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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future