Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Druidry and Made-up History

Here is the YouTube trailer for a new documentary on British Druidry. Yes, that is Ronald Hutton at the beginning (long hair, glasses). (If the YouTube link does not work, try this one.)

And here is the video clip dissected with a sharp knife by a different British Pagan academic.

It's true: there is nothing in the historical record on ancient Druids (which would fill about two typed pages) about land ownership or the rights of women. The one speaker is simply making it up.

It is the "crisis of history" again. Can your religion get respect when it is based on non-existent "history"? It works for the Mormons, true, but not without some pain.

Hutton's Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain offers the whole history of making up Druidic "history."

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Anonymous Pitch313 said...

The founders of the broad Neopagan revival did us (themselves) little good to anchor the movement in alternative or speculative history (science, social organization).

For one thing, it distracts us sometimes from talking about the Neopagan movement as a fruitful adaptation to present circumstances.

But I gotta add that I'm one of the folks who doesn't look at "getting respect" from non-Pagan others as a big time goal. If a postmodern Druid wants to practice according to speculative history, well, that's probably, when you get down to it, what religions have been doing for all time.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Bo said...

Ta for the link!

12:04 PM  
Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

I would argue, frankly, that every religion is based on non-existent history and until some of the other big ones can accept that truth they probably will not respect ours in the same way.

So my question, why should we care about respect from people who cannot accept the non-existant history of their own religion?

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Not all non-existent histories are created equal, however.

It is easy to argue that Jesus would have never appeared in the Romans' historical record, assuming that you treat the lines in Josephus as an interpolation.

Joe Smith, however, wrote a long novel set in pre-1492 North America with cities and civilizations that never showed up in the archaeological record.

Mormons are still trying to work their way out of that problem, such as by saying that the whole Book of Mormon took place in the Yucatan Peninsula.

I see Pagans as being closer to Mormons in our "crisis," as many claims about the various old religions are not supported by either texts or archaeology.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

Well, there is that whole flood that covered the world thing too as well as the death of the first born of all the Egyptians etc.

As a Druid myself, though the ADF variety as opposed the the Revivalist Druids being presented in this documentary, I know very few Druids who take the romantic view of the "guy with the long white beard/tied the earth/Gandalf type wizard" as historic fact. And even Celtic scholars cannot always agree on the meanings of some of the more obscure lore or how much we can trust of the Roman and Greek writers in regards to Druids and Celtic religion.

And I still question why, because someone is over zealous in their appreciation of this romantic vision of what a an ancient druid really was, that should mean that Druidry would not be respected? And by whom?

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Jamie, you are right, of course, but I was thinking of Christianity and the New Testament, where except for the slight confusion about the census, there are no major historical bloopers -- at least that come to my mind.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Apart from the very high probability that Jesus never existed, and if he did, is highly unlikely to have performed any miracles.

Anyway, made-up history isn't doing us any favours. Never mind getting respect from non-Pagans (whether they're atheists or other religions), how about respecting ourselves sufficiently not to require imaginary history to validate our practices and values?

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christianity is more historically doubtful than you think, Chas. Most of the details of Jesus' life, especially his birth and infancy and death and post-death, were made up to fulfill OT "prophecy". On evidence internal to the NT alone, it is clear that the resurrection never happened.

Having said all that, the historical claims of Druidism and Wicca are pretty silly. For what it's worth, I would have more time for "Druids" if they stopped calling themselves that, and identified as "native-English eco-mystics" or something.

4:53 AM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I hope no-one will identify as "native-English" anything - it would play straight into the hands of the fascists.

Problem is, the name "Druid" has a magnetic fascination which eco-mystic doesn't quite achieve. But I know what you mean.

Fortunately, most initiated Wiccans that I know no longer subscribe to the silly myths about our origins. I can't speak for the wanna-blessed-bes. But go on any Pagan forum and you can find Pagans who have read Ronald Hutton explaining the facts to those who haven't, and telling them to get real.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

@Anonymous 4:53

You misread me. All I am saying is that one cannot use the existing historical record to argue that Jesus did or did not exist. Not enough evidence either way.


You are being over-sensitive. If people whose views you don't like appropriate the term "native," then why did you let them? Were you ashamed of what you are?

Why not argue for your own indigenous status?

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

The above Anonymous was me.

I didn't really mean "native" to specify indigeneity. I meant place- rather than folk-specific.

However, as Chas points out, I don't think even ethnic indigeneity qualifies as fascism, except in the minds of those who facilitate fascism by such identification.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Bo said...

This post has been removed by the author.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Bo said...

Chas--if I may--
the trouble is, pagans are in Britain as in the US a minute minority. There's been a lot of controversy recently here, however, because two politicians were legitmately elected to the European Parliament from the BNP, our very own group of homegrown brutal fascist thugs. This attracted enormous publicity in the press and a great deal of national soul-searching about precisely why the disaffected urban working class might have voted in large numbers--around 900,000 votes in fact--for a far-right party. Further, the BNP have made it their business to appropriate terms like 'English' and 'native', so that hearing them together gives thinking Britons the heebiejeebies: Rombald's suggestion 'native English eco-mystics' is therefore instantly wince-makingly evocative of the present rhetoric of the extreme racist right to British ears. (Though I see of course that it was not intended like that.)

