Notes on Jean-Louis Brunaux’s Les druides: des philosophes chez les Barbares (Part 1)

I picked up Jean-Louis Brunaux’s Les druides: des philosophes chez les Barbares on accident at the national library here in the city (I was there for completely different kinds of books, you know how it is). The book, however, is a smash hit, and has ended up being hugely helpful. In particular, it’s helped with the clarifying and linking together of historical concepts that have been floating around in my mind for decades — and often, while I could intuit that there were links missing between all these notions, I lacked the education and the experience to explain why. Enter Brunaux, who brings his considerable expertise and sassy historian wit to the stage.

Please note that these notes are far from complete and are posted here for my own sake. Enjoy at your own risk!

Historicity and Mythbusting

  • Beginning in his Introduction and revisiting this theme over and over again throughout the entirety of the book, Brunaux does a good job of demonstrating why our modern understandings of Gaulish and Celtic are still ambiguous at best because of their protohistorical nature. Protohistorical, Brunaux tells me, is when we have a civilization whose people either did not use written records or whose written records did not survive to us in the modern age, as so we have to read what their often far-away neighbours were writing about them.
  • He spends a bit of time addressing a lot of French (not to mention pan-Celtic) nationalist propaganda in the early parts of the book, as well as some basic myth-busting. The big one for French readers who grew up on Astérix is that he has to explain that the megaliths (dolmens, standing stones and stone tombs such as the graves of Gavrinis off the coast of Morbihan) are separated by at the very least a thousand years from the druids described by the ancient Greeks and Romans (if not much more). A good myth to keep busting, in my opinion.
  • On nostalgic propaganda, he also is very critically engaging with the Gaulois ou Celtes question and not only how it’s been weaponized against a clear-eyed view of history but also how it’s been used over the centuries to support various political, nationalistic, ethnocentric, and even racist agendas. As he writes early in the book (I cite the original French, as the text is clear enough to survive machine translation more or less intact):

Gaulois ou Celtes? Il ne s’agit pas seulement d’une querelle de définitions. Elle a pris aussi une forme idéologique pernicieuse. L’évocation par les historiens antiques d’une Gaule homogène, à défaut d’être unie, a servi un nationalisme français dont l’acmé s’est située entre la guerre de 1870 et la Première Guerre mondiale. Ses excès ont entraîné une réaction vigoureuse au cours de la seconde moitié du XX𝑒 siècle: l’idée d’une nation politiquement unie dès l’Antiquité a été, à juste raison, critiquée, mais avec une telle vigueur que progressivement les archéologues et les historiens ont renoncé à parler de Gaulois, privilégiant le mot Celtes pour nommer les habitants de la Gaule. Dans le même temps, les tenants du «celtisme» ont renforcé leurs positions en s’appuyant sur les progrès de l’étude des langues et surtout en bénéficiant de l’avènement d’une nouvelle discipline, le comparatisme indo-européen. [… ] Les Celtes y apparaissent comme un peuple, issu de l’histoire la plus ancienne et la plus noble, qui aurait résisté l’influence des civilisations méditerranéennes et qu’on retrouverait par conséquent aussi pur qu’au premier jour en plein Moyen Âge irlandais. Il est ainsi devenu possible à certains de nos contemporains de revendiquer leur appartenance à cette grand civilisation qui aurait traversé sans encombre les âges et dont quelques langues régionales paraîtraient le plus précieux témoignages. [Cette «panceltisme»] absorbe, comme un éponge, tous les progrès de l’histoire et de l’archéologie, elle fonctionne comme une «nostalgie». (13-14)

The Wisdom of the Druids

In Chapter III, Brunaux digs up the comments of a Greek writer who did mention the druids but whose comments are often overlooked because — and I paraphrase Brunaux here — those comments are chaotic and abusive. That Greek writer is Diogenes Laërtius1. In one passage of Diogenes’ writing, he dismisses the entire idea that “philosophy could have begun with the Barbarians,” (113, translation mine) declaring:

Those that declare that Gymnosophists and Druids do philosophy say that they do so by making declarations that are deliberately obscure that one has to honour the gods, do nothing that is evil, and work one’s body into peak physical shape. (113, translation mine)

Basically, Brunaux argues that despite his abusive and chaotic “conciseness”, Diogenes is actually revealing four basic characteristics of the wisdom of the druids that might have been historically attested.

