Usually the most fascinating figures of history are those we know least about. Our knowledge of the Vikings and Celts is certainly much greater than it once was, and continues to expand, but our understanding of who the Druids were and what their functions precisely entailed is still largely a mystery, though specious rumors and off-the-wall legends abound.
We do know they held priestly office among the Celts, especially those Celts inhabiting the British Isles, and that they served as observers of the natural sciences, philosophers, arbiters of law (on occasion), and magicians. They held the oak tree in high esteem as a religious symbol, were fond of human sacrifice, and were both feared and respected by the superstitious and pagan people to whom they acted as guides.
Their version of human sacrifice could be particularly appalling. One source describes the Wicker Man, a huge wooden structure made to resemble a man in which victims were placed and burned alive. Perhaps it's this extremely dark element that makes the Druids particularly interesting, the creepy aspect of history that makes some people want to know more.
The Vikings had their share of barbarisms, especially before the advent of Christianity, but they were more open about them. The practice of bending two trees until their tops met, then tying a man to both and letting the trees tear him in two, is certainly one of the more horrifying Viking execution methods, though they too made frequent human sacrifices to placate their bloodthirsty and frequently angry gods.
Popular depictions of both Celts and Vikings have tended to obscure the cultural distinctives of each group, portraying Celts with Viking attributes, and Vikings who dress and fight like Celts. One of the main differences between Celt and Viking was the more settled nature of the former, and the roving, raiding, and traveling of the other. Sure, the Celts had their share of horse thieves, and certainly the Vikings always had a home base from which to operate, but by and large the Celts stayed a lot closer to home.
Part of this may have been the climates in which both groups lived. The Celts settled primarily in Western Europe and the British Isles, temperate regions well-suited to agriculture and gathering, places with forceful but not overly harsh winters. The Vikings, on the other hand, lived in the far north of Europe, in places with names like Iceland, that told the truth, and Greenland, that was only true part of the year.
Whatever the reasons, the Celts moved around a lot initially, but settled in the West; the Vikings were permanently based in the North, but moved constantly, finding new places to attack and plunder. The Celts were very warlike themselves, but tended to fight each other or the native populations rather than picking fights with outsiders.
Eventually, however, the Vikings turned their attention to the Celtic settlements, and by 1000 A.D. had taken over most of the British Isles and large parts of France. By the time the British and French people emerged as identifiable groups, the Viking populations had assimilated, and were indistinguishable as a separate entity.
Both the Celts and the Vikings were among the first Europeans to readily embrace the Christian faith when it reached them, and the ensuing religious zeal produced a number of great Christian missionaries, including St. Patrick, St. Columba, and St. Brendan. Initial responses were hostile (the warlike people thought Christ was weak), but once they came to see the truth of the Gospel there was no dissuading them from spreading it.
Which at times had less-than-ideal consequences. On more than one occasion, fervent Vikings were known to force conversions at sword point, though this was soon taken in hand by church leaders. It served to demonstrate, though, the nature of Viking life, with its emphasis on vigor, robust living, and grit.
The Druids and the Viking priests did their best to hang on after Christianity took root, and there were even moments of pagan revival, but for the most part Christianity spelled the end for the earth-worshipping heathen. The communities they served are well documented, but the shadowy men in white behind the scenes remain as shadowy as the northern fog among the fjords or on the heathered moor, where it is probably best they stay.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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