Page 5, 13th July 2001

13th July 2001
Page 5
Page 5, 13th July 2001 — Richard Shaw argues that neo-pagans have got their religious history

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Richard Shaw argues that neo-pagans have got their religious history

completely wrong iAnt seems that druids have passed from the pages of sterbc into real life. The agic potions of Getafix may not be available today, but some other strange and heady brew has caused a revival in druidism.

But how relevant is the word "revival"? Were paganism, its beliefs, cults and practices merely simmering under the surface— hidden like Merlin in the rock — ready for their present re-emergence?

So the bards would have you believe. For them, or at least for their public face, they have painstakingly reconstructed the old rites, providing themselves with a "genuine" pagan liturgy and proving themselves "true" druids.

So too with their pagan sister order, the white witches. They claim direct descent from the early Anglo-Saxon tribe of the Hwicce. The Hwicce, the witches would have you believe, were a matriarchal society where women were considered to possess amazing religious powers. One can only feel sorry for the poor Hwicce, about whom so little real history is known, and who have instead have such a warped history thrust upon them. The Hwicce, centred in modern Gloucestershire and Worcestershire were soon swallowed up in Anglo-Saxon times by the rapacious kingdom of Mercia. A few legal documents are the sole testimony to the kingdom's independence, and even its existence. Almost the only thing we know about them is that etymologically Hwicce is found in later English with the root wycch, as in Wycchwood. Overall, therefore, the witches' claims are evidence of the vague and rather hopeless desire to discover a proliferation of societies run by women.

The historical claims of the druids are equally questionable. It is now well known that the present incarnation of druidism is at best the creation of Victorians with too much time on their hands. Equally they don't appear to have bothered to research any of the evidence for ancient druidical practices.

For a start, Stonehenge had nothing whatsoever to do with druids. Thus the band of bards trooping round their "sacred site" every June are not indulging in an ancient timehonoured rite of their religion. Indeed, it is on their rites that druids are most shaky. There is no evidence, they say, for druids being involved in human sacrifice. They were, we are told, eminently peaceful and at one with the earth. And their modem counterparts, other than doing death to the odd goat. follow the same path.

Unfortunately, rather than their being no evidence for druids sacrificing humans, all the evidence shows it was their chief ritual. Nor are we simply speaking of the odd sacrifice of a lone maiden on some sacred stone. They were involved in the mass slaughter of large numbers of people on each individual occasion.

Caesar's Gallic War, for instance, never refers to the druids without mentioning another 50 odd young, strong men being burnt up inside a huge wicker-man. Friends and foes alike received the same treatment. Personally, I'd rather have lived under Agricola — the Roman general, governor and real conqueror of these isles, who saw it as his life's work to rid the world of druids. He hounded them off the mainland until they made their final stand in Anglesey. Then he pushed them into the sea.

There their "ancient" rites should remain. Or, where they may be better enjoyed for the joke they are, in the pages of Asterix.

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