THE first reference to Great Britain in European annals of which we know was the statement in the fifth century B.C. of the Greek historian Herodotus, that Phoenician sailors went to the British Isles for tin. He called them the "Tin Islands." The people with whom these sailors traded must have been Celts, for they were the first inhabitants of Britain who worked in metal instead of stone.
The Druids were priests of the Celts centuries before Christ came. There is a tradition in Ireland that they first arrived there in 270 B.C., seven hundred years before St. Patrick. The account of them written by Julius Caesar half a century before Christ speaks mainly of the Celts of Gaul, dividing them into two ruling classes who kept the people almost in a state of slavery; the knights, who wages war, and the Druids who had charge of worship and sacrifices, and were in addition physicians, historians, teachers, scientists, and judges.
Caesar says that this cult originated in Britain, and was transferred to Gaul. Gaul and Britain had one religion and one language, and might even have one king, so that what Caesar wrote of Gallic Druids must have been true of British.
The Celts worshipped spirits of forest and stream, and feared the powers of evil, as did the Greeks and all other early races. Very much of their primitive belief has been kept so that to Scotch, Irish, and Welsh peasantry brooks, hills, dales, and rocks abound in tiny supernatural beings, who may work them good or evil, lead them astray by flickering lights, or charm them into seven years' servitude unless they are bribed to show favor.
The name "Druid" is derived from the Celtic word "druidh," meaning "sage," connected with the Greek word for oak, "drus,"
"The rapid oak-tree--
Before him heaven and earth quake:
Stout door-keeper against the foe.
In every land his name is mine."
--TALIESIN: Battle of the Trees.
for the oak was held sacred by them as a symbol of the omnipotent god, upon whom they depended for life like the mistletoe growing upon it. Their ceremonies were held in oak-groves.
Later from their name a word meaning "magician" was formed, showing that these priests had gained the reputation of being dealers in magic.
"The Druid followed him and suddenly, as we are told, struck him with a druidic wand, or according to one version, flung at him a tuft of grass over which he had pronounced a druidical incantation."
--O'CURRY: Ancient Irish.
They dealt in symbols, common objects to which was given by the interposition of spirits, meaning to signify certain facts, and power to produce certain effects. Since they were tree-worshippers, trees and plants were thought to have peculiar powers.
Caesar provides them with a galaxy of Roman divinities, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva, who of course were worshipped under their native names. Their chief god was Baal, of whom they believed the sun the visible emblem. They represented him by lowlier tokens, such as circles and wheels. The trefoil, changed into a figure composed of three winged feet radiating from a center, represented the swiftness of the sun's journey. The cross too was a symbol of the sun, being the appearance of its light shining upon dew or stream, making to the half-closed eye little bright crosses. One form of the cross was the swastika.
To Baal they made sacrifices of criminals or prisoners of war, often burning them alive in wicker images. These bonfires lighted on the hills were meant to urge the god to protect and bless the crops and herds. From the appearance of the victims sacrificed in them, omens were taken that foretold the future. The gods and other supernatural powers in answer to prayer were thought to signify their will by omens, and also by the following methods: the ordeal, in which the innocence or guilt of a person was shown by the way the god permitted him to endure fire or other torture; exorcisms, the driving out of demons by saying mysterious words or names over them. Becoming skilled in interpreting the will of the gods, the Druids came to be known as prophets.
"O Deirdre, terrible child,
For thee, red star of our ruin,
Great weeping shall be in Eri--
Woe, woe, and a breach in Ulla.
* * * * * *
"Thy feet shall trample the mighty
Yet stumble on heads thou lovest."
-TODHUNTER: Druid song of Cathvah.
They kept their lore for the most part a secret, forbidding it to be written, passing it down by word of mouth. They taught the immortality of the soul, that it passed from one body to another at death.
"If, as those Druids taught, which kept the British rites,
And dwelt in darksome groves, there counselling with sprites,
When these our souls by death our bodies do forsake
They instantly again do other bodies take----"
They believed that on the last night of the old year (October 31st) the lord of death gathered together the souls of all those who had died in the passing year and had been condemned to live in the bodies of animals to decree what forms they should inhabit for the next twelve months. He could be coaxed to give lighter sentences by gifts and prayers.
