Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Isle of the Druids

The Druids bringing in the Mistletoe
by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel 1890
(Glasgow Museum)
It is universally agreed that the Druids derived their name from that superstitious reverence they paid to the oak: "Deru," in the Saxon language, signifying an oak. They were composed of the highest orders of the people, the commonalty, for obvious reasons, being excluded from the arcana of their political system, whereby a strict alliance was formed between the Church and State; and this union rendered them awful to the people, and necessary to those who were placed in elevated stations of life by birth, education, or employment.

Their hair they wore short, but their beards very long. In their hands they carried a wand, and an enchased ornament, called the Druid's egg, was hung about the neck. Their garments – a kind of loose gown – reached down to the ground, but when engaged in religious ceremonies they always wore a surplice.

The Isle of Anglesea was their chief seat of residence, where they had their principal seminary, and held an annual meeting of the States. Such was the reputation of this seat of the muses that the children of the Gauls were sent for education hither. Ireland had its Druids also. The Druids have been distinguished by historians into three orders or classes – namely, (1) Druids, properly so called, (2) Bards, and (3) Vates or Eubates.

Those who ranked under the first class united a secular with an ecclesiastical authority, by regulating all public affairs, presiding over the mysteries of religion, offering all grand expiatory sacrifices, adjusting religious ceremonies; nay, their power extended to life and effects, respecting which their decisions were final; yet they were all in subordination to one Arch-Druid, elected from their body by a majority. This primate, or coiphi, enjoyed his supremacy during life; his person was held sacred, and the power of excommunication and deposing kings at his pleasure depended upon his will, which was absolute.

The Druids of the second order, styled Bards, were not only priests, but national preceptors, heralds, poets, and musicians. To them was committed the important trust of educating children of all ranks. Their memory was the repository containing the noble exploits of their heroes. These, on public occasions, they sung in verses of their own composing, accompanied with harps or a chorus of youths; but at their solemn religious ceremonies they also sang hymns.

Those of the third class were the Vates, who devoted themselves to the study of physic, natural philosophy, astronomy, magic, divination, and augury; in the knowledge of which they were skilled to a degree that seemed above the pitch of mental knowledge in the eyes of the ignorant people. Rowlands, in his Mona Antiqua, imagines that the "second sight" (in which he seems to believe) called Taish in Scotland, to be a relic of Druidism, and builds his conjecture upon this noted story, related by Vopiscus, who says:–
"Diocletian, when a private soldier, in Gallia, on his removing thence, reckoning with his hostess, a Druid woman, she told him he was too penurious, but that he need not be so sparing of his money, for after he should kill a boar she assured him (looking steadfastly in his face) he would be Emperor of Rome. These words made a great impression upon him, and he was afterwards much delighted in hunting and killing boars, often saying, when he saw many made emperors, and his own fortune not mending, 'I kill the boars, but it is others eat their flesh.' However, many years after, Arrius Aper, father-in-law of the Emperor Numerianus, grasping for the empire, treacherously slew him, on which fact being brought by the soldiers before Diocletian (then become a prime commander in the army), he asked his name, and being told he was called Aper – i.e., a boar – without further pause sheathed his sword in his side, saying 'Et hunc aprum cum caeteris,' which done the soldiers saluted him emperor."

Druids sacrificing to the sun in their temple called Stonehenge
by Nathaniel Whittoc (1791-1850)
engraving based in Dr. Stuckley Oxford-Ashmolean Museum

Although the policy of the Druids would never suffer their laws and religious tenets to be handed down in writing, it being their custom to teach their disciples everything by heart, a Bayardan author has been at some pains to collect some of the Druidical maxims, or rules, of which the most remarkable are these:–
"None must be instructed, but in the sacred groves."
"Mistletoe is to be gathered with reverence, and if possible, in the sixth moon. It must be cut with a golden bill."
"Everything derives its origin from heaven."
"The arcana of the sciences must not be committed to writing, but to the memory."
"Great care is to be taken of the education of children."
"The disobedient are to be shut out from the sacrifices."
"Souls are immortal."
"The soul after death goes into other bodies."
"If the world is destroyed it will be by fire or water."
"Upon extraordinary emergencies a man must be sacrificed."
"According as the body falls, or moves after it has fallen, according as the blood flows, or the wound opens, future events are foretold."
"Prisoners of war are to be slain upon the altars, or burnt alive, enclosed in wicker, in honour of the gods."
"All commerce with strangers must be prohibited."
"He that comes last to the assembly of the States ought to be punished with death."
"Children are to be brought up apart from their parents until they are fourteen years of age."
"Money lent in this world will be repaid in the next."
"There is another world, and those who kill themselves to accompany their friends thither will live with them there."
"Letters given to dying persons, or thrown on the funeral piles of the dead, will faithfully be delivered in the other world."
"The moon is a sovereign remedy for all things," as its name in Celtic implies.
"Let the disobedient be excommunicated; let him be deprived of the benefit of the law; let him be avoided by all, and rendered incapable of any employment." Query – Can this be the origin of boycotting?

All masters of families are kings in their own houses; they have a power of life and death over their wives, children, and slaves."