Thus your 'Why did you let them?' reads rather oddly, as though the small, often feckless community of British Pagans somehow had the clout or necessary media profile to influence the largescale lineaments of UK political discourse. (We don't). Yewtree is not being oversensitive at all.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


My "you" was not so much directed at British Pagans as to educated persons of any religious or non-religious persuasion, your "thinking Britons."

In the US, likewise, certain political elements have been able to put a claim on words like "family" only when others seem by their speech and actions to place familial ties way, way down their list of values.

Extremists often occupy socio-cultural vacuums -- but someone has to create those vacuums first by withdrawing from them, I suggest.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Bo said...

Well, the question of why 'Englishness' is to a degree difficult to speak about in British political culture, whereas Welshness and Scottishness are not, is a complex one with roots that ultimately go deep into the medieval past and on through the development of the Union. It is extremely culturally sensitive: contemporary anxiety about 'native Englishness' and overt celebrations of it stem largely from a general sense of justifiable disquiet about the darker episodes of our imperial past. It links into difficult issues of identity, cultural superiority, and immigration. So it's not a question of there having been a 'withdrawal' leading to a 'vacuum' with regard to these terms: they mean too much, not too little. It's more that terms like 'native English' are hugely historically overdetermined (you recall that 'Welsh' meant 'foreigner' [wealas] in Old English), so that they cannot be washed clean somehow, and deployed afresh by pagans as though the general public awareness of their problematic and dubious quality did not exist.

Anyway, drifting off topic!

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Never mind the complexity (really!), my point is that the chattering classes on both sides of the pond (Canada included) have successfully convinced themselves that simple patriotism, etc.,is foolish, squalid, and dubious.

I believe that Orwell wrote something to that effect and predicted the outcome.

An empty space is created, and various political forms that are indeed dubious can then grow up in it.

In your case, it's the BNP. But the BNP is hardly unique.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe it's less about matters of made up history, and more about intellectual honesty. Which these "druids" seem to lack (I am also puzzled why calling oneself a druid isn't considered a form of cultural appropriation in more circles).

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Anonymous 5:07,

Do you mean that people are committing the evil act of cultural appropriation upon (possibly) their own ancestors? The horror!

I had better get rid of my rush-seated ladder-backed chairs. People in the 17th century used those, and I would not want to be guilty of cultural appropriation.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. I consider misrepresenting a culture and cultural practices to be cultural appropriation, regardless of what time in history it came from. While it is impossible to time travel, I really doubt the actual ancient druids themselves would be that happy to discover neo-pagans claiming to do the same thing as they are doing, wether or not they are genetically related.

2. In addition, plenty of people without Celtic ancestry label themselves Druids. It also isn't that unusual for hucksters from other cultures passing off misinformation for money.

3. The 17th century chair comment is a very poor analogy, it is not the same as claiming one is what they are not (though I suppose it would also be in the wrong to falsely claim what they were used for, such as by well-known historical figures that never really sat in or used them in order to get more people to visit a museum, attend parties, that kind of thing).

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Alas, not only is Anonymous afraid to sign its name, but it suffers from an irony deficiency.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Bo said...

You're on spiky, class-warrior form today, Chas! ;)

As I've written elsewhere I think, calling yourself a druid is like claiming to be a Vedic rishi. No matter how much ghee you pour onto your backyard homemade fire-pit, you aren't going to be one. (Whether you are of Indian background or not.) And we know much, much more about Vedic theology than about what the druids believed.

And just to go back to the Native English eco-mystic thing: if there's one thing that's wrong with that label, it's the fact that if there's one thing the historical druids *weren't*, then it's English. Another reason why I dislike the term: it's historically anachronistic in the extreme.

There was a lovely programme on the BBC last year called 'Earth Pilgrim' set on dartmoor with an ecologist callled Satish Kumar. (Probably on youtube). 'Earth pilgrim' I could get behind.

3:06 AM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Bo has articulated exactly why I was uncomfortable with "native English".

As you and I have discussed elsewhere, Chas, the reason I am uncomfortable with the general discourse of patriotism is because it's so right-wing and involves praising Horatio Nelson and his ilk.

Billy Bragg has written a lovely book called "The Progressive Patriot" which is about how to be patriotic without being nationalist. It makes a lot of sense.

I know what you mean about the absence of positive discourse to replace the negative discourse, though: I was very struck by a conversation which was on BBC Radio 4's PM programme between two neighbours - one who was a liberal, and the other who had voted BNP. The BNP supporter said to the liberal, "so what do you understand by the term Britishness?" and the liberal replied that to him, it was a meaningless concept. Of course I understand where he was coming from on that, but it's a hard-to-digest message for many people. I think I would have said that to me, Britishness means fair play, inclusivity, tolerance and sheltering the oppressed (e.g. the Huguenots, asylum seekers).

3:26 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

"And just to go back to the Native English eco-mystic thing: if there's one thing that's wrong with that label, it's the fact that if there's one thing the historical druids *weren't*, then it's English."

