Saturday 23 October 2010

Hallowe'en Week

Thank you to everybody who came to say 'Hi' at The Literary and Debating Society at the National University of Ireland on Thursday November 28th. The debating society's motion: 'This House Believes in the Other Side' was defeated.

I also had a wonderful evening at Goldsmiths on Tuesday 26th, where I spoke about 'Demons and Nightmares: Why do People Believe in the Malign Supernatural?' There's an audio version here

And we had a lot of fun at the Westminster Skeptics First Birthday/Hallowe'en Party on November 1st too.

What a great Hallowe'en week!

Sunday 10 October 2010

The Druid Network

On September 21st, the Charity Commission published its decision in respect of The Druid Network’s application for charitable status.

The ‘yes’ hit the news networks a few days later at the beginning of this month, for example the Telegraph, the BBC and Sky News where it rather uncharitably appeared under their ‘strange news’ category.

The Druid Network is not the extant organisation to represent Druidism, but it’s the only one currently with Charity Status.

This should not be misunderstood as an aspersion upon any Druids or Druidical Institutions though. Other organisations may just not want charitable status. King Arthur Pendragon (I’m guessing he changed his name by deed poll) was reported by the BBC as saying that:

… he would not be seeking charitable status for his own order - the Loyal Arthurian Warband - as it was a political wing and therefore had no need to be recognised as a charity

King Arthur sounds like friendly and self-effacing kind of a bloke to judge from the interviews I’ve read over the years:

I'm Arthur Pendragon and if people want to believe I'm some nutter who thinks he's the reincarnation of King Arthur that's their choice

In fact it’s hard to dislike Druids in general. They seem full of good intentions, keen on environmentalism, rejecting of consumerism as a route to happiness and King Arthur likes cider – all sterling qualities.

They esteem personal revelation on the way to enlightenment, they seem to appreciate the cultivation of knowledge over received dogma and to practice meditation.

If I was forced to choose between one of the Abrahamic faiths and modern Druidry, it’d be a millisecond before I was down the pub with His Majesty.

But King Arthur was also quoted by the BBC as dropping what I regard as the biggest neo-pagan clanger – claiming provenance of his religion from the original Celtic social class of two millennia ago.

We are looking at the indigenous religion of these isles - it's not a new religion but one of the oldest

We actually know very little about the Celtic Druids. Most of the written evidence comes from Julius Caesar’s ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’.

Caesar’s Gauls had structured societes with a military class and a priestly one, which “is in great honour among them”. The Druids seem to have been in charge of administering justice:

For they determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private; and if any crime has been perpetrated, if murder has been committed, if there be any dispute about an inheritance, if any about boundaries, these same persons decide it; they decree rewards and punishments

Caesar continues that the Druids were knowledgeable about calendars and astronomy and they spent very long periods (twenty years) committing their most sacred doctrines to memory, although they used Greek letters to write upon more mundane matters.

But there was an uncivilised facet to this nation: the Druids practiced human sacrifice.

The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.”

And here is where we get our legend of the Wicker Man, a giant human-shaped container stuffed with live sacrificial victims. They:

… have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.

This combination of civilised and uncivilised traits may have been intended demonstrate to the Romans back home that the Gauls were simultaneously a people worth the effort of conquering but also barbaric and in need of Roman cultural influence.

In other words, Caesar’s account has to be regarded as, at least in part, propaganda. Without decent objective verification of the facts, we just don’t know.

Druidic divination by human sacrifice was also described by first century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

"There are also certain philosophers and priests surpassingly esteemed, whom they call Druids. They have also soothsayers, who are held in high estimation; and these, by auguries and the sacrifice of victims, foretell future events, and hold the commonalty in complete subjection … when they deliberate on matters of moment, they practise a strange and incredible rite; for, having devoted a man for sacrifice, they strike him with a sword on a part above the diaphragm: the victim having fallen, they augur from his mode of falling, the contortion of his limbs, and the flowing of the blood, what may come to pass, giving credence concerning such things to an ancient and long-standing observance

But we know so little of Diodorus’ life, whether he travelled and whether he gathered his accounts first hand, that it’s fair to draw the more probably conclusion that he worked from documents and may have been repeating hearsay.

Strabo’s ‘Geography’, covering the same subject, writes in such a conspicuously similar fashion that it seems highly likely they were both repeating from the same source. They both mention that Druids had the power to stand between armies and halt hostilities if they thought the fight unjust. And Strabo re-mentions Caesar’s Wicker Man.

Strabo did travel extensively, but he lived from around 63/64 BCE to 24 CE. In other words, he was around twenty years old at the death of Julius Caesar (100 BCE 15 March 44 BCE). His travels and writing post-dated the extirpation of the Druids and the chances of collecting first-hand data (although he may have spoken to old campaigners).

There are other classical sources but we don’t need to go through them exhaustively. Basically, I’m trying to demonstrate that our knowledge of the real, ancient Druids is patchy, propagandist and/or second hand.

