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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 130

Sir G.L. Gomme, and M. Reinach—support on different grounds the theory that the Druids were a pre-Celtic priesthood, accepted by the Celtic conquerors. Sir John Rh[^y]s thinks that the Druidism of the aborigines of Gaul and Britain made terms with the Celtic conquerors. It was accepted by the Goidels, but not by the Brythons. Hence in Britain there were Brythons without Druids, aborigines under the sway of Druidism, and Goidels who combined Aryan polytheism with Druidism. Druidism {295} was also the religion of the aborigines from the Baltic to Gibraltar, and was accepted by the Gauls. But if so, it is difficult to see why the Brythons, akin to them, did not accept it. Our knowledge of Brythonic religion is too scanty for us to prove that the Druids had or had not sway over them, but the presumption is that they had. Nor is there any historical evidence to show that the Druids were originally a non-Celtic priesthood. Everywhere they appear as the supreme and dominant priesthood of the Celts, and the priests of a conquered people could hardly have obtained such power over the conquerors. The relation of the Celts to the Druids is quite different from that of conquerors, who occasionally resort to the medicine-men of the conquered folk because they have stronger magic or greater influence with the autochthonous gods. The Celts did not resort to the Druids occasionally; ex hypothesi they accepted them completely, were dominated by them in every department of life, while their own priests, if they had any, accepted this order of things without a murmur. All this is incredible. The picture drawn by Cæsar, Strabo, and others of the Druids and their position among the Celts as judges, choosers of tribal chiefs and kings, teachers, as well as ministers of religion, suggests rather that they were a native Celtic priesthood, long established among the people.

Sir G.L. Gomme supports the theory that the Druids were a pre-Celtic priesthood, because, in his opinion, much of their belief in magic as well as their use of human sacrifice and the redemption of one life by another, is opposed to "Aryan sentiment." Equally opposed to this are their functions of settling controversies, judging, settling the succession to property, and arranging boundaries. These views are supported by a comparison of the position of the Druids relatively to the Celts {296} with that of non-Aryan persons in India who render occasional priestly services to Hindu village communities. Whether this comparison of occasional Hindu custom with Celtic usage two thousand years ago is just, may be questioned. As already seen, it was no mere occasional service which the Druids rendered to the Celts, and it is this which makes it difficult to credit this theory. Had the Celtic house-father been priest and judge in his own clan, would he so readily have surrendered his rights to a foreign and conquered priesthood? On the other hand, kings and chiefs among the Celts probably retained some priestly functions, derived from the time when the offices of the priest-king had not been differentiated. Cæsar's evidence certainly does not support the idea that "it is only among the rudest of the so-called Celtic tribes that we find this superimposing of an apparently official priesthood." According to him, the power of the Druids was universal in Gaul, and had their position really corresponded to that of the pariah priests of India, occasional priests of Hindu villages, the determined hostility of the Roman power to them because they wielded such an enormous influence over Celtic thought and life, is inexplainable. If, further, Aryan sentiment was so opposed to Druidic customs, why did Aryan Celts so readily accept the Druids? In this case the receiver is as bad as the thief. Sir G.L. Gomme clings to the belief that the Aryans were people of a comparatively high civilisation, who had discarded, if they ever possessed, a savage "past." But old beliefs and customs still survive through growing civilisation, and if the views of Professor Sergi and others are correct, the Aryans were even less civilised than the peoples whom they conquered. Shape-shifting, magic, human sacrifice, priestly domination, were as much Aryan as non-Aryan, and if the {297} Celts had a comparatively pure religion, why did they so soon allow it to be defiled by the puerile superstitions of the Druids?

M. Reinach, as we have seen, thinks that the Celts had no images, because these were prohibited by their priests. This prohibition was pre-Celtic in Gaul, since there are no Neolithic images, though there are great megalithic structures, suggesting the existence of a great religious aristocracy. This aristocracy imposed itself on the Celts. We have seen that there is no reason for believing that the Celts had no images, hence this argument is valueless. M. Reinach then argues that the Celts accepted Druidism en bloc, as the Romans accepted Oriental cults and the Greeks the native Pelasgic cults. But neither Romans nor Greeks abandoned their own faith. Were the Celts a people without priests and without religion? We know that they must have accepted many local cults, but that they adopted the whole aboriginal faith and its priests en bloc is not credible. M. Reinach also holds that when the Celts appear in history Druidism was in its decline; the Celt, or at least the military caste among the Celts, was reasserting itself. But the Druids do not appear as a declining body in the pages of Cæsar, and their power was still supreme, to judge by the hostility of the Roman Government to them. If the military caste rebelled against them, this does not prove that they were a foreign body. Such a strife is seen wherever priest and soldier form separate castes, each desiring to rule, as in Egypt.


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