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  • Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain
  • Dáithí Ó Hógáin
Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. By Ronald Hutton. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. xi + 491; 37 illustrations. $45.

This is a thoroughly researched and informative work on the long and checkered history of druidism and neo-druidism in Britain, by an author well acquainted with the multifarious material. Professor Hutton’s previous works—in particular The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles and The Stations of the Sun—have been of great value to students and researchers concerned with the connections between archaeology, social history, psychology, and popular tradition, and have demonstrated interesting methodologies and analytical approaches. He writes with a combination of clarity and color, and has great skill in keeping the reader’s attention. At a deeper and to scholars a more basic level, he uses a wonderfully wide range of sources and does so adeptly and with a feeling for context. [End Page 231]

All of these qualities are brought by Professor Hutton to the present work, in which he again leaves the reader greatly in his debt for assembling and collating much obscure information and, as one would expect from the subject matter, no small amount of views. As to theories of the author himself, however, the reader is left in expectancy even beyond the point where anything is to be expected, for here Hutton is surprisingly slow to commit himself to any interpretation. He seems to have reached the conclusion, although he does not actually say so, that the ancient druids were more than anything else akin to what in contemporary studies of comparative religion are referred to as shamans. This is exactly what one would be inclined to hold after an analysis of traditional lore, where the undefinables are of a different order to those treated here.

Students of Celtic heritage will be particularly interested in Chapter 1, where Hutton comments on a large or small number (whichever it is!) of ancient sources. He sums this up as follows (p. 48): “Virtually none of the ingredients employed have the status of solid material, judged by any objective standards of textual or material evidence, and the little that has that status is not sufficient to produce a detailed or finished result.” This is near to saying that the subject should not be studied at all, and all in all the reader gets the impression of an over-cautious author, if not an author predisposed to discourage interest in the material. He seems, indeed, to be trapped within the literary material and to have no tolerance for alternative approaches, which might employ linguistic analysis, or the perusal of oral traditional data, or at least folkloristic theory. It is of course “predictable” (p. 429) that the present reviewer—an admirer of Hutton’s previous work— should be disappointed that he has not considered these realms of much use to his purpose.

Nobody, of course, expects certitude—in that regard scholarship is like life—but it would be nice to hazard an opinion as to likelihood, or degree of likelihood. One suspects, indeed, that the author is altogether too skeptical of the literary material itself, and this seems at times to amount to a rejection of all scholarly work in the field. It is to be regretted especially in this regard that he has not taken into account the detailed discussions in Andreas Hofeneder’s recent editions of the relevant Greek and Latin texts.

As it is, some clear cases can be shown where the pervading sense of reticence does not accord with real data where such is available. For instance, he rather quaintly refers to “the increasingly bitter struggle of many of the Irish to separate themselves from the United Kingdom” (p. 303). Bitter it always was, and the proven reality is that when finally allowed to state their position after many centuries, not just “many,” but a vast majority, of the Irish voted to leave the British Empire. When projected backwards, this kind of reticence can afford to laud Julius Caesar while chiding him for some ruthlessness and lack...


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pp. 231-234
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