands to the heavens they are not only wise and fearless, but they are also the provokers of fear. After all, it was the Druids’ resistance against the Romans that made them deserve greater admiration, since they opposed the intruders in the defence of England with “their direful threats, and execrable vows” (Drayton 196). He wanted to give the British majestic history with distinguished and dreaded heroes though “they also present an impenetrable mystery by keeping the secrets of the past to themselves for eternity“ (Curran 507).
The Heyday of the Druids’ Fame
After having been disregarded since Antiquity, in the 17th century owing to the Renaissance rediscovery of Roman Britain and its inhabitants, the Druids started to be considered central figures of European prehistory. Yet the heyday of their fame was about to come in the following century. One of the reasons why the Druids’ fame reached its peak in this period was new opinions and ideas that influenced not only literary works, but also people’s life-style. It was a century of the Romanticism. People believed in magic and astrology, and were interested in ancient myths, their origins and signification. The Romanticists believed that wisdom and beauty were inherent part of wild nature. People should seek natural places as they were the source of “cosmic knowledge” (Hutton, The Druids 81) and inspiration. Thence the Druids succeeded to seize definitely the minds of the British. They were not only ancient people with whom the British had started to associate their origins, but they were also wise priests and philosophers whose knowledge was considered to spring from their connection with nature.
Another reason is that in 1707 England and Scotland were united under one Government and Parliament. Suddenly it was necessary to support the new kingdom by a common history as both of the countries used to be formed in conflict with each other. The Druids appeared to be the heroes that could be considered mutual ancestors by all parts of the islands and on whom common identity could be grounded. It was also helpful that despite the fact that other countries such as France and Germany claimed the Druids to be principal figures of their histories, it was not possible to prove positively such assertions. Consequently, in the 18th century the Druids “have been built into the identity of the new Britain” (Hutton, The Druids 34) and were adopted by the British “as patriotic and wise ancestors” (Hutton, The Druids 81).
The two following chapters deal individually with these two peculiarities of the 18th century in terms of how they influenced the development of the conception of the Druids and affected the treatment of the topic in contemporary literature.
3.1. The Influence of the Romanticism
With the arrival of the Romanticism the view of the Druids was further altered and re-fabricated by imagination, excitement and creativity that exalted beauties of nature. Hiller says in his essay that the Druids were artless, uncouth, even barbaric beings (Hiller 11), but their fearful rituals in dark groves gave them knowledge of nature’s secrets and mysteries that no one would ever know. They fascinated the Romanticists, who wanted to identify with them, as they believed that “there was an inherent wisdom and virtue, as well as beauty, poetry and numinous divinity, in wild nature” (Hutton, The Druids 81).
The work that gives us evidence of the general interest in the Druids and “imaginative concern” (Watson 89) with British culture is William Mason’s Caractacus. In this epic poem, which is considered the most renowned piece of 18th-century heroic literature, Mason narrates the story of the British hero Caractacus that alongside the Druids resisted the Romans who invaded Britain. Even though the work was based on Tacitus’s account of the Roman conquest of the Isles, Mason mingles the assumed facts beyond recognition. The influence of the Romanticism is perceived from the very beginning. The poem starts with a scene in which the Romans pause in the secret centre of the island in order to contemplate what is happening before them. Thus the author throws the readers into dark oak groves surrounded by caverns and cliffs. During the whole poem they do not leave the wild nature, in which they draw near to its secrets and meet the learned Druids. When the Romans observe the groves with a great oak and an altar, they associate the place with barbarous superstitions, which they disdain; but on the other hand, the scene awes them. They are sure that “there is a hidden power, that reigns ‘mid the lone majesty of untam’d nature, controuling sober reason” (Mason 1). Then they are explained that this is a place where the Druids practise their mysterious and potent rituals. Thus the very first account of the priests we get is of people who live in wild nature surrounded by a hidden power, which allows them to learn nature’s secrets. Mason also mentions that the Druids were skilled in the numbers of the universe alluding thus to suppositions that they were followers of Pythagorean principles.
As we read on, we can neither doubt their importance in view of other characters. When Caractacus discusses ways of saving the Druids’ sacred groves against the Roman attack, the chief Druid reminds him that:
Thou art a King, a sov’reign o’er frail man;
I am a Druid, servant of the Gods;
Such service is above such sov’reignty,
As well thou know’st: if they should prompt these lips
To interdict the thing thou dar’st to do,
What would avail thy daring (Mason 26)?
The service for gods is much more important than to have power over frail mortal people. The position of the Druids is superior to the Caractacus’s one. Mason attempts to offer the readers the best of both the Druidical and the Roman world. Although they are so divers, they both gave origin to British culture. Ronald Hutton writes in The Druids that in this case, the eventual joyous union of Briton and Roman adds the blessings of civilisation and reason to the native British qualities of heroism and nobility, and the resulting combination is (eventually) unbeatable (18). The poet portrays the Druids as mysterious, wise and valiant. Yet Romans are also described as brave and noble. Nevertheless, on the whole, the Druids are the most emphasised of all the characters. They are called “illustrious and sons of Heaven” (Mason 49). They are authority to whom the other characters explain what they have done or they are going to do. When the Romans are approaching, Caractacus states that they cannot be defeated, since the Druids and Britons are “Truth and Virtue” (Mason 58) opposed by an army of villains. The Chorus, who is believed to represent the chief Druid, spur on the Romans to come because he has no reason to fear their pride. The Druids are armed by virtue but what can aid enraged robbers, the Romans?