The badge of the initiated Druid was a glass ball reported to be made in summer of the spittle of snakes, and caught by the priests as the snakes tossed it into the air.
"And the potent adder-stone
Gender'd 'fore the autumnal moon
When in undulating twine
The foaming snakes prolific join."
It was real glass, blown by the Druids themselves. It was supposed to aid the wearer in winning lawsuits and securing the favor of kings.
An animal sacred to the Druids was the cat.
"A slender black cat reclining on a chain of old silver" guarded treasure in the old days. For a long time cats were dreaded by the people because they thought human beings had been changed to that form by evil means.
The chief festivals of the Druids fell on four days, celebrating phases of the sun's career. Fires of sacrifice were lighted especially at spring and midsummer holidays, by exception on November 1st.
May Day and November Day were the more important, the beginning and end of summer, yet neither equinoxes nor solstices.
The time was divided then not according to sowing and reaping, but by the older method of reckoning from when the herds were turned out to pasture in the spring and brought into the fold again at the approach of winter--by a pastoral rather than an agricultural people.
On the night before Beltaine ("Baal-fire"), the first of May, fires were burned to Ball to celebrate the return of the sun bringing summer. Before sunrise the houses were decked with garlands to gladden the sun when he appeared; a rite which has survived in "going maying." The May-Day fires were used for purification. Cattle were singed by being led near the flames, and sometimes bled that their blood might be offered as a sacrifice for a prosperous season.
"When lo! a flame,
A wavy flame of ruddy light
Leaped up, the farmyard fence above.
And while his children's shout rang high,
His cows the farmer slowly drove
Across the blaze,--he knew not why."
--KICKHAM: St. John's Eve.
A cake was baked in the fire with one piece blacked with charcoal. Whoever got the black piece was thereby marked for sacrifice to Baal, so that, as the ship proceeded in safety after Jonah was cast overboard, the affairs of the group about the May-Eve fire might prosper when it was purged of the one whom Baal designated by lot. Later only the symbol of offering was used, the victim being forced to leap thrice over the flames.
In history it was the day of the coming of good. Partholon, the discoverer and promoter of Ireland, came thither from the other world to stay three hundred years. The gods themselves, the deliverers of Ireland, first arrived there "through the air" on May Day.
June 21st, the day of the summer solstice, the height of the sun's power, was marked by midnight fires of joy and by dances. These were believed to strengthen the sun's heat. A blazing wheel to represent the sun was rolled down hill.
"A happy thought.
Give me this cart-wheel.
I'll have it tied with ropes and smeared
And when it's lighted, I will roll it down
The steepest hillside."
--HAUPTMANN: Sunken Bell.
Spirits were believed to be abroad, and torches were carried about the fields to protect them from invasion. Charms were tried on that night with seeds of fern and hemp, and dreams were believed to be prophetic.
Lugh, in old Highland speech "the summer sun"
"The hour may hither drift
When at the last, amid the o'erwearied Shee--
Weary of long delight and deathless joys--
One you shall love may fade before your eyes,
Before your eyes may fade, and be as mist
Caught in the sunny hollow of Lu's hand,
Lord of the Day."
--SHARP: Immortal Hour.
had for father one of the gods and for mother the daughter of a chief of the enemy. Hence he possessed some good and some evil tendencies. He may be the Celtic Mercury, for they were alike skilled in magic and alchemy, in deception, successful in combats with demons, the bringers of new strength and cleansing to the nation. He said farewell to power on the first of August, and his foster-mother had died on that day, so then it was he set his feast-day. The occasion was called "Lugnasad," "the bridal of Lugh" and the earth, whence the harvest should spring. It was celebrated by the offering of the first fruits of harvest, and by races and athletic sports. In Meath, Ireland, this continued down into the nineteenth century, with dancing and horse-racing the first week of August.