Peter Berresford Ellis
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publish Company, 1994
ISBN # 0-8028-3798-0
304 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2009

Peter Berresford Ellis set out to give us a careful look at just who the Druids were. It is his contention that until recent times popular knowledge have presented them as a sort of priestly, even magician class. He believes this view is decidedly incorrect.

Rather, he sees the Druids as one of the two historically known and surviving intellectual classes of the ancient Indo-European peoples and sees a very close relationship between the Druids and the Brahmins of India. He claims there was a joint Indo-European origin and that what the Brahmins are to India the Druids are to the Celtic world – the intellectual class.

“… [Druids] formed the intellectuals, or learned class, … were deemed the highest caste.”

. . . .

“The caste not only consisted of those who had a religious function, but also comprised philosophers, judges, teachers, historians, poets, musicians, physicians, astronomers, prophets, counselors.”

They could also sometimes be kings or chieftains….

Ellis argues that our early Western sources about the Druids are from the Greeks and Romans. The Druids themselves had a prohibition on writing down any of their sacred lore, not because they didn’t have written language, but they didn’t want to put their own knowledge into print for others. His view is that as the Romans began to move into Celtic regions (and this was in northern Italy, Spain and in Turkey!) they began to paint a quite biased view of the Druids. He summarizes:

“So before we continue to see just how the Greek and Roman commentators portrayed the Druids, let us summarize our argument. The Druids were an indigenous Celtic intelligentsia, evolving from the original wise men and women during the age of the hunter-gatherers among the ancient ancestors of the Celts, losing their original functions but retaining the Celtic name of those with ‘oak knowledge’. They were found to be in every part of the Celtic society but it was not until the second century BC that the Greeks realized that these individual learned functionaries had a collective name -- the Druids.”

In early A.D. Europe in the Celtic world there were four classes

  1. Intelligentsia
  2. Warriors
  3. Producers
  4. Manual workers

The Druids, while at times priests, were not even primarily that, but they were Celtic priests and there were Celtic priests who were not Druids.

Ellis is worried that the Greek and Roman view of the Druids has influenced the modern world leaving us with a false and misleading view. He is sort of right about this reader for sure. I went to this book knowing very little, next to nothing really, about the Druids. What slight inklings I had picked up here and there were what Ellis describes as this incorrect version which comes down to us via the Greeks, Romans and later, Western Christianity.

He argues that there was an interest they had to down play the role and nature of the Druids. The Greek and Roman worlds preferred to believe themselves superior cultures and wanted to make the Celts out to be primitive. Part of that interest, as Ellis sees it, made it easy for them to grab on to any evidence to suggest Celtic primitiveness, and to interpret the Druids as simply priests, magicians and bards.

Actually Ellis is somewhat understanding of how easy it was for them to come to these views, especially the Romans. By the 5th century AD the Romans has seriously moved into Gaul, Cisalpine Gaul and Britain. As early as the 1st century AD Hadrian’s Wall separated Celtic north Britain from Roman south. Only Ireland remained independent. Even by early 5th century AD Ireland was still pagan and independent.


“No Classical writer ever referred to the Druids as priests, nor is Druidism depicted as a religion.”

Ellis does emphasize that he allows that Celtic culture was in decline by the time of the Christian era. That fact, coupled with the paucity of written Druidic documents, added to the Roman prejudices, made it easier for the demeaning view of the Druids to emerge.

On his account the influence and place of both Celtic culture and the Druids continued to wane, especially from the Christian era until the 17th century. By that time what remained of it was centered in Ireland with some limited areas of Scotland and Wales also holding on. However, Oliver Cromwell nearly ended Celtic people in Ireland. In his campaign he killed about 1/3 rd the Irish people, another 1/3 were shipped off to the New World, especially Barbados. And then from May 1, 1654 all Irish had to live west of the Shannon River.

Finally, however, some serious reassessment of the Celts and Druids arose in the romantic period returning to a more positive, if incorrect, view of the Romans and Greeks.

