The Druids by Stuart Piggott ~ Book Review for ADF

The Druids by PiggottPiggot, Stuart. The Druids. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1968. Print. Stuart Piggott discusses the issues with current understandings of who the Druids were through the investigation of archaeological research and documentation, the writings on them by Greek and Roman philosophers, and how they were romanticized and reconstructed in the 17th Century. He splits his discussion up into five chapters. Chapter One serves as an introductory overview of the archaeological evidence, the sources that write about the Druids, and the reconstructionist Druidic Orders that lays out the structure of the whole text in order to provide a guide to the reader as to what he will argue and what they should expect. In all, the introductory chapter becomes his argumentative thesis for the whole text.

Chapter Two discusses the Celtic world through the classical sources, their technology, the structure of their cultural world, the social classes in their culture, their language, and archaeological evidence of how they practiced their religion, the sacred sites, and the ritual shafts found and how they used them. Piggott discusses the difficulty with finding evidence of the Druids due to the sources written through the outsider’s perspective. Many of the texts are either from the Roman view of observed rituals and cultures or from the writings of already Christianized societies. Therefore, a clear and accurate view of who the Celts were proves difficult, even with archaeological findings. The technology they used showed the type of society they lived in. Their blacksmithing and metallurgy not only developed weapons, but also functional pieces like firedogs, chains, cauldrons, bowls, and other ornamental pieces. The archaeological finds also showed that they were an agricultural society that used the natural world around them to build structures, create tools for hunting and farming, and had livestock for not only a food source, but also for textiles. Their social structure, as documented in classical writings, showed there was a class structure in the society and a separate structure for the Druids that served the Celtic society. Their language was also documented through classical writings, and Piggott determined that due to the linguistic structure of the Celtic languages, the writers determined the Druids were the literate class in the society, unless dealing with Ireland. Their sacred sites and ritual shafts indicated that they used human skulls to adorn the sites and that the sites were set on hills, as determined by the archaeological findings at the various dig sites. The ritual shafts also show their reverence for the dead, since implements and effigies of heads and items were found buried in the shafts.

Chapter Three discusses the classical texts and the Druid and Celts described in the texts. Due to the outsider perspective, Piggott suggested the philosophers and writers viewed the Celts as Noble Savages. He argues that the term Druid came from Greek and Latin, rather than from a Celtic language. Due to the Greek and Latin influences, the terminology in the Celtic cultures are not indigenous to the terms the culture used in its own language and is lost due to the impact of the conquering cultures. Yet, Piggott also states that the Romans documented the learning system of the Druids in Ireland and Britain, which helps provide an insight into how the training system was structured and the length of training each student dedicated themselves to. The downside is that the only Druidic ceremony documented is by Pliny in the function of picking mistletoe and sacrificing bulls, which leaves the other ceremonies through the year mysterious and undocumented. In Piggott’s further discussion of the Druids, he describes them as the cultural class that prescribes judgement and justice for the society while also leading the ritual ceremonies. This places the Druids as functioning somewhere between lawyer and priest when comparing it to modern society. He also found in the classical writing that the Druids believed the human soul was immortal and pass to a second life, suggesting the belief of reincarnation.

In Chapter Four Piggott discusses the reconstruction of Druidic systems in the 15th Century on. This chapter illustrates the influences of the New World on the perception of what they believed the Druids looked like and how they practiced their religion. The majority of the chapter focuses on the topic of the Noble Savage and how the Elizabethans viewed the Native Americans and transferred their perceptions onto the Druids. While I can understand this perspective, it is in this chapter that I began to disagree with Piggott’s conclusions. His view that the Elizabethans did not realize that Ireland was in the tale-end of the Christianized Iron Age seemed far-fetched. According to various English Literature perspectives, the Elizabethans clearly viewed the Irish as savages, which is a view that lasted into the 19th Century. Piggott failed to recognize this view and instead gave credit to the influence of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban in The Tempest and to the English view of Native Americans. What Piggott does connect is the use of Stonehenge and the process of researchers attempting to determine who built the henge, its origins, and whether it was originally used by the Druids. He comes to the conclusion that the use of Stonehenge for druidic ritual was a romanticized notion that was adopted for use in the Reconstructionist movement. In his discussion of modern-day Druidry, Piggott recognizes the development of the United Ancient Order of Druids and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids as the current orders that directly stem from reconstructing Druidism from romanticized notions of the religion. Instead of the orders functioning as cultural leaders of a sect of Celts, they now serve as service orders that meet regularly to conduct ritual with philosophical perspectives similar to other Reconstructionist orders like Freemasonry.

Piggott’s text provides an in-depth overview of Druids from an archaeological perspective, historical context, and modern movement that navigates an introductory understanding of Druidism. It proves to be a good introductory text to Druidism.

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