Yet as wise and skilled as they are, Druids are also dreaded and unmerciful. Since the beginning we see that their rites as well as they themselves inspire awe in their enemies. After all the horror that their fury awakes is their weapon against the Romans. The Bard that describes to the chief Druid and Caractacus how the Romans fled says:
Near each a white-rob’d Druid, whose stern voice
Thunder’d deep execrations on the foe.
Now wak’d our horrid symphony, now all
Our harps terrific rang: Meanwhile the grove
Trembled, the altars shook, and thro’ our ranks
Our sacred sisters rush’d in sable robes,
With hair dishelv’d and funeral brands
Hurl’d round with menacing fury. On they rush’d
In fierce and frantic mood, as is their wont
Amid the magic rites, they do to night
In our deep dens below. Motions like these
Were never dar’d before in open air (Mason 71)!
Here Mason draws upon Tacitus’s description of an event that really happened, however some years after: the Roman attack on Mona and the Druids’ resistance. Their act was so terrifying for the Romans and so significant in the British history that it could never be forgotten. Tacitus describes the scene like this:
On the shore stood the enemy host, with its dense array of armed men, among whom dashed women clad in black attire like Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving flaming torches. All around were Druids, raising their hands towards the sky and shouting dreadful curses, which terrified our soldiers who had never seen such a thing before; so that, as if paralysed, they stood still and exposed their bodies to wounds (Hutton, The Druids 3).
The Druids are commonly ascribed three main characteristics: wise priests skilled in nature’s secrets, unmerciful guardians of their lore and justice, and people who practised sacrifices. Mason dedicates long parts of his poem to the Druids as illustrious priests and dreaded guardians of justice, yet he skilfully omits the sacrificing. There is no mention that the priests would predict the future from blood or convulsions of dying people. Mason alludes to sacrificing only a few times and he links that practice to punishment of betrayal and of enemies. When Caractacus speaks to captured Roman soldiers, he says:
True ye are captives, and our country’s safety
Forbids, we give you back to liberty:
We give ye therefore to the immortal gods,
To them we lift ye in the radiant cloud
Of sacrifice. They may in limbs of freedom
Replace your free-born souls, and their high mercy
Haply shall to some better world advance you;
Or else in this restore that golden gift,
Which lost, leaves life a burden (Mason 74).
In this passage Mason clarifies to the readers the Druidic belief in the transmigration of souls. The sacrifice will enable the captives to be lifted up to the gods that will advance their free souls to a better world. The priests do not find their conduct cruel. On the other hand, they promote their enemies to some better place. According to Mason it is mercy. Caractacus adds that if he was taken a prisoner he would like to get similar fair treatment. Richard Hooper remarks that such a belief resembles Pythagorean theory of immortality of the soul. He observes that Lipsius doubts whether Pythagoras received it from Druids, or they from him, because in his travels he conversed as well with Gaulish as Indian Philosophers (“Notes” to Drayton, Vol. 1 22).
Mason responds with this poem to the 18th-century enthusiasm for noble barbarians unspoiled by civilized culture and who can enjoy free life in the nature. Caractacus is considered to complete the process of making the Druids part of British identity.
3.2. The Druids Supporting the British Kingdom
On the other hand, the 18th-century Englishmen could not disengage themselves entirely from the past century and its preoccupations. They kept to be influenced by antiquarian concern with the continuation of ancient traditions and the lack of its material evidence; especially the want of tangible evidence about the existence of the Druids. Nonetheless, then John Aubrey started to associate a stone circle of Avebury with the ancient priests. He invented a myth that was accepted as true. Soon other assertions which linked the Druids to British structures and institutions emerged. Peter Ackroyd observes that Edward Coke discovered that they were the founders of English common law. By this stage they could be enlisted in any cause whatsoever (Ackroyd). The ancient priests became a subject of myth-creating and the myth-creating became an obsession. Thanks to this obsession of ascribing the Druids creations which existence could not be denied they ceased to be fictional and they became real. The only thing needed was medieval texts that would mention the Druids’ learning and history. Shortly several scholars declared that they had discovered written evidence of Druidic lore, the most important of them being Iolo Morganwg’s verses. However, those scholars were forgers and the documents were fake. Yet nobody noticed as the 18th century was opportune for forgery due to “the combination of an energetic historical scholarship, making frequent genuine discoveries, with an as yet immature ability to distinguish true from false documents” (Hutton, The Druids 23).