“The Druids and the Celts were there when our seventeenth and eighteenth century ancestors sought ‘Romanticism” as a counter-balance to the ‘Age of Reason’ and industrialization. It is not surprising that they are still being reinvented at this time because, in our sad and sorry contemporary world, people still want a quick fix on spirituality; because people, in the quest for truth and meaning in life, which seems the perennial human drive, prefer simple answers. It is easier to accept the cosy pictures of non-existent romantic Celts and Druids rather than ponder the uncomfortable realities.”

Thus it comes to Ellis’ work and time. He and other scholars have taken more contemporary assessments of the Druids and Celts and in this work Ellis is taking his strong stance on the Druids. Again, his central thesis is that:

  1. The Druids were an intellectual class which included priests, but not exclusively
  2. They were culturally related to and grew out of the ancient Indo-European peoples. The Druids reflected a very close relationship to the Brahmins of India.

I enjoyed the book a great deal and learned much. However, it is a very strange work STRUCTURALLY. At the outset he tells us this is a book for the non-specialist reader. He will assume we have fairly obviously false views of the Druids and he will set us straight.

In what follows he makes a very strong case. But, much of it is in very technical argument with high-powered scholars like himself. Thus much of the book doesn’t at all read like a book for the general reader, but his powerful statement to dust off any who disagree with his views and to establish his position as the correct view of the Druids.

I don’t reject his powerful scholarship, but there are a couple features I found somewhat disturbing – perhaps that’s too strong a word, maybe the notion of confused by the arguments, would be a better description of some of his argument form.

There is one particular scholar who comes in for the greatest mention, Mrs. Nora Chadwick. She seems to have been someone a bit older than Ellis and to have greatly influenced him, yet he has his differences from her. Whenever he is in AGREEMENT with her, which seems to be often, then he speaks of her highly with great respect and points to her work as authoritative.

However, in cases where he disagrees, he doesn’t just disagree, he belittles her with snide remarks, seemingly with great disrespect, even dismissive of her. She is perhaps his primary target, but there are a lot of little personal digs at other scholars as well.

The other historical writer who comes in for very sarcastic criticism is Julius Caesar whose work on Gaul and Caesar’s influence on the Roman view of the Druids seems to just steam Professor Ellis.

The second rather odd feature of the LOGIC of his argument concerns his central claim (not much argued in THIS book) that the Celts and Hindus both grew out of an early Indo-European culture. He asserts this “fact.” Then when he needs to argue that some factor of Druid belief is definitely part of their culture, he will point to the fact that such a practice or belief still exists in the Brahmin world view, and cites that as supportive evidence. On the other hand, if some feature of the Druid world is not something he wants to claim, he may well cite its absence in the Brahmin world and on that basic argues that the practice couldn’t really be Druid practice either.

So without any real argument IN THIS BOOK, of this parallelism of the two cultures and two intellectual classes, he argues from the premise that evidence from the one culture can be used to prove something in the other. That just seems like sloppy reasoning to me. It’s not that he’s wrong. I know absolutely nothing of Brahmin culture. It’s just that one can’t assume such a powerful hypothesis without argument and then use it to argue in both directions (from Druid to Brahmin and from Brahmin to Druid).

Despite those curiosities of his writing and arguing style, I learned a great deal from the book and Ellis did manage to convince me that his central theses seem to be so.

Along the way Ellis gives us an amazing amount of insight into various aspects of Celtic culture and the Druidic role in it. Below I will just cite a number of things that moved me to jot notes as I read. I actually include these here as much to remind myself of them as for any reader’s benefit. I won’t try to systematize them nor tie them to his larger argument. I just want to note some of his positions and seemingly non-controversial information along the way which I found useful and / or fascinating.


  1. “Under ancient Irish law the provision of sick maintenance, including curative treatment, attendance allowance, and nourishing food, was made available to all who needed it.”