I’m not at all upset, by the way, at the notion that they practiced human sacrifice. They may have, they may not have. Iron Age human sacrifice is reasonably well evidenced by corpses such as Tolland Man.

And for those with such a sanctimonous dismissal of other’s murderous practices, the Romans would have done well to remember that Gladiatorial combat probably started at the time of the Punic Wars as a barely glossed human sacrifice, a part of funerary ritual.

The point about Druidic human sacrifice is – we don’t know.

Druids turn up later in Irish folkore. But their role and identities were reduced, by the coming of Christianity, to sorcerers. Druids get a bad rap ‘til the early modern era, at which time we see the buds of a Romantic reinvention.

Modern Druidism has had many players over the centuries: people like antiquarian and proto-archaeologist John Aubrey (1626 – 1697) for whom the ‘Aubrey holes’ of Stonehenge are named; antiquarian, freemason, doctor and vicar William Stukely (1687-1785) and Welsh propagandist, antiquarian and poet Edward Williams (1747 –1826).

So was our nation’s true religion under wraps for all that time, safe in the hands of a few initiates who, continuing the practices of their antecedents, memorised all their sacred knowledge and left no texts?

Did they only emerge when it was safe to do so? Is modern Druidry an authentically original, rather than reinvented, tradition?

Margaret Murray (1863 – 1963) was an Egyptologist who is now mainly remembered for her ‘Witch-Cult Hypothesis’. Her books ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ (1921) and ‘The Gods of the Witches’ (1931) proposed that the ‘Old Religion’ had gone underground but had survived intact. Covens worshipped a horned god and the sacrifice of a ‘Divine King’ figure could be seen in such historical events as the death of William Rufus and Thomas Beckett.

However, Murray’s theories are now very unfashionable and have, to be frank, been thoroughly discredited. She felt that the witch trials of Europe’s sixteenth and seventeenth ‘Great-Witch-Hunt’ era were an attempt by the Christian authorities to extirpate a genuine underground movement.

However, there are alternative, and far better, explanations of the witch hunts. Like so many human dynamics and behaviours, the Witch Hunts are too subtle and complicated for one definitive answer.

But the post-Reformation tension between Catholicism and Protestantism probably had a huge part to play, as did the economic changes of the early-modern era in which traditional means of social support and charity changed.

Where there are highly plausible explanations for one theory and virtually no evidence for another, Occam’s razor must be evoked. Sorry Margaret.

And this, I feel, must go for Druidism too.

Writing to his friend Lord Cecil about a trip to York in 1570, Archbishop Edmund Grindal expressed his dismay about the tenacity of Catholicism in the north of England:

He lamented that holy days and feasts were still celebrated, beads were told and ‘they offer money, eggs etc. at the burial of their dead’”
p 102

Offerings for the dead are undoubtedly a vestigal manifestation of pre-Christian religious practices. Catholicism was, and is, undoubtedly a more magical religion than Protestantism. But this does not mean that the people of whom the Archbishop disapproved were self-consciously practicing anything other than that which they would have called Christianity.

At Easter, I eat a lot of dark chocolate eggs, but that makes me a gannet – not a pagan.

James Frazer, in the Golden Bough (1890) identified traces of the Old Religion all over Europe.

He cites ‘Druidical festivals’ such as the making of ‘need fire’ on Beltane - May Day, a ritual which was regarded as a prophylactic for disease. (‘Need’ fire is ‘new’ fire from first principles rather than from an existing ember.) In Ireland, Frazer recalls that the May Day rituals in which cattle were driven between two need fires had been conducted ‘within living memory’.

He also cited recent festivals of the time in Douay & Dunkirk where a giant figures made of osiers (wickerwork) were taken through the street, driven by men enclosed inside them.

But the closest Frazer gets to Murray’s recondite religion is to write:

… that is, among a Celtic people who, situated in a remote corner of Europe and almost completely isolated from foreign influence, had til then conserved their heathenism better perhaps than any other people in the West of Europe

This is far from suggesting that there was a coherent spiritual underground, an authentic and self-conscious maintenance of a two thousand year old tradition.

It’s not a claim that is repeated by ‘The Druid Network’ from what I can gather from their website, which is very sensible of them.

Their founder, Emma Restall Orr was associated with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids which founded by Ross Nichols in 1972.

There are a several Druidic groups, and the recent history of the movement has a little of the ‘People’s Judean Front’ about it. But then so do most groups & movements, I suppose. I’ve seen it many times, and you probably have too.

Jo Brand said that Wiccan is Old-English for basket-case. I repeat it here because it’s a funny joke and I like Jo Brand.

But I’ll qualify that by reminding you that, frankly, they don’t believe in anything sillier than any other religions, perhaps less silly than many. As I said, just picture me and King Arthur in the pub …

But despite scoring well on the ‘no sillier’ index, should we be granting charitable status to Druids? Or any other religious groups for that matter?

Watch this space for part 2.