Tuesday, April 5, 2011
D is for Druids
D in many ways is a dark letter. It's disintegration and death; disease, danger and disaster. From a descent into doom to the direness of dismemberment 'd' can be a distrubed and deranged digit.
But after the darkness and despair at least there's the dawn. There's the sun that comes up in the east through the standing stones at Stonehenge.
And there's the Druids.
I have always been fascinated with Stonehenge and neolithic stone circles, although the place can quickly lose it's allure when you visit it. Although you imagine coming across Stonehenge in savage isolation on a windswept plane, the reality is you go through a tacky gift shop and a concrete tunnel. The stones are roped off and are smaller than you imagined.
Still the place retains just enough mystery to help you imagine it centuries ago.
And when the summer solstice is celebrated, it's innundated with modern day Druids and other new age types who have dispensed with their razors many years ago.
The idea of the Druids has always facinated me. Julius Caesar depicted them as both sophisticated and savage, a priestly class of Celts from Britain, Ireland and Gaul who apparently engaged in human sacrifice. The Druids left no written accounts leaving it to Roman and Greek historians to give us an idea of these mysterious people.
Stonehenge itself appears to have been built many years before the Druids by a people who brought these stones hundreds of miles away from a remote range of mountains in Wales.
Wales also became the stronghold of the Druids as the Romans consolidated their grip on Britain after their second landing in AD 43.
The Druids withdrew to the Island of Anglesey which even today is a mournful place of empty beaches and windswept trees.
The Roman historian Tacitus gave a vivid account of the fear of the Roman army when it went to fight the Druids and the Celtic army on Anglesea.
On the far bank of the channel thousands of tribesmen had gathered. Whilst the Druids invoked dark forces on the invaders, the tribesmen beat their shields with the flat of their swords and cheered, jeered and insulted the Romans.
Shrieking woman covered in body paint danced naked through the irregular ranks and waved torches of fire to warm their men folk to the heat of battle. The melee must have sounded like the very harpies of Hades to the disciplined Roman troops, Tacitus noted.
Many of the Romans were riveted in terror, but those more seasoned veterans realized they must cross the Straits, make the shore – and only then would they be able to meet their enemy in battle. Tacitus recorded that many of the soldiery stood 'watching fearfully, their limbs shaking in terror'.
But the Roman General Paullinus drove his men on into their boats. And once they had reached the island, the Roman war machine sprung into action, scything a path through the savages.
History sometimes seeks to make a distinction between the lawlessness of the savages and the order of Rome. Afterall the Romans had democracy, cities, roads, central heating and bath houses,
But a pattern which saw Rome offering no mercy to its enemies as espoused by Caesar in his campaigns in Gaul, was also seen in Anglesea.
Once the Celts and Druids were driven back, the killing began in deadly earnest. It is said the Romans spared none of their enemies on the battlefield. Men, women and children were slaughtered, butchered by an army spurred on by shame about its earlier fears. Many of the Druids and their followers were thrown into their sacred groves of oak and then burned alive. There were, it is said, few prisoners taken.
Ultimtely the Druids, who left no written evidence, were defined by their persecution, as the remnants of Britain's other ancient peoples would be by waves of subsequent invaders.
And in the gloom and murkeness of Welsh forests where the trees are twisted, eaten with lichen and heavy with rain, lies the fascinating mystery of the Druids.