The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 74

King and tree would be connected, the king's life being bound up with that of the tree, and perhaps at one time both perished together. But as kings were represented by a substitute, so the sacred tree, regarded as too sacred to be cut down, may also have had its succedaneum. The Irish bile or sacred tree, connected with the kings, must not be touched by any impious hand, and it was sacrilege to cut it down. Probably before cutting down the tree a branch or something growing upon it, e.g. mistletoe, had to be cut, or the king's symbolic branch secured before he could be slain. This may explain Pliny's account of the mistletoe rite. The mistletoe or branch was the soul of the tree, and also contained the life of the divine representative. It must be plucked before the tree could be cut down or the victim slain. Hypothetical as this may be, Pliny's account is incomplete, or he is relating {163} something of which all the details were not known to him. The rite must have had some other purpose than that of the magico-medical use of the mistletoe which he describes, and though he says nothing of cutting down the tree or slaying a human victim, it is not unlikely that, as human sacrifice had been prohibited in his time, the oxen which were slain during the rite took the place of the latter. Later romantic tales suggest that, before slaying some personage, the mythico-romantic survivor of a divine priest or king, a branch carried by him had to be captured by his assailant, or plucked from the tree which he defended. These may point to an old belief in tree and king as divine representatives, and to a ritual like that associated with the Priest of Nemi. The divine tree became the mystic tree of Elysium, with gold and silver branches and marvellous fruits. Armed with such a branch, the gift of one of its people, mortals might penetrate unhindered to the divine land. Perhaps they may be regarded as romantic forms of the old divine kings with the branch of the divine tree.

If in early times the spirit of vegetation was feminine, her representative would be a woman, probably slain at recurring festivals by the female worshippers. This would explain the slaying of one of their number at a festival by Namnite women. But when male spirits or gods superseded goddesses, the divine priest-king would take the place of the female representative. On the other hand, just as the goddess became the consort of the god, a female representative would continue as the divine bride in the ritual of the sacred marriage, the May Queen {164} of later folk-custom. Sporadically, too, conservatism would retain female cults with female divine incarnations, as is seen by the presence of the May Queen alone in certain folk-survivals, and by many Celtic rituals from which men were excluded.

Footnote 516:(return)

O'Grady, ii. 228.

Footnote 517:(return)

Ibid. ii. 203. Cf. Cæsar, vi. 14, "the immortal gods" of Gaul.

Footnote 518:(return)

Cf. Ch. XXIV.; O'Grady, ii. 110, 172; Nutt-Meyer, i. 42.

Footnote 519:(return)

Leahy, ii. 6.

Footnote 520:(return)

IT iii. 203; Trip. Life, 507; Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 14; RC xxii. 28, 168. Chiefs as well as kings probably influenced fertility. A curious survival of this is found in the belief that herrings abounded in Dunvegan Loch when MacLeod arrived at his castle there, and in the desire of the people in Skye during the potato famine that his fairy banner should be waved.

Footnote 521:(return)

An echo of this may underlie the words attributed to King Ailill, "If I am slain, it will be the redemption of many" (O'Grady, ii. 416).

Footnote 522:(return)

See Frazer, Kingship; Cook, Folk-Lore, 1906, "The European Sky-God." Mr. Cook gives ample evidence for the existence of Celtic incarnate gods. With his main conclusions I agree, though some of his inferences seem far-fetched. The divine king was, in his view, a sky-god; he was more likely to have been the representative of a god or spirit of growth or vegetation.

Footnote 523:(return)

Strabo, xii. 5. 2.

Footnote 524:(return)

Plutarch, de Virt. Mul. 20.

Footnote 525:(return)

Cicero, de Div. i. 15, ii. 36; Strabo, xii. 5. 3; Stachelin, Gesch. der Kleinasiat. Galater.

Footnote 526:(return)

Livy, v. 34; Dio Cass. lxii. 6.

Footnote 527:(return)

Ancient Laws of Ireland, i. 22; Diog. Laert. i. proem 1; see p. 301, infra.

Footnote 528:(return)

Pliny, xvi. 95.

Footnote 529:(return)

P. 201, infra.

Footnote 530:(return)

Cf. the tales of Gawain and the Green Knight with his holly bough, and of Gawain's attempting to pluck the bough of a tree guarded by Gramoplanz (Weston, Legend of Sir Gawain, 22, 86). Cf. also the tale of Diarmaid's attacking the defender of a tree to obtain its fruit, and the subsequent slaughter of each man who attacks the hero hidden in its branches (TOS vol. iii.). Cf. Cook, Folk-Lore, xvii. 441.

Footnote 531:(return)

See Chap. XVIII.




