Druids, Brahmins, Buddhist empires, and the fall of Constantinople

290px-Gandhara_Buddha_(tnm)

Modern Druidry is hugely influenced by Iolo Morganwg, the eighteenth-century genius: poet, religious reformer, and political radical.

Iolo’s Barddas forms the core of religious Druidry, rather than the psychotherapy-influenced Druidry of OBOD, for example.

In Barddas, Iolo sets out the concept of the soul’s journey from Annwn, through Abred, to Gwynfyd; from the least, barely sentient, form of life, through endless reincarnations, to the world of spirit (where the soul continues to change and move towards greater enlightenment).

Iolo was inspired by his reading of Asian literature, particularly that of Hinduism. In his day, the British were active in India through the East India Company, and the loss of the American colonies was beginning the expansionist drive that would eventually lead to the Raj, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire. In this period, the British in India (according to William Dalrymple in City of Djinns) were still very curious about, and sympathetic to, Indian culture; the “scientific racism” of the nineteenth century was yet to poison the views of the Europeans.

In Bard of Liberty,  Geraint H. Jenkins covers how Iolo was familiar with Charles Wilkins‘ translation of the Bhagavad Gita. One of his heroes was his fellow Welshman William Jones, a Welsh-speaker from an Anglesey family, who founded the still-active Asiatic Society, as well as being a campaigner on social issues. Iolo was an avid reader of the Society’s research publication, the Asiatick Review; he would have been very knowledgable about Indian thought and belief. All of this study (and much more) informed his interpretation and description of Druidic theology in Barddas.

To a modern reader, this may seem inauthentic. After all, this was based on eighteenth-century learning, of imperial contact with the distant lands of South Asia – hardly “authentic” druidry, eh?

But this, I think, is a symptom of our contemporary ignorance; of the poverty of our contemporary understanding of the world of antiquity.

We know that the Druids of Caesar’s time believed in reincarnation, just as the Hindus did, and do.:

 They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another […].

The modern sceptic might suggest that this is just coincidence; that India was too far away to be relevant.

The answer to this is: not so. That’s a modern fallacy, as result of the Fall of Constantinople on 29 May, 1453.

That was a critical event in Western history. For the first time since… well, perhaps in human history, the final Ottoman victory over the Byzantines severed the very, very, ancient trade paths between Europe and East Asia. The Silk Road was closed.

The consequences were earth-shaking. Deprived of silks, and spices, and all of the other valuable goods that had reached Europe overland since Antiquity, the Europeans were forced to seek the sources out by sea. Goods that had been obtained by overland trade were now won by naval conquest. The age of Exploration began, and rapidly became the Age of Empires.

While all this happened, deprived of all their old contacts and knowledge of the East for several hundred years, Europe (and its later offshoots) forgot what it had known of Asia.

And that was a lot.

Caesar describes the Druidic belief in reincarnation. He also tells us that the Druids refused to write down their teachings but:

in almost all other matters,in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters

The Druids were highly literate, and they read, and wrote in, Greek characters.

The role of the Greeks has been forgotten in contemporary culture. If we think of the ancient world, we generally think of the Romans. To the extent that we think of Greece, we think of Sparta and Athens, perhaps: vaguely aware of there having been some activity around the Mediterranean and the Aegean, but not sure what.

But the Greeks were everywhere. There were Greek colonies all around the Mediterranean: in the Levant (now Lebanon and Syria); in north Africa; in southern Gaul, where they would have interacted with the Druids. The Greeks visited Britain, to buy tin.

Caesar was writing in the 50s BC. His campaigns in Britain were in 55BC and 54BC. Let’s use those dates for some context.

Centuries earlier, in 401 BC to 399 BC, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand – an army of Greek mercenaries – marched to the further reaches of Iraq and back – and though the story has resounded through the ages, the fact of Greeks going that far, and coming back, wasn’t regarded as being in any way remarkable. At the conclusion of their long retreat, the army knew they were safe when they saw The Sea! The Sea! That sea was the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea – Trebizond – and their joy was because they knew Trebizond was a Greek colony, and they had finally left the Persians behind. Two thousand years later, Trebizond was the heart of the Empire of Trebizond: a Greek-speaking successor state to Greek-speaking Constantinople.

Caesar was famous for his affair with Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt. Cleopatra was a Greek: a member of the Ptolemys – descendants of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals.

