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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 77

While the greater objects of nature were worshipped for themselves alone, the Celts also peopled the earth with spirits, benevolent or malevolent, of rocks, hills, dales, forests, lakes, and streams, and while greater divinities of growth had been evolved, they still believed in lesser spirits of vegetation, of the corn, and of fertility, connected, however, with these gods. Some of these still survive as fairies seen in meadows, woodlands, or streams, or as demoniac beings haunting lonely places. And even now, in French folk-belief, sun, moon, winds, etc., are regarded as actual personages. Sun and moon are husband and wife; the winds have wives; they are addressed by personal names and reverenced.566 Some spirits may already have had a demoniac aspect in pagan times. The Tuatha Déa conjured up meisi, "spectral bodies that rise from the ground," against the Milesians, and at their service were malignant sprites—urtrochta, and "forms, spectres, and great queens" called guidemain (false demons). The Druids also sent forth mischievous spirits called siabra. In the Táin there are {174} references to bocânachs, banânaichs, and geniti-glinni, "goblins, eldritch beings, and glen-folk." These are twice called Tuatha Dé Danann, and this suggests that they were nature-spirits akin to the greater gods.568 The geniti-glinni would be spirits haunting glen and valley. They are friendly to Cúchulainn in the Táin, but in the Feast of Bricriu he and other heroes fight and destroy them.569 In modern Irish belief they are demons of the air, perhaps fallen angels.570

Much of this is probably pre-Celtic as well as Celtic, but it held its ground because it was dear to the Celts themselves. They upheld the aboriginal cults resembling those which, in the lands whence they came, had been native and local with themselves. Such cults are as old as the world, and when Christianity expelled the worship of the greater gods, younger in growth, the ancient nature worship, dowered with immortal youth,

"bowed low before the blast

In patient deep disdain,"

to rise again in vigour. Preachers, councils, and laws inveighed against it. The old rites continued to be practised, or survived under a Christian dress and colouring. They are found in Breton villages, in Highland glens, in Welsh and Cornish valleys, in Irish townships, and only the spread of school-board education, with its materialism and uninviting common sense, is forcing them at last to yield.

The denunciations of these cults throw some light upon them. Offerings at trees, stones, fountains, and cross-roads, the lighting of fires or candles there, and vows or incantations addressed to them, are forbidden, as is also the worship of trees, groves, stones, rivers, and wells. The sun and moon {175} are not to be called lords. Wizardry, and divination, and the leapings and dancings, songs and choruses of the pagans, i.e. their orgiastic cults, are not to be practised. Tempest-raisers are not to ply their diabolical craft. These denunciations, of course, were not without their effect, and legend told how the spirits of nature were heard bewailing the power of the Christian saints, their mournful cries echoing in wooded hollows, secluded valleys, and shores of lake and river.572 Their power, though limited, was not annihilated, but the secrecy in which the old cults often continued to be practised gave them a darker colour. They were identified with the works of the devil, and the spirits of paganism with dark and grisly demons. This culminated in the mediæval witch persecutions, for witchcraft was in part the old paganism in a new guise. Yet even that did not annihilate superstition, which still lives and flourishes among the folk, though the actual worship of nature-spirits has now disappeared.



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