The Druids definitely became an inextricable part of British history when William Stuckley published in 1738 Palaeographia Sacra and Stonehenge, a Temple restor’d to the British Druids in 1740. In these works he concludes that these great people from ancient times must have been connected to Stonehenge, which is the most famous stone structure of British landscape and which also dates back to far history. Ronald Hutton observes that Stuckley’s ideas became the norm for more than a century and as a result of all this, for most of the 18th century Druids were celebrated as wise and common ancestors by the English, Scots and Welsh alike (“Under the Spell of the Druids”).
In Ode to Liberty William Collins presents the Druids as spiritual ancestors of contemporary British sovereignty. In the poem he looks for the origins of liberty and its historical demonstrations from Antiquity to his time. Starting in ancient Greece Collins contemplates the progress of freedom and he traces it in Italy as well as in Holland and he finishes his journey in current Britain. He calls Britain “the last abode” (Collins) of freedom suggesting thus that the British kingdom is the last of the models of liberty and therefore the best. Despite the historical progress of the poem, when Collins gets to Britain as the modern model of independence, he goes back in history in order to allude “to idealized ‘Druid’ past that gave birth to a British temple of Liberty” (Levine 555). Collins writes:
Then too, ‘tis said, an hoary pile,
’Midst the green navel of our Isle,
Thy shrine in some religious wood,
O soul-enforcing Goddess, stood!
There oft the painted native’s feet,
Were wont thy form celestial meet (Collins).
This way the poet accentuates the Druids as purveyors and guardians of liberty. After all, they played an important role in the resistance to the Romans. He associates their natural freedom with the place where they lived and practiced their rituals. The greatness of the Druids consisted in their immediacy to the nature. That was what admitted them to reveal her profound secrets. Yet Collins remarks that the contemporary British hardly knew anything about the Druids, neither what did happen to them. However, he does not intend to ascertain who caused their end. In pursuit of unifying the nation he has to find another way of restoring “mythologized history of British triumphs” (Levine 570):
Yet still, if the truth those beams infuse,
Which guide at once, and charm the Muse,
Beyond yon braided clouds that lie,
Paving the light-embroider’d sky (Collins).
If we consider the truth as a symbolical truth of poetic imagination and its creation, the poet illuminates to the 18th century Englishmen the way to the Druids, which is shadowy and may be already lost by the centuries of disregarding them. Levine claims that Collins’s more legendary history recovers shadowy supernatural lore from the mythological past to restore the place of inspired patriotic poetry in modern society (557). By mingling fiction and reality, and giving thus the ancient priests their place in the poem Collins revives them. What was before considered fiction now became “imaginative truth which could express a system of values or ultimate reality as the particular poet might conceive it“ (Kuhn 1097). Nevertheless, the use of fiction in the poem can be a metaphor “for an imperfect world of hope, anticipation of new Liberty, freedom, and peace” (Levine 559). In conclusion, Collins uses his poetry to indicate what deeds can contemporary patriotic poetry celebrate or seek.
The 18th-century authors aimed to reassert British national pride, which could be done in various ways. One of them was extolling of the active resistance of ancient Britons to the Romans. Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin claim that in this context the most significant work was William Cowper’s poem of 1782, Boadicea: An Ode (150). As a Celtic queen that led a rebellion against the Romans, Boadicea became one of the most important and popular figures of contemporary literature and she was often drawn upon by scholars and artists. The poem is important as well by the fact that Cowper connects the Boadicea’s rebellion with the Druids, other protagonists of active resistance against the Romans. Ronald Hutton says that no ancient source mentioned the Druids in connection with it [rebellion led by Boadicea], but if they had been associated with patriotic opposition to the Romans then they should have been involved (The Druids 18). Boadicea comes to the Druids in search of counsel of “her country’s gods” (Cowper). The Druid is terrified and grieves what is happening. Nevertheless, he despises Rome and foretells indignantly its downfall that will be “deep in ruins as in guilt” (Cowper). He disapproves Rome feverishly and as a “prophet of empire” (Owen 152) he predicts subsequent fame of Britain:
Then the progeny that springs
From the forests of our land,
Armed with thunder, clad with wings,
Shall a wider world command (Cowper).
The eagerness and feverishness with which the Druid speaks reflects Cowper’s “belief in uniqueness that can shine through a line of poetry or prose with the immediate effect of delight or terror” (Hartley 52).
The poem was written in the time when Britain was expanding its territory and its political ambition was growing. Hingley and Unwin argue that Boadicea was adapted to fit this context by suggesting that her actions had assisted with the development of British imperialism (150). The Druid foresees the progeny as invincible as the forests of Britain that are considered their origins. There is no such powerful place as the place where the Druids live in harmony with nature serving the gods. Such origins will arm them with thunders and give them wings. By the poem Cowper responds to significant changes that were happening in 18th-century England and he reflects British thought and character of that period.
