Copyright
Charles Isaac Elton.

Origins of English history online

. (page 21 of 38)
Online LibraryCharles Isaac EltonOrigins of English history → online text (page 21 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


histor' of Soliniis a sketch of an Irish home which will
enable us to understand what Tacitus intended. " It is," he
said, " a surly and a savage race. The soldier in the moment
of victory takes a draught of his enemy's blood and smears
his face with the gore. The mother puts her boy's first food
for luck on the end of her husband's sword and lightly pushes
it into the infant's mouth with a prayer to the gods of her
tribe that her son may have a soldier's death. The men
who care for their appearance deck the hilts of their
swords with the tusks of sea-beasts, which they polish to
the brightness of ivory : for the glory of the warrior
consists in the splendour of his weapons."^' We seem to
see the Brigantian soldier with his brightly-painted shield,
his pair of javelins and his sword-hilt "as white as the
whale's-bone ": his matted hair supplied the want of a
helmet, and a leather jerkin served as a cuirass. When
the line of battle was formed the . champions ran out
to insult and provoke the foe ; the chiefs rode up and
down on their white chargers, shining in golden breast-
plates. Others drove the war-chariots along the front,
with soldiers leaning out before their captain to cast their
spears and hand-stones : the ground shook with the
prancing of horses and the noise of the chariot-wheels.
We are recalled to the scenes of old Irish life which so
strangely reproduce the world of the Greek heroes and
the war upon the plains of Troy. We see the hunters
following the cry of the hounds through green plains and
sloping glens : the ladies at the feast in the woods, the

1 Tac. Agric. c. 24. ^ Solinus, Polyhist. c. 24.



Origins of English History. 241

game roasting on the hazel-spits, "fish and flesh of boar
and badger," and the great bronze cauldrons at the fire-
place in the cave. The hero Ciichulainn passes in his
chariot, and brandishes the heads of the slain. He speaks
with his horses, of the ' Gray Macha ' and the ' Black
Sainglend,' like Achilles on the banks of Scamander.^
The horses, in Homeric fashion, weep tears of blood, and
fight by their master's side : his sword shines redly in his
hand, the "light of valour" hovers round him, and a
goddess takes an earthly form to be near him and to help
him in the fray.

^ See the " Death of Cuchulainn," abridged from the Book of Leinster,
by Mr. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique, iii. 175 ; the legend of Fionn's
Enchantment, by Campbell, Hid. i. 174; and the story of the Princess
Deirdre in " Loch Etive and the Sons of Uisneach." For the names of the
horses of Cuchulainn, see Rhys, Hibbert Lectures, 1886, 440.



16



242 Origins of English History.



CHAPTER X.

RELIGION.

Religion of the British tribes — Its influence on the literature of romance — Theories
about Druidism — The Welsh Triads — Their date and authority — Legend of Hugh
the Mighty — Mythological poems of the Bards — Taliessin — Religion of the Gauls
— Its nature — The greater gods — Dis Pater — The mode of reckoning by nights —
The Gaulish Mercury and Minerva — The worship of Belenus— Adoration of
plants — Teutates — Camulus — -Taranis — Goddesses and helpmates of gods — Local
deities — The Mothers — Giants — Origin of Druidism — Druidism in Britain —
Scottish and Irish Druids — The nature of their ceremonies — Their magic —
Position of the Druids in Gaul — Their philosophy — Human sacrifices — Relics of
the practice — Its traces in Britain and Ireland — Slaughter of hostages — Sacrifices
for stability of buildings — Doctrines of the Druids — Their astronomy — Metem-
psychosis — Disappearance of Druidism — The Roman provinces — Ireland and
Scotland — Other remains of British religions — How preserved — In legends of
saints — In romance — General character of the religion — Nature of the idols —
Superstitions about natural phenomena — Mirage — Sunset — Mineral springs —
Laughing-wells — Worship of elements — The Irish gods — The Dagda — Moon-
worship — Degradation of British gods — Their appearance as kings and chiefs —
The fabulous history — Heroic songs — Principal families of gods — Children of
Don — of Nudd — of Lir — Legend of Cordelia — Bran the Blessed — Manannan
Mac Lir — Ritual — Relics of Sun-worship — Fire-worship — Rustic sacrifices —
Offerings of animals to saints — Sacred animals — Prohibition of certain kinds
of food — Claims of descent from animals — Totemism — Origin of these super-
stitions.

