21 Lessons of Hogwash

An Excerpt from Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism

Copyright © 2006 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

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In 1993, a book was published called 21 Lessons of Merlyn: a Study in Druid Magic & Lore, by Douglas Monroe. Many people in the Druidic and Celtic Reconstructionist movements, as well as historians, Celtic scholars, and botanists, have never forgiven Llewellyn Publications for this act, which was made even worse by the release of The Lost Books of Merlyn in 1998. It's difficult to explain why these works so offended and horrified knowledgeable scholars without descending to extremely rude language. But the reader deserves to know why Douglas Monroe is on so many modern druids' "not-wanted" lists. Unfortunately, there are so many, many mistakes in his writing that it is difficult to know where to begin.

He quotes constantly from Iolo Morganwyg, hardly ever with attribution (see below), yet denounces the Mesopagan Druid orders [started by Iolo] for being based on Christian Welsh bardic traditions. He references various Irish and Welsh manuscripts, but ignores any scholarship younger than forty years ago.

His Imaginary Sourcebook

In the first book, Monroe claims that all his material comes from The Book of Pheryllt, a supposed sixteenth century manuscript of secret druidic lore. As medievalist Lisa Spangenberg puts it, in What is the Book of Pheryllt?,

"Drivel" is the most polite way I can refer to Monroe's claims. There is no such sixteenth century manuscript. Monroe's recent "sequel" to 21 Lessons of Merlyn, The Lost Books of Merlyn is an obvious fake from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, full of egregious factual errors and offensive sexist and racist assumptions. At best it is a piece of poorly thought out fiction; it has absolutely no scholarly value at all. Monroe clearly knows nothing about ancient Celtic practices, languages, druids, botany, or mythology, and his ritual practices are derived from modern Wicca and ceremonial magic rather than authentic ancient Pagan Celtic practice.

Pheryllt is the Welsh spelling for Virgil; the Latin V in Vergilius goes to an initial "F" in Welsh, which in medieval manuscripts may be written "Ph." You may also see "ff," as in fferyllt. The Book of Pheryllt then, is a reference to The Book of Virgil. Virgil is the Latin poet who wrote the Eclogues and The Aeneid and lived 70-19 BCE. During his lifetime, Virgil was famed as a poet and his works became classics soon after his death. Both Christians and Pagans would select a passage at random from Virgil's works as method of divination. The Roman Emperor Hadrian is said to have consulted the sortes Vergilianae in an effort to inquire into his future. Virgil's fourth Eclogue (written circa 41 or 40 BCE) was thought by many, including St. Jerome, to predict the birth of Christ. ... There are numerous medieval references to Virgil as a magician, and folklore about his prowess continued to multiply until the Renaissance.

The central Welsh reference to the Book of Pheryllt is in the late sixteenth century Welsh prose tale the Hanes Taliesin in which Ceridwen is described as knowledgeable about gelfyddyd Llyfrau Pheryllt, or "the art of the Books of Virgil," in reference to a spell intended to make her son wise. This reference is not to a genuine book, but rather to the myth of Virgil the wondrous magician. The scribe, needing a suitable magical text, seized upon Virgil as the magician's magician.

On the one occasion when Monroe offered to show proof of the existence of this book, the photocopies he showed a group of (dare I say it?) "real" druids was recognized by several of us as pages from [Iolo Morganwyg's] Bardas. Later it was discovered that the four pages he showed us were of the very ones that had been cut with a razor blade from the New York Public Library's rare book room copy!

