Friday, November 13, 2009


The subject of whether they actually existed or not has always fascinated me, firstly one must make the distinction of actual druidism which may have existed in the Iron Age, and the made-up variety of 'historical' druidism that wound through time after that, culminating today of course in the neopagan druidry.

Ronald Hutton's - Blood & Mistletoe - arrived this week from the library, a beautiful unread copy (so there's not much interest out there then). For me Professor Hutton is the expert on the subject and this book does the subject justice, just under 500 pages.

Dipping in and out and slowly I begin to learn of the effect of druidism on the scholars of the 18th century and the important change it bought to the understanding of megalithic monuments. Stukeley and Borlase who both wrote and illustrated outstanding works on megaliths, are of course motivated by religious curiosity, their interest stemming from an Anglican viewpoint. So the following will be the bits I find interesting in all this, firstly of course turning to John Wood the architect and his design of The Circus in Bath, in this article which I wrote a few weeks back.....

Hutton says that John Wood was influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton (Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended), and Wood took for his model the Temple of Solomon as a way of interpreting and designing the Circus, the design reflects Wood's esoteric interest.

It is based on the Masonic (Bath still has a very ugly, though some might see it as beautiful, Masonic hall) sign of of a triangle within a circle, incorporates the mystical sequence of druidic or Pythagorean numbers which he claimed to have found at Stanton Drew, and, as a sacred structure occupied by houses, reflected his concept of the great circle at Stanton Drew as a Druidic college.....Lest anybody miss, at a glance, its connection to Druids he topped it with a row of giant stone acorns to represent a grove of oaks. He also gave it superb acoustics, fitting the central place for ceremonies because words spoken aloud there are naturally amplified by the curve of the surrounding buildings. Functionally the Circus is a series of residential blocks, symbolically, it is the first Druidic temple to be erected in Britain since ancient times, created as the testimony of faith of a passionate, if highly unusual, Christian. It may, in fact, be the first stone temple ever built in the name of druidry... Ronald Hutton p107

Which is a thought to ponder on given the fact that modern day druids tend to treat Stonehenge as their temple, but I expect the residents of the Circus would not be highly amused.

William Borlase; A name to conjure with, his book is out on the web with many fascinating illustrations of Cornish Cromlechs, a typically 18th century book, ponderous and full of marvellous conjectures and fantasies that only an 18th vicar can do, especially when they only 'work' on Sunday. But that is to be cruel to Borlase, for he spent a lot of time tramping the moors of Cornwall to record the standing stones, dolmens and stone circles, he thought were put up by the Druids. In a brief resume Hutton says that Borlase represents the standing stones as their idols, the dolmens as their burial places and the third as the setting for acts of worship and judgment, I cannot fail to mention this...."He concluded, that Rowlands had been wrong in identifying the megalithic chambers - the dolmens, cromlechs and quoits of popular terminology - as Druidic altars, because of the difficulty of climbing and balancing on top of them to perform sacrifice"

His parish encompassed the great area of Penwith, and perhaps a much later piece of prose written by Edward Thomas in the early 20th century underlines the profound effect that the inspirational writings of Borlase shows just how much of our history is caught up in a romantic past that may have no bearing on the reality of prehistory at all......

Nineteen tall, grey stones stand round a taller, pointed one that is heavily bowed, amidst long grass and bracken and furze. A track passes close by, but does not enter the circle; the grass is unbent except by the weight of its bloom. It bears a name that connects it with the assembling and rivalry of the bards of Britain. Here, under the sky, they met, leaning upon the stones, tall fair men of peace, but half warriors, whose songs could change ploughshares into sword. Here they met, and the growth of the grass, the perfection of the stones (except that one stoops as with age), and the silence, suggest that since the last bard left it, in robe of blue or white or green – the colours of sky and cloud and grass upon this fair day – the circle has been unmolested, and the law obeyed which forbade any but a bard to enter it… And the inscription on the chair of the bards of Beisgawen was “nothing is that is not for ever and ever” – these things and the blue sky, the white, cloudy hall of the sun, and the green bough and grass, hallowed the ancient stones, and clearer than any vision of tall bards in the morning of the world was the tranquil delight of being thus ‘ teased out of time’ in the presence of this ancientness….

The romantic image captured in prose, but going back to earlier poets of the 18th century, who are by now creating a view of Britain that is nationalistic and stems from a past when the noble 'druid' had a say with the many kings of both Ireland and England...

With sacred mistletoe the Druids crown'd,

Sung with the nymphs and danc'd the pleasing round,

they had now become priests of nature, gone were the horrific human sacrifice in the gory groves, Hutton likens them at this point in history to flower-children, and also at this time beginning to take a different role as Bards, the true representatives of the wild and beautiful landscapes of Britain; here we find them, meeting at night in a sacred grove, white robed and carrying harps, only offering up white cattle for sacrifice.. All of course made up as the fancy took them, echoing down of course to the early 20th Druid, so that when we look at a picture of Stonehenge in 1905 there is a serried rank of Druids staffs raised in front of Stonehenge...

Turning to William Stukeley so much a part of the Stonehenge and Avebury experience, books have been written about this 18th century person, that it is difficult to even paraphrase Hutton on his character. That he meticulously and methodically recorded Avebury with such enthusiam but somewhat marred that enthusiam with his need to point to a Druidical beginning for the stones, his book Abury - A Temple of the British Druids says it all.

Hutton says that Stukeley was also an admirer of Sir Isaac Newton (similar to John Wood who also not only followed Newton's ideas but Stukeleys' as well)...what it entailed was "to understand the natural world and (thereby) to understand the divine plan that underpinned it" doing this though through the more orthodox lense of the Anglican religion.

Stuart Piggott had admired Stukeley's work up to the 1720s when he had recorded without a religious bias, and it was only when he became ordained later on that Stukeley began to elaborate his story of the monuments being attributed to the ancient druids.

Further research into the extensive papers and diaries of Stukeley revealed, at least to the author David Haycock, that Stukeley always had a "strong streak of mysticism with which he interpreted ancient remains in accordance with set notions, concerning the nature of primitive nature" This theme was of course to be found in the writings of later 19th century vicars such as the Reverend Smith at Avebury and the Reverend Skinner of Camerton. And a further note must be made here on the subject of freemasonry which was also taking a hold at this time..

"The nature of primeval religion, and its relationship with christianity - were incorporated into the mythology and symbolism of freemasonry - spreading through England rapidly in the 1710 and the 1720s."

Stukeley took up a post in Lincolnshire as a vicar, he was by now married but unfortunately his wife had suffered two miscarriages, he had apparently left London in a huff, as his ideas were the butt and ridicule of his friends and mentors. But when he settled in to his new home he created a garden and here part of his 'mystical' relationship to Druidry and the ancient monuments comes to the fore, for it was in his garden that he created a 'sacred landscape'. It included a Temple of the Druids, which consisted of concentric circles of hazels and evergreens modelled on Stonehenge, an apple tree with mistletoe growing in its branches was at the centre of the circle. Apparently he also had a 'tumulus' beside the temple and a little chapel which contained a roman altar. One of the babes from the miscarriage was buried in the camomile lawn that faced the altar. A rather sad footnote to end on, this man possessed by an illusionary religion that coloured his viewpoint of the 'old stones', but perhaps all the paraphenalia in the garden was an expression of the vision he had invoked from a long gone history, none of which was true, a human desire to create a belief system once removed from the Anglican church he was avowed to.

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