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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 121

Due observance of the feast produced abundance of corn, fruit, milk, and fish. Probably the ritual observed included the preservation of the last sheaf as representing the corn-spirit, giving some of it to the cattle to strengthen them, and mingling {274} it with next year's corn to impart to it the power of the corn-spirit. It may also have included the slaying of an animal or human incarnation of the corn-spirit, whose flesh and blood quickened the soil and so produced abundance next year, or, when partaken of by the worshippers, brought blessings to them. To neglect such rites, abundant instances of which exist in folk-custom, would be held to result in scarcity. This would also explain, as already suggested, why the festival was associated with the death of Tailtiu or of Carman. The euhemerised queen-goddess Tailtiu and the woman Carman had once been corn-goddesses, evolved from more primitive corn-spirits, and slain at the feast in their female representatives. The story of their death and burial at the festival was a dim memory of this ancient rite, and since the festival was also connected with the sun-god Lug, it was easy to bring him into relationship with the earlier goddess. Elsewhere the festival, in its memorial aspect, was associated with a king, probably because male victims had come to be representatives of a corn-god who had taken the place of the goddess.


Some of the ritual of these festivals is illustrated by scattered notices in classical writers, and on the whole they support our theory that the festivals originated in a female cult of spirits or goddesses of fertility. Strabo speaks of sacrifices offered to Demeter and Kore, according to the ritual followed at Samothrace, in an island near Britain, i.e. to native goddesses equated with them. He also describes the ritual of the Namnite women on an island in the Loire. They are called Bacchantes because they conciliated Bacchus with mysteries and sacrifices; in other words, they observed an orgiastic cult of a god equated with Bacchus. No man must set foot on the island, but the women left it once a year for intercourse with the other sex. Once a year the temple of the god was unroofed, and roofed {275} again before sunset. If any woman dropped her load of materials (and it was said this always happened), she was torn in pieces and her limbs carried round the temple. Dionysius Periegetes says the women were crowned with ivy, and celebrated their mysteries by night in honour of Earth and Proserpine with great clamour. Pliny also makes a reference to British rites in which nude women and girls took part, their bodies stained with woad.946

At a later time, S. Gregory of Tours speaks of the image of a goddess Berecynthia drawn on a litter through the streets, fields, and vineyards of Augustodunum on the days of her festival, or when the fields were threatened with scarcity. The people danced and sang before it. The image was covered with a white veil.947 Berecynthia has been conjectured by Professor Anwyl to be the goddess Brigindu, worshipped at Valnay.948

These rites were all directed towards divinities of fertility. But in harvest customs in Celtic Scotland and elsewhere two sheaves of corn were called respectively the Old Woman and the Maiden, the corn-spirit of the past year and that of the year to come, and corresponding to Demeter and Kore in early Greek agricultural ritual. As in Greece, so among the Celts, the primitive corn-spirits had probably become more individualised goddesses with an elaborate cult, observed on an island or at other sacred spots. The cult probably varied here and there, and that of a god of fertility may have taken the place of the cult of goddesses. A god was worshipped by the Namnite women, according to Strabo, goddesses according to Dionysius. The mangled victim was probably regarded as representative {276} of a divinity, and perhaps part of the flesh was mixed with the seed-corn, like the grain of the Maiden sheaf, or buried in the earth. This rite is common among savages, and its presence in old European ritual is attested by survivals. That these rites were tabu to men probably points to the fact that they were examples of an older general custom, in which all such rites were in the hands of women who cultivated the earth, and who were the natural priestesses of goddesses of growth and fertility, of vegetation and the growing corn. Another example is found in the legend and procession of Godiva at Coventry—the survival of a pagan cult from which men were excluded.949


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