The Alienation of the 19th Century and the Reweaving of the Myth
After the Druids had become an inseparable part of British identity in the 18th
century, in the 19th century the British were less inclined to refer to them. Their image of respectable and wise ancestors was corrupted. Despite all efforts to make the British see them as ancient people of deep knowledge of nature and heaven, their image as savage and bloodthirsty was widely revived. Ronald Hutton claims that one of the reasons why Druids became less regarded was that the Victorians started to doubt whether, admirable or not, they had actually been that important in British prehistory (Hutton, The Druids 34). One of the most important sources about the Druids, the texts left by Caesar, was only to support the distrust of the British in the historical significance of the ancient priests. What discomforted the scholars was the fact that the Druids featured only in one section of Caesar’s work which concerned native tradition. Nevertheless, according to the importance which he attributed them, they should have appeared remarkably in the full description of his conquest of Gaul. Neither the faked texts about Druidic lore by Iolo Morganwg were very useful in supporting the existence of the Druids with evidence. The discovery of that the texts were false further undermined the image of the Druids as significant ancestors.
Looking for better evidence of the position of the Druids in the ancient society of the island, the scholars had to seek in other Roman or Greek sources, because there were no other texts documenting their existence. Nonetheless, the accounts of the priests they found in the documents were largely those of barbarous people who practised sacrifices. In addition, the revolutionary events as well as British wars with France and American war of Independence, which took place in the second half of the 18th century, affected very negatively the Druidic image of the 19th century. The Druids started to represent barbarity and cruelty of a war conflict or revolution. People did not want to refer to such figures with love and admiration.
Yet, of course, the 19th century continued in tendencies and opinions of the preceding one. Thus although the new century turned to be less fortunate for the Druids, there still existed authors that continued the revival of the antiquities. The Druids kept being their heroes who enabled them to draw a connection between the ancient times and contemporaneity, preserving this way the ancient traditions.
In the following two chapters we will have a closer look at both of the tendencies, which influenced the contemporary development of the conception of the Druids.
4.1. The Disillusion with the Druids
William Wordsworth was one of many poets who admired the Druids and their lore. In his poems he celebrated “the grandeur of nature” and “the power of human minds” (Wordsworth). For him the Druids were an ideal combination of both the nature and the human spirit. He even called himself a Druid. However, his visit to France and experiencing the French Revolution influenced crucially his “intellectual development and the life of his imagination” (Stelzig 415). The poet believed in inherit goodness of man and nature, and “that liberty is a certain cure for every ill, that man is made to be happy” (Stelzig 416). Nevertheless, having witnessed the revolution in France, he started to realize the danger of man’s absolute liberty. The French radicalism began to trouble him. Furthermore, killing of innocent people reminded him of “the guilty secret that clings to the Druid-haunted landscape” (Schneider) and made the probable radicalism of the Druids more present for him. Although before the Revolution Wordsworth was quite fascinated by druidical sacrificing, then he was rather alarmed by the idea of blood-shedding in Britain. The occurrences of the French Revolution changed Wordsworth’s mind and also had impact on his vision of the Druids. Stelzig argues that Paris became a place of sacrifice because of the slaughter of innocents and he relates the city to the Druidical “altar fed with living men” (427). However, such a fundamental change of opinion certainly requires a good substantiation. A. L. Owen argues that the reason why started to view the Druids as radical and bloody, even though he had admired them at first, is that Wordsworth thought that Druids’ religion had degenerated (164).
In the poem Guilt and Sorrow he reevaluates the ancient British history. A vagrant wanders in the country when he realizes that where he got there is no cottage, no farm or anyone. It is getting dark and he is surrounded by vast nature. He becomes haunted by his mind’s phantoms and the dark history of Stonehenge is recalled:
Pile of Stone-henge! so proud to hint yet keep
Thy secrets, thou that lov'st to stand and hear
The Plain resounding to the whirlwind's sweep,
Inmate of lonesome Nature's endless year;
Even if thou saw'st the giant wicker rear
For sacrifice its throngs of living men,
Before thy face did ever wretch appear,
Who in his heart had groaned with deadlier pain
Than he who, tempest-driven, thy shelter now would gain (Wordsworth).
The poet addresses Stonehenge as a stone structure that witnessed the sacrificing rituals of the Druids. However, it is a silent witness that keeps the secret of the Druids’ sacrifices. Part of the rituals was also a gigantic structure in human shape inside which living people were placed. Then, the wicker man was set on fire. Shallcrass comments on the Druid human sacrificial rituals this way:
Some Roman writers accused Druids of overseeing human sacrifice on a huge scale. Among such accounts are descriptions of huge wickerwork figures in which humans and animals were said to have been burned. No evidence of such mass burnings has ever been found (Shallcrass).
Shallcrass than continues saying that the best proof for Celtic sacrificing of humans is bodies dating back to the iron Age that were put in peat bogs, as it seems, according to the religious practice of that time. He adds that it is very probable that the victims of this practice underwent the rituals deliberately as they believed in “an afterlife of great joy, abundance and beauty“ (Shallcrass). The Druidic sacrifices were a mystery that no one could resolve with certainty. The problem was that the only documents of Druidic lore were from Greek and Roman sources. Thus, it is arguable whether the Druids were seen so negatively because the Greeks and Romans perceived practices of sacrifices as demonstration of savagery, or, in case of Roman texts, it was because the Druids posed resistance. On the whole, there is no reliable evidence in the ancient sources to confirm the place of human sacrifice in druidic tradition. “What has really mattered has been their cultural impact, for they provide a damning portrait of Druids in texts which have long been among the most widely read to survive from the ancient world and the most commonly translated” (Ronald Hutton, The Druids 98).