Human sacrifice by a Gaulish Druid
by Felix Philippoteaux
from Histoire de France by L P Anquetil 1851
The most remarkable monument of antiquity in our islands, if we take into account its comparative preservation, as well as its grandeur, is Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, the chief temple and seat of justice of the Druids, or Baal worshippers. It originally consisted of an outer circle of thirty stones, fourteen feet high, and upon the tops of them was carried throughout a continuous impost of large flat stones of the same width. An inner circle, enclosing a diameter of 83 feet, appears to have consisted of much smaller stones, without imposts, but about the same in number as the outer circle. Within the second circle were five large stones with an impost, with three smaller stones in advance of each; these have been called the trilithons. The circles were called "Doom Rings," or circles of judgment; the flat stones of the interior were the "cromlechs," or altars on which the victims were sacrificed. They are great stone scaffolds, raised just high enough for such horrid exhibitions, and just large enough in all their proportions and so contrived as to render the whole visible to the greatest multitude of people. The officiating priest, pouring a libation upon a man as a victim, smote him upon the breast, near the throat; and on his falling, both from the manner of his fall, and from the convulsions of his limbs, and still more from the flowing of his blood, they presaged what would come to pass.

The rocking stones, or "Dolmans," masses of granite or sandstone often weighing more than six or seven hundred tons, which are so exquisitely poised that they can be moved by the touch of a finger, were other great adjuncts to the system of terror and superstition by which the Druids maintained their influence; they sought to appal and govern the popular mind by imparting a more than natural grandeur to some great work of nature, by connecting it with some effort of ingenuity which was under the direction of their rude science.

Druidical circles are not confined to England or Scotland. On the opposite shores of Brittany the great remains of Carnac exhibit a structure of far greater extent even than Abury or Stonehenge, or in Co. Kerry. In hazlewood deer-park, near Sligo, there is a Megalithic structure on Irish soil – and another near Rosscarbery, Cork, and two doom rings in slime and mortar, like the tower of Babel, at "Shannon" that are as rare as Kit's "Cotty Stools," in Kent. Cromlechs and Raths and Duns are numerous throughout Ireland.

At the little village of Stanton Drew, in the County of Somerset, about seven miles east of the road between Bristol and Wells, stands a well-known Druidical monument, which, in the opinion of Dr. Stukeley, was more ancient than that at Abury. It consists (according to a recent writer) of four groups of stones, forming (or rather having formed when complete) two circles, and two other figures, one an ellipse. Although the largest stones are much inferior in their dimensions to those at Stonehenge and Abury, they are by no means contemptible, some of them being nine feet in height, and twenty-two feet in girth. There is a curious tradition very prevalent among the country people respecting the origin of these ruins, which they designate the "Evil Wedding," for the following good and substantial reasons:–
Many hundred years ago, on a Saturday evening, a newly-married couple, with their relatives and friends, met on the spot now covered by these ruins to celebrate their nuptials. Here they feasted and danced right merrily until the clock tolled the hour of midnight, when the piper (a pious man) refused to play any longer. This was much against the wish of the guests, and so exasperated the bride, who was fond of dancing, that she swore with an oath she would not be baulked of her enjoyment by a beggarly piper, but would find a substitute if she went to the infernal regions to fetch one. She had scarcely uttered these words, when a venerable old man, with a long beard, made his appearance, and having listened to their request, proffered his services, which were right gladly accepted.
The old gentleman (who was no other than the arch-fiend himself) having taken the seat vacated by the godly piper, commenced playing a slow and solemn air, which, on the guests remonstrating, he changed into one more lively and rapid. The company now began to dance, but soon found themselves impelled round the performer so rapidly and mysteriously that they would all fain have rested. But when they essayed to retire, they found, to their consternation, that they were moving faster and faster round their diabolical musician, who had now resumed his original shape. Their cries for mercy were unheeded, until the first glimmering of day warned the fiend that he must depart. With such rapidity had they moved, that the gay and sportive assembly were now reduced to a ghastly troop of skeletons. "I leave you," said the fiend, "a monument of my power and your wickedness to the end of time": which saying, he vanished. The villagers on rising in the morning, found the meadow strewn with large pieces of stone, and the pious piper lying under a hedge, half dead with fright, he having been a witness to the whole transaction.
The Druids, or the Conversion of the Britons to Christianity, engraved
by Simon Francois Ravenet. Printed in 1778 (engraving) by Francis Hayman.

Possibly Burns may have heard the above-mentioned story before he wrote his poem on "Tam o' Shanter." Her Majesty Queen Victoria was fond of hearing it recited at Balmoral in years that are flown.

The earliest name borne by Iona was Innis-nan Druidneach, or Isle of the Druids. This appellation indicates that before St. Columba introduced Christianity into the Hebrides, Iona was occupied as a seat of Druidical worship.

The Isle of Anglesea was a famous abode of Druidism until Suetonius, a Roman general, destroyed them, their rude temples, doom rings, and circles of judgment (A.D. '61).

Tacitus says that from the greatness of the heavenly bodies they inferred that the gods could neither be enclosed with walls, nor assimilated to any human form.

Our "Bonfire Night" had its origin in the Druids Be-il-tin, or fire of the gods. It was converted into a vigil in honour of St. John.

The Druids now whilst arms are heard no more,
Old mysteries and barbarous rites restore.
A tribe who singular religion love,
And haunt the lonely coverts of the grove.



Written by Rev. Canon French in the Church of Ireland Gazette, 20th February 1914.



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