  1. That they may have had enough in common with the gymnosophists from a Hellenistic perspective to be grouped together, which Brunaux theorises has something to do with their positioning in society. Gymnosophists were considered to be in every way sacred and their respect in society was unquestioned. Brunaux theorises that druids commanded similar respect from their peoples, and might have held at one point a position above the rest of the human community, “their contact having something of the sacred, in both the Latin senses of sacer, sacred and taboo.” (114, translation mine) For more notes on the sociopolitical roles of druids, see my notes on The Political Functions of Druids below.
  2. Honouring the gods would be a completely banal observation if it wasn’t for the fact that in none of the early Greek commentators is the word “priest” used to describe the druids. Brunaux explains that this probably implies that the druids placed their own authority second to the gods. This is not very different from most of the writings of the great Greek philosophers that have survived to our time. Brunaux explains, however, that Diogenes as a biographer of Greek historians believed that the great Greek philosophers used belief in the gods in order to validate and give power to their own teachings. By listing honouring the gods first in his short list, Brunaux holds that Diogenes betrays his own bias against the druids’ religious piety.
  3. “Do nothing that is evil” is very interesting to me, as this seems to me as the foundation of moral philosophy (I suppose Diogenes and I might differ on this). I do wonder greatly what definitions of evil were being used here. Or even which original greek words were being used by Diogenes.
  4. On the bit about peak physical shape, as Brunaux writes:

These exaltations of courage and warrior virtues from the mouth of a philosopher can surprise us. This should not be the case. Numerous are the Greek and Roman thinkers who chose this subject for their reflections. Bravery and warrior prouesse are important virtues because a city, to flourish, has to be defended. […] We’ve seen that with the ancient Celts, between the Iron Age and the IV𝑒 century before JC, aristocrats and warriors spent a rather large portion of their time exercising their bodies for war and horseback-riding but also for its simple beauty. (116, my translation)

I do love the bit about “making declarations that are deliberately obscure” about all these subjects, too. Brunaux confirms that in other Greek writers’ interactions with druids, the use of apóphthegma (apophtegme in French, maxim in English) were commonly used by the druids. They were also very commonly used by the Ancient Greeks, too, as one of the Seven Sages of the Greeks, Chilon of Sparta, was fond of saying:

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν. “Know thyself” 2

The Political Functions of the Druids

Building on the societal and political characteristics of these ancient Druids, Brunaux on page 136 cites Dion de Pruse (also known as Dion Chrystostome) on this subject:

The Celts have those they call Druids, versed in the arts of divination and all sciences. Kings were not permitted to act or make any decisions without their input. As such it can be said that it was the Druids who commanded and the kings were their ministers, servants of their wisdom, sitting on golden thrones, living in magnificent households and holding sumptuous feasts.

Brunaux points out that based on the style of writing and the content, it seems like Dion is using a much older source about the function of the druids, but mixing it with later sources, as others have put forth that the kings mentioned by Dion are the ones on the British Isles. The idea of a golden throne and sumptuous feasts in magnificent houses is an anachronistic contradiction that doesn’t rhyme with our understandings of either the Gauls in the three centuries before our era, nor the insular Celts of the British isles or Ireland at the beginning of our era.3 (137)

Brunaux proposes instead that Dion might be citing older sources now lost to us, from as far back as the end of the VI 𝑒 and into the V 𝑒 before our era, when there might have been Celtic kings on the continent in the greek sense of the word king, rich enough to be cut off from material realities and living in unimaginable luxury.

The second part of Dion’s text worth lingering on is the emphasis on divination, and if Brunaux’s theory is right that Dion is copying information from a much older text, could possibly hint to the first or primary function of the druids, the origin of their specialization. (138) Their skill for divination comes up in many other Greek writers, including Pliny the Elder’s.

Other Notes

  • While I’m personally rather familiar with Julius Cesar’s La Guerre des Gaules (English version available online here) because I’ve been slowly reading it over the last couple years, I’m pretty ignorant of most of the Greek philosophers, commenters, and historians that Brunaux relies on, except maybe for the most famous one in the book, Pliny the Elder. I particularly enjoyed Brunaux contextualizing of each Greek writer and how he was able to reconstruct their works (since fragments are all that remains). The parts on Poseidonios in Chapter VII and Chapter VIII (on the Gaulish religion) were particularly fascinating and worth revisiting in a future blog post.

Image at the header of this blog post is the 1883 illustration “The Last Druids” by Alphonse de Neuville.


  1. It might be the case that, after Diogenes’ use of “Barbarian philosophers” in his second century BCE Vitae, subsequent uses of “barbarian philosophers” chiefly referred to Gaulish Druids. (Source: Jane Webster’s At the End of the World: Druidic and Other Revitalization Movements in Post-Conquest Gaul and Britain)
  2. Found via LVDVS SEPTEM SAPIENTIVM, The game of Seven Sages, Online Archive
  3. As Brunaux writes, there are serious historical doubts whether there actually were any druids in 1st century Ireland.

4 thoughts on “Notes on Jean-Louis Brunaux’s Les druides: des philosophes chez les Barbares (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Notes on Ancient Fire by Segomâros Widugeni (2018) | Osfairy

  2. Pingback: A few notes on the theorized original characteristics of the Gaulish religion(s) | Osfairy

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