THE religion of the British tribes has exercised an
important influence upon literature. The mediaeval
romances and the le8:ends which stood for history are full of
the " fair humanities " and figures of its bright mythology.
The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits
which haunted the waves and streams, appear again as
kings in the Irish Annals or as saints and hermits in Wales.
The Knights of the Round Table, Sir Kay and Tristram
and the bold Sir Bedivere, betray their mighty origin by the
attributes which they retained as heroes of romance. It



Origins of English History. 243

was a goddess, '''' Dea qiicedam phantastica^'' who bore the
wounded Arthur to the peaceful valley.^ "There was
little sunlight on its woods and streams, and the nights
were dark and gloomy for want of the moon and stars."
This is the country of Oberon and of Sir Huon de
Bordeaux. It is the dreamv forest of Arden. In an
older mythology it was the realm of a King of Shadows,
the country of " Gwvn ab Nudd/'^' who rode as Sir Guvon
in the Faerie Queene,

" xVnd knighthood took of good Sir Huon's hand
When with King Oberon he came to Fairyland."

The history of the Celtic religions has been obscured
by many false theories which need not be discussed in
detail. The traces of revealed religion were discovered
by the Benedictine historians in the doctrines attributed to
the Druids : if the Gauls adored the oak-tree it could only
be a remembrance of the plains of Mamre ; if they slew a
prisoner on a block of unhewn stone, it must have been in
deference to a precept of Moses. A school pretending to
a deeper philosophy invented for the Druids the mission
of preserving monotheism in the West.'^ In the teaching
of another school the Druids are credited with the learning^



^ Girald. Cambr. Spec. Eccles. c. 9 ; Itin. Cambr. i. c. 8.

^ " Gw}-n ab Nudd " was the Welsh fairy-king. See Guest's ]\Iabinogion,
263. In the curious story of " Kilhwch and Ohven" we find him described
as " Gwyn the son of Nudd, whom God has placed over the brood of devils
in Annwn, lest they should destroy the present race." {Il-'id. 241.) He is
represented as a warlike spirit, or battle-god, in a dialogue cited from the
Myvyrian Archaeology, i. 165. " Gwyn son of Nudd, the hope of armies,
legions fall before thy conquering arm, swifter than broken rushes to
the ground."

® " Les Druides ne nous apparaissent que dans la splendeur de Dicu."
Raynaud, L'Esprit de la Gaule, 5. Leflocq. Mythol. Celt. 49.

16 *



244 Origins of Efiglish History.

of Phoenicia and Egypt. The mysteries of the "Thrice-
great Hermes" were transported to the northern oak-
forests, and every difficulty was solved as it rose by a
reference to Baal and Moloch. The lines and circles
of "standing-stones" became the signs of a worship of
snakes and dragons. The ruined cromlech was mistaken
for an altar of sacrifice, with the rock-bason to catch
the victim's blood and a holed-stone for the rope to bind
his limbs.

The Welsh Triads became the foundation of another
theory. They profess to record the exploits of a being
called Hugh the Mighty, who led the Kymry from the
Land of Summer to the islands of the Northern Ocean.
If the legend had not been accepted by M. Martin and
other French historians as containing the echo of a real
tradition, we might disregard it as completely as the
adventures of the Irish in Egypt or the prophecies of the
dreamer Merlin. We may expect that the mythical
history will soon fall back into oblivion ; but meanwhile it
seems necessary to give some short account of the story
itself and of the controversy respecting its origin.

The date of the historical Triads has been approxi-
mately fixed by the form of their language and by other
internal evidence.^ Although some few are found in
poems of the twelfth century, it is clear that they mostly
belong to the period between the Conquest of Wales and
the rebellion of Owen Glendower. His bard " lolo the
Red" was the chief compiler of the history of Hugh
the Miffhtv, whom the Welsh call " Hu Gadarn." The

^ Stephens, Literature of the Kymry, 169, 429, 493 ; Turner, Hist.
Anglo-Saxon, i. c. 2 3 Skene, " Four Ancient Books of Wales," and
*' Celtic Scotland," i. 172 ; Valroger, Les Celtes, 395.



Origins of English History. 245

principal collection is preserved in the Red Book of
Hergest in the library of Jesus College at Oxford, and the
preceding contents of the book show that this collection
was made after the commencement of the fourteenth
century. The Triads failed to attract much attention
in England until their publication in the Myvyrian
Archaeology in the early part of this century. They
were soon afterwards translated into English, and were
published by Probert as an appendix to his ''Ancient
Laws of Cambria." They became famous for a time
when Sharon Turner in England, and Michelet in France,
vindicated the historical character of the ancient British
poems ; but they seem to have since relapsed into neglect,
though a few speculations are hazarded from time to time
as to the origin of the word "Lloegria," or the position
of "the Hazy Sea."^

The legend of Hugh the Mighty certainly contains
direct allusions to the Welsh mythology, but in the main
it is a travesty of the life of the Patriarch Noah, tricked
out with such scraps of learning as a bard might have
gathered in a library. It is confused by an intermixture
of the exploits of Hugh of Constantinople, a paladin of
romance who took part in the adventures of the legendary
armies of Charlemagne.

