Yale £30 (491pp) £27 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 0870 079 8897



Blood and Mistletoe: a history of the Druids in Britain, By Ronald Hutton

Blood and Mistletoe is not so much a history of the Druids in Britain as a history of how the Druids have been endlessly re-visioned by people with different preconceptions, prejudices and agendas in the changing cultures of England, Scotland and Wales. Like much of Ronald Hutton's work, it is a study in reflexivity: "why it is that we see our subjects of study in the way in which we do".

Hutton is a professor of history at Bristol University, and Blood and Mistletoe is his second crack at this subject, a companion to The Druids. That was written for a popular market; this is academic and more than three times the length, though still very readable.

There is little raw material on the Druids, most from the classical histories of Julius Caesar, Strabo, Tacitus and Pliny. Some of this "may be wildly inaccurate and some accurate in the last detail"; without knowing their sources, there's no way of telling.

All we can know is that "the dualistic image of the Druid, at once wise and learned and a specialist in horrific acts of sacrifice, was standard among Greek and Roman writers by the first century CE." Wisdom and barbarism: the contrasting images of Druids through the centuries.

Oddly, the classic image of the long-bearded sage comes from a late-15th century German writer, despite there being no evidence of Druids in Germany. In the 16th century images (and imagination) about them passed from Germany to France to Scotland and then to England as part of nationalist history-writing.

Exploding a popular misconception, Hutton shows how "the Welsh came late to an incorporation of Druidry into their national self-image". When they did, in the late 18th century, it was through the "wayward genius" Iolo Morganwyg ("Glamorgan Eddie"), more prosaically known as the stonemason Edward Williams.

In the spirit of his near-contemporaries Chatterton and Macpherson, he inserted his own forged poems and invented descriptions of Druid ceremonies into his translations of mediaeval Welsh poetry, and largely got away with it. He also established the gorsedd, a ceremonial meeting of Druid bards at the eisteddfod, turning it from just a poetry festival into a Druidic event.

Hutton is particularly good at those little cameo details that stick in the mind. One of Iolo's successors wrote books on pagan religion; they are scarce because "chapel preachers... encouraged their flocks to buy them up and burn them". By the 1890s, the eisteddfodau were well established and impressive, and real stone circles were built for the ceremonies – as Hutton notes wryly, "probably the first megalithic structures ever erected by Druids".

We have a Druid to thank for crematoria. An elderly Druid doctor in Glamorgan, William Price, was arrested for attempting to burn the body of his baby son on a hilltop in 1884. He was acquitted on the grounds that there was no law specifically forbidding cremation – and within three months, the first public crematorium was being constructed in Britain.

Hutton covers a number of modern Druid Orders: the first, a philanthropic group of local worthies in Anglesey, founded in 1772. The Ancient Order of Druids, founded in a London pub in 1781, celebrated drinking and music; and the Druid Orders of the spiritual counter-culture began using Stonehenge for ceremonies in 1905, establishing a their perpetually turbulent relationship with the authorities there.

This book is a tour de force: surely the definitive work on our perception of the Druids. The only thing missing from this exhaustive account is an overview, however brief, of today's colourful Druid groups – an odd omission by the acknowledged historian of neo-Paganism. For that, you need his earlier book.

David V Barrett's 'The New Believers: sects, cults and alternative religions' is published by Cassell

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'