<<<
>>>

The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 144

{327} and in this traditional power of the satire or "rime" we have probably an exaggerated reference to actual fact. In other cases the "curse of satire" affected nature, causing seas and rivers to sink back. The satires made by the bards of Gaul, referred to by Diodorus, may have been believed to possess similar powers.1130 Contrariwise, the Filid, on uttering an unjust judgment, found their faces covered with blotches.

A magical sleep is often caused by music in the sagas, e.g. by the harp of Dagda, or by the branch carried by visitants from Elysium. Many "fairy" lullabies for producing sleep are even now extant in Ireland and the Highlands. As music forms a part of all primitive religion, its soothing powers would easily be magnified. In orgiastic rites it caused varying emotions until the singer and dancer fell into a deep slumber, and the tales of those who joined in a fairy dance and fell asleep, awaking to find that many years had passed, are mythic extensions of the power of music in such orgiastic cults. The music of the Filid had similar powers to that of Dagda's harp, producing laughter, tears, and a delicious slumber,1134 and Celtic folk-tales abound in similar instances of the magic charm of music.

We now turn to the use of amulets among the Celts. Some of these were symbolic and intended to bring the wearer under the protection of the god whom they symbolised. As has been seen, a Celtic god had as his symbol a wheel, probably representing the sun, and numerous small wheel discs made of different materials have been found in Gaul and {328} Britain. These were evidently worn as amulets, while in other cases they were offered to river divinities, since many are met with in river beds or fords. Their use as protective amulets is shown by a stele representing a person wearing a necklace to which is attached one of these wheels. In Irish texts a Druid is called Mag Ruith, explained as magus rotarum, because he made his Druidical observations by wheels. This may point to the use of such amulets in Ireland. A curious amulet, connected with the Druids, became famous in Roman times and is described by Pliny. This was the "serpents' egg," formed from the foam produced by serpents twining themselves together. The serpents threw the "egg" into the air, and he who sought it had to catch it in his cloak before it fell, and flee to a running stream, beyond which the serpents, like the witches pursuing Tam o' Shanter, could not follow him. This "egg" was believed to cause its owner to obtain access to kings or to gain lawsuits, and a Roman citizen was put to death in the reign of Claudius for bringing such an amulet into court. Pliny had seen this "egg." It was about the size of an apple, with a cartilaginous skin covered with discs.1137 Probably it was a fossil echinus, such as has been found in Gaulish tombs.1138 Such "eggs" were doubtless connected with the cult of the serpent, or some old myth of an egg produced by serpents may have been made use of to account for their formation. This is the more likely, as rings or beads of glass found in tumuli in Wales, Cornwall, and the Highlands are called "serpents' glass" (glain naidr), and are believed to be formed in the same way as the "egg." These, as well as old spindle-whorls called "adder stones" in {329} the Highlands, are held to have magical virtues, e.g. against the bite of a serpent, and are highly prized by their owners.1139

Pliny speaks also of the Celtic belief in the magical virtues of coral, either worn as an amulet or taken in powder as a medicine, while it has been proved that the Celts during a limited period of their history placed it on weapons and utensils, doubtless as an amulet.1140 Other amulets—white marble balls, quartz pebbles, models of the tooth of the boar, or pieces of amber, have been found buried with the dead.1141 Little figures of the boar, the horse, and the bull, with a ring for suspending them to a necklet, were worn as amulets or images of these divine animals, and phallic amulets were also worn, perhaps as a protection against the evil eye.1142

A cult of stones was probably connected with the belief in the magical power of certain stones, like the Lia Fail, which shrieked aloud when Conn knocked against it. His Druids explained that the number of the shrieks equalled the number of his descendants who should be kings of Erin.1143 This is an ætiological myth accounting for the use of this fetich-stone at coronations. Other stones, probably the object of a cult or possessing magical virtues, were used at the installation of chiefs, who stood on them and vowed to follow in the steps of their predecessors, a pair of feet being carved on the stone to represent those of the first chief.1144 Other stones had more musical virtues—the "conspicuous stone" of {330} Elysium from which arose a hundred strains, and the melodious stone of Loch Láig. Such beliefs existed into Christian times. S. Columba's stone altar floated on the waves, and on it a leper had crossed in the wake of the saint's coracle to Erin. But the same stone was that on which, long before, the hero Fionn had slipped.1145

Connected with the cult of stones are magical observances at fixed rocks or boulders, regarded probably as the abode of a spirit. These observances are in origin pre-Celtic, but were practised by the Celts. Girls slide down a stone to obtain a lover, pregnant women to obtain an easy delivery, or contact with such stones causes barren women to have children or gives vitality to the feeble. A small offering is usually left on the stone.1146 Similar rites are practised at megalithic monuments, and here again the custom is obviously pre-Celtic in origin. In this case the spirits of the dead must have been expected to assist the purposes of the rites, or even to incarnate themselves in the children born as a result of barren women resorting to these stones. Sometimes when the purpose of the stones has been forgotten and some other legendary origin attributed to them, the custom adapts itself to the legend. In Ireland many dolmens are known, not as places of sepulture, but as "Diarmaid and Grainne's beds"—the places where these eloping lovers slept. Hence they have powers of fruitfulness and are visited by women who desire children. The rite is thus one of sympathetic magic.

Holed dolmens or naturally pierced blocks are used for the magical cure of sickness both in Brittany and Cornwall, the patient being passed through the hole. Similar rites {331} are used with trees, a slit being often made in the trunk of a sapling, and a sickly child passed through it. The slit is then closed and bound, and if it joins together at the end of a certain time, this is a proof that the child will recover.1149 In these rites the spirit in stone or tree was supposed to assist the process of healing, or the disease was transferred to them, or, again, there was the idea of a new birth with consequent renewed life, the act imitating the process of birth. These rites are not confined to Celtic regions, but belong to that universal use of magic in which the Celts freely participated.


<<<
>>>