His "ancient druidic spells" are just as fake. My favorite is the reference to the "three ancient Spells of Making, the three master triads of the Druids!" Now the name of these is stolen from the hilariously bad Arthurian movie, Excalibur. This spell, which goes something like "Anal Nathrock, Uthvass Bethud, Dochiel Dienve" in the movie, isn't Welsh of any flavor, as Michael Everson points out in an essay called Merlin's Charm of Making, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense in Welsh, Irish, or English! But then, the actual text of the one Spell of Making that Monroe presents (in badly transliterated form) isn't much better: "A elfyntodd dwyr sinddyn duw cerrig yr fferllurig nwyn os syriaeth ech saffaer tu fewr echlyn mor necrombor llun." This more or less means something like, "Elements of water which lead the god of rocks that mail hunger if knighthood your sapphire the great side of the axis as dark as the moon." Wow! What great and powerful poetry that isn't--in any language.

His Historical Errors

Let's see, where to begin. Monroe has the druids, and the Book of Pheryllt, coming from Atlantis, a place modern scientists know never existed (at least as it is usually described) in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He claims that the Paleopagan Druids were all vegetarians, though this supposed fact shows up nowhere in the Celtic heroic literature where it would be expected to be mentioned amid all the descriptions of feasts. Some or all of the druid caste might have been, after all most of their brother Brahmin caste are, but we have no evidence of it in Celtica.

Some of Monroe's mistakes can be forgiven as having been common "facts" thirty years ago, such as "druid" coming from roots meaning "oak-man," a confusion from the fact that it is related to Indo-European and Proto-Celtic roots having to do with strength, firmness, and oak trees (see Appendix E). Others will be obvious by this point in this book--he uses the four classical (and Wiccan) elements of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water instead of the Three Worlds or Three Realms. He insists that the sun is masculine and the moon is feminine, despite Celtic peoples having had solar, lunar, and earth deities of both genders. He leaves the sacred birds and animals out of his descriptions of druidism, despite the important role they played in the myths and legends.

Monroe uses other bits of western (Judeo-Christian) ceremonial magical tradition, including four elemental tools, correspondences to the astrological planets, tarot cards, Mesopotamian deities, etc., claiming them all to be druidic. He mixes up his Gaulish, Welsh, and Irish deities, and has the Germanic goddess Eostre and the Roman god Janus described as Celtic. He claims that ogham was used only for divination, when we have plenty of Celtic grave stones with ogham writing upon them; the divinatory use of ogham is a modern invention (see Chapter 19). He uses the modern Wiccan calendar of eight holidays instead of the ancient druid one of four. It just goes on and on (for a page-by-page listing of these errors and many others, visit Ceisiwr Serith's review).

This makes it all the more ironic that his Web site quotes the Welsh druid saying "Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd: the Truth Against the World," while describing his group as "a Gnostic Brotherhood committed to upholding the ancient Druid tradition." That's odd--the ancient gnostics weren't druids or vice versa... He just doesn't seem to be able to open his mouth without telling a whopper!

His Botanical Mistakes

Druids, of course, are historically renowned for being knowledgeable about plants, especially healing herbs, so we should expect Monroe's Merlyn character to be the same. So in the first book he makes references to pumpkins as having been "sacred druid trees" and lists echinacea and goldenseal as having been among their healing herbs--without mentioning the herbs which we know they really did use (see Tree Medicine Tree Magic, by Hopman). He also explains how to make a tincture of mistletoe without mentioning that the berries are deadly poisonous, or whether he is referring to European or American mistletoe, which have very different medicinal properties. Of course, he obviously doesn't know the differences between European and American plants, because goldenseal, echinacea, and pumpkins are all New World plants that the Paleopagan Druids would never have known. Apparently Monroe knows nothing about them either, because he has Merlyn telling Arthur to garnish a pumpkin soup with fresh pumpkin blossoms--in early November!

His Misogyny

Monroe's books positively drip with disdain for women, ignoring the many historical and mythic references to female druids, bards, seers, healers, and warriors. Here's a typical exchange between kindly old Merlyn and cute, blonde Arthur:

"See what we have here?" Merlyn exclaimed, "Nothing less than a true life case-in-point, courtesy of Mother Nature! Observe closely. The larger spider is the female, and she is preying upon the male. Why? Because now that they have mated and his life-force is within her, he poses nothing but a threat to her un-born young--and so she absorbs him as well. So you see, Arthur, it is not for nothing that the female has come to be called: deadliest of the species!" Again Merlyn smiled, and gave me a friendly slap on the back. Laughing at a point well-done, we made across the field once more.

