Saturday, September 8, 2007

Book Review: The Druids by Stuart Piggot

I read the ‘Druids’ with slightly amused rapture as I imagined the croaky voice of a pre-war colonial authority on primitive tribes. This book had been recommended to me so many times that I eventually caved in and procured it as a bargain on E-Bay. I was perhaps slightly wary of the semi-divine official status of Professor Stuart Piggot, an accepted archeological authority at Oxford University, and whilst he follows the standard principals of academic research and remains objective throughout, his style of writing provokes a ‘Monty-Python’esque’ humor for its occasional eccentricity.

What I found immensely helpful was Prof. Piggot’s approach to analysis, categorization and organization of evidence and information. This would include the use of archeological, iconographic, epigraphic, classical and vernacular sources. Whilst I groaned every time I came across the word ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian,’ I was also grateful for the authors introduction to the terms ‘hard and soft primitivism’ to explain the differences between the classical Greek and Latin accounts of the Gallic tribes and the Druids.

Piggot is absolutely thorough in his approach and account of the Druids. He is prepared to examine every facet, each crumb of evidence and article of information available to him, regardless of academic opinion. I can imagine how revolutionary in format this book might have been when first published, since even today few academics are willing to explore a subject beyond their own particular specialism. For this I admire Piggot, who evidently pushed out the boat, broadened his field of enquiry and tackled the subject as a whole rather than remain in a subjective arena. And so, I found myself looking at the importance of maps, place-names, technology, science, agriculture, economy, social order, language and literacy, archeology, shrines, temples, earth-works, burial sites, votive sites, etymology, rituals, education and literacy, cosmology and religious beliefs, magic, gnomic wisdom, philosophy, and politics. In this respect, ‘The Druids’ is definitely comprehensive, provocative and inspiring; it provided me with a wealth of topics for deeper consideration and contemplation.

The bulk of the text is conveniently divided up into four main chapters. In the latter part Piggot deals with the romantic ideal and the Druid revival. Whereas many scholars would begin perhaps in the 17th century with Tolland and Stukely, Piggot draws back to the last phase of the European Renaissance to discover the roots of paganism as we know it today. I found it interesting to learn that many early speculations on the nature of the Druids and Celts were colored by the discovery of native American Indian tribal cultures and systems. Piggot takes the reader up to the romantic revival, the ‘dignified nonsense’ of the Welsh Gorsedd and Iolo Morganwg, the shady mysticism of dreamers and the ‘cosy world of lunatic linguistics’ of individuals like Rowland Jones. Piggot’s view of this latter modern development in ‘native spirituality’ is one without historical or cultural foundation, a colorless and fanciful imagining, and I for one must surely agree.

In his epilogue Piggot succinctly draws his conclusions and theories together. He defines the practices of the earliest Druids as being developments of customs and rituals in Paleolithic prehistory, and proposes the possibility of syncretism with other Indo European cultures. Piggot even considers the possibility of a strain of shamanism within Druidic practice, a question which regularly appears within online discussion groups today and inspires fierce arguments.

Having absorbed the radical content of this volume I can now see how vastly it influenced the beginnings of a traditionalist Celtic Pagan movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. Piggot has created a stable foundation on which reliable research can be conducted for the implementation of traditional practices and rituals within a modern context. Perhaps his final comment reveals the most about the inherent characteristics of the Druid, that the truest modern evocation of their spirit is within the realms of scientific exploration and computer engineering than mythic reconstructionism and ‘role playing.’

The message I got from this book was that I should be prepared to question everything, to analyze and carefully weigh the evidence of any spiritual matter but particularly those subjects dealing with ancient concepts. Piggot provided me with the academic tools to disseminate, examine, and probe beyond careless ambiguity and imagination… and seek the core dynamic of a topic rather than peruse its exterior decoration.

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