In the lines of Guilt and Sorrow there is no admire nor fascination. On the contrary, Wordsworth describes the suffering and wretchedness of the victims. The poet himself says that the monuments and traces of antiquity, scattered in abundance over the region, led him unavoidably to compare what we know or guess of those remote times with certain aspects of modern society, and with calamities, principally those consequent upon war (Wordsworth 120).
His preoccupation with Druidical radicalism sheds bad light on the nature, which surrounded the Druids and which is inseparably connected with them. As Wordsworth realizes that man is not inherently good nor made to be happy, he also stops perceiving nature as good. It is not beautiful nor mysterious, but large, empty and savage:
Winds met in conflict, each by turns supreme;
And, from the perilous ground dislodged, through storm
And rain he wildered on, no moon to stream
From gulf of parting clouds one friendly beam,
Nor any friendly sound his footsteps led;
Once did the lightning's faint disastrous gleam
Disclose a naked guide-post's double head,
Sight which tho' lost at once a gleam of pleasure shed (Wordsworth).
In other words, in the 19th century the image of the Druids as barbarous and
bloody increased by multiplication and during the century became to predominate. Ronald Hutton adds that those of patriotic, wise or nature-loving holy men and women waned (The Druids 107).
The poem Boadicea by Alfred Tennyson is another example of imagining Druids in a negative way. Tennyson draws upon the Celtic queen as well as William Cowper did before. However, in Tennyson’s poem Boadicea does not seek for consolation in oak groves, but she herself is portrayed as a Druid priestess. She speaks to British tribes challenging them to fight against the Roman legionaries that are destroying “the grove and altar of the Druid and Druidess” (Tennyson). Boadicea calls the gods asking them to hear what is happening. They answer her, as she says:
Thunder, a flying fire in heaven, a murmur heard aerially,
Phantom sound of blows descending, moan of an enemy massacred,
There was one who watch’d and told me—down their statue of Victory fell (Tennyson).
She speaks fiercely and foments Britons to cruel vengeance. All the thunder and the moaning of the enemy serve to inspire the people to more brutal revenge and to massacring of the Romans. Of course, Boadicea assures them of victory. She supports her prophesy by what she heard “in the darkness, at the mystical ceremony” (Tennyson). There she heard a terrible Druid to say:
Tho’ the Roman eagle shadow thee, tho’ the gathering enemy narrow thee,
Thou shalt wax and he shall dwindle, thou shalt be the mighty one yet!
Thine the liberty, thine the glory, thine the deeds to be celebrated,
Thine the myriad-rolling ocean, light and shadow illimitable,
Thine the lands of lasting summer, many-blossoming Paradises,
Thine the North and thine the South and thine the battle-thunder of God (Tennyson).
Tennyson’s as well as Cowper’s Druids foretell the magnitude of the British empire, also recalling the Roman eagle, which Britain should surpass; and enormous territory that would spread all over the world. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that Tennyson calls the Druid prophetess terrible. This negative view of the Druids as well as of Boadicea, who belongs to them, may be explained in the context of barbarism that could be seen in contemporaneous Europe as well as in the context of the already mentioned expansion of the British Empire. Although before the British extolled the Druids for their opposition to the Roman colonizers, now their position was changing. They were not the descendants of the native people, who resisted and defended their country. They were new colonizers trying to get new territories. Therefore, they became more aware of the role of a colonizing nation versus the native people, who are colonized. Such political and social frame surely made the role of the Druids in contemporary society less advantageous and subsequently affected their image. Thus, Tennyson’s Boadicea is bloodthirsty and she challenges the Britons to:
Take the hoary Roman head and shatter it, hold it abominable,
Cut the Roman boy to pieces in his lust and voluptuousness,
Chop the breasts from off the mother, dash the brains of the little one out” (Tennyson).
Definitely, this is not an image with which any British would like to identify or refer in order to exalt their heroic ancestors. Boadicea also insults the Romans nastily calling them “liars [who] worship a gluttonous emperor-idiot” (Tennyson). Undoubtedly, such outrageous insults should not defame the Romans, but, on the contrary, the poet aims to damage the reputation of Boadicea, Celtic queen and Druid priestess. Thence, Tennyson’s Boadicea gives evidence of that in the 19th century the Druids “obviously became victims of their success” (Hutton, The Druids 86). Although in the preceding centuries the ancient Britain represented majestic history that was worth of being refer to, now it symbolized contemptible beginnings of later democratic and powerful state. On the other hand, the Romans were considered the nation that passed on the native British “the sacred duty of advancing humanity further” (Hutton, the Druids 34).
