<<<
>>>

The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 89

Dr. Evans argues that "the original holy object within the central triliths of Stonehenge was a sacred tree," an oak, image of the Celtic Zeus. The tree and the stones, once associated with ancestor worship, had become symbols of "a more celestial Spirit or Spirits than those of departed human beings." But Stonehenge has now been proved to have been in existence before the arrival of the Celts, hence such a cult must have been pre-Celtic, though it may quite well have been adopted by the Celts. Whether this hypothetical cult was practised by a tribe, a group of tribes, or by the whole people, must remain obscure, and, indeed, it may well be questioned whether Stonehenge was ever more than the scene of some ancestral rites.

{201}

Other trees—the yew, the cypress, the alder, and the ash, were venerated, to judge by what Lucan relates of the sacred grove at Marseilles. The Irish Druids attributed special virtues to the hazel, rowan, and yew, the wood of which was used in magical ceremonies described in Irish texts. Fires of rowan were lit by the Druids of rival armies, and incantations said over them in order to discomfit the opposing host,672 and the wood of all these trees is still believed to be efficacious against fairies and witches.

The Irish bile was a sacred tree, of great age, growing over a holy well or fort. Five of them are described in the Dindsenchas, and one was an oak, which not only yielded acorns, but nuts and apples. The mythic trees of Elysium had the same varied fruitage, and the reason in both cases is perhaps the fact that when the cultivated apple took the place of acorns and nuts as a food staple, words signifying "nut" or "acorn" were transferred to the apple. A myth of trees on which all these fruits grew might then easily arise. Another Irish bile was a yew described in a poem as "a firm strong god," while such phrases in this poem as "word-pure man," "judgment of origin," "spell of knowledge," may have some reference to the custom of writing divinations in ogham on rods of yew. The other bile were ash-trees, and from one of them the Fir Bile, "men of the tree," were named—perhaps a totem-clan. The lives of kings and chiefs appear to have been connected with these trees, probably as representatives of the spirit of vegetation embodied in the tree, and under their shadow they were inaugurated. But as a substitute for the king was slain, so doubtless these pre-eminent sacred trees were too sacred, too much charged with supernatural force, to {202} be cut down and burned, and the yearly ritual would be performed with another tree. But in time of feud one tribe gloried in destroying the bile of another; and even in the tenth century, when the bile maighe Adair was destroyed by Maelocohlen the act was regarded with horror. "But, O reader, this deed did not pass unpunished." Of another bile, that of Borrisokane, it was said that any house in which a fragment of it was burned would itself be destroyed by fire.

Tribal and personal names point to belief in descent from tree gods or spirits and perhaps to totemism. The Eburones were the yew-tree tribe (eburos); the Bituriges perhaps had the mistletoe for their symbol, and their surname Vivisci implies that they were called "Mistletoe men." If bile (tree) is connected with the name Bile, that of the ancestor of the Milesians, this may point to some myth of descent from a sacred tree, as in the case of the Fir Bile, or "men of the tree." Other names like Guidgen (Viduo-genos, "son of the tree"), Dergen (Dervo-genos, "son of the oak"), Guerngen (Verno-genos, "son of the alder"), imply filiation to a tree. Though these names became conventional, they express what had once been a living belief. Names borrowed directly from trees are also found—-Eburos or Ebur, "yew," Derua or Deruacus, "oak," etc.

The veneration of trees growing beside burial mounds or megalithic monuments was probably a pre-Celtic cult continued by the Celