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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 108

828 The name given to the heads of the slain in Ireland, the "mast of Macha," shows that they were dedicated to her, just as skulls found under an altar had been devoted to the Celtic Mars. Probably, as among Dayaks, American Indians, and others, possession of a head was a guarantee that the ghost of its owner would be subservient to its Celtic possessor, either in this world or in the next, since they are sometimes found buried in graves along with the dead.830 Or, suspended in temples, they became an actual and symbolical offering of the life of their owners, if, as is probable, the life or soul was thought to be in the head. Hence, too, the custom of drinking from the skull of the slain had the intention of transferring his powers directly to the drinker.831 Milk drunk from the skull of Conall Cernach restored to enfeebled warriors {242} their pristine strength, and a folk-survival in the Highlands—that of drinking from the skull of a suicide (here taking the place of the slain enemy) in order to restore health—shows the same idea at work. All these practices had thus one end, that of the transference of spirit force—to the gods, to the victor who suspended the head from his house, and to all who drank from the skull. Represented in bas-relief on houses or carved on dagger-handles, the head may still have been thought to possess talismanic properties, giving power to house or weapon. Possibly this cult of human heads may have given rise to the idea of a divine head like those figured on Gaulish images, or described, e.g., in the story of Bran. His head preserved the land from invasion, until Arthur disinterred it, the story being based on the belief that heads or bodies of great warriors still had a powerful influence. The representation of the head of a god, like his whole image, would be thought to possess the same preservative power.

A possible survival of the sacrifice of the aged may be found in a Breton custom of applying a heavy club to the head of old persons to lighten their death agonies, the clubs having been formerly used to kill them. They are kept in chapels, and are regarded with awe.835

Animal victims were also frequently offered. The Galatian Celts made a yearly sacrifice to their Artemis of a sheep, goat, or calf, purchased with money laid by for each animal caught {243} in the chase. Their dogs were feasted and crowned with flowers.836 Further details of this ritual are unfortunately lacking. Animals captured in war were sacrificed to the war-gods by the Gauls, or to a river-god, as when the horses of the defeated host were thrown into the Rhine by the Gaulish conquerors of Mallius. We have seen that the white oxen sacrificed at the mistletoe ritual may once have been representatives of the vegetation-spirit, which also animated the oak and the mistletoe. Among the insular Celts animal sacrifices are scarcely mentioned in the texts, probably through suppression by later scribes, but the lives of Irish saints contain a few notices of the custom, e.g. that of S. Patrick, which describes the gathering of princes, chiefs, and Druids at Tara to sacrifice victims to idols. In Ireland the peasantry still kill a sheep or heifer for S. Martin on his festival, and ill-luck is thought to follow the non-observance of the rite. Similar sacrifices on saints' days in Scotland and Wales occurred in Christian times. An excellent instance is that of the sacrifice of bulls at Gairloch for the cure of lunatics on S. Maelrubha's day (August 25th). Libations of milk were also poured out on the hills, ruined chapels were perambulated, wells and stones worshipped, and divination practised. These rites, occurring in the seventeenth century, were condemned by the Presbytery of Dingwall, but with little effect, and some of them still survive. In all these cases the saint has succeeded to the ritual of an earlier god. Mr. Cook surmises that S. Maelrubha was the successor of a divine king connected with an oak and sacred well, the god or spirit of which was incarnate in him. These divine kings may at one time have been {244} slain, or a bull, similarly incarnating the god or spirit, may have been killed as a surrogate. This slaying was at a later time regarded as a sacrifice and connected with the cure of madness. The rite would thus be on a parallel with the slaying of the oxen at the mistletoe gathering, as already interpreted. Eilean Maree (Maelrubha), where the tree and well still exist, was once known as Eilean mo righ ("the island of my king"), or Eilean a Mhor Righ ("of the great king"), the king having been worshipped as a god. This piece of corroborative evidence was given by the oldest inhabitant to Sir Arthur Mitchell. The people also spoke of the god Mourie.

Other survivals of animal sacrifice are found in cases of cattle-plague, as in Morayshire sixty years ago, in Wales, Devon, and the Isle of Man. The victim was burned and its ashes sprinkled on the herd, or it was thrown into the sea or over a precipice.844 Perhaps it was both a propitiatory sacrifice and a scape-animal, carrying away the disease, though the rite may be connected with the former slaying of a divine animal whose death benefited all the cattle of the district. In the Hebrides the spirits of earth and air were propitiated every quarter by throwing outside the door a cock, hen, duck, or cat, which was supposed to be seized by them. If the rite was neglected, misfortune was sure to follow. The animal carried away evils from the house, and was also a propitiatory sacrifice.

The blood of victims was sprinkled on altars, images, and trees, or, as among the Boii, it was placed in a skull adorned with gold.845 Other libations are known mainly from folk-survivals. {245} Thus Breton fishermen salute reefs and jutting promontories, say prayers, and pour a glass of wine or throw a biscuit or an old garment into the sea.846 In the Hebrides a curious rite was performed on Maundy Thursday. After midnight a man walked into the sea, and poured ale or gruel on the waters, at the same time singing:


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