The custom of burying grave-goods with the dead, or slaying wife or slaves on the tomb, does not necessarily point to a cult of the dead, yet when such practices survive over a long period they assume the form of a cult. These customs flourished among the Celts, and, taken in connection with the reverence for the sepulchres of the dead, they point to a worship of ancestral spirits as well as of great departed heroes. Heads of the slain were offered to the "strong shades"—the ghosts of tribal heroes whose praises were sung by bards. When such heads were placed on houses, they may have been devoted to the family ghosts. The honour in which mythic or real heroes were held may point to an actual cult, the hero being worshipped when dead, while he still continued his guardianship of the tribe. We know also that the tomb of King Cottius in the Alps was a sacred place, that Irish kings were often inaugurated on ancestral burial cairns, and that Irish gods were associated with barrows of the dead.533

The cult of the dead culminated at the family hearth, around which the dead were even buried, as among the Aeduii; this latter custom may have been general. In any case the belief in the presence of ancestral ghosts around the hearth was widespread, as existing superstitions show. In {166} Brittany the dead seek warmth at the hearth by night, and a feast is spread for them on All Souls' eve, or crumbs are left for them after a family gathering.535 But generally the family ghost has become a brownie, lutin, or pooka, haunting the hearth and doing the household work. Fairy corresponds in all respects to old ancestral ghost, and the one has succeeded to the place of the other, while the fairy is even said to be the ghost of a dead person. Certain archæological remains have also a connection with this ancient cult. Among Celtic remains in Gaul are found andirons of clay, ornamented with a ram's head. M. Dechelette sees in this "the symbol of sacrifice offered to the souls of ancestors on the altar of the hearth." The ram was already associated as a sacrificial animal with the cult of fire on the hearth, and by an easy transition it was connected with the cult of the dead there. It is found as an emblem on ancient tombs, and the domestic Lar was purified by the immolation of a ram.539 Figurines of a ram have been found in Gaulish tombs, and it is associated with the god of the underworld. The ram of the andirons was thus a permanent representative of the victim offered in the cult of the dead. A mutilated inscription on one of them may stand for Laribus augustis, and certain markings on others may represent the garlands twined round the victim.541 Serpents with rams' heads occur on the monuments of the underworld god. The serpent was a chthonian god or the {167} emblem of such a god, and it may have been thought appropriate to give it the head of an animal associated with the cult of the dead.

The dead were also fed at the grave or in the house. Thus cups were placed in the recess of a well in the churchyard of Kilranelagh by those interring a child under five, and the ghost of the child was supposed to supply the other spirits with water from these cups. In Ireland, after a death, food is placed out for the spirits, or, at a burial, nuts are placed in the coffin. In some parts of France, milk is poured out on the grave, and both in Brittany and in Scotland the dead are supposed to partake of the funeral feast. These are survivals from pagan times and correspond to the rites in use among those who still worship ancestors. In Celtic districts a cairn or a cross is placed over the spot where a violent or accidental death has occurred, the purpose being to appease the ghost, and a stone is often added to the cairn by all passers-by.

Festivals were held in Ireland on the anniversaries of the death of kings or chiefs, and these were also utilised for purposes of trade, pleasure, or politics. They sometimes occurred on the great festivals, e.g. Lugnasad and Samhain, and were occasionally held at the great burial-places. Thus the gathering at Taillti on Lugnasad was said to have been founded by Lug in memory of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, and the Leinstermen met at Carman on the same day to commemorate King Garman, or in a variant account, a woman called Carman. She and her sons had tried to blight the {168} corn of the Tuatha Dé Danann, but the sons were driven off and she died of grief, begging that a fair should always be held in her name, and promising abundance of milk, fruit, and fish for its observance. These may be ætiological myths explaining the origin of these festivals on the analogy of funeral festivals, but more likely, since Lugnasad was a harvest festival, they are connected with the custom of slaying a representative of the corn-spirit. The festival would become a commemoration of all such victims, but when the custom itself had ceased it would be associated with one particular personage, the corn-goddess regarded as a mortal.

This would be the case where the victim was a woman, but where a male was slain, the analogy of the slaying of the divine king or his succedaneum would lead to the festivals being regarded as commemorative of a king, e.g. Garman. This agrees with the statement that observance of the festival produced plenty; non-observance, dearth. The victims were slain to obtain plenty, and the festival would also commemorate those who had died for this good cause, while it would also appease their ghosts should these be angry at their violent deaths. Certain of the dead were thus commemorated at Lugnasad, a festival of fertility. Both the corn-spirit or divinity slain in the reaping of the corn, and the human victims, were appeased by its observance.548 The legend of Carman makes her hostile to the corn—a curious way of regarding a corn-goddess. But we have already seen that gods of fertility were sometimes thought of as causing blight, and in folk-belief the corn-spirit is occasionally believed to be dangerous. Such inversions occur wherever revolutions in religion take place.

The great commemoration of the dead was held on {169} Samhain eve, a festival intended to aid the dying powers of vegetation, whose life, however, was still manifested in evergreen shrubs, in the mistletoe, in the sheaf of corn from last harvest—the abode of the corn-spirit. Probably, also, human representatives of the vegetation or corn-spirit were slain, and this may have suggested the belief in the presence of their ghosts at this festival. Or the festival being held at the time of the death of vegetation, the dead would naturally be commemorated then. Or, as in Scandinavia, they may have been held to have an influence on fertility, as an extension of the belief that certain slain persons represented spirits of fertility, or because trees and plants growing on the barrows of the dead were thought to be tenanted by their spirits.550 In Scandinavia, the dead were associated with female spirits or fylgjur, identified with the