The Famous Druids
A survey of three centuries
of English literature on the Druids

by A. L. Owen

Oxford University Press: 1962

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
264 pages; 4 illustrations March 2009

English literature describing Druids?
[The Druids] leave an unbounded liberty to pure imagination, & fiction (our favourite provinces) where no Critick can molest, or Antiquary gainsay us. & yet (to please me) these Fictions must have some affinity, some seeming connection with that little we really know of the character & customs of the People.
Thomas Gray, 1757

The Famous Druids by A. L. Owen is not exactly a history of the Druids, for the plain and simple reason that the Druids left precious little by way of historical record or archaeological artifact. What the book is instead, though, is quite fascinating and expansive: A survey of three centuries of English literature on the Druids. There are a few surviving Greek and Roman references to Druids (Pliny, Tacitus, Julius Caesar, etc.), but what we popularly think we know was largely imagined, fabricated, mistranslated, misinterpreted, or downright forged during early modern times.

We should see this clearly. The Druids maintain a solemn existence in their holy groves of good solid oak, on the basis of quite fugitive and evanescent sources. The Famous Druids shows us a thicket of luxuriant fancy and entangled error, with scarcely a mistletoe-sprig of truth to be seen in twenty centuries.

This all reminds me of S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives, a study in the literature about Shakespeare as a person, pseudo-biographies which wander through improbabilities as though the Bard were a multiply-replicated character in a universe of parallel timelines. The Druids offer something for everyone but none of it solid. As for the Druidist scholarship, it's like trading in financial derivatives, where one tries to grasp not a commodity but an emanation:

John Smith, the Gaelic scholar, states that he had spent about twelve years collecting the manuscripts which he published in Galic Antiquities, 1780. As their editor, he claims that he had found distinct references to Druidism in these poems. There can be no better authority, for he had himself first written the poems in English, and after translating them into Gaelic, he then published the translations as originals, and the originals as translations.
The Druid universality

So what then remains to us of those Druids of wild rumor and fanciful scholarship? Those priests, philosophers, peacemakers; spreaders of Greek wisdom, teachers to the Greek philosophers; heirs of the Hebrew Patriarchs in Britain, teachers to the Hebrew Patriarchs; engineers of megaliths, rustic woods-dwellers; brave leaders of resistance to Christianity, wise converts to Christianity; their order died out, their secret rituals still maintained?

The oaken groves of academe were not immune to extending their pedigree:

In a controversy [in the 1560s] over the priority of the foundation of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Thomas Caius of Oxford claimed that philosophers had come to Britain with Brutus [from Troy] and settled at Oxford.

John Caius of Cambridge replied that the Druids, who thrived from 1031 B.C. to A.D. 179, had been in Britain before the arrival of Brutus, and their establishment at Cambridge had therefore antedated that of the Oxford Philosophers.

(Of course, with no prejudice among universities, we here at Troynovant must come down firmly for the clear priority and obvious significance of the Trojan contingent.)

The Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago

I suggest that the theme for this Gaelic-Welsh-English to Greek-Jewish-Egyptian crosstime culture-clasp is expressed beautifully by lyricist Alfred Bryan and Chris Smith in their rollicking song "The Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago", recorded in 1920 and again in 1940 (choruses only) by the great comic singer Billy Murray:

I've studied things Egyptic,
Those writings weird and cryptic
Upon the tombs that dot Sahara's sands.
I've solved each strange inscription
Left by each wise Egyptian
And hold the mystic secret in my hands.
The Irish were Egyptians long ago.
Just read between the lines and you will know.

It must have been the Irish who built the pyramids
For no one else could carry up the bricks. ...

Cleopatra was a colleen who came from Connemara.
She lost her nationality while roaming in Sahara ...

Intellectual history: fluid, misleading, inspiring

In terms of intellectual history, A. L. Owen describes an intricate process, and we may see why his excellent book is not focused on Druid evidence of which we possess so little. Rather he shows the fluid impression of the Druids as it was created and evolved in Britain during the Sixteenth through early Nineteenth Centuries.

It's a wild ride in which William Stukeley's translation of Horace shows "the Bacchus of the Heathen to be the Jehovah of the Jews" (1736). But there are great figures along the way: John Aubrey, antiquarian of Stonehenge and Avebury; John Milton and William Blake. Many took Druids and Druidism (however defined at the time) more or less for granted, and chunks or tidbits of imagined lore and pseudo-history found their way into the general culture.

Humor & the high perspective

Owen provides considerable leavenings of humor amidst the scholarship in The Famous Druids, generally only a few sentences and sometimes just a reversed word, a negative where we expect a positive in the sentence. So it pays to read him rather measuredly, enjoying tone as well as outrageous fact:

Toland [author of History of the Druids, 1726] had an exuberant fancy. On seeing some Irishmen jumping over bonfires, he took it to mean that they were still performing ancient rites of purification. With a rather pert facility, he found much to improve upon in his sources ...

It is characteristic of Owen's high but empathetic perspective that he sees both good and bad inextricably melded in these Druidist enthusiasms:

It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century in England that the local antiquary began to suspect that the Druids had left their mark on his parish. Thereafter, he became very busy, and he left much for the modern archaeologist to repudiate.

Yet it was the Druid who so greatly stimulated the curiosity which sharpened the wits of those who pondered over tumulus, dolmen, and menhir. The road which trampled down a segment of a Druid circle established a relative chronology, and the man who first noticed this had already given archaeology a method. But it needed the dramatic impact of Stonehenge and Avebury on their visitors to get this new science off to a good start.

Helping to draw the bow

To employ a Nietzschean concept, this tension of the spirit — between the glories with which thoughtful men wished to imbue ancient Druid philosopher-priests, versus the few facts and those mostly unsupportive or downright contrary — that this tension of projected Platonic ideal versus oak-sturdy facts with the bark on, this Druidist effort helped draw the great bow of the modern spirit, its science and its history.

John Milton strongly favored the Druids, then repudiated them. William Blake adopted them during the course of his poetic systematization, and fitted and retrofitted them into his poetry. Archaeologists, comparative linguists, and historians of ideas were not the only ones who eventually felt the stress of reevaluating. Owen describes Milton's change of mind about Druids:

With scorn he calls them 'a sort of Priests or Magicians'. He concedes that they might have studied Pythagoras, 'yet philosophers I cannot call them, men reported factious and ambitious'. His comments were harsh, and he saddled the Druids with faults that even Pliny had not found in them.

Paraphrasing Tacitus on the massacre on Mona, he calls the Druids 'a barbarous and lunatic rout'. The language of the translation is more savage than that of the original text, and this vehemence perhaps owes its sharpness to disappointment.

Milton had associated the Druids with matters about which he felt deeply: the poets and philosophers who had given such a lustre to early Britain, the men who had given England her precedence in teaching nations how to live, the glorious Hyperboreans, the tutors of Persia and of great Pythagoras — they could not stand up to his more critical examination. Their 'Cathedrall of Philosophy' came crashing down.

Milton never again spoke of them. For the author of the phrase 'the famous Druids', the Druids had become infamous.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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