  2. A 7th century text claims that Patrick, too, brought into the Roman/Greek view and regarded the Druids as wonder-working pagans.

    One king in the middle of the 6th century had both Druid and Christian advisors.

  3. One passage that Ellis cites to emphasize the Druidic passage of looking for various signs of the future, allowing prophesying, reminded me greatly of scenes from Shakespeare’s MacBeth:
    "However, it is Beag Mac Dë, the Druid, who pronounced the most interesting prophecy of all, which is an example of the mysticism of the Threefold Death which emerges in Celtic mythology. His prophecy was that Diarmuid would be killed by Flann’s kinsman, Aedh Dubh mac Suibni, in the house of Banban of Raith Bec, a small ring fort east of Antrim. His death would only be encompassed on the night when he wore a shirt grown from a single flax seed, when he drank ale brewed from one grain of corn, and when he ate pork from a sow which was never farrowed. The manner of his death would he by burning, by drowning and by the ridge-pole of a roof falling on his head. The prophecy seemed so unlikely that Diarmuid scorned it, although he did have Aedh Dubh banished from Ireland and sought other ways to protect himself from any event by which the prophecy could come true.

    "However, a day arrived when Banban invited the High King to a feast. Diarmuid ignored the prophecy and went to his fortress.

    "At Banban’s house, his host suggested that since the king’s wife, Muighain, had not accompanied him, his own daughter would ‘this night he your wife’. The girl brought Diarmuid a nightshirt, food and ale. The prophecy began to be fulfilled. Realizing his empending doom, Diarmuid sprang to the door. Aedh Dubh was there and stabbed him. Diarmuid fled into the house, Aedh Dubh’s men set fire to it. Seeking to escape the flames. Diarmuid scrambled into a vat of all. A burning ridge-pole fell on his head. The prophecy was fulfilled in all its aspects."
  4. Celtic women and female Druids had many more rights and roles than Greek or Roman women, certainly more than any Western women had until very modern times and beyond! They were rulers and warriors as well as Druids.
    “A woman could inherit property and remained the owner of any property she brought into a marriage. If the marriage broke up, then she not only took out of it her own property but any property that her husband had given her during the marriage. Divorce, of course, was permitted and a woman could divorce her husband just as a husband couId divorce his wife. If a man had ‘fallen from his dignity’, that is committed a crime and lost his civil rights or been outcast from society, it did not affect the position of his wife. A woman was responsible for her own debts and not those of her husband.”
  5. In the 6th century the Roman Church dismantled the Celtic Christian Church and stopped allowing women to say mass.

  6. In the fragments of writing which have survived from the early Druidic period we learn of some of their beliefs:

  7. Some of the rituals which existed in the Celtic religion were

  8. The Druidic schools (Bardic Schools) used wandering teachers. Bardic schools lasted into the 17th century. Irish evidence is that they go back as far as 500 BC. Late 17th century Irish schools were suppressed and Hedge schools emerged and harked back to Druid models.

  9. Druid Books

    While early Druids wouldn’t commit Celtic knowledge to writing, it was only Druidic knowledge that couldn’t be written. But in the Christian period Irish became Europe’s 3rd language after Greek and Latin.

  10. Druids as philosophers

  11. Druids were also judges and as such made important contributions to the nature of the Celtic society:

    King Laoghaire (mid-5th century) appointed a 9 person group to study and revise the laws of Ireland and put them in writing. Patrick was among them. 3 were Christians.

    The Brehon laws, as they are called.
    “The Brehon system is unique and what makes it one of the most fascinating ancient law codes in world jurisprudence is that the basis of the system was compensation for the victim or victim’s family, not merely vengeance on the perpetrator. Compensation was more important and the provision of compensation by the transgressor was seen as punishment enough. The culprit or his family had to contribute to the society they had wronged.”
  12. There was a highly developed medical and hospital system in the Celtic work and most physicians were Druids.

  13. Seers and Prophets

    The Druids were

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