Green, Miranda The World of the Druids

Green, Miranda. The World of the Druids. New York:Thames and Hudson, 1997. ISBN: 050005083X. Amazon catalog page for this book.

Miranda Green has solid Archaeology credentials; she is the head of the Centre for the Study of Culture, Archaeology, Religions and Biogeography at the University of Wales College in Newport, the art and archaeology editor of the scholarly journal Studia Celtica, and has written or edited a number of books in Celtic studies. Her previous books, like the Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend (Thames and Hudson) were exemplary in terms of quality photographs and helpful bibliography. I therefore had, perhaps unfairly, high expectations for Green’s The World of the Druids.

The book is a slim 192 pages, with 291 illustrations (51 in color). Though there is a fair amount of text on each page, most of the emphasis is on the images and their captions. And that emphasis is part of my problem, and my disappointment, with the book. Green has nineteenth century imaginative engravings side by side with photographs of ancient Celtic artifacts. The two sorts of images are presented as if they offer equally valid data about ancient Celtic druids. They do not. The captions often reinforce the impression that the non-artifact images created by artists like Gustav Dore and Fuseli are legitimate sources of data about historic druids, when they are at best sources of data about romantic nineteenth century presentation and imaginative views regarding druids.

Green’s book is divided into ten short chapters, with much of the text contained in illustration captions and sidebars. Chapter subjects include “Finding the Druids,” “The Celts and the Supernatural,” “The Druids in Classical Literature,” “Digging up Druids,” Sacrifice and Prophecy,” “The Female Druids,” “Sacred Places and their Priests,” “Druids in Irish Myth,” and two chapters on recent neo-pagan druid history “Druids Resurrected,” and “Druids Today.” Much of what Green has to say is speculation, presented as fact or scholarly hypothesis, like her ruminations on druidic prayer: “Druids and their peers would have conducted solemn prayer rituals for the whole tribe or community on important occasions. Lesser priests might lead small communities in prayer, and the head of the household perhaps led private family prayers” (32). Unfortunately, there really isn’t a lot of data one way or the other about druid praying in the pre-Christian era. Green asserts this and similar ideas without referring to sources or even using the resources of comparative religion as support. Later, next to a lurid engraving of Merlin that includes many of the romantic trappings of the druid revival, Green refers to Merlin as a druid, something that may have been the case, but makes me uncomfortable since neither the poetry attributed to Myrddin nor the Arthurian medieval corpus describe Merlin as a druid. In her chapter on female druids Green almost immediately moves from female druids to witches, writing “Both the early Irish and Welsh myths mention witches, who sometimes possessed the additional role of teachers of war craft to young heroes” (93). No medieval Irish or Welsh text mentions witches. None. Witch is a modern English word, and has very different (though related) meanings from its ancestral medieval relatives. The figures Green refers to are presumably women like Scathach, who tutors Cu Chulainn. Scathach is specifically referred to as both a flaith (prophetess) and a druid. Scathach is not called a witch, and using the word witch in reference to her and similar figures brings Germanic and contemporary associations into a discussion of ancient Celtic practices. Later in the same chapter (98) Green does discuss the concept of witchcraft in a broader context, but then creates a worse problem, in my opinion, by inserting Fuseli’s engraving of the witches in Macbeth. The caption attempts to draw a link between the Macbeth witches, and the Morrígan of medieval Irish literature. Aside from the fact that they are both sets of three, there is no relationship between the two female triads. The Morrígan, remember, was a shape-shifter, and the descriptions of the three members of the triad vary. Shakespeare was emphatically not drawing on Irish myth in Macbeth.

Green is at her best in her discussions of archaeology, and at her worst in discussions of myth and literature in The World of the Druids. Her chapter on sacred places is particularly well done, but not by itself worth the price of the book. She does include a brief survey of modern druid groups’ beliefs and a directory of neo-pagan druid groups, but readers would probably do better to use the net to find neo-pagan druid resources since addresses and contact people change so quickly. The gazetteer of Celtic museums in the back of the book is a very useful list, and quite nicely done, though I wish her bibliography had been a bit more extensive. There is an index.

I think in Green’s efforts to relate to a new audience, specifically Neo-Pagan and new age readers, she missed her target by “dumbing down.” I place the blame for that, and for the poorly chosen illustrations, on Thames and Hudson. Green would have done better to have written a well-bibliographied introduction to druids along the lines of The World of the Celts or her Dictionary of Celtic Myth books. I think that Neo-Pagan readers can readily find enough unscholarly material about druids; what they need is access to well-researched and cited books directing them to additional sources. Unless you already have Piggott’s The Druids, and Green’s World of the Celts, I’d give The World of the Druids a miss.

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