4.2. The Druids and Universal Mythology
As it was said earlier, there were authors in the early 19th century who continued
the effort of reviving Celtic antiquities. It was universal mythology where the Druids could still find a place. Albert Kuhn in his essay “English Deism and the Development of Romantic Mythological Syncretism” argues that the mythology of the Druids with those of the Greeks, Egyptians, and other ancients, was bound together by truths which had issued from the fountainhead of patriarchal history and religion (1112). Yet it was necessary to adjust the Druids to the Bible in order that they were accepted by all Christians. Thus, they had been made followers of the original religion of the Hebrew patriarchs. “In this view they had been the best of all ancient European pagans, the least corrupted by idolatry and superstition. This made them natural converts to Christianity, creators of an ancient British church“ (Hutton, Under the Spell of Druids). One of the most important supporters of such a conception was William Stukeley. To him the Druids were missionaries who brought the religious belief of Abraham to the British islands. He also argued that the arrangement of the stone structures, which he considered Druidic ritual places, gave evidence of that the ancient priests were practitioners of the religion of Noah and Abraham. This way Stukeley’s celtic studies, as well as those of Toland, which also included speculations on Druidic heritage, not only encouraged interest in British mythology, but played an important role in forming it a notable part of the universal one. Men of various opinions and designs became very interested in the myth as it was new, flexible and incorrupted. Through the myth they could freely interpret historical tradition as well as religious doctrine. The Druids found a significant place in the universal myth because they were believed, as Albert Kuhn says, to be the priests of Oriental colonies who emigrated from India and were the introducers of the first or cadmean system of letters, and the builders of Stonehenge, of Cranac, and of other Cyclopean works in Asia and Europe’ (1115). In spite of the fact that the Druids started to be perceived negatively in the 19th century, as prophetic figures they were still popular with the writers.
The conception of the Druids as British patriarchs reached its peak in William Blake’s prophetic poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. In the poem Blake deals with the history of man re-construing Christian doctrine. A. L. Owen explains in his book The Famous DruidsJerusalem’s theme as the predicament of Fallen Man, whose archetype, in this cosmogony, is not Adam but ‘Albion, our Ancestor’, the eponymous first inhabitant of this island (226). Blake considers British Isles, and not Palestine, to be the place where sacred history began. As he gives Britain a crucial role in the world religious history, he stresses antiquities, which originated in this land. In Blake’s interpretation the Druids are descendants of Albion and originators of universal religion, since all religions are one religion. They are ancestors of Abraham and those who passed on the Jews some of their beliefs. Blake expresses most explicitly all key ideas of his conception of the universal myth and the Druids’ principal connection to it in the second chapter of Jerusalem, in passage “To the Jews”:
Ye are united O ye Inhabitants of Earth in One Religion: The Religion of Jesus: the most Ancient, the Eternal and the Everlasting Gospel. The Wicked will turn it to Wickedness, the Righteous to Righteousness. Amen! Huzza! Selah! "All things Begin & End in Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore.
Your ancestors derived their origins from Abraham, Heber, Shem, and
Noah, who were Druids, as the Druid Temples (which are the Patriarchal Pillars and Oak Groves) over the whole Earth witness to this day.
You have a tradition, that Man anciently contain’d in his mighty limbs all things in Heaven and Earth: this you received from the Druids. (Blake, Jr. 31).
The Druids were at the beginning of everything. Not only that Blake calls Abraham and his offspring Druids, but he considers them their descendants. However, they are not only the beginning, but also the end of everything and with them also Britain. All myths are basically one myth. Thus, to comprehend the Druidic lore is to explicate the universal myth. It is not an unsubstantiated statement since, as Blake claims, there is evidence “over the whole Earth” preserved to that day.
The Druid temples and oak groves are omnipresent. Nevertheless, not in all cases Blake refers to the Druids positively. Although they symbolize the original wisdom, their practice of sacrificing represents degeneration of the primordial. A.L. Owen claims that without moving from the background, they are, like figures in a striking tapestry, intrusive. The desolate surface of Britain after the Fall is covered with ‘Druid stones’; its horizons are lit by their holocausts, and they build Stonehenge from the rocks of Eden” (Owen 227):
This is no warbling brook, nor shadow of a mirtle tree:
But blood and wounds and dismal cries, and shadows of the oak:
And hearts laid open to the light, by the broad grizly sword:
And bowels hid in hammer’d steel rip’d quivering on the ground.
Call forth thy smiles of soft deceit: call forth thy cloudy tears (Blake, Jr. 71).
Blake does not try to describe the sacrificing gently, but on the contrary, he does his best to express barbarity and coldness of the Druids and suffering of the victims. He gives fascinating details of swords which serve to take out the heart from a human body, or entrails shuddering just having been ripped out. Blake aptly creates the atmosphere of the scene by destroying any possible connotations of nature, which surround the Druids, as of mysterious or wise. There is no brook or mirtle tree, but blood and cries in the shadows of the oaks. Peter Acroyd cites one chronicler saying that in the Druids’ belief there was ‘a mixture of simplicity, drollery, absurdity, ingenuity, superstition and antiquarianism ... a compound of things never meant to meet together’. But they did meet, never more so than in the work of William Blake (Acroyd).
