Recreating a vanished Celtic society through the eyes of a scholar traveling in the first century B.C.
Historian Freeman (Classics/Luther Coll.), who has written extensively on ancient Celtic culture, languages and interaction with classical civilizations of Rome and Greece, here focuses on surviving fragments from the writings of the Syrian-born (ca. 135 B.C.) Greek philosopher Posidonius. There are problems, however, since almost all of Posidonius’s writings on his extensive travels, primarily through lands of the Gaulish tribes in Western Europe, have been lost and are accessible only through other contemporary and later writers. The author ably bridges gaps in the record, but the speculative refrain of “surely Posidonius” did this or that in the company of Celts, or visited a particular tribal capitol, etc., does become distracting. His point is well taken that at least here was a learned person putting himself at risk in order to apprehend Celtic culture for posterity with no particular axe to grind—or wield, as in the case of another prolific reporter on Celtic customs, their Roman conqueror Julius Caesar (whom Freeman also cites). Somewhat out of kilter with the book’s title, the focus does not narrow to the Druids, specifically, until near the end, with Freeman acknowledging that “All the Greek and Latin passages we have left on the ancient Druids would fit comfortably on a single sheet of paper.” Nonetheless, the author confidently builds on archaeological evidence of their role in Celtic society; they did not worship trees, he asserts, although mistletoe was commonly used in rites that did include “occasional” human sacrifices. When at his best, Freeman clearly connects touchstones of Celtic culture to practices that persisted in Ireland, some even into the 20th century.
A brisk and illuminating overview of how Celts impacted their world and ours.