The language of some of the poems would suggest
that Hugh the Mighty was a solar god. His chariot is
described as "an atom of glowing heat" : he is said to be
greater than all the worlds, " light his course and active,

^ " Mur Tawch " may mean the " Hazy " or the " Dacian " Sea, the latter
word being taken in the sense of "Danish.' If the last interpretation is
correct, the date of the Triad in which the phrase occurs will be fixed
about the twelfth century. Stephens, Literature of the Kymry, 428.



246 Origins of English History.

great on the land and on the seas"; and his two great
oxen are bright constellations in the firmament.^

In the first age of the world he instructed the Kymry in
the arts of agriculture, poetry, and government. When the
earth was destroyed by fire and water he saved a remnant
of men and animals in his ark. The monster that caused
the deluge was dragged from the waters by the sacred
oxen : the enchanter " Gwydion " sets a rainbow in the sky
as the sign of a covenant with mankind. The Kymry are
settled at first in " Deffrobani," which can only be intended
for "Taprobane," the classical name of Ceylon; but the
scribe has added in a note, "this is where Constantinople
stands." The Kymry are followed by the Lloegrians from
Gascony, whose name is probably derived from that of the
River Loire, and by the " Brythons " from the shore of
Armorica. Three "refuge-seeking tribes" take shelter in
the Highlands and the Isle of Wight ; and there are
allusions to the Caledonian Forest, and to the ancient
floods which overwhelmed the Cimbri. We read of three
invading tribes, the Picts, the Coranians of the eastern
coast, and the Saxons, in whose arrival the secular tragedy
culminates. "The crown of monarchy" is wrested from
the Kymry : the Lloegrians unite with the German
invaders, "and of the Lloegrians who did not become
Saxon there remain none but those who inhabit Cornwall
and the Commote of Carnoban.""^

The Welsh bards retained a stock of tropes and allusions
which derived their origin from the ancient British pa-
ganism. There was enough reality for the purposes of an

^ Nash, Taliesin, 307 ; Guest's Mabinogion, 284.

^ This district is described in the Triads as being " in the Kingdom of
Deira and Bernicia."



Origins of English History, 247

ode or sonnet in the Enchanter "Gwydion," who fashioned
a woman out of flowers of the oak, and of the broom and
meadow-sweet, the Giant " Ogyrfen," and "Aerfen"the
fierce goddess of the border-stream " where the blowing
Bala Lake fills all the sacred Dee." Even in our own
literature it is '' Jupiter who gives whate'er is great, and
Venus who brings everything that's fair." But it would
be absurd to treat the Bards who used the conceit as con-
scious worshippers of a sun-god, the followers of a deified
patriarch, or the custodians of traditional secrets descended
from the age of the Druids. "The minstrels were plain,
pious, and very ignorant Christians, who believed in
nothing worse than a little magic and witchcraft."^ The
songs ascribed to Taliessin have been called the romance
of metempsychosis. A Druidical dogma of the transmi-
gration of souls is thought to lie hidden in the poet's
account of his wonderful transformations, but as often as
not they are merely borrowed from Ovid, or adapted from
the Arabian Nights. The wars of the dwarfs and elves
are mistaken for a presentment of the religion that prevailed
in Britain at the commencement of the Roman Conquest.
But an examination of these celebrated poems will show
that, though they are full of mythological allusions, they
contain nothing which can be treated as a real tradition of
doctrine. They seem to have been founded in several
cases on some myth of the moon and shadows. The fairy
Kerridwen makes war upon the prince of the dwarfs. In
one form of the story the fairy becomes an old witch, and
the dwarf is a boy who watches the boiling cauldron.
Three drops of the liquor of knowledge are tasted by

1 Kennedy, Irish Fiction, 311 ; Skene, " Four Ancient Books of
Wales," i. 16,



248 Origins of English History.

Gwion. Pursued at once by the hag, "he changed himself
into a hare and fled, but she transformed herself into a
greyhound and turned him ; and he ran towards the river
and became a fish, and she in the form of an otter chased
him under water till he w^as fain to become a bird of the
air": and so on in a series of adventures imitated from
those which appear in the Arabian tale of the " Second
Royal Calender."^ The first part of the legend appears
in sli2:htlv different forms in the Irish stories of Finn mac

