Review: it’s Druids vs. Romans — and history — in TV series Britannia

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TWH — In the new TV series Britannia, a Celtic sorceress in ancient Britain draws a large pentacle on stone and casts a spell, saying, “Dark mother, send me a demon to do my will!”

Early in the series, top-dog Druid Veranm and his Druid tribe, who live in a rocky, mountainous hollow apart from the warring native tribes they serve, capture an invading Roman soldier. Veran performs some sort of ritualistic soul-sucking thing which causes the soldier to reanimate as a zombie under Veran’s control, after being tossed over a waterfall to his death.

The zombie soldier shows back up in the Roman camp and delivers a verbal get-the-hell-out-of-our-land message to the general, Aulus Plautis. The general and Veran then trade notes back and forth by placing messages in the mouth of the dead Roman soldier’s severed head.

Later Veran, who looks like a cross between Skeletor of He-Man fame and Richard O’Brien’s characters Gulnar (in the Robin of Sherwood TV series) and Riff Raff (in the Rocky Horror Picture Show), has a Vulcan mind-meld with Aulus Plautius, who has decided to seek the Druid’s help to go on a vision quest to the underworld..

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Celtic Britain in the year 43 C.E. anymore, though the creators of Britannia, which is airing on Amazon Prime in the U.S. and Sky Atlantic in the U.K., would like to have us believe otherwise.

Or perhaps not.

The show’s official publicity says the series “follows the Roman army as they return to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the powerful forces of the underworld . . . it takes a journey to a place where mystical Druids run free, invincible Celts reign unopposed and invading Romans try to bring them into line.”

When Britannia hit the airwaves in late January, some modern-day Druids denounced the series in the British press, saying this sword ’n’ sex ’n’ sorcery epic has no resemblance to modern or ancient Druidic practice, and that it sullies both.

Less alarmed is Robin Herne, a teacher at Druid College UK and an author of the book Old Gods, New Druids and other works.

“The program is not aiming for historical accuracy, and is quite honest about that,” Herne said in an interview with The Wild Hunt.

“Aside from inaccuracies in the historical details, the religious practices and invocations used in the show are a mishmash of Neopagan and New Age concepts and ritualism. If this has a negative impact on viewers, it is not so much the general public, who will probably know little about modern Paganism, and maybe care little one way or another, but in terms of reinforcing the belief amongst some 21st-century Pagans that the people of the ancient world really did think and worship in the ways depicted.”

Indeed, consider the pentacle, the encircled five-pointed star that is ubiquitous in modern Witchcraft and Wicca. A pentacle surfaces in the opening credits of Britannia as viewers hear the show’s theme song, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” Midway through the series, the scheming Amena, as mentioned, draws a pentacle and casts her wicked, self-serving spell.

While one can find internet references that claim the pentacle was a symbol of the Morrigan, the ancient Irish war goddess, one will be hard pressed to find a pentacle in, say, such academic works as Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art by Celtic scholar Miranda Green.

While Roman general Aulus Plautius is an historical figure and he did lead an army in an invasion of Britain in 43 C.E. (and subsequently became the first governor of the conquered province), there is however no record that he took a shamanic journey to the underworld with the guidance of a Druid priest.

Or that a Druid turned a Roman soldier into a zombie.

Series writer Jez Butterworth, who co-created Britannia with his brother, writer Tom Butterworth, admitted in the show’s media kit: “My process beginning any project, particularly one that has a historical context, is to do as much research as possible and then try not to include any of it at all. I think that is so deadly, when you can tell that a writer is displaying their homework.”

Likewise, Mackenzie Crook, who portrays Veran, said, “There’s next to nothing known about the Druids. We’re picking from five or six facts that were written by Julius Caesar and otherwise it’s all just open for interpretation.”

Kerra (Kelly Reilly), the daughter of King Pellenor, consults with the Druid Veran (Mackenzie Crook) in the TV series Britannia [Sky Atlantic].

“The modern Pagan religions do tend to be subject to some unhistorical and confused ideas at times, and the blurring of fantasy and history does not help,” Herne said.

“Though, realistically, I doubt this particular TV series will have particularly significant impact on general perceptions of either ancient or modern Druids — especially given that the producers decided to make their fictional Druids look so strange that they might have been better suited to appearing in an episode of Doctor Who as a weird alien species.”

What about the ancient Druids’ association with human sacrifice, which Stuart Piggott in his book The Druids calls “that aspect of Druid function that has been found most embarrassing to certain apologists?”

Yes, the head Druid Veran (spoiler alert!) leads a sacrifice of one of the nobles of two warring Celtic tribes. Books such as Piggott’s and Ward Rutherford’s The Druids: Magicians of the West cite numerous writings by Roman historians, such as Pliny, Strabo, Posidonius and Caesar himself, which note the Druids did indeed practice human sacrifice. It was Strabo and Caesar who wrote about the notorious practice that Piggott summarizes as “the holocaust of human and animal victims alike in a huge wickerwork figure” shaped like a man.

The Druids of Britannia do not employ a wicker man. Instead, by the order of the gods, Veran decrees that noble is strangled, then his throat is slashed and his heart is cut out by the sickle-wielding head Druid in the middle of Stonehenge.

There’s more evidence than just the Roman writers that the ancient Celts practiced regal sacrifice. In her book The World of the Druids, Green notes that Iron Age “bog bodies” — the corpses of humans found preserved in bogs and dating back at least 2,000 years — often “show signs of violence and ritual treatment.”

