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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 135

Name-giving and a species of baptism were performed by the Druids or on their initiative. Many examples of this {309} occur in Irish texts, thus of Conall Cernach it is said, "Druids came to baptize the child into heathenism, and they sang the heathen baptism (baithis geintlídhe) over the little child", and of Ailill that he was "baptized in Druidic streams".1055 In Welsh story we read that Gwri was "baptized with the baptism which was usual at that time".1056 Similar illustrations are common at name-giving among many races,1057 and it is probable that the custom in the Hebrides of the midwife dropping three drops of water on the child in Nomine and giving it a temporary name, is a survival of this practice. The regular baptism takes place later, but this preliminary rite keeps off fairies and ensures burial in consecrated ground, just as the pagan rite was protective and admitted to the tribal privileges.1058

In the burial rites, which in Ireland consisted of a lament, sacrifices, and raising a stone inscribed with ogams over the grave, Druids took part. The Druid Dergdamsa pronounced a discourse over the Ossianic hero Mag-neid, buried him with his arms, and chanted a rune. The ogam inscription would also be of Druidic composition, and as no sacrifice was complete without the intervention of Druids, they must also have assisted at the lavish sacrifices which occurred at Celtic funerals.

Pliny's words, "the Druids and that race of prophets and doctors", suggest that the medical art may have been in the hands of a special class of Druids though all may have had a smattering of it. It was mainly concerned with the use of herbs, and was mixed up with magical rites, which may have {310} been regarded as of more importance than the actual medicines used.1059 In Ireland Druids also practised the healing art. Thus when Cúchulainn was ill, Emer said, "If it had been Fergus, Cúchulainn would have taken no rest till he had found a Druid able to discover the cause of that illness." But other persons, not referred to as Druids, are mentioned as healers, one of them a woman, perhaps a reminiscence of the time when the art was practised by women. These healers may, however, have been attached to the Druidic corporation in much the same way as were the bards.

Still more important were the magical powers of the Druids—giving or withholding sunshine or rain, causing storms, making women and cattle fruitful, using spells, rhyming to death, exercising shape-shifting and invisibility, and producing a magic sleep, possibly hypnotic. They were also in request as poisoners. Since the Gauls went to Britain to perfect themselves in Druidic science, it is possible that the insular Druids were more devoted to magic than those of Gaul, but since the latter are said to have "tamed the people as wild beasts are tamed", it is obvious that this refers to their powers as magicians rather than to any recondite philosophy possessed by them. Yet they were clear-sighted enough to use every means by which they might gain political power, and some of them may have been open to the influence of classical learning even before the Roman invasion. In the next chapter the magic of the Druids will be described in detail.

The Druids, both in Gaul (at the mistletoe rite) and in Ireland, were dressed in white, but Strabo speaks of their scarlet and gold embroidered robes, their golden necklets and bracelets.1063 Again, the chief Druid of the king of Erin wore {311} a coloured cloak and had earrings of gold, and in another instance a Druid wears a bull's hide and a white-speckled bird headpiece with fluttering wings.1064 There was also some special tonsure used by the Druids, which may have denoted servitude to the gods, as it was customary for a warrior to vow his hair to a divinity if victory was granted him. Similarly the Druid's hair would be presented to the gods, and the tonsure would mark their minister.


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