O J

Cumhal, and also among the adventures of Sigurd in the
Song of the Nibelungs. The poet, or school of poets,
who wrote under the name of Taliessin, borrowed incidents
and allusions from every kind of literature. The fairy
becomes the Muse of Poetry and her cauldron is the
fount of inspiration. At another time she resembles
the Madre Natura, or "the Witch of Atlas," and turns,
according to the minstrel's fancy, from a princess to a
"black screaming hag" or a demon of the air. The
dwarf becomes the poet himself or an idealised figure of
his mind, flying with the swiftness of thought through
distant times and on the confines of space. He sees
Lucifer fall from heaven and Absalom hanging in the oak-
tree: he was in the Chair of Cassiopeia before Gwydion
was born, and stayed for ages in the court of a goddess
inhabiting the Northern Crown. He was with Nimrod
and Alexander : he describes Behemoth and the oxen
of the goddess who guarded the streams of the Dee :
he takes the character of an ancient prophet, predicting
the invasions of Britain ; " their Lord they will praise," he
cried, "their speech they will keep, their land they will

1 Nash, Talicsin, 180, 182 ; Stephens, Literature of the Kymry, 170,



Origins of English History. 249



lose, except wild Wales." ^ And yet through all changes
he still claims to be Taliessin, "the prince of song, and the
chief of the bards of the West."

The figures of all times and countries pass in a strange
procession, and we recognise among them several beings
who were worshipped as gods in Ireland and Western
Britain. But we shall find nothing about the Druids ;
their very name had been forgotten for centuries before
the modern travesty of their doctrines was propounded
under the title of " Bardism." Nor again will anything
be found about the Gaulish gods whose rites were trans-
ported to Britain, at first by the Belgian settlers, and
afterwards by Roman soldiers. For them we must rely
on the classical descriptions, obscure and scanty as they
are, wherever the patient research of the Continental
scholars has failed to bring fresh life into the almost
forgotten tradition.

It will be convenient to deal separately with the main
divisions of the subject. Some account will first be given
of the religions of Ancient Gaul. We shall treat in the
next place of the Druids and the character of their
teaching, and we shall afterwards try to collect what is
known about the nature of the British paganism.

The religion of the Gauls appears to have borne a
general resemblance to that of the British tribes.^ It has
become known by the sketch in Caesar's Commentaries, by
Pliny's chapters on magic and a few scattered allusions
of the Latin poets, and in an even greater degree by the
modern comparison of the inscriptions upon ruined altars
and of legends or observances in which some fragments of

^ Nash, Taliesin, 162, 304. ^ Tac. Agric. c. 11.



250 Origins of English History.

the old creed have been by chance retained. A figure of
Roland in the market-place, the cakes at the village-fair
impressed with the sign of Gargantua, the miracles re-
curring at the shrines which replaced the heathen temples,
the processions, the dances, and the devotions of the
peasantry, have all helped in their turns to explain the
nature of the old beliefs. When the Church took pos-
session of the temples and sanctuaries of paganism, the
heathen rites were often preserved under Christian names.
The older religion survived in the dedication-feasts, the
January-fires, the May-games and the Midsummer-fires,
the garlands set by the fountains, and the sacrifices made
at favourite shrines to avert sterility, or to procure good
fortune in marriage.^

The Roman writers have left us little definite informa-
tion on the subject. They seem to have felt a natural
contempt for the superstitions of their barbarous neigh-
bours. Cicero, for example, was a friend of the Druid
Divitiacus ; yet he did not think it necessary to record the
result of their curious discussions. Julius Caesar was him-
self a Pontiff, and published a book upon divination, but
he noticed the foreign religions only so far as they were
connected with public policy. He does not mention the
British religion at all ; and as to the German beliefs he
merely observes that they seemed only to recognise those
gods whose benefits were obvious to the senses. We owe
his short sketch of the Gaulish Pantheon to the fact that,
for practical purposes, it was the same as that of the
Roman world : so that it was clear that, if Druidism could

^ See the article on the gods of the Allobroges by M. Vallentin, Revue
Celtique, iv. 2, the same writer's work on the local deities of \'ocontium
(Grenoble, 1877), and Gaidoz, Religion des Gaulois'' (Paris, 1879).



Origins of English History. 251

be abolished, the new province would easily fall into the
official forms of belief.

