I’ve just had the pleasure of finishing Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton. It’s been out for quite a while, but I was asked to give some thoughts on the book. This could be difficult, as I’ve read this book over the course of about half a year, but I’ll give it a shot.
First, I should say that I consider Ronald Hutton to be a gift to readers everywhere. He has taken so many topics that have been considered fringe or questionable and shown that they can be discussed in their historical and cultural contexts, while finding a stance from which even the most unusual characters can be regarded with respect. This is not to say that I agree with everything he has written, but most of it is worth reading. Blood and Mistletoe certainly is – if you’re looking for a particular sort of information.
If what you’re looking for is information about the historical Druids, I would recommend this book – especially the first fifty pages. Hutton performs a comprehensive roundup of the many different sources that we can access on the Druids: Greek and Roman authors, archaeological sources, and Irish and Welsh sources written well after the fact. All of these possess various levels of reliability and bias, none of which are conclusive sources. What makes them even more problematic is the wide variation of information within them. We are thus left with a collection of dubious information, much of which contradicts the other sections.
The bulk of the book is devoted to the use of the Druids in the intellectual life of Britain, as poets, antiquarians, politicians, novelists, and others over the centuries appropriate them to serve in various purposes. They have been used to call up nationalistic sentiments – at various periods, in Scotland, England, and Wales – to critique paganism and Christian sects, and to create idyllic or horrific portraits of the past, depending upon what sources you want to dip into. Even if you want to know about the historic Druids, this book covers such topics as why we think Druids wear white robes, or how ovates and bards entered the picture of our understanding of these individuals, or the differing ideas of the relation of Druids to Stonehenge.
Hutton also covers the reappearance of Druidic orders, which at first appeared as voluntary associations rather than pagan faiths. Of particular note are the Ancient Order of Druids, the first of these,and the Universal Bond, the Druid order that conducted rituals at Stonehenge for many years. If Hutton’s emphasis is any indication – and I can’t say it is – the reconstruction of Druidic ritual, as undertaken by groups such as Ár nDraíocht Féin, has had little role in the British scene, with much of the doctrine of these groups taken from many other religions, chiefly Christianity. Those who want to know more about “Druids and Neopaganism” (yes, we can quibble about those terms, but even those who might will understand what I’m aiming for) should try for other sources.
Blood and Mistletoe does take a certain amount of interest and commitment from someone who wants to read the whole piece, as some of the exploration of various Druidic motifs in literature and art may only be of interest to specialists. Still, the book is an indispensable reference for anyone interested in the Druids. I’d suggest checking out Ronald Hutton’s other books as well, if you’re looking for a Christmas/solstice gift for someone with esoteric interests.