The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 76

551 The nearest Celtic analogy to these is the Matres, goddesses of fertility. Bede says that Christmas eve was called Modranicht, "Mothers' Night,"552 and as many of the rites of Samhain were transferred to Yule, the former date of Modranicht may have been Samhain, just as the Scandinavian Disablot, held in November, was a festival of the disir and of the dead. It has been seen that the Celtic Earth-god was lord of the dead, and that he probably took the place of an Earth-goddess or goddesses, to whom the Matres certainly correspond. Hence the connection of the dead with female Earth-spirits would be explained. Mother Earth had received the dead before her place was taken by the Celtic Dispater. Hence the time of Earth's {170} decay was the season when the dead, her children, would be commemorated. Whatever be the reason, Celts, Teutons, and others have commemorated the dead at the beginning of winter, which was the beginning of a new year, while a similar festival of the dead at New Year is held in many other lands.

Both in Ireland and in Brittany, on November eve food is laid out for the dead who come to visit the houses and to warm themselves at the fire in the stillness of the night, and in Brittany a huge log burns on the hearth. We have here returned to the cult of the dead at the hearth. Possibly the Yule log was once a log burned on the hearth—the place of the family ghosts—at Samhain, when new fire was kindled in each house. On it libations were poured, which would then have been meant for the dead. The Yule log and the log of the Breton peasants would thus be the domestic aspect of the fire ritual, which had its public aspect in the Samhain bonfires.

All this has been in part affected by the Christian feast of All Souls. Dr. Frazer thinks that the feast of All Saints (November 1st) was intended to take the place of the pagan cult of the dead. As it failed to do this, All Souls, a festival of all the dead, was added on November 2nd. To some extent, but not entirely, it has neutralised the pagan rites, for the old ideas connected with Samhain still survive here and there. It is also to be noted that in some cases the friendly aspect of the dead has been lost sight of, and, like the síd-folk, they are popularly connected with evil powers which are in the ascendant on Samhain eve.

Footnote 532:(return)

Silius Italicus, v. 652; Lucan, i. 447. Cf. p. 241, infra.

Footnote 533:(return)

Ammian. Marcell. xv. 10. 7; Joyce, SH i. 45.

Footnote 534:(return)

Bulliot, Fouilles du Mont Beuvray, Autun, 1899, i. 76, 396.

Footnote 535:(return)

Le Braz, ii. 67; Sauvé, Folk-lore des Hautes Vosges, 295; Bérenger-Féraud, Superstitions et Survivances, i. 11.

Footnote 536:(return)

Hearn, Aryan Household, 43 f.; Bérenger-Féraud, i. 33; Rev. des Trad. i. 142; Carmichael, ii. 329; Cosquin, Trad. Pop. de la Lorraine, i. 82.

Footnote 537:(return)

Kennedy, 126. The mischievous brownie who overturns furniture and smashes crockery is an exact reproduction of the Poltergeist.

Footnote 538:(return)

Dechelette, Rev. Arch. xxxiii, (1898), 63, 245, 252.

Footnote 539:(return)

Cicero, De Leg. ii. 22.

Footnote 540:(return)

Dechelette, 256; Reinach, BF 189.

Footnote 541:(return)

Dechelette, 257-258. In another instance the ram is marked with crosses like those engraved on images of the underworld god with the hammer.

Footnote 542:(return)

Kennedy, 187.

Footnote 543:(return)

Lady Wilde, 118; Curtin, Tales, 54.

Footnote 544:(return)

Le Braz, i. 229; Gregor, 21; Cambry, Voyage dans le Finistère, i. 229.

Footnote 545:(return)

Le Braz, ii. 47; Folk-Lore, iv. 357; MacCulloch, Misty Isle of Skye, 254; Sébillot, i. 235-236.

Footnote 546:(return)

Names of places associated with the great festivals are also those of the chief pagan cemeteries, Tara, Carman, Taillti, etc. (O'Curry, MC ii. 523).

