- Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur: An Archaeological and Mythological Exploration by Robin Melrose
Anyone writing about religion in prehistoric Britain faces an enormous challenge given the paucity of evidence on which to base one's conclusions and the frequently indeterminate nature of such evidence as does exist. Nonetheless, that is exactly the task Robin Melrose has set for himself in Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur. For Melrose, the legendary and semi-mythical figure of Arthur is not just a chronological marker for the end period of his study, but rather is central to his whole consideration of religion in prehistoric, Roman, and early medieval Britain. Melrose, a former senior lecturer in English and Linguistics at the University of [End Page 87] Portsmouth and the author of a previous book on The Druids and King Arthur, expands here on his theory that the origins of the legend of King Arthur lie deeply rooted in the religion of the Druids and the mythology of prehistoric Britain, with Arthur originating as a bear-god in Celtic mythology.
Melrose's book involves much more than a consideration of the mythological origins of Arthur, however, representing a thorough and highly competent survey of the archaeological evidence that we have from prehistoric Britain, beginning with a treatment of megaliths and Neolithic astronomy. The first six (of eleven) chapters of the book involve much more description than analysis, summarizing discoveries made at prehistoric sites throughout the British Isles. Melrose, however, does offer some interpretations related to his main subject of religion, especially with respect to human and animal burial finds and the construction of ringforts and hillforts during the Iron Age, before turning his attention to Arthur in the second half of the book. It is through an examination of burial rites that we can perhaps come closest to ascertaining religious practices, if not beliefs, while at least raising the possibility of inferring beliefs from those practices. Some of the most impressive aspects of the book are Melrose's use of linguistics and the wide-ranging sources and materials he brings to bear on his subject. He uses literary evidence from Greek mythology, especially Hesiod and Homer, incorporates archaeological and linguistic evidence from other cultures from Scandinavia to southwest Asia, alludes to sacred Indian and Iranian texts such as the Rigveda and the Avesta, and considers parallels between early British rites and practices and those of the Eskimos.
Although of necessity, many of Melrose's conclusions are based on speculation, when the author begins his study with the caveat that the gods discussed in the book 'may not be the actual deities worshipped in Britain' (p. 3), one wonders from the outset how useful the study is going to be from a historical perspective. If there is a flaw in the book, it is that sometimes the author seems to make too large a leap from the evidence to conjectures that are consistently framed with qualifications that do too much to shake the reader's confidence in those conclusions. There are too many examples to cite here, but we are frequently told that if one thing is true then something else might be true, without being given any sense of the actual probability of either side of the equation. For instance, 'If there were Druids in Mommouthshire, they may well have lived in Llanmelin Wood' (p. 225) and since 'Saints may have taken the place of Druids in the early medieval period … they may also have inherited some of the attributes of the Druids' (p. 245; italics mine). But, again, to be fair, this is simply not a subject that lends itself to firm conclusions.
The Druids remain an elusive topic, despite the enormous amount of interest they continue to generate. Julius Caesar remains our main written source for their beliefs and practices, yet his account is both extremely limited and biased. As this book reminds us, archaeological evidence takes us only so far in reconstructing those beliefs...