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What did the Druids ever do for us? An interview with Graham Robb

By Jonathan Derbyshire  

Graham Robb says that the idea for his latest book, The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe, “arrived one evening like an unwanted visitor”. He was planning a cycling trip along the Via Hereklea, the “fabled route of Hercules from the ends of the earth … across the Pyrenees and the plains of Provence towards the white curtain of the Alps”, when it struck him that the transcontinental diagonal described by the Heraklean Way corresponded exactly to the “angle of the rising sun at the summer solstice” 2,000 years ago. What he had stumbled upon was a “transcontinental masterpiece of sacred geography”, the work of Druids and Druidesses, the priests and scientists of the Celts. The Heraklean Way, it turned out, was the royal road to an understanding of the lost civilisation of Celtic Europe.

This is not Robb’s usual terrain, however—he is best known as a historian of 19th-century France. So I began by asking him if he’d approached the subject with trepidation.

If I’d still been an academic I wouldn’t have been able to write it, because, as you say, it isn’t my period. It reminds me of someone at Queen’s College in Oxford who had a question about the New Testament—I can’t remember what it was; something Jesus had said. So he asked the college chaplain, and the college chaplain said, “Well, it’s not really my period.” But when I was working on my book The Discovery of France, I was drawn backwards in time to the Gaulish period. And it’s nice working on a different period and discovering the different traditions associated with that form of scholarship. That was quite a release. Archaeology seems a much more congenial discipline—they’re not always trying to slag each other off. The only drawback is that lots of archaeologists prefer the spadework and never get round to publishing what they’ve found.

But this book isn’t just a summary of the state of archaeological research into Celtic Europe is it? There’s an argument being made here about the status of myth. You say that it’s an “uncanny characteristic of Celtic myths … that they often turn out to be true”. 

It shows how well the Druids’ education system worked that they used memory and verse to preserve their history. But despite the catastrophes that there were in between it did survive amazingly well—especially in Ireland and Wales. It was fascinating to see how much is recoverable without me inventing it or imagining it.

Are you trying to rescue Celtic history and Celtic myth from the condescension of posterity, specifically from the condescension of Roman and Greek historians?

Yes, especially the Romans. The book does have an evangelical side: it’s appalling how influential a few writers have been, especially Caesar. And we’ve made it even worse. You see this all over the place, in museums and books—the idea that the Celts were illiterate. And it’s simply because Caesar said the Druids considered it sacrilegious to write down their teachings. Then he goes on to say in the same sentence, “But for all other purposes they use the Greek alphabet.” We know that they were an unusually literate society for the time. Even relatively uneducated people knew how to write. But we’re so determined to believe that they were practically Stone Age people. They are associated with pre-history, almost as if they were pre-human.

So this book is an act of retrieval then?

I didn’t realise to what extent it was going to be a retrieval because I didn’t know if this was going to turn out to be true. The subject was an embarrassment to me at first, because one thing you realise about people who are interested in ley lines and Druids is that they’re quite hostile to scientific knowledge. I was interested in the provability of things which seemed to have disappeared.

You’re particularly interested in the ways in which information was transmitted in the Celtic world aren’t you?

We tend to think of the efficient transmission of information as a feature of our own society. But one of the things that seems to have amazed the Romans is the way that the different [Celtic] tribes could form alliances at very short notice over huge distances. So, yes, I’m interested in the transmission of information, but also how that information has failed to be transmitted down the centuries.

Are you implying that much of what you discuss here has failed to transmit itself to the self-declared inheritors of the Druidic tradition today? 

Yes. It’s a bit like 2,000 years in the future trying to capture what it meant to be Catholic based on 16th-century Protestant propaganda.

You devote two chapters to the Druidic education system, what you call the “Druidic Syllabus”. Did you feel there as if you were having to correct a thousand years of accumulated misconceptions about the Druids?

Yes, and some of them were my own misconceptions. I hadn’t really thought about the basic chronology, before. Stonehenge can’t have had anything to do with the Druids. It’s a completely different civilisation, from before even the Bronze Age. I don’t really know much about neo-Druids, though I can see that the affiliations go back to medieval Wales and then Victorian illustrations and science fiction. Once I started reconstituting what the Druids had taught and putting the pieces together, I was excited by the fact that I hadn’t read this assembled in the same way. Since I used to write academic books, I wanted there to be a strong background to the book, something recoverable.

Have you had any contact with specialist academics working in this area?

There was an archaeologist who I was friends with in Oxford. We had conversations about neo-Druids, and he was complaining about the fact that now, when they dig up ancient remains, neo-Druids will be represented on the relevant committee of English Heritage or whatever, because they think the remains ought to be reburied in the proper fashion. And this drives archaeologists mad. Understandably.

In your account, the Druids were philosophers, learned men. Was there anything as coherent as a Druidic worldview?

There were hundreds of Celtic gods but they seem to have codified things to such an extent that certain major divine figures emerged, which played a political purpose. One of the main parts of the Druidic curriculum was political science. One thing that surprised me, even though it was sitting there on a plate, was that Caesar’s best friend in Gaul was a Druid. He doesn’t say so himself but we know from Cicero that he stayed at his house. The Druids also played a legal function—they set boundaries, settle disputes between different tribes.

One sentence that caught my eye is the following: “The keys to the Celtic mysteries usually lie in an observable reality rather than a vague superstition.” The picture you’re offering us is of the Druids as what we might once have called “natural philosophers”, with a proto-scientific outlook.

Yes, though there I was thinking specifically of Celtic art, which looks like swirling mists, like art based on an individual’s fancy. It’s sometimes said that Celtic patterns come from hallucinations. But once you study it, you realise that each individual figure is part of a bigger pattern. You’re just seeing part of it but you can deduce the larger pattern from the little figure. Celtic art was an analysis of patterns that they found in nature, in observable reality. It’s very geometric. If you look at oak trees and start to analyse the patterns, you realise that it looks like Celtic art. It’s Pythagorean: they were asking, “Can we deduce eternal, unchanging mathematical patterns from the ways in which natural objects reproduce them ourselves?”

Graham Robb’s “The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe” is published by Picador (£20).

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