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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 79

{176} The festivals of growth began, not at sunrise, but on the previous evening with the rising of the moon, and the name La Lunade is still given to the Midsummer festival in parts of France. At Vallon de la Suille a wood on the slope where the festival is held is called Bois de la Lune; and in Ireland, where the festival begins on the previous evening, in the district where an ascent of Cnoc Aine is made, the position of the moon must be observed. A similar combination of sun and moon cults is found in an inscription at Lausanne—To the genius of the sun and moon.576

Possibly sun festivals took the place of those of the moon. Traces of the connection of the moon with agriculture occur in different regions, the connection being established through the primitive law of sympathetic magic. The moon waxes and wanes, therefore it must affect all processes of growth or decay. Dr. Frazer has cited many instances of this belief, and has shown that the moon had a priority to the sun in worship, e.g. in Egypt and Babylon. Sowing is done with a waxing moon, so that, through sympathy, there may be a large increase. But harvesting, cutting timber, etc., should be done with a waning moon, because moisture being caused by a waxing moon, it was necessary to avoid cutting such things as would spoil by moisture at that time. Similar beliefs are found among the Celts. Mistletoe and other magical plants were culled with a waxing moon, probably because their {177} power would thus be greater. Dr. Johnson noted the fact that the Highlanders sowed their seed with a waxing moon, in the expectation of a better harvest. For similar occult reasons, it is thought in Brittany that conception during a waxing moon produces a male child, during a waning moon a female, while accouchements at the latter time are dangerous. Sheep and cows should be killed at the new moon, else their flesh will shrink, but peats should be cut in the last quarter, otherwise they will remain moist and give out "a power of smoke."

These ideas take us back to a time when it was held that the moon was not merely the measurer of time, but had powerful effects on the processes of growth and decay. Artemis and Diana, moon-goddesses, had power over all growing things, and as some Celtic goddesses were equated with Diana, they may have been connected with the moon, more especially as Gallo-Roman images of Diana have the head adorned with a crescent moon. In some cases festivals of the moon remained intact, as among the Celtiberians and other peoples to the north of them, who at the time of full moon celebrated the festival of a nameless god, dancing all night before the doors of their houses. The nameless god may have been the moon, worshipped at the time of her intensest light. Moonlight dances round a great stone, with singing, on the first day of the year, occurred in the Highlands in the eighteenth century. Other survivals of cult are seen in the practices of bowing or baring the head at new moon, or addressing it with words of adoration or supplication. In Ireland, Camden found the custom at new moon of saying the Lord's Prayer with the {178} addition of the words, "Leave us whole and sound as Thou hast found us." Similar customs exist in Brittany, where girls pray to the moon to grant them dreams of their future husbands. Like other races, the Celts thought that eclipses were caused by a monster attacking the moon, while it could be driven off with cries and shouts. In 218 B.C. the Celtic allies of Attalus were frightened by an eclipse, and much later Christian legislation forbade the people to assemble at an eclipse and shout, Vince, Luna!582 Such a practice was observed in Ireland in the seventeenth century. At an earlier time, Irish poets addressed sun and moon as divinities, and they were represented on altars even in Christian times.

While the Celts believed in sea-gods—Manannan, Morgen, Dylan—the sea itself was still personified and regarded as divine. It was thought to be a hostile being, and high tides were met by Celtic warriors, who advanced against them with sword and spear, often perishing in the rushing waters rather than retreat. The ancients regarded this as bravado. M. Jullian sees in it a sacrifice by voluntary suicide; M. D'Arbois, a tranquil waiting for death and the introduction to another life. But the passages give the sense of an actual attack on the waves—living things which men might terrify, and perhaps with this was combined the belief that no one could die during a rising tide. Similarly French fishermen threaten to cut a fog in two with a knife, while the legend of S. Lunaire tells how he threw a knife at a fog, thus causing its disappearance. Fighting the waves is also referred to in Irish texts. {179} Thus Tuirbe Trágmar would "hurl a cast of his axe in the face of the flood-tide, so that he forbade the sea, which then would not come over the axe." Cúchulainn, in one of his fits of anger, fought the waves for seven days, and Fionn fought and conquered the Muireartach, a personification of the wild western sea.586 On the French coast fishermen throw harpoons at certain harmful waves called the Three Witch Waves, thus drawing their blood and causing them to subside.587 In some cases human victims may have been offered to the rising waters, since certain tales speak of a child set floating on the waves, and this, repeated every seven years, kept them in their place.

The sea had also its beneficent aspects. The shore was "a place of revelation of science," and the sea sympathised with human griefs. At the Battle of Ventry "the sea chattered, telling the losses, and the waves raised a heavy, woeful great moan in wailing them."589 In other cases in Ireland, by a spell put on the waves, or by the intuitive knowledge of the listener, it was revealed that they were wailing for a death or describing some distant event. In the beautiful song sung by the wife of Cael, "the wave wails against the shore for his death," and in Welsh myth the waves bewailed the death of Dylan, "son of the wave," and were eager to avenge it. The noise of the waves rushing into the vale of Conwy were his dying groans. In Ireland the roaring of the sea was thought to be prophetic of a king's death or the coming of important news; and there, too, certain great waves were celebrated in story—Clidna's, Tuaithe's, and Rudhraidhe's. Nine waves, or the ninth wave, {180} partly because of the sacred nature of the number nine, partly because of the beneficent character of the waves, had a great importance. They formed a barrier against invasion, danger, or pestilence, or they had a healing effect.593


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