Oh, yeah, I'm sure druidesses such as Banbhuana, Fedelm, Nessa, and Bridget would have found that a real howler!

Monroe seems to believe that only men can be intellectual, assertive, and active, while women are supposedly "better suited" to being emotional, demure, and passive. He claims that the Paleopagan Druids were all celibate men, which unfortunately would have made it difficult to produce heirs for their caste--not to mention the many Irish and Welsh references to sons and daughters of druids.

Ellen Evert Hopman, in an open letter to Monroe, says:

But now let us examine your views: to be born as a man indicates a need to develop the qualities of intellect, assertiveness and outer world mastery. To be born as a woman indicates a need to develop passive, emotional, inner-world qualities. As we have seen from the examples of Celtic deities and queens, the ancients felt that women were just as capable as men of being warriors, healers, artists, etc.

[You say that] women absorb life energy, while men radiate it. This is a fascinating concept that points to a pathological fear some men have that women will somehow steal their life force by absorbing their semen. If it were true that women absorbed the life force how on earth could they nurture a baby in their womb ? Women's bodies give life, in the form of milk, warmth, nurturing, their very blood.

The Non-Response

So how does Monroe answer his many, many critics? By restating his claims (this is known as "assertionism," the idea that if you just keep saying the same thing over and over again it becomes true). He insults the scholars pointing out his errors, changes the subject, and calls upon the authority of other New Age or Pagan authors who are notorious for the poor quality of their research. He skips around the sexism and misogyny by claiming that he is only talking about separate-but-equal magical systems based on the "gender polarity" of male and female psychic energy (as in Wicca). As for the reality of The Book of Pheryllt, he says in The Lost Books of Merlyn,

Well ... let it be stated for the records, that this author has no intention whatsoever in "disputing the experts," for the question is without value to him. Why? Because my concern is not how authentic my sources are; this, one may only guess at, but rather how effective their philosophies and methodologies. I merely state that the manuscript--forged or original, ancient or recent--exists as an absolutely fascinating collection of writings, and that the framework works. Here objectivity ceases, when I state what I have come to believe through studying the text: that most of the fragments are very old, and are remnant of genuine mystic tradition; this is my assertion wholly.

How very interesting. Mesopagan Druids sometimes make the sincere argument that the magical/psychic/spiritual validity of a custom or belief is not the same thing as its historical authenticity, and that sometimes the former is more important to them. Fair enough. Many of Monroe's readers have claimed that they found the book useful from a magical point of view (although how anyone other than an absolute beginner could believe that, I don't know). Except that, as independent Indo-European scholar and excellent Pagan author Cei Serith mentions (in the above linked review),

The book itself, and the back cover, claims the book to be "authentic druidry." The back cover alone uses the word "authentic" three times, and "genuine" once. Now I know that Monroe may not have written the back cover, but I do know that almost all of the back cover [copy] of my own book came from my submission letter, so I would suspect that he at least had a hand in it, and he makes the claim in the text as well.

As another author, I can confirm that most publishers run the intended cover text pass their authors before printing. Certainly in the conversation Monroe had with myself and other druids at the Starwood festival many years ago, he claimed that the Book of Pheryllt and the druidic teachings based upon it were absolutely genuine--until we recognized his photocopies. The real reason he doesn't care whether modern druids or scholars believe in his claims is that those claims have made him thousands of dollars. The fact that naive readers might follow his advice and poison themselves doesn't seem to bother him much. It's nice that his magical system "works" for some readers, but this doesn't change the fact that it's far more Wiccan and ceremonial magical than druidic. So I agree with Cei Serith: "Bottom line: Friends don't let friends buy the 21 Lessons of Merlyn."


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