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Zoe Wanamaker in TV series ‘Britannia’.

Britannia, Druids and the Surprisingly Modern Origins of Myths


The new TV series Britannia, which has won plaudits as heralding a new generation of British folk-horror, is clearly not intended to be strictly historical. Instead director Jez Butterworth gives us a graphic re-imagining of Britain on the eve of the Roman conquest. Despite its violence and chaos, this is a society bound together by ritual under the head Druid (played by Mackenzie Crook). But where does this idea of pre-conquest British religion come from?

Contemporary sources of the period are very thin on the ground and were mainly written by Britain’s Roman conquerors. No classical text provides a systematic account of Druidical ritual or belief. In fact, little was written at length for hundreds of years until William Camden, John Aubrey and John Toland took up the subject in the 1500s and 1600s. But it took later antiquarians, including William Stukeley writing in 1740, as well as William Borlase in 1754 and Richard Polwhele in 1797, to fully develop their thinking.

Popular ideas of pre-Roman Britain today are derived from their elaborate Druidical theories: the bearded Druid, possessor of arcane knowledge, the stone circles, the ritualistic use of dew, mistletoe and oak leaves in dark, wooded groves, and the ultimate horror of human sacrifice and the bacchanalia that followed.

MacKenzie Crook as head Druid Veran in Britannia. (Sky Atlantic)

MacKenzie Crook as head Druid Veran in Britannia. (Sky Atlantic)

Ancient disputes

The antiquarians were a disputatious lot and their debates can seem baffling, but underpinning them were fundamental questions about the first settlement of the British Isles and its religious history. In particular, the antiquarians asked if ancient Britons were monotheistic, practising a “natural” religion awaiting Christian “revelation”, or polytheistic idolaters who worshipped many false gods.

The answer to this question determined how the antiquarians understood the monumental stone structures left by this past culture. Were Stonehenge, Avebury or the antiquarian riches of Devon and Cornwall not just relics of idolatry and irreligion but also evidence of the supposed hold the Celts once had over the land? Conversely, if the stone circles and other relics were evidence of the struggle by an ancient people to make sense of the one true God before Roman Catholicism corrupted their beliefs (remember these antiquarians were all Protestant thinkers), then a God-fearing Englishman could claim them as a part of his heritage.

Stukeley believed Britain’s first settlers were eastern Mediterranean seafarers – the so-called Phoenicians – and they brought Abrahamic religion with them. In studies of Stonehenge (1740) and Avebury (1743), he argued that the ancient peoples descended from these first settlers lost sight of these beliefs but retained a core grasp of the fundamental “unity of the Divine Being”. This was represented in stone circles, so “expressive of the nature of the deity with no beginning or end”.

By this reading, Druidical veneration of heavenly bodies, the Earth and the four elements was not polytheism but the worship of the most extraordinary manifestations of this single deity. Moreover, that this worship was conducted in the vernacular and relied on the development of a teaching caste intended to enlighten the people meant that Druidical religion was the forerunner of Protestantism.

Sacred site. (Sky Atlantic)

Sacred site. (Sky Atlantic)

Borlase, surveying Cornwall’s antiquities, rejected much of this. He scoffed at Stukeley’s Phoenician theories, saying it was illogical that Britain’s first people were overseas traders, and he argued that Druidism was a British invention that crossed the channel to Gaul. Borlase reckoned patriotic French antiquarians, convinced Gauls and Druids had resisted Roman tyranny, were reluctant to admit that “their forefathers [were] indebted so much to this island”.

But was Druidism something to be proud of? By drawing on classical, Biblical and contemporary sources, Borlase developed an elaborate account of the Druids as an idolatrous priesthood who manipulated the ignorance of their followers by creating a sinister air of mystery.

According to Borlase, Druidical ritual was bloody, decadent, immoral stuff, with plenty of sex and booze, and only compelling in atmospheric natural settings. Druidical power rested on fear and Borlase implied that Catholic priests, with their use of incense, commitment to the Latin mass and superstitious belief in transubstantiation, used the same techniques as the Druids to maintain power over their followers.

Going over old ground

Poems such as William Mason’s Caractatus (1759) helped popularise the idea that the Druids led British resistance to the invading Romans – but by the 1790s sophisticated metropolitan observers treated this stuff with scorn. Despite this, Druidical theories retained much influence, especially in south-west England. In Polwhele’s histories of Devonshire (1797), he wrote of Dartmoor as “one of the principal temples of the Druids”, as evident in iconic Dartmoor sites such as Grimspound, Bowerman’s Nose and Crockern Tor.

Most important were the “many Druidical vestiges” centred on the village of Drewsteignton, whose name he believed was derived from “Druids, upon the Teign”. The cromlech, known as Spinsters’ Rock, at nearby Shilstone Farm invited much speculation, as did the effect achieved by the “fantastic scenery” of the steep-sided Teign valley.

Spinsters’ Rock, Dartmoor. Matthew Kelly, Author provided

Spinsters’ Rock, Dartmoor. Matthew Kelly, Author provided

Polwhele’s influence was felt in Samuel Rowe’s  A Perambulation of Dartmoor (1848), the first substantial topographical description of the moor. Many Victorians first encountered Dartmoor through Rowe’s writings but the discussion of these texts in my history of modern Dartmoor shows that a new generation of preservationists and amateur archaeologists did not take Druidical theories very seriously.

