Book Review: The Druids, by Stuart Piggott [Dedicant Path Requirement]

The Druids, by Stuart Piggott, is a survey of the objective (and less-than-objective) evidence we have regarding the Druids of antiquity. More “What do we know (or think we know) about the Druids? Can it be supported with evidence? What kinds of evidence do we have?” than “Who were the Druids, really?” Piggot’s book provides a summary of the archaeological and textual evidence we have relating to the Druids, and uses ethnographic background information to help make it more meaningful in context.
I think ADF chose this book for the reading list because many people either romanticize Druids or, conversely, apply negative associations (such as human sacrifice) to modern Druidry. In laying claim to the word Druid, it is imperative that we be aware of its history and connotations. By looking at what ideas that we as a culture have about Druids are factually supported as well as what might have been soldered on after the fact,we become better able to examine our customs and beliefs in the modern day, explain our own history, and educate others about our religion.
This book was a slow read. Piggott wins no prizes in my book for engaging storytelling. But his book did two very important things: it reminded me of the absolute necessity of empirical, unbiased-as-possible observation and transmission, and it offered me a firm and accurate account of evidence which dispelled many false or unsupported ideas which I had acquired as an indiscriminate childhood reader fascinated by myth, legend, and anthropological fable. What do we know about the Druids? Not a lot, really, other than that they seem to have been learned, respected religious figures who worshipped outdoors and very probably did practice human sacrifice. We know a little about their social role as priests, teachers, and mediators, but not much beyond that we can say with relative confidence that they fulfilled those roles. But the stories told about Druids often go far beyond the evidence. I was astonished to learn from Piggott’s book that there are people who claim Druidry as the original patriarchal religion – that male biblical figures were in some cases historically regarded as Christian Druids. Reading this book I was struck by the importance of accuracy – it’s tempting to me as a storyteller to edit or embellish events to create a better story. But when dealing with sensitive, evidential, historic events, we do not have the luxury of pretty pictures.
I would recommend this book to others as a good basic primer on what historical evidence we have about Druids, but gods above it’s a bore. As the Dedicant Manual cautions, it’s a bit disparaging towards cultures it regards as primitive, so there is a slight objectivity bias. This is mostly noticeable when Piggott discusses customs that we have evidence for; he seems a little disdainful, but I don’t find this to be an insurmountable obstacle. Overall, I would recommend this book. It is short enough to get through easily while still presenting enough information to be worth the trouble.