But that's linked to the point I was making. Most people in the UK who call themselves "druids" are in fact English, which makes the claim even sillier than if Irish or Welsh people do so. Except in the case of thoroughgoing reconstructionists, or people who do have some real continuity with the pagan past (eg. some Lithuanians and Native Americans), I don't think it's a good idea for people to title themselves after long-dead cultures.

That's the pagan part of this comment finished. Now, I'm happy to be told that this is not the place to argue politics, but, Bo, I think your position on Englishness and Britishness is completely the wrong way round. The Empire was British, not English (the Scots, in particular, were overrepresented as administrators), and English identity is thus antithetical to imperialism. I personally would like to see the break-up of the UK, not because I dislike Scotland, but because I would rather us be friendly neighbours than unfriendly housemates. I like small, homely countries without imperial pretensions. Have you noticed how the current bunch of imperialist wannabes is dominated by Scots such as Blair and Brown?

The BNP does pick up on some valid grievances (eg. Islam; and the current acceptance of contempt for white working class people, which would not be acceptable for any other group). However, their attempt to use the St. George's Cross is entirely cynical - the BNP is the most pro-Union constituency in existence.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Bo said...

I disagree. The roots of discomfort about the patriotic expression of Englishness are partly to do with the origins of the Union; this is just as important, if not more important than imperial anxieties. You are quite right about the Scots, of course, but saying that 'English identity is antithetical to imperialism' is going too far. (I doubt that is how the Irish felt in 1169 about the Anglo-Normans, or the Welsh in 1282, though the historical picture is complex in both cases.) The roots of that discomfort are old---as we move towards a less triumphalistically whiggish concept of the progress of Britain towards being the 'United Kingdom', then one can't help (I think) but be slightly uncomfortable with efforts to retcon 'Englishness' as just one cheerful, archipelagic regional ethnic background alongside Welshness, Cornishness, Scottishness, and Northern Irishness. The fact is, historically, it isn't, and that England has at times been a clobbering aggressor. But as we live in a period where local identity is strong--as you point out, with regard to Scottish and Welsh devolution--the whole thing does give a certain pause for thought.

I like small homely countries without imperialist intentions as well: you might enjoy Jan Morris' book 'Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country', if you don't know it. She shares the same liking and articulates it most beautifully.

Totally agree about druids btw.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Bo: Point taken. However, the history is indeed complex, as the invaders of Ireland were Norman, and thus also oppressors of the English, as were the Marcher Lords in Wales. By 1282, the conquerors of Pura Walia may more reasonably be seen as English, although I would tend not to agree, as English did not become the language of government until as late as 1420.

Personally, I would like to see a more anti-Norman, folksy, Anglo-Saxon bias to English identity, with the Norman monarchy abolished; folk music etc. valued; and the collectivist (eg. open-field system), radical (eg. Diggers) and green components of English tradition valued.

I suspect that a lot of neopagans like the term "Druid" not only because identification with Celts allows a sense of historical grievance, but also because it conjures up new-agey images of swirling mist and so on. I would like to see a neopaganism that is more earthy, arable, and Germanic.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

As much as I admire the study of history, I do not think that ethnic or national histories, blood quanta, DNA evidence, etc. can really lead to a definition of (in this case) "Britishness" that will be useful going into the future.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Over at The Wild Hunt recently, we fell to discussing ancestor reverence, and what are you supposed to do if your know your ancestors were lousy human beings?

I think the problem of patriotism is that same question on a larger scale - how do you take pride in a culture or nation that you know has things on its collective conscience?

It's possible for a skilled storyteller to craft villains who are also clever, or honourable, or loyal, or idealistic, and admirable for those things despite the villany they do. Or heroes who are also dishonest, or weak willed, or wrathful, or ignorant, without those things eclipsing their heroism. It is possible, therefore, to simultaneously admire the good in a person while acknowledging the bad.

Is it possible to look at a nation through that same lens?

7:56 PM  
Blogger Rob Taylor said...

Megan I think part of the problem here is the "collective conscience" idea. No civilization has lived up to any sort of moral standard collectively and modern English people's aren't sharing in some sort of blood dept for something Brits did in the past. America isn't perfect, but I grew up bi-racial in the 70s here, and met a Black/Asian kid from Vietnam whose village tried to set him and his sister on fire for being Black.

I also met Black Muslims from Africa who had family traded as slaves by Arab Muslims. I had it rough in some respects, but I prefer America. Am I wrong because Americans did morally suspect things in the past?

While I turn my nose4 up at the Druids claiming they are resurrecting the ancient tradition which seems suspiciously similar to a left leaning colleges students chapter of the SCA I don't think the urge to venerate your ancestors, to interface with the spirit of the land you walk on everyday, is problematic. In fact these fakey Druids are embodying the English land now, political doctrines and all.

Laughable? Sure. But as long as there are voices of sanity out there keeping the modern Druid theology from being mistaken as history I'm unconcerned. The real problem with Druidism (and Wicca for that matter)is there are no religion scholars doing serious objective research into the traditions and academics simply take practitioners word for it when they make these historically inaccurate claims.

2:47 AM  

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