Druids on the Silk Road

Silk Road

The folks behind the Balkan Celts blog recently posted a very, very interesting article: The Celtic Buddha.

The post discusses a stucco head discovered at an archaeological site in eastern Afghanistan. It represents a Celtic man, and is believed to have been sculpted from life – in other words, the artist knew a Celtic man who was on-site. In Afghanistan, possibly in the late Hellenistic age (when the area was conquered and settled by the armies of Alexander the Great), or possibly later, in the early Christian era.

Whoever he was, he was shown with unusually long earlobes. This is a convention used in Buddhist art to indicate that the person being depicted has achieved an advanced level of spiritual development, or enlightenment. It may be, then, that someone had travelled from Celtic lands – and let’s remember that during that period, the nearest Celtic territory was in Galatia, in modern Turkey – to the Greco-Buddhist kingdom in Afghanistan, where he had studied Buddhism and achieved enlightenment. I wonder, though, if such a student would have maintained his Celtic styling of hair and moustache during the long period of study and training that this would have entailed; would he not, at least, have shaved his head? Let us consider the possibility (faint, I admit) that he was a Druid, whose knowledge so impressed the Buddhists that they accepted him as enlightened…

The article also records that the second-century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria and his contemporary, the Christian commentator Origen, both refer to Buddhism being known in the Roman Empire in their time, with Origen even mentioning in passing that Buddhists had been present in pre-Christian Britain.

Shortly after reading this, I chanced to buy a copy of the latest edition (January-February 2020) of The Idler, s British literary magazine. It contained an interview with Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and an acknowledged intellectual. Lo and behold, he refers to a second-century Christian writer, an Alexandria, who was aware of Buddhism. He presumably means Clement. However, he adds a snippet of information not mentioned in the Balkan Celts article:

He’s an Alexandrian, so he knows the trade routes, his teacher had been in India, and he says that this teacher came back to tell us about these extraordinary “naked sages”. So there’s a long tradition of making that connection.

Quite clearly, as Williams points out, these trade routes had been in existence for a long, long, time – they would have been old long before the Christian era.

This was the point I was making when I wrote about this topic before: we know from the surviving historical documents that people were moving between the west of Europe to Afghanistan and back. However, I was only aware of soldiers and traders doing this. I assumed that scholars, philosophers, and priests would be doing the same thing, but I was taking it on faith. Now I know for sure that they were. Furthermore, it seems we have clear evidence that it was in both directions: Celts were studying in Afghanistan, and Buddhists were in Druid-era Britain.

I pointed out in my previous piece that coins from Greco-Buddhist kingdoms were found in Iron-age British archaeological finds, but it was difficult to know whether they had been carried all that way by people who made the whole journey, or whether the coins had been passed from hand to hand along the way. Now it is much easier to assert that travellers made the whole journey, in both directions.

We can now assert, based on physical and literary evidence, that the societies and learned men of Western Europe were in direct contact with the Greco-Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms of Central and South Asia. These contacts lasted for centuries, and was clearly well-known at the time.

Why don’t we know about this? Partly, of course, because so much of the historical record was lost with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. More importantly, though – as I argued in that previous post – it was the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantines, a thousand years later, which finally severed the link between East and West, and which led to the cultures of the west forgetting that it had ever existed.

This is absolutely fascinating material in itself, but it is important for modern Druids as well. It supports the assertion that the concept of reincarnation, and the journey of the soul can legitimately be claimed as part of historical Druidry, not just the revival; it shows that Iolo Morganwg, in setting this at the heart of his inspired vision of Druidry was indeed connecting to an authentic insight.

Image credits: Silk road : A mural made in the 1960s by Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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