Hutton and The Druids

The Independent does a profile of author and academic Ronald Hutton on the release of his latest book “Druids: A History”. The article points out that this book isn’t so much about “real” Druids (ie the historical priestly caste of the pre-Christian Celts), as it is about the modern invention of Druids (and Druidry) from Iolo Morganwg in the 18th century to the present day.

“Hutton gives us chapters on “The Patriotic Druids”, “The Wise Druids”, “The Green Druids”, “The Demonic Druids”, “The Fraternal Druids”, “The Rebel Druids” and, perhaps most important to his popular readers, “The Future Druids”. Like the Knights Templar, at least in the British Isles, the Druids have been a handy peg on which to hang a backpack of imaginative, insightful, and sometimes half-baked ideas, dealing with national identity, religious revelation, ancient societies, nature and ourselves. When I mentioned that it seemed like a history of what people have thought about the Druids, Hutton eagerly agreed. ‘My colleagues would kill me for saying this, but historians are increasingly conscious of the fact that we can’t write history. What we can write about is the way in which people see history and think history happens.’ And turning my remark back at me he continued, ‘So, is this a book about Druids with no Druids in it, or are the real Druids these amazing characters like William Price, William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg and the rest?'”

The interviewer also touches on the fact that Hutton has courted controversy with his books on modern Paganism. From some modern Pagans who have disagreed with his findings, and from academic colleagues who feel he is a bit too chummy with the Pagans.

“Predictably, Hutton finds himself defending his position on two fronts. Neo-pagans, clinging to the notion that their beliefs are part of an ancient nature religion, and radical feminists upholding the idea of a primeval matriarchal society (which Hutton finds “rather delightful”), scorn Hutton’s refreshingly cheerful acceptance that there seems little evidence for either of these. And his less unbuttoned colleagues shake their heads at his optimism about Druidry and other “alternative spiritualities” as valid contemporary religions. He has a very pragmatic, creative attitude, recognising that factual error can still produce beneficial results. We may not be able to “get it right”, about the Druids and other people of the past, but ‘we can look upon the past and how it works for us, and call upon it in order to make the future’.”

But despite the criticisms Hutton has received from some Pagans, his obvious love and respect for modern Paganism is apparent.

“Paganism today, he says, is “a way of trying to get the best out of modernity, while discarding the bits that most of us hate”. And while he wouldn’t call himself “a spokesperson for paganism” … he acknowledges his debt to it. “I could never have managed to write the books that I have without the welcome and the support I’ve received from pagans and Druids.” Given that the West has been reinventing its identity since the Renaissance, that we should continue to do so today shouldn’t come as a surprise. “It’s part of our reclaiming ourselves as modern,” Hutton says. ‘Of getting a sense of who we are and what we’re doing here, where we’ve come from , and why we are who we are. It’s simply thrilling.'”

If “Druids” is anywhere near the quality of works like “Triumph of the Moon” or “Stations of the Sun”, then it will become essential reading for anyone interested in modern Druidry/ism (whether curious outsider or veteran practitioner). Works like this help add another piece to the puzzle of modern Paganism’s sometimes complex and confusing history.