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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 125

The old idea that stone circles were Druidic temples, that human sacrifices were offered on the "altar-stone," and libations of blood poured into the cup-markings, must be given up, along with much of the astronomical lore associated with the circles. Stonehenge dates from the close of the Neolithic Age, and most of the smaller circles belong to the early Bronze Age, and are probably pre-Celtic. In any case they were primarily places of sepulture. As such they would be the scene of ancestor worship, but yet not temples in the strict sense of the word. The larger circles, burial-places of great chiefs or kings, would become central places for the recurring rites of ghost-worship, possibly also rallying places of the tribe on stated occasions. But whether this ghost-worship was ever transmuted into the cult of a god at the circles is uncertain and, indeed, unlikely. The Celts would naturally regard these places as sacred, since the ghosts of the dead, even those of a vanquished people, are always dangerous, and they also took over the myths and legends associated with {282} them, such, e.g., as regarded the stones themselves, or trees growing within the circles, as embodiments of the dead, while they may also have used them as occasional places of secondary interment. Whether they were ever led to copy such circles themselves is uncertain, since their own methods of interment seem to have been different. We have seen that the gods may in some cases have been worshipped at tumuli, and that Lugnasad was, at some centres, connected with commemorative cults at burial-places (mounds, not circles). But the reasons for this are obscure, nor is there any hint that other Celtic festivals were held near burial mounds. Probably such commemorative rites at places of sepulture during Lugnasad were only part of a wider series occurring elsewhere, and we cannot assume from such vague notices that stone circles were Druidic temples where worship of an Oriental nature was carried on.

Professor Rh[^y]s is disposed to accept the old idea that Stonehenge was the temple of Apollo in the island of the Hyperboreans, mentioned by Diodorus, where the sun-god was worshipped. But though that temple was circular, it had walls adorned with votive offerings. Nor does the temple unroofed yearly by the Namnite women imply a stone circle, for there is not the slightest particle of evidence that the circles were ever roofed in any way.963 Stone circles with mystic trees growing in them, one of them with a well by which entrance was gained to Tír fa Tonn, are mentioned in Irish tales. They were connected with magic rites, but are not spoken of as temples.964

ALTARS.

Lucan describes realistically the awful sacrifices of the Gauls on cruel altars not a whit milder than those of Diana, {283} and he speaks of "altars piled with offerings" in the sacred grove at Marseilles. Cicero says that human victims were sacrificed on altars, and Tacitus describes the altars of Mona smeared with human blood.966 "Druids' altars" are mentioned in the Irish "Expedition of Dathi," and Cormac speaks of indelba, or altars adorned with emblems.967 Probably many of these altars were mere heaps of stone like the Norse horg, or a great block of stone. Some sacrifices, however, were too extensive to be offered on an altar, but in such cases the blood would be sprinkled upon it. Under Roman influence, Celtic altars took the form of those of the conquerors, with inscriptions containing names of native or Roman gods and bas-reliefs depicting some of these. The old idea that dolmens were Celtic altars is now abandoned. They were places of sepulture of the Neolithic or early Bronze Age, and were originally covered with a mound of earth. During the era of Celtic paganism they were therefore hidden from sight, and it is only in later times that the earth has been removed and the massive stones, arranged so as to form a species of chamber, have been laid bare.

IMAGES.

The Gauls, according to Cæsar, possessed plurima simulacra of the native Mercury, but he does not refer to images of other gods. We need not infer from this that the Celts had a prejudice against images, for among the Irish Celts images are often mentioned, and in Gaul under Roman rule many images existed.

The existence of images among the Celts as among other {284} peoples, may owe something to the cult of trees and of stones set up over the dead. The stone, associated with the dead man's spirit, became an image of himself, perhaps rudely fashioned in his likeness. A rough-hewn tree trunk became an image of the spirit or god of trees. On the other hand, some anthropomorphic images, like the palæolithic or Mycenæan figurines, may have been fashioned without the intermediary of tree-trunk or stone pillar. Maximus of Tyre says that the Celtic image of Zeus was a lofty oak, perhaps a rough-hewn trunk rather than a growing tree, and such roughly carved tree-trunks, images of gods, are referred to by Lucan in his description of the Massilian grove. Pillar stones set up over the graves of the dead are often mentioned in Irish texts. These would certainly be associated with the dead; indeed, existing legends show that they were believed to be tenanted by the ghosts and to have the power of motion. This suggests that they had been regarded as images of the dead. Other stones honoured in Ireland were the cloch labrais, an oracular stone; the


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