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Druids And Celts From A Real ‘Middle Earth’

Hobbitmania returns, and we look at the real legacy of druids and celts in the “Middle Earth” of Iron Age Western Europe.

A druid watches the sunrise by the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge, in southern England, as access to the site is given to druids, New Age followers and members of the public on the annual Winter Solstice, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.

A druid watches the sunrise by the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge, in southern England, as access to the site is given to druids, New Age followers and members of the public on the annual Winter Solstice, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smau:g is number one at the movie box office right now.  Fans pouring in to check out the latest drama from Tolkien’s Middle Earth – Bilbo and Gandalf, wizardry and runes.  Historian Graham Robb goes back to the real Middle Earth in his latest work.  To the historic heyday of druids and Celts before their rout by the Roman Empire.  That Middle Earth, he says, was far more sophisticated and wide that we tend to know.  A world that stretched right across Europe.  Up next On Point:  retracing the lost age of the druid’s real Middle Earth.

- Tom Ashbrook


Graham Robb, British author and historian. Author of the “The Discovery Of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts.” Also author of “The Discovery of France,” “Parisians: An Adventure History Of Paris,” “Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century” and several biographies.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Prospect: What did the Druids ever do for us? An interview with Graham Robb — “We tend to think of the efficient transmission of information as a feature of our own society. But one of the things that seems to have amazed the Romans is the way that the different [Celtic] tribes could form alliances at very short notice over huge distances.”

The Christian-Science Monitor: The Discovery Of Middle Earth — “At the heart of ‘The Discovery of Middle Earth’ is a profound meditation on the nature of knowledge itself: not just its discovery or intrinsic value, but also (and perhaps centrally) how susceptible it is to being lost or corrupted. The  Via Heraklea may be the example that Robb picks apart in detail, but other examples dance like flames throughout the pages of the book: the Antikythera Mechanism, a gear-driven mechanical ‘hand-held computer’ from the 2nd Century BC that acted as a complex calendar and navigation aid; the immense loss of ancient Druidic scholarship, which lived and eventually died through oral memory; and the burning of the Library of Alexandria, one of the great tragedies of the ancient world.”

Los Angeles Times: Graham Robb’s ‘Discovery of Middle Earth’ offers a new look at Celts — “Indeed, although the Druids were the learned elite of the ancient Celts, they are better known today as the inspiration for such flaky goings on as the gathering at Stonehenge of ersatz Druids in white robes celebrating the summer solstice. (Stonehenge actually antedates the Druids by millenniums.) They seem an odd subject for the critically praised biographer of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud, a historian whose previous works seldom look back further than the French Revolution.”

Read An Excerpt Of “The Discovery Of Middle Earth” By Graham Robb

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  • RolloMartins

    No one knows what the Druids thought nor the true nature of their religion. It is gone into the void. All the stuff you see in the Celtic nations, in the festivals and such, are just conjurings of ad-men. Cymru am byth!

  • Gourdbanjo

    In “The Conquest of Gaul,” Caesar has quite a bit to say about the Druids, including that they officiated at human sacrifices: “they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious.”

    • Chris Burr

      The Romans and the Carthaginians were also know to resort to human sacrifice at times of crisis so this may not have been read in the same way by Caesar’s contemporaries as it is by more modern readers.

      • Coastghost

        However, Pliny reports (Natural History 29.57) that the Romans annually commemorated the 387 BC Gallic capture of Rome by crucifying dogs each August 3, a practice that seems to’ve lasted for almost 500 years. (Rome’s guard dogs had failed to alert the home guard, whereas geese dedicated to Juno had squawked dutifully, though perhaps a bit tardily.)
        Polybius reports in his Histories (10.15) that, upon taking a city, Romans commonly would not only slaughter people but would also cut dogs in half or hack off their limbs.
        (SPQR was the motto initialism on Roman coins and standards, not SPCA.)

    • keltcrusader

      Since the Romans were there to conquer and subjugate the Celts, it would stand to reason that they would offer all sorts of outrageous things they supposedly did to make their slaughter more acceptable. Don’t all conquerors go after the makers and keepers of laws and those who promote wisdom first & foremost in order to bring down the whole group?

  • Labropotes

    Has there ever been a more gracious man than Mr. Robb? He finds something fascinating to reflect on with each caller. “I’m so glad to talk to a jeweler…” “Yes! Romans did comment on…” To use the jargon of scholarship, what a great guy!

  • Coastghost

    In the population of recovered “bog people”: how many are thought to’ve been Celtic personages, compared to Germanic or Scandinavian personages? (Many bog people seem to’ve been executed by hanging or strangulation, with and without perforations and impalements.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/janet.reedman.5 Janet Reedman

      It is hard to say as parts of Denmark, Netherlands and Germany (areas of mainland Europe where bog bodies are found) were celtic territories in the Iron Age. The tribes were quite difficult to tell apart according to the Romans and may have had some customs in common. The more obviously ‘celtic’ depositions may have a little more of the ‘ritualistic’ about them, whereas some of the Germanic ones more of a practical, such as punishment for adultery and other crimes.

  • Coastghost

    Commendable supplementary sourcebook (Oxford Univ. Pr.): Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2nd ed., 2009), Daniel Ogden tr. and ed.
    Even with the Roman source matter, no citations of Celtic practices, still it offers loads of valuable context.

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