The public or national faith should be distinguished from
the private religion of the tribe, and also from the worship
of those local gods to whom particular woods or streams
were sanctified. The " greater gods " were revered under
various titles by every nation in Gaul. A Pluto reigned
in darkness, and a Jupiter in heaven. Mars was the " lord
of war ": Apollo, Mercury, and Minerva, brought precious
gifts to mankind.^

The Gauls were taught by the Druids to call themselves
the children of Pluto, and the parable may have referred
to the idea that all things came from Chaos. Caesar
attributed to this belief their practice of reckoning by
nights instead of days. A birthday, or the first of the
month or year, was considered to begin at sunset on the
previous evening. The habit was common to all the
northern nations, and seems to have been a natural con-
sequence of the measurement of time by the moon. The
Gauls began their months on the 6th night after the moon
was new, and just before her face was half-full.^ The
year began with the same phase of the satellite, and so also
did the cycle of thirty years. It follows from this that the
year consisted of thirteen lunar months, falling short of the
true solar year by about one day. In the course of about
twenty-nine years they would have apparently gained a
month on the solar year : and, in order to make the solstices
and equinoxes fall within the appropriate lunar months,
it became necessary to intercalate a whole month, or to
repeat the thirteenth month in the last year of the cycle.

1 Caesar, De Bell. Gall. vi. c. 16.

2 Ihid. c. 17 ; Pliny, Hist. Nat. xvi. c. 98.



-:)-



Origins of English History.



The Gaulish "Mercurv" and "Minerva" were the most
human of all their deities. The one presided over roads,
markets, and boundaries, and was imagined to be the
discoverer of all the sciences^ : the other taught mankind
their useful arts and labours, to spin and weave, to work
in the smithy, to sow and till the ground.^ The goddess
was worshipped in Britain under the title of " Belisama,"
and a relic of her ritual is found in the region of the river
Ribble in Lancashire, to which the later Gaulish settlers
gave the name of their favourite goddess.

Next in dignity to the merchants' god came the god of
the healing powers, in whom the Romans saw the radiance
and majesty of Apollo. The lines in which Ausonius
described the Temple of Belenus at Bayeux, and the
remains of statues found at Bath, show that his worship
w^as connected with solar rites. This was the case, at any
rate, after the establishment of the state religion. But he
seems at first to have represented the health-giving waters
and herbs themselves, and to have been worshipped under
a multitude of local names wherever such things were
found. He was the " Borvo " of the boiling springs
which have given the name of Bourbon to so many places
in France, the "Grannus" of the wells at Aix-la-Chapelle,
the " Belisa," whose shrine stood at Aquileia by the side
of the Fountain of Belenus.^ The ceremonies observed

^ For an account of the worship of JVIercury under his GauHsh names
of Dunates, Vasso,, Visucius, and Marunus, see ISIontfaucon's Antiquity
Expliquee, and Gaidoz, Religion des Gauhis, 9, 10. Some of the temples
of the god are described in Phny, Hist. Nat. xxxiv. c. 18 ; Minuc. Felix, 49 ;
Greg. Turon. Hist. Franc, i. 30 ; Grimm, Deutsch. Mythol. 70.

- Caesar, De Bell, Gall. vi. c. 17.

^ Ausonius, Profess. 4, 10 ; Herodian, viii. 7 ; Tertullian, Apolog. c.
24; Gaidoz, Rt'ligion des Gaulois, 10 ; Valroger, Les Celtes, 145.



Origins of English History. 253

in gathering the herbs and simples are recounted by Pliny
in his Natural History. The service at the cutting of the
mistletoe seems to have come from a time at which the
thing itself had been worshipped. The plant when growing
upon the oak was thought to be a panacea, or " all-heal."
Its infusion cured sterility in cattle, the pounded leaves
healed sores, and it was used in other forms in cases of
epilepsy and poisoning. Its appearance on the sacred
tree betokened the presence of the god. The service
took place on a holiday at the beginning of a month. A
Druid clothed in white, with a chaplet of oak-leaves on
his head, cut the plant with a golden sickle, shaped like
the moon when six nights old, and caught it in a long
white cloak. As it fell the sacrifices began, and the
company burst out into prayer. A banquet followed, and
at last the mistletoe was carried home on a waggon drawn
by two snow-white bulls which had never felt the yoke.^

The club-moss^ (Selago) was a fetiche of another kind.
The man who carried the divine object was secure against
all misfortune : and blindness could be cured by the fumes
of its spores dried and thrown upon the fire. It had to be
gathered with a curious magical ceremony. The worshipper
was dressed in white: he must go to the place barefoot
and wash his feet in pure water before approaching the



Online LibraryCharles Isaac EltonOrigins of English history → online text (page 21 of 38)