For the late Victorian members of the Devonshire Association and the Dartmoor Preservation Association, scepticism was a sign of sophistication. If an earlier generation had detected Druidical traces in virtually all Dartmoor’s human and natural features, these men and women were more likely to see evidence of agriculture and domesticity. Grimspound, once a Druidical temple, was now thought to be a cattle pound.

Despite Protestant hopes during the Reformation that superstitious beliefs associated with landscape features would be banished, the idea that the landscape holds spiritual mysteries that we know but cannot explain, or that the stone circles of antiquity stimulate these feelings, remains common enough. Indeed, Protestantism came to terms with these feelings and the Romantics saw the beauties of the British landscape as the ultimate expression of God’s handiwork.

Britannia recalls Robin of Sherwood (1984-6), with its mystical presentation of the English woodland and, of course, the BBC comedy Detectorists, that delicate exploration of middle-aged male friendship against the rustle of rural mysticism. A sense of spiritual presence can also inflect the British landscapes of the New Nature Writing.

But Butterworth is working according to an older tradition. Rather like his antiquarian predecessors, he has created a largely imagined universe from some scattered classical references and a great deal of accumulated myth and legend. Whether Britannia will re-enchant the British landscape for a new generation of television viewers is impossible to say, but my hunch is that those lonely stones up on the moors, such as the Grey Wethers or Scorhill on Dartmoor, are going to attract a new cohort of visitors.

Top image: Zoe Wanamaker in TV series ‘Britannia’.  Source: Sky Atlantic

The article ‘Britannia, Druids and the Surprisingly Modern Origins of Myths’ by Matthew Kelly was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.



Cousin_Jack's picture

Cornwall still has druids, Gorsdh Kernow. Maybe not the same as they were but I’m sure they’d still know more than the average person, especially since a few are Cornish historians.

In Anglia et Cornubia.

Interesting article. The original idea may be very ancient indeed. The Minoan religion (the link explained below) is based upon, four deities that also represent cardinal directions for navigation, time and celestial bodies. Earth mother, North, her virgin twin daughter (moon) - Artemis, West, mistress of [wild] animals. Her twin son (Sun) - Apollo (also Orion at night), South: master of [domesticated] animals and his consort (Venus), East. The twins (also represented by Zodiac or nearby constillations on the horizon - useful for navigation) help you find South, Apollo, shortest shadow at midday (Orion’s belt also points south at night), Artemis arrow projected through the crescent of the moon to the horizon points south. Collectively they can be used to express time (clockwise: midnight, sunrise, midday, sunset), seasons (winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, autumn equinox) or direction.
There is confusion of these deities as later empires changed them, applying new names and attributes for their own purposes, but remnants of the original remain. I believe this is the original source (that other cultures in the region shared too and oddly it would appear so in ancient Britain), less gods, more guardians of time, seasons and cardinal direction to navigate the high seas when you send expeditions for trade or to setup colonies where there are useful resources.
The Minoan trading network was vast, with Spain in the West, to bring in tin, head a little further North and you get to the British Isles, tin being essential for Bronze. Now, what was Artemis hunting friend called, Britomatis (Britannia): Diana. There are specific references to this in Minoan iconography on seals.
Take a look at New Grange entrance stone, it is covered in Minoan 'Archimedes' spirals, a merchant’s tomb in Northumbria (trade road between Cornwall and Scotland), covered in casts for double axes! That is also a useful navigational tool. Minos white hull ships (composite hulls of linen and pine resin with a white stone power finish - similar in performance to modern day fibreglass hulls) were sent to the furthest reaches of the known world to find valuable metal. If you look at the Santorini 'flotilla' fresco, there appears to be a copper hull, for the most important vessel (faster: barnacles don't attach - possibly impregnated with copper filings - that the Royal Navy used much later in history). Brits didn't get a free trade philosophy from out of the blue, an ancient superpower may have had a colony in Britain to facilitate trade, noting the Minoan DNA evidence which is difficult to ignore, shows the highest concentration (of all Europe groups) is shared with British DNA groups (even though these are the most geographically distant) and might explain Brits inventive nature and interest in maritime pursuits, along with Spain. All being thalassocracies (later becoming celts), the Minoans seemed to have favoured islands where possible, that are easier to defend (especially metal bearing ones), there is a chain of them connecting the Atlantic with the Cyclades (Gibraltar, Malta, etc), they have interesting related archaeology (building – particularly mounds), iconography and cultures before 1500 BCE. It doesn’t mean they needed to sail huge distances (but a composite hull would help), you can just trade with the nearest port (the goods flow both ways and over huge distances), it would explain Phoenician glass (that picked up where the Minoans left) in burials in the UK, Irish marrying Egyptians, and a lot of other unusual oddities. The British Museum has lots of examples of artefacts found in Britain that seem to have equivalent artefacts labelled as Minoan, that may be related. The Royal Navigational Society /Astronomy would be able to explain the stone circles and artefacts/instruments, the druid mumbo jumbo is not helping: These people appear to be good scientists, engineers, navigators and astronomers The invasion of Ireland, maybe Minoan / Iberian colonists – becoming celts. Could Linear A be deciphered using ancient Gaelic?

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