Blake neither does forget to mention the wicker man. Owen argues that Blake points out that the colossus of osiers comes from a ‘Vegetation Root’ [which represents man’s physical being], and the burning of the Wicker Man thus demonstrates the ineptitude of the Druids’ sacrifice, for by destroying the human body they achieve nothing (229).
Blake was also influenced by the events of the 18th century. Jerusalem reflects his being disturbed by the American war of Independence as well as Mexican war of Independence. There is no doubt that the most preoccupying was Napoleonic wars, which were immediate threat for Britain:
They saw America clos'd out by the Oaks of the western shore;
And Tharmas dash'd on the Rocks of the Altars of Victims in Mexico.
If we are wrathful Albion will destroy Jerusalem with rooty Groves
Why should we enter into our Spectres, to behold our own corruptions
O God of Albion descend! deliver Jerusalem from the Oaken Groves (Blake, Jr. 48)!
Neither here do the Druids disappear from the background. Although Blake does not mention them directly by their name, their presence is evident. The poet uses oak, altars and groves in connection with the political events of the second half of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries in order to describe what happened or was happening. The oaks that closed western shore on America symbolize the isolation of Britain and her colonies that fought to be independent. The oak trees as well as groves are associated also with almost certain destruction of Jerusalem without which the original Holy Land cannot be saved. At the same time both the oaks and the groves bear remembrance of sacrificing rituals, which were practiced in them. Nevertheless, the oaken groves are still a symbol of the primordial and Jerusalem, and the salvation can be delivered only from there. Thus, during the poem we get two oppositional images of the Druids: one as of the purveyors of the earliest knowledge and the other of bloodthirsty practitioners of sacrifice. Nevertheless, Blake has an explanation for such a development of the perception of the priests. After the fall of Albion they got under the influence of Urizen, who represents pure physical nature of man.
Another poet who continued the reweaving of the myth with the Druids in its centre was William Tennyson. In his epic poem Idylls of the King he concentrates the Druidic mythology into a prophetic Druid/ bard figure, Merlin. Merlin is a magician, prophet and right-hand man of King Arthur. In the poem he is seen as the creator of “king’s haven” (Tennyson). He is a Druid/ bard, who later became a Christian prophet. In the poem we can read:
And after that, she set herself to gain
Him, the most famous man of all those times,
Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts,
Had built the King his havens, ships, and halls,
Was also Bard, and knew the starry heavens;
The people called him Wizard (Tennyson).
Although he is perceived as a Christian figure, who built Arthur’s palace and ships, he did not give up his Druidic wisdom or knowledge. He is also a bard. Catherine Barnes Stevenson observes in her essay “Druids, Bards, and Tennyson’s Merlin” that one of Tennyson’s sources of Druidic mythology and rites was The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids by Edward Davies. “Davies reconstructs the social and religious history of the Druids, argues that bards were one particular branch of Druids” (Barnes Stevenson 364). Bards, in his opinion, were prominent men who were also priests. Nevertheless, both of the denominations Druid and bard were very often used interchangeably. Barnes Stevenson argues that by interchanging the two terms, the scholars could describe the Druid/bard as the “’the poet-priest of Nature,’ a member of ‘a select body of sages equipped with learning far above the reach of the common man, though ultimately beneficial to him’” (364). Thus, Tennyson combines in the figure of Merlin, the “most famous man of those times” (Tennyson), the arts of the Druids and their knowledge of heavens together with a Christian prophet, who loyally serves the Christian king.
Important is the moral vision of the Idylls. Tennyson wants to give his readers a spiritual ideal. In the form of an allegorical statue created by Merlin on Camelot, the readers are presented the spiritual development of man till he reaches perfection. The statue is dived into four zones that symbolize four levels of man’s progress on the way to the ideal. The first zone, which is the furthest from the ideal state, depicts beasts slaying men, whereas the fourth one represents the target at which the society should aim. The statue supports the hope that a common man can reach the spiritual ideal that would give him wings. Barnes Stevenson remarks that Merlin, as a Christian bard, creates art that affirms the reality of it (371):
And four great zones of sculpture, set betwixt
With many a mystic symbol, gird the hall:
And in the lowest beasts are slaying men,
And in the second men are slaying beasts,
And on the third are warriors, perfect men,
And on the fourth are men with growing wings (Tennyson).
There is no doubt that Druids really existed in ancient times. However, we cannot
say with certainty who they actually were, what their wisdom or rites were, or what status they enjoyed in the society in which they existed. In spite of this fact they cannot be denied their place in history. Yet they did not gain this place as real historical people, but as fictional figures that were created in Renaissance. Since then their image together with their glory, wisdom and rites have been fabricated and reworked in various ways and for various reasons.
Druids were revived by Renaissance scholars who were looking for heroes from early British history that could be considered common ancestors by everyone. Druids seemed to be figures great and admirable enough to give all inhabitants sense of common national identity. This way ancient British priests started to appear in major literary works of that time. They were appropriated by Raphael Holinshed and William Camden in their historical works by which they reintroduced Druids into British minds as the purveyors of national history. Michael Drayton then continued cultivating the image of Druids as wise priests with wide knowledge of nature’s secrets, whose uniqueness and fearlessness should be inspiration for modern Britain. Their historical importance was further reinforced by the antiquarian preoccupation that the power and glory of the kingdom had been destructed by time. This worry is also reflected in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion. He used Druids to persuade his readers, and himself too, that the ancient is not lost and that the antiquities had been preserved.
