Jean Markale - The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature

What to expect from a book such as this? Is it a serious scholarly work, or one of the many poorly-researched works on ‘druidism’? It was written by the author of more than 40 books on Celtic-related themes, and contains a sufficient amount of footnotes and references. On the other hand, it is published by Inner Traditions, a publishing company concerned with esoteric matters, and is the work of an author whose interests include the occult and Atlantis: namely Jean Bertrand, a resident of France whose pen name is Jean Markale. Bertrand has been severely criticized – one might say ostracized – by the scholarly community, both for factual errors in his works as well as for alleged speculative leaps of the imagination in his reasoning. One might not, therefore, have great expectations from this particular work. In all, I have found this tome to be a curious mixture of the interesting and the bizarre; it is by no means a reliable source of information, but should be at least glanced at by all those obsessed with the study of the druids and pre-Christian Celtic religion.

To go into greater detail, what do I mean by ‘a mixture of the bizarre and the interesting’? The author proposes or makes reference to a number of thought-provoking or even brilliant theories regarding Celtic paganism. For example, he refers to a supposed druidic monism (indeed titling an entire chapter after the concept), and rightly questions the notion of Celtic human sacrifice (pp. 160-1), pointing out that the Romans had ulterior motives for ‘blackening’ the Gaulish image, and that these same Romans also accused Christians of humans sacrifice. But he also has very strange theories. For example, he suggests that druids ‘were not far from conceiving that everything in the universe … was vibrational energy’ – a statement which will be greeted not with shock but with amusement by serious students and scholars of ancient Celtic religion. It is rather as though he had suggested that Jesus taught there was life on Mars. But more importantly, all of Bertrand’s theories, whether interesting or outrageous, are rarely backed up by coherent argumentation. Sometimes there is no argumentation at all; for instance, regarding the ancient references to burning Gaulish wicker-men, he states that ‘it is certain that the figures or cages that the Greek and Latin witnesses saw set on fire were placed above caves’ (p. 157). He never explains why this is ‘certain’ (not to mention ignoring the fact that there are no known ‘witnesses’ to these events). Such claims as his statement that druidic holidays took place 40 days after the solstice (p.164) appear as though drawn out of thin air. Countless other such statements could readily be adduced … ‘the Celts were of the opinion that it was vain to enclose the area in which the gods resided’ (p. 127), ‘every nemeton is the center of the world’ (p. 127). This problem of reasoning is further compounded by the proliferation of outright factual errors. For example, he claims that the name of the famous Irish druid, Mog Ruith, is to be translated as ‘son of the wheel’; in fact, mog signifies either ‘devotee’ or ‘servant’. He claims that Samhain is pronounced ‘cho-ouinn’, which is inaccurate even if one takes into account the French articulation of ‘ch’. But Bertrand truly crosses the line of respectable scholarship when he begins speaking of ‘psychic energy’ (e.g., p. 127).

Jean Bertrand
On the other hand, one must not form the opinion that everything he says is automatically wrong. Some of what he says is correct. For instance, on page 43, he writes that Neolithic megalithic monuments ought not to be thought of as druidic sacrificial tables, and that the Celts emerged into history around 500 BCE – both true statements. But in the end, the amount of fanciful speculation and factual errors in the book mean that it must be treated with skepticism. Bertrand’s imagination appears to be both his greatest strength and his chief weakness, and has lead to the production of a book which is at the same time interesting and highly questionable. I would not recommend it as an introduction to druidism but I do feel that, however unreliable it may be, it should at least be contemplated by more advanced researchers and students.

Copyright © 2007 WP All rights reserved.