Footnote 547:(return)

Rennes Dindsenchas, RC xv. 313-314.

Footnote 548:(return)

Cf. Frazer, Adonis, 134.

Footnote 549:(return)

Cf. Chambers, Mediæval Stage, i. 250, 253.

Footnote 550:(return)

See Vigfusson-Powell, Corpus Poet. Boreale, i. 405, 419. Perhaps for a similar reason a cult of the dead may have occurred at the Midsummer festival.

Footnote 551:(return)

Miss Faraday, Folk-Lore, xvii. 398 f.

Footnote 552:(return)

Bede, de Temp. Rat. c. xv.

Footnote 553:(return)

Vigfusson-Powell, i. 419.

Footnote 554:(return)

Curtin, Tales, 157; Haddon, Folk-Lore, iv. 359; Le Braz, ii. 115 et passim.

Footnote 555:(return)

Frazer, Adonis, 253 f.




In early thought everything was a person, in the loose meaning then possessed by personality, and many such "persons" were worshipped—earth, sun, moon, sea, wind, etc. This led later to more complete personification, and the sun or earth divinity or spirit was more or less separated from the sun or earth themselves. Some Celtic divinities were thus evolved, but there still continued a veneration of the objects of nature in themselves, as well as a cult of nature spirits or secondary divinities who peopled every part of nature. "Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which are now subservient to the use of man, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honours," cries Gildas.556 This was the true cult of the folk, the "blind people," even when the greater gods were organised, and it has survived with modifications in out-of-the-way places, in spite of the coming of Christianity.

S. Kentigern rebuked the Cambrians for worshipping the elements, which God made for man's use. The question of the daughters of Loegaire also throws much light on Celtic nature worship. "Has your god sons or daughters?... Have many fostered his sons? Are his daughters dear and beautiful to men? Is he in heaven or on earth, in the sea, in the rivers, in the mountains, in the valleys?" The words suggest {172} a belief in divine beings filling heaven, earth, sea, air, hills, glens, lochs, and rivers, and following human customs. A naïve faith, full of beauty and poetry, even if it had its dark and grim aspects! These powers or personalities had been invoked from time immemorial, but the invocations were soon stereotyped into definite formulas. Such a formula is put into the mouth of Amairgen, the poet of the Milesians, when they were about to invade Erin, and it may have been a magical invocation of the powers of nature at the beginning of an undertaking or in times of danger:

"I invoke the land of Ireland!

Shining, shining sea!

Fertile, fertile mountain!

Wooded vale!

Abundant river, abundant in waters!

Fish abounding lake!

Fish abounding sea!

Fertile earth!

Irruption of fish! Fish there!

Bird under wave! Great fish!

Crab hole! Irruption of fish!

Fish abounding sea!"

A similar formula was spoken after the destruction of Da Derga's Hostel by MacCecht on his finding water. He bathed in it and sang—

"Cold fountain! Surface of strand ...

Sea of lake, water of Gara, stream of river;

High spring well; cold fountain!"

The goddess Morrigan, after the defeat of the Fomorians, invokes the powers of nature and proclaims the victory to "the royal mountains of Ireland, to its chief waters, and its river mouths."561 It was also customary to take oaths by the elements—heaven, earth, sun, fire, moon, sea, land, day, night, {173} etc., and these punished the breaker of the oath.562 Even the gods exacted such an oath of each other. Bres swore by sun, moon, sea, and land, to fulfil the engagement imposed on him by Lug. The formulæ survived into Christian times, and the faithful were forbidden to call the sun and moon gods or to swear by them, while in Breton folk-custom at the present day oaths by sun, moon, or earth, followed by punishment of the oath-breaker by the moon, are still in use. These oaths had originated in a time when the elements themselves were thought to be divine, and similar adjurations were used by Greeks and Scandinavians.