My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Stonehenge, which he described as a peculiar juxtaposition of primeval-looking stones that resembled “a group of brown dwarves in the wide expanse,” he was also overawed by its mysterious ambience laced with its ancient esoteric elements woven by the flight of ages and the succession of the primordial Druidic spirit peculiar to the British Isles. In the poetical visions of Emerson, the sacrificial stones of the Druids were a phantasmagorical display of the enigmatic nature of the Druidism and the Druids clothed in their long white robes of fierce mystery. Such mysteriousness surrounding the Druids is still paramount to the image and perennial legacy of the clandestine ancient cult with its formidable ritual practices and influences as vividly related in The Druids by Jesse Harasta.
In this book, Harasta draws up a wide range of historical contexts ranging from a memoir written by Julius Caesar to annals by Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and the Younger, and others, in search of the eyewitness accounts of this notoriously secretive cult and its ritual practices in the context of regarding its social and cultural influences on the colonial Gauls, especially the Britons. According to Caesar in his Notebooks about the Gallic War, which is still arguably the most detailed record of the Druids and their customs written in between 50 B.C. and 40 B.C., the Druids were originally initiated in Britain and that they acted as the grave executors of justice with solemn probity in conjunction with the religious elements to instill respect and order imbued with theocratic fear in people because the Druidism was by nature theocratic. In fact, such theocratic aspect of druidism is evident in Geography published in the 1st Century A.D. by Greek philosopher, historian, and geographer Strabo as follows: (1) the Bards: singers and poets; (2) the Vates: diviners and natural philosophers; and (3) the Druids: moral and natural philosophers. These three strata of the Druid ruled the roost of every aspect of their society with the authority and power tantamount to those of the Supreme Pontiff in later years.
The peculiarity of the Druidic custom is the absence of written records, save other public and private transactions recorded in Greek. Although the Druidic education was heavily focused on memorization of a great number of verses, writing was strictly forbidden based upon Harasta’s viable hypothetical grounds of (1) to make the knowledge of the study inaccessible to the other castes, such as warriors and common people to maintain their social supremacy and dominion; and (2) to improve the faculty of memory to develop cognitive ability, since an act of writing tended to reduce the ability to memorize.
The ritualistic practice of human sacrifice is the ubiquitousness recorded in annals and manifested in archeological evidence. Even before the rise of the Roman Empire, the ancient Greek historian Athenaeus in the 4th Century B.C. recorded the Druids’ sacrifice of their prisoners to the gods, which was subsequently echoed by Pliny in the 1st Century A.D, who confirmed that the emperor Tiberius outlawed the Druids and their murderous types of diviners and physicians, while the succeeding emperor Claudius obliterated the inhuman cult.
Such ritualistic killing of humans and animals as well as performing ritual cannibalism was the most exquisite act of the greatest kind of piety. To illustrate, diviners stroke a human being chosen for sacrifice in the back with a saber and divine from his death struggle in the presence of the Druids or stabbed the victim with a small knife in the area above the diaphragm. Then they interpreted the future by observing the nature of the victim’s fall, the convulsion of his limbs, and especially from the pattern of his spurting blood in ancient tradition of undivided observation. In another example, the Druids built enormous effigies and filled them with living persons and set them on fire for mass sacrifice. Also, they burnt faithful slaves and beloved subordinates at the climax of the funerals of their masters. All of the aforesaid rituals took place in oak graves, since oaks emblemized sacredness and wisdom as the word “Druid” was originally derived from Celtic word “derwijes,” meaning oak and “wid,” to know or to have a vision.
Pace other reviews of this book as desultory, partisan accounts of the Druids gleaned from ancient historical resources primarily written by the Roman colonials with supercilious opinions on their barbarous Briton colonialists, this book is an interesting read on this delphic ancient cult and its esoteric customs elegantly put together in plain language based upon the scholastic historical contexts. This is indeed a comprehensive overview of the quaint Druids whose formidable mysteriousness still resounds with the modern day revival of the cult in its outer form to the descendents of the Britons. For the reader who wants to delve into the Druidism in depth, this book serves as a decent primer on the subject as a preliminary requisition of rudimentary knowledge of the ancient cult. For all others, this book is an informative read that will bestow another literary pleasure and self-satisfaction on your mind.