Lucan’s Druid Grove

An early Roman Empire era poet called Marcus Annaeus Lucanus and popularly known as Lucan, wrote a long form poem on the Civil War between Caesar, his Populares allies and Pompey with his Optimates allies. The poem was called De Bello Civili or On the Civil War but is often remembered as Pharsalia after the famous and decisive Battle of Pharsalus which led to the later death of Pompey and the dominance of Caesar. In two of the books in the poem he discusses a bizarre Druid grove in Gaul with many nigh supernatural elements. The Druids were religious figures in Gaul and groves were often the sites of religious practice, gods and temples to their specific religion. In contrast to elaborate Roman temples the concept of Druid temples or Celtic religious sites is dubious due to the lack of available archaeological evidence. What Lucan has to offer is even more mysterious.

In his first book he talks about how blood is offered (1.1) to the horrid shrines of Esus (1.2) and cruel altars of Taranis (1.3). Taranis was the Celtic god of thunder while Esus was another god. The implication of blood is that humans were religiously sacrificed to these gods by killing them, a practice the Greeks and Romans abhorred. Lucan refers to the druids returning to their religious practices (1.4) after the war (with Caesar) to show that the Romans had not stopped it. Lucan also gives some information about druids and says that they resided in remote groves and forests (1.5) which seems to imply that is where they conducted their rituals. All of this may seem exciting or interesting to those without knowledge of the druids. Religious men deep in forests sacrificing humans on altars to little understood gods beyond their small domains. That sounds like a horror film or a scene from Game of Thrones. What comes later in Book 3 is far more insidious.

Halfway through Book 3 we arrive at one of these druid groves which we were acquainted with previously as homes of the druids. This description is in keeping with the eerie practice of sacrificing humans although the supernatural steps on stage at this point. Lucan tells of a specific grove which no man has ever touched (2.1). In this grove it was chilly (2.2), devoid of sunlight (2.1), the tree branches were knotted together (2.2) and not a hint of any delightful sylvan nymphs or the god Pan (2.3). No bird sits on the trees (2.6), no animal lives there (2.7) save the snakes coiling round the tree trunks (2.15), no storm blows through the grove (2.7) and no lightning strikes the treetops (2.8). The air is stagnant (2.9) as the leaves trembled (2.10), the caves rumbled with earthquakes (2.13), fires distantly lit would not touch the grove (2.14) and streams poured forth from black fountains (2.11). Strange as this sounds, it is now going to get worse.

This particular grove was described as a place of savage rites, barbarous worship and horrid altars were erected on large stones (2.4). Effigies of the gods that sat in the center of the grove were roughly made from fallen trees (2.12). Men’s blood was smeared on every tree (2.5) and normal men ran from the grove and didn’t worship anywhere near it (2.16). When the Sun hangs high in the sky or during a dark night druids fearfully look for its God (2.17). Lucan also has a follow-up to this grove’s history which comes into the story with Julius Caesar. During the Gallic Wars this grove was unharmed and the hills around it were bare (2.18). Caesar ordered it to be destroyed but the men who had axes hesitated at the dark majesty of the place (2.18). Caesar took an axe and cut down a tall oak declaring the men should be unafraid and he would take all the responsibility for the destruction of the site (2.18). The Romans proceeded to cut the forest down including holms, oaks, cypresses and alders (2.18). As the Gauls wept at the sight the Romans rejoiced (2.18) and the grove laid dead.

It’s quite an engaging story of evil gods living in a remote forest far from the shining center of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately there are a series of problems involved in the tale aside from the fact Lucan never saw it or that animals don’t avoid forests based on our religions. Earlier he described groves as the place where druids dwell but now it is a den of wicked gods. Is this a special exception, a type of grove different from others or typical of groves where druids perform rituals? By describing druids in both of his books as killing humans and the grove as evil it can cause you to assume that this is their entire religion and that they just kill people. As a religious class it is doubtful they were reckless murders since they were well-respected in their communities. Is this a Roman ploy to smear their entire legacy in Celt society, an exaggeration based off of a single grove of ill-repute or something more normal in their civilization?

Lucan lived well after Gaul had been conquered and at least a century after Caesar’s campaign thus the existence of the grove couldn’t be proven and since it was destroyed there is no proof. The feeling of the story is very supernatural and it wouldn’t be a very large stretch of the imagination to think that this story is made up to lend an air of mystique to the druids and Gaul. Druids were also declining as a class under Roman emperors and Gaul was being Romanized thus Lucan has to heavily rely on 2nd, 3rd or even 4th hand accounts of what they were like.  Now we should look at the specifics of Lucan’s poems.

The altars and shrines are mentioned multiple times in association with blood. Are they all bloody all the time? Maybe they’re occasionally bloody but mostly used for alternate purposes. The problem with mentioning them as horrid altars belies the intention to demonize them as solely wretched. It’s not a succinct description of every use they are used for but a narrow window with which we’re forced to examine them through with no attention paid to any deviation. Another point to focus on is where these altars are. Are they in cities, temples, groves, forests or sacred sites? It would make it easier for us to understand their religion if there is a specific idea of a temple. However, if any forest can be the site of an altar then there could be druids anywhere. Thus, our understanding is limited in this poem.

Lucan throws in the idea that there are no sylvan nymphs or Pan in the grove as well. This could be the rather idyllic nature of the Roman conception of a forest. Beautiful trees with glowing sunlight filtering through the leaves upon which butterflies rested and fragrant flowers bloomed all set to the backdrop of birdsong and babbling brooks. Nymphs a plenty, to and fro. Their exclusion easily converts our thoughts into a sinister wood filed with monsters. If we look deeper we could examine a more metaphorical application of these nymphs. Nymphs are nature spirits which maintain nature and Pan is a god of nature. Without them, there is no nature, or the lack of a spirit of nature. The grove was not normal and was in fact paranormal with a unique presence inhabiting the place. If you keep making the connections it would follow that the religious grounds of these druids were not the normal nature Romans were used to in the plains of Italy but the terror of the bloodthirsty northern Gaul and his hellish gods which demanded human sacrifice. All of this from some nymphs but it’s just a thought.

Part of a series on Druids

Sources

Lucan – De Bello Civili (Pharsalia)

Full Poem – http://mcllibrary.org/Pharsalia/

  1. Book 1  – http://mcllibrary.org/Pharsalia/book1.html
    1. 1 Line 498
    1. 2 Line 499
    1. 3 Line 500
    1. 4 Line 506-507
    1. 5 Line 509-510
  2. Book 3 – http://mcllibrary.org/Pharsalia/book3.html

2.1 Lines 454-455

2.2 Line 456

2.3 Lines 457-458

2.4 Lines 458-460

2.5 Lines 460-461

2.6 Lines 462-463

2.7 Lines 463-464

2.8 Line 465

2.9 Line 466

2.10 Lines 466-467

2.11 Lines 467-468

2.12 Lines 468-470

2.13 Line 473

2.14 Lines 474-477

2.15 Lines 476-477

2.16 Lines 477-478

2.17 Lines 478-481

2.18 Lines 482-502

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