Alexander conquered vast territories in Asia between 334 and 324BC. He conquered modern-day Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and much of Afghanistan and Pakistan. His Greek soldiers marched ever eastwards and, on the way, built new cities where veteran soldiers settled. These new cities (colonies) became the centre of Greek-speaking kingdoms, where Greek culture fused with the local culture. These cities formed a chain, linking Greece with India to the East, and with south Gaul and Spain to the West.

If you have a Buddha statue in your home, it’s because of Alexander the Great. His empire led to Greco-Buddhism, the thousand-year long interaction between Classical Greek culture, and the Buddhist culture of northern India. Before that time, Buddhist art had not included representations of human figures; that came from the influence of Greek art.

One of the greatest Greco-Buddhist rulers was Menander 1, who ruled in much of northern India and Afghanistan  between roughly 155-130 BC – a century before Caesar arrived in Britain.

And wouldn’t you know it: coins from Menander’s empire have been found in Britain, along with other coins from Indo-Scythian kingdoms which similarly pre-date the Roman conquest of Britain.

This tells us that in the days of the Druids, there was contact between Britain and northern India. This contact happened through the cultural and trade networks of the Greeks. It doesn’t mean that specific individuals travelled from the Atlantic to Afghanistan and back – but there’s no reason why that might not have happened, as the achievements of Xenophon and others shows us.

The Druids almost certainly knew about the philosophies of Asia. Both they and the Greeks were curious, inquisitive, and philosophical. They would have wanted to know, and they would have thought about what they learned.

Thus, Iolo’s doctrine of reincarnation in Barddas, and Caesar’s description of Druidic belief in reincarnation, are not separate and unconnected. Nor are Iolo’s ideas in any way ‘inauthentic’. Rather, Barddas marks the re-establishment of a very, very ancient connection between Celtic thought and the belief systems of Asia; a connection that is increasingly being shown to have been a strong, two-way exchange over millennia (at some point in time I’ll get around to talking about the blue-eyed, plaid-wearing mummies of the Taklamakan Desert in Central Asia, and the acupuncture marks on the Iceman of the Alps).

Iolo Morganwg read broadly about Hinduism, and probably Buddhism. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge, and absolute mastery of, traditional Welsh lore – poetry, law, and customs. According to Jenkins, it is documented that Iolo studied the two in parallel, looking for common points and parallels, and that would have fed into Barddas.

So, to the extent that modern Druidry leans on Buddhist thought, or Daoism, or Hinduism: it’s not inauthentic, it’s patching gaps with material from the same, ancient philosophical well…

Update:

I’ll add some further information that I’ve been reminded of:

  • Xenephon, described above, wrote about Celtic warriors fighting in Greece. in the 4th century BC.
  • In 323 BC, Alexander the Great met Celtic delegates in Babylon.
  • The Galatians were a group of Celts who settled in Anatolia, in the area around Ankara in modern-day Turkey. They conquered this territory (named after them: Galatia) in 279 BC, and were still present as a distinct people in the late 300s AD. During this nearly 600-year period, they fought the states around them, including the Persians, and provided mercenaries for all kinds of employers. It is very likely that many of them travelled to the Greco-Buddhist kingdoms to the east and/or to Gaul in the West. Many of their place-names refer to oaks, and it is assumed that they followed the religion of the Druids.
  • The Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt (also referred to above) used Celtic mercenaries in very large numbers during the period between the death of Alexander the Great, and the death of Cleopatra. Some of these Galatian warriors left graffiti in perfect Greek. Being Galatians, they would have had Druids, who would have been in communication with the broader community of Druids.
  • The Roman historian Justin, probably writing in the 2nd Century AD, and discussing the period of Alexander the Great’s father Philip, and the rise of Macedonia, says “The kings of the east then carried on no wars without a mercenary army of Gauls; nor, if  they were driven from their thrones, did they seek protection with any other people than the Gauls. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, and the unvaried good fortune of  their arms, that princes thought they could neither maintain their power in security, nor recover it if lost, without the assistance of Gallic valour”. Thus, Celtic warriors, and by extension the Druids, were very familiar with the royal courts of Asia, and would have known all about their religions.
  • Athena in China: a very interesting article about the coins of the Greco-Buddhist kingdoms, and their connection with Greek culture.
  • Some evidence for people of ‘East Asian’ ancestry living in Roman London: “In the past, such contacts and trade have been considered to be extremely infrequent and largely indirect, but the evidence from Vagnari and now London suggest that this judgement perhaps ought to be partially revisited and that a greater degree of contact and movement between the eastern and western extremes of Eurasia may now need to be allowed for”.

Image Credits: Gautama Buddha. Public Domain, Link

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