When I met Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, at the British Library, he had just come from lecturing to a group of sixth formers at the Camden Centre. When I asked what he had been lecturing on, he answered briskly: "Oliver Cromwell." For an author who's just published a book on Druids, and whose earlier work (Triumph of the Moon, The Stations of the Sun, Shamanism) centres on paganism, wicca, ceremonial magic and seasonal rituals, this seemed fairly mild stuff.
"Did the students ask any questions about your other interests?" I asked. "No," he replied, "that's not part of A levels." Then he paused for a moment, and added: "Not yet." Given the quality of Hutton's work and the passion he devotes to it, as well as the recent academic interest in subjects like the occult, esotericism, and his own patch, paganism, I'd say it was only a matter of time.
Hutton's most recent work, The Druids, a compact and lively account of what historians and other seekers of the past have made of these "appallingly insubstantial figures", could arguably be looked at as a history of the Druids in which no "real" Druid appears. The Druids left no writings, no images and no tombs. Accounts of them, from Tacitus down, are frustratingly inconclusive, and drift from anecdotal, to biased, to forged, to sheer invention. Most of us associate them with mistletoe, megaliths and human sacrifice, and the three turn up often enough; but the fact is that the Druids, at one time or another, have appeared as all things to all men.
Hutton gives us chapters on "The Patriotic Druids", "The Wise Druids", "The Green Druids", "The Demonic Druids", "The Fraternal Druids", "The Rebel Druids" and, perhaps most important to his popular readers, "The Future Druids". Like the Knights Templar, at least in the British Isles, the Druids have been a handy peg on which to hang a backpack of imaginative, insightful, and sometimes half-baked ideas, dealing with national identity, religious revelation, ancient societies, nature and ourselves. When I mentioned that it seemed like a history of what people have thought about the Druids, Hutton eagerly agreed.
"My colleagues would kill me for saying this, but historians are increasingly conscious of the fact that we can't write history. What we can write about is the way in which people see history and think history happens." And turning my remark back at me he continued, "So, is this a book about Druids with no Druids in it, or are the real Druids these amazing characters like William Price, William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg and the rest?"
Price, Stukeley and Morganwg, from the 18th and 19th centuries, are only three of the most colourful, influential and significant figures in the history of what Hutton calls "Druidry" rather than Druidism. By this he means "things that Druids believe and do or are thought to have believed and done", as opposed to a specific set of ideas associated with the older term. Hutton is attempting a kind of phenomenology of Druids, a descriptive account, eschewing judgements on what is "real" or not, although, to be sure, he doesn't hesitate to point out when absence of evidence suggests an unreliable interpretation. As he told me: "I don't have any strong personal beliefs. I don't have a faith in the way that religious people have a faith. I find pagans and Druids absolutely splendid people and my focus is on them, rather than on any set of beliefs or ideas."
Iolo Morganwg - which translates as "Eddie from Glamorgan" - William Stukeley and William Price, as well as the other striking personalities that crowd the book, held some very strong beliefs indeed. Iolo, who, like Thomas Chatterton, was one of literature's great forgers, inventing Medieval Welsh sources for his own brand of Druidry, was "the spiritual father of modern Welsh nationalism", and "gave modern Wales its central cultural institution, the Gorsedd Bards". He was also a polymath and a laudanum addict. William Stukeley "put Druids on the mental map" of Britain, linking them to Stonehenge and other megalithic sites (erroneously, it seems), and "was the founder of field archaeology", while imagining ancient Druidic processions along the uprights at Avebury. William Price, a political firebrand and perhaps the most fascinating of them all, is remembered "more for what he wore than for anything he said or wrote". Rightly so: Price's everyday attire included scalloped emerald green jackets and trousers with scarlet lining, long hair and beard, topped off with a fox fur hat, tails attached. Among other things, Price is responsible for making cremation legal in England, a result of his arrest and trial after lighting the funeral pyre of his baby son, whom he had named Jesus, in 1884.
Most readers will delight in these and other accounts of fantastic dreamers and eccentrics, but Hutton makes clear that they're not simply entertaining but "really quite effective characters, who wouldn't have done the things they did were it not for their Druidry". But he has a still deeper agenda. The Druids, like his earlier work, explores the notion of "invented tradition"; something, he writes, "that relies upon an original foundation myth that has subsequently been disproved but has made itself worthy of respect in its own right." Both wicca and neo-paganism fall into this camp, their claims to ancient lineage being undermined while their significance as post-modern religions is celebrated in his brilliant Triumph of the Moon.
Predictably, Hutton finds himself defending his position on two fronts. Neo-pagans, clinging to the notion that their beliefs are part of an ancient nature religion, and radical feminists upholding the idea of a primeval matriarchal society (which Hutton finds "rather delightful"), scorn Hutton's refreshingly cheerful acceptance that there seems little evidence for either of these. And his less unbuttoned colleagues shake their heads at his optimism about Druidry and other "alternative spiritualities" as valid contemporary religions. He has a very pragmatic, creative attitude, recognising that factual error can still produce beneficial results. We may not be able to "get it right", about the Druids and other people of the past, but "we can look upon the past and how it works for us, and call upon it in order to make the future".
Hutton's kind of pagan or Druid is very up to date, online, "showing respect for the individual and responsibility to the environment", and not fearful of the modern. Paganism today, he says, is "a way of trying to get the best out of modernity, while discarding the bits that most of us hate". And while he wouldn't call himself "a spokesperson for paganism" - which, it's been said, is the "only religion England gave to the world" - he acknowledges his debt to it. "I could never have managed to write the books that I have without the welcome and the support I've received from pagans and Druids."
Given that the West has been reinventing its identity since the Renaissance, that we should continue to do so today shouldn't come as a surprise. "It's part of our reclaiming ourselves as modern," Hutton says. "Of getting a sense of who we are and what we're doing here, where we've come from , and why we are who we are. It's simply thrilling."