In the 18th century the image of Druids was altered by the Romantic fascination and the dominance of imagination as well as by the need to support newly established kingdom of Great Britain. Now Druids were seen as a symbol of an ideal connection of man and nature which is source of great wisdom and inspiration. Ronald Hutton explains the 18th-century treatment of the concept of Druids saying that the Georgian poets had been celebrating a lost world of innocence and freedom, which taught the lesson that close personal communion with nature could reveal profound truths (Hutton 87). An example of the celebration of freedom and nature is William Mason’s poem Caractacus. In this work, which is believed to finish the process of appropriating Druids by the British, Druids are noble savages who dwell in caves in immediate proximity of dark oaken groves where they can enjoy free life in the nature. In comparison with Drayton, Mason does not avoid referring to Druidic sacrificing rituals. He interprets sacrificing as Druidic belief in existence of a better place where the soul goes after being relieved from the human body. Furthermore, the practices are not connected with slaying of innocent people, but enemies and traitors. It is not demonstration of Druids’ cruelty, but their mercy and fair treating of the enemies.
Nonetheless, in the 18th century the concept of Druids was also used for political reasons. Now, when they were considered central figures of European prehistory, their role was to unite the English and Scots in one nation and to facilitate the political unification of the two countries.
Although Druids had been implanted zealously into British history, literature as well as landscape, in the 19th century people started to doubt them as remarkable ancestors. Their image of cruel and bloodthirsty sacrificers was too powerful to be put aside or even to be seen in an idealized way. Neither the want of original documents nor the endeavour to provide them by falsification helped Druids to be seen more positively. War and revolutionary conflicts of the second half of the 18th century subverted the concept of Druids as admirable predecessors completely. Their image was influenced most negatively by the French Revolution, which make many scholars, William Wordsworth among them, to connect their radicalism with the radicalism of the French. Viewing Druids through what occurred in France lead to their gradual rejection. The following radical development of the 19th-century politics only reinforced the negative view of Druids as can be seen in William Tennyson’s Boadicea. Although he draws upon the same figure as William Cowper did before him, he does not portray the Celtic queen as a patriot who looks for consolation in Druidic oaken groves. She is a Druidic priestess who foments British tribes to bloody revenge on the Romans. She is radical, frantic and hungers for blood.
Even though Druids became to be resented with almost same passion as they were made part of British identity, the antiquarian effort for preserving the antiquities was not forgotten. One of the reasons was, as Ronald Hutton claims, that they preserved and communicated a sense of all that past, the deities and the land itself had provided to make up an inheritance worth defending to the death (The Druids 1). Thus Druids were transformed into ancient patriarchs who came from Holy Land bringing with them the original religion of the Hebrews. They became interwoven in a myth that was, furthermore, supported by studies of Stuckley and Toland. Albert Kuhn argues that:
The myths of the pagans and those of the Old Testament represented an original religion which was at once more reasonable and more catholic than Christianity. Christianity was not the one religion; it was among many which at basis were united in a core of simple, natural, and universal truths (1115).
Therefore, Druids were not heathens that should be hated by the Christians, but religious people that were at the beginning of all religions. In William Blake’s Jerusalem Britain is seen as the original Holy Land. Bloodthirsty or not, Druids still had their place in British culture and literature.
Having been once built into the British culture, they did not cease to be its part in the 20th or 21st centuries. Although they do not serve yet to save the antiquities; sustain union of two countries that had developed in conflict; or to make a myth, they are still popular topic of books and films. As the authors and film makers have continued the images that were created in the centuries before, Druids are holy men living in oaken groves that know its profound secrets and practise sacrifices. For example, Druids feature in Terry Prachett’s Discoworld inhabiting country of Llamedos. In 1970’s a group of three British comedians, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, drew upon Druids in an episode of their series, which is called Wacky Wales. Neither the structures of wicker men have been forgotten. In 1973 Robin Hardy made a film The Wicker Man in which a police officer looking for a missing woman travels to an isolated island of Summerisle where the community of the island lives in harmony with nature and practise pagan rituals. In the end the protagonist is caught in a trap and burnt in a gigantic wicker man. The film was remade in 2006 by Neil LaBute.
There is no doubt that the Druids who we are familiar with have most probably very little in common with the ancient people who they reflect and who lived thousands of years ago. Nevertheless, these legendary figures, “given the length of time over which those images [of admirable ancestor and British patriarchs] have been dispersed, and the sheer number of works embodying them” (Hutton 123); became an inextricable part of Britain’s culture and folklore. Considering all the images Druids were ascribed from the 16th to the 19th centuries and all political and cultural uses they served for, there can be no doubt that they became iconic for Britain.
Acroyd, Peter. “Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald
Hutton“. Times online. 29 April 2009. Web. 8 May 2010.