The Ancient Druids: Background information when reading Lanny

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by Max Porter

Lanny by Max Porter X
Lanny by Max Porter
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  • First Published:
    May 2019, 160 pages

    Apr 2020, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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The Ancient Druids

This article relates to Lanny

Print Review

19th century painting of a Druid with a robe and white beardIt is likely that when you hear mention of the ancient Druids or Druidism, certain images arise–perhaps there are flowing white robes or oak leaves involved, there are also probably long, bushy beards and maybe a sprig of mistletoe. Over the centuries that separate us from this enigmatic group, we have done a great deal of mythologizing, culminating in what is now a well-established portrait. In his new novel, Lanny, Max Porter calls on ancient druidic lore—close communion with nature, prominent featuring of trees and an existence of an unknown Other beyond what our eyes can see. But how much of his portrayal is accurate?

The stark reality is that there are only a handful of facts that we know for sure about the druids. They were a revered order of wise men and women of the Celtic people. The Celtic culture appears to have been centered in modern day France (Gaul) and the British Isles, but at its height (around 300 BC) is believed to have extended into much of Spain and as far as Turkey. Modern day Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are all members of the Celtic language family.

Most of our knowledge of the druids is gathered from third-party sources. For example, the most well-known accounts of druidic life and societal structure come from Julius Caesar, who met and interacted with druids during the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC). Other sources exist, such as accounts from Roman soldiers and Greek philosophers who documented druidic history and practices, coming in contact with them either through war or exploration. However, the druids themselves never put the proverbial pen to paper. The druidic tradition is an oral one, they do not seem to have had any written language. What's more, no artifacts survive that could help guide us in the right direction when trying to reconstruct their lives.

Caesar's writings depict druids as a very well-organized group, responsible for all thinking matters in their society. The druidic order would preside over public and private disputes and mete out justice, they would also act as teachers, passing down both practical and spiritual knowledge. Druids also oversaw rituals and sacrifices. Becoming a part of the druidic order was highly desirable, and required years of training.

Unfortunately, anyone writing about this ancient order, Caesar included, was not exempt from basic human biases. In fact, it is often easy to see how the society of the writer influenced what he wrote. For example, the Greeks wrote of the druids' vast knowledge, wisdom and philosophy–all vital components of the Ancient Greek lifestyle. Romans, on the other hand, wrote of the druids as bloodthirsty warriors, carrying out violent human sacrifices. This is, again, closely tied to how Roman society functioned–endless conquering and violent rituals. Even later depictions by Irish and English writers, those closest in lineage to the Celts, were colored by the powerful lens of their particular worldview. Many Irish writings declaim the druids as savage pagans. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when a renewed desire to connect with one's national past became popular, English writers claimed the druids to be clear precursors to Christianity, claiming that they practiced a "pure and ancient religion of the Hebrew patriarchs."

It seems that by the 9th century, the druidical cast was effectively extinct, and remained that way for around a thousand years until a revival of interest in the 19th century. Contemporary druids are largely defined by their veneration of nature, and many take part in rituals that demonstrate that reverence, gathering in groups to celebrate the changing of the seasons, for example. Some choose to dress as they imagine their ancient counterparts did, in white flowing robes. Though there is no direct line from the modern-day druids to those of ancient times, there is certainly a spiritual kinship that flows from the past to the present.

Image: An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit by Charles Hamilton Smith, 1815

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Natalie Vaynberg

This "beyond the book article" relates to Lanny. It originally ran in July 2019 and has been updated for the April 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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