Book Review: The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis

For my preferred ethnics study book review, I opted again to use a book that was already on my book shelf and thus familiar to me.

But, let’s put this bluntly; to paraphrase Monty Python, Peter Berresford Ellis’ (A brief history of) The Druids is not a book for reading.  It is a book for laying down and avoiding.

To be fair to Ellis, the book does have its moments.  The problem is that between those moments lie eternities of eye watering, somniferous torture.  Having already read through much of it a couple of years ago, I thought that I could finish it in about three weeks.  In fact, it took me almost three months.  There were days when I would pick it up and read a few pages until I suddenly realized that I was not absorbing any of it and would put it down again.  Then, of course, when I finally and reluctantly got back to it I would have to flip back several pages to try to discern what point Ellis was attempting to make before I could proceed.

In his introduction, Ellis tells us that the book could very well be subtitled ‘An introductory argument’, and this is perhaps the root of the problem with this book.  One gets the impression that the author is continually debating some point or another, and the actual information is presented merely as evidence to prove his point, as opposed to being interesting or valuable unto itself.  In some instances this works well, and some of the best sections sees Ellis writing polemically with great, contagious enthusiasm.  In most other instances, however, it just doesn’t work at all.  As an example, the author provides a chapter titled “The Rituals of the Druids”, which should be one of the most interesting for ADF Dedicants.  However, more than half of the 24 pages in the chapter is devoted not to telling us anything about ancient Druidic rituals but rather to trying to refute Caesar’s claim that the Druids practised human sacrifice.

But enough moaning (for now); let’s delve into the tome itself.

The first two chapters provide a brief overview of the Iron Age Celts and the Druids themselves.  These feature Ellis at his best, savaging the theories of those writers that came before him as he argues that Druids were a caste within Celtic society, where ever the Celts were found, and providing us with plenty of comparative analysis with other Indo-European cultures along the way.  The next chapter, “Druids Through Foreign Eyes”, keeps the reader’s interest high as it provides detailed descriptions of the main observations made by the Greeks and Romans on the Druids, all the while ripping apart their ‘jaundiced views’.

From here on, however, the book generally falls apart.  Ellis spends 180 pages meandering from topic to topic with little in the way of direction and less in the way of organization.  Following a short section on Druids as founts of wisdom, for example, he segues right into a discussion on comparative Druidic hairstyles. One finds oneself wondering what hairstyles have to do with wisdom before realizing that in fact they don’t; the author has simply switched topics without bothering to tell us.

Ellis also falls victim to the same questionable logic for which he blasts other authors.  In the section on the religion of the Druids, he hypothesizes that there were 33 main Celtic gods.  As evidence he offers up that the Vedas ‘speak of thirty-three gods’, and then goes on to enumerate every instance of the number 33 in Celtic literature, such as the Picts having 33 Pagan kings and 33 Christian kings.  Likewise, in attempting to advance a theory about an ancient ritual hunger strike (a troscad), Ellis discourses extensively on Irish hunger strikes in the twentieth century.

Far more frustrating, however, even than the poor organization and the faulty logic, is the lack of source citing and the nearly non-existent indexing.  The fact is that The Druids is packed with excellent information and citations to source material that are difficult to find elsewhere.  However, without a useful index the book is nearly useless as a reference.  To take one example from the previous paragraph, nowhere in the scant index will you find ‘troscad’ or ‘hunger strike’.  Likewise, without references to source material the many citations are equally useless as reference. While some source citations are made these tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. If one wants to know more about those 33 Pagan Pictish kings, Ellis provides no clue where to look.

In the final chapter titled ‘Reviving the Druids’, Ellis returns to his polemical best, hammering away at the British Revivalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the Neo-Pagan reconstructionists alike, and ending with a lamentation on the fate of the Celtic languages.  Of these he says that if they die out “it will be no natural phenomenon.  It will be as a result of centuries of a careful policy of ethnocide.  Once the languages disappear then Celtic civilization will cease to exist and the cultural continuum of three thousand years will come to an end.”  One cannot help dwelling on the parallel to the subject matter of the book itself, in that the Druids were made extinct by equally careful policies of ethnocide, and much of their wisdom is lost to us forever.

To conclude, I do think this book belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the ancient Druids, but it is not a book for picking up and reading cover to cover.  The first three chapters provide an entertaining and excellent overview of what is known about the Druids and the final chapter provides a useful summary of the British Revival.   The remainder, however, amounts to plenty of tantalizing bits of valuable information hidden within unreadable prose and without a useable index to aid in research.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve tried to read this book twice and failed both times. I thought I might try again and I still may. I won’t feel as bad for being impatient with it now that I know that I’m not the only one who finds the prose impenetrable.

  2. Thanks to both of you! Glad to hear that my review is ringing some bells for people!

    Quite honestly the only reason I finally got through it was my sheer desire to just get it over and done with so that I could go back to saucy vampire fiction on my Kindle.

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