One such bog body, Green writes, was found in Cheshire, England in 1984 and dubbed Lindow Man. Some aspects of Lindow Man’s death “point to a ritual killing . . . it may be no accident that the victim had three ‘deaths’: injuries to the head, strangulation and throat slitting. There is an early Irish mythic episode in which a triple-fold killing of the sacral king is described.”

In an article in the Irish Examiner, Ned Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, said that bog bodies “may have their throats cut, been stabbed in the heart and have other cut marks. However, it is absolutely not torture, but a form of ritual sacrifice.”

Such a ritualistic death could be a sign that the person was a king or noble, Kelly said, adding: “The king had great power but also great responsibility to ensure the prosperity of his people. Through his marriage on his inauguration to the goddess of the land, he was meant to guarantee her benevolence. He had to ensure the land was productive, so if the weather turned bad, or there was plague, cattle disease or losses in war, he was held personally responsible.”

A scene from the Sky Atlantic/Amazon Prime series Britannia [Sky Atlantic].

Still, both Herne and Jon Drum, the Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF), maintain that the historical record on Druidism is sketchy.

“Nothing has so far been found written in their own hand, so we only have the opinions of people outside the religion looking in and it’s seldom clear how well they understood the Druids,” Herne said in an interview with Christopher Blackwell in 2014.

“We have no cohesive theology or cosmology, or even a clear idea if the same notions were held to by all Druids in all tribes or if the Caledonii had different ideas from, say, the Iceni and to what extent these ideas may have changed over the course of time.”

“We know very little about how the ancient Druids practiced and there was some artistic license utilized with the Solstice ceremony,” Drum said of Britannia in an interview with the Wild Hunt. “While the dramatization of some Druidic practices may be way off, it has little bearing on our practices of today. I am concerned that there may be some who take what was portrayed as historically accurate.”

For the record, a passage on the ADF’s website addresses the issue of human sacrifices: “Yes, it’s true. But then, so did the clergy of almost every other religion in human history, including the monotheistic ones.”

ADF’s site goes on to note that “Neopagan Druids are forbidden to practice human or animal sacrifice in our rituals. Instead we offer the goddesses and gods flowers, fruits, wine, incense, music, song, drama, prayer, and — most important of all — our love. The deities seem to find it more than sufficient.”

Depictions of Druids in popular culture have run the gamut, with creators of film, TV shows, books and even cartoons often adopting the term as a convenient though fuzzy, hardly historical label for all sorts of beings.

According to the website “Originally, Druids were one sect of the Celtic priesthood. Because they practiced their rites in the wilderness in great secrecy, and wrote nothing about what they did, little is known about them. Most historical accounts are from the writings of their enemies, who rarely qualify as reliable sources. For centuries, the lack of concrete information about the Druids has made them convenient for imaginary priesthoods, ranging from wise and patriotic leaders of resistance against Roman conquest, all the way to bloodthirsty practitioners of human sacrifice. In modern fiction, ‘Druid’ is typically used for a nature-themed magic-user that usually has a flavor of priesthood, especially if they hail from pre-Christian Europe (or fantastical equivalent).”

The website cites more than a dozen examples of beings labeled Druids in film, literature, anime, video games and other pop culture realms, including the TV series Merlin and Teen Wolf, which were both favorable depictions. A not-so-favorable depiction can be found in an episode of the Smurfs cartoon series; “A group of Druids are trapped in a haunted tree in ‘The Smurfs’ Time Capsule,’ and its leader emerges from it to set them free in order to plunge the world in eternal darkness.”

As for The Wicker Man, a 1973 British film that pivots on that form of sacrifice described by Caesar and Strabo, the “D” word is absent. Instead the inhabitants of Summerisle are described on the DVD cover as “a secret society of wanton lust and pagan blasphemy.”

Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox, far right) takes part in a solstice ceremony in the TV series Britannia [Sky Atlantic].

In the realm of — ahem — artistic license exercised by the creators of Britannia, the Druids have a penchant for meddling in the sex lives of their followers that makes modern-day monotheist fundamentalists look positively nonchalant about hanky-panky. Veran decrees that Amena, the wife of the Celt Phelan, must have relations with the Gaul Lindon because, after all, the gods say so.

These Druids run some sort of brothel/orgy hut whose divine purpose is never quite clear.

As for the ancient Celts of Britannia, they are quite tart-tongued, even the young girl Cait unleashes a number of f-bombs. But then, who’s to say the Celts of old did not have similar emotions expressed in similar ways.

Should Druids and Pagans be alarmed by pop culture and Hollywood’s use — or abuse — of artistic license to tell a tale?

“Exact recreations of the distant past are not needed,” Herne told the Wild Hunt, “and in the case of the early Britons, that is impossible due to the lack of contemporary written sources. But a better understanding of how beliefs change and develop over the centuries is always worthwhile in better informing our understanding of the various things we do now.”

Joanna van der Hoeven, a co-tutor with Herne at Druid College UK, says she has not seen Britannia, but added:. “I believe that there is a little room to maneuver. However, we should stay as true as possible if it is something from our past, otherwise we are changing the past bit by bit.”

“Like storytelling,” she continued, “we can embellish certain aspects, but to change the story, the characters or their intentions would be contrary to the point of storytelling — that is, to preserve something to pass on to future generations, to help them learn and be inspired. If someone wishes to tell a completely fantastical tale, then that is fine, as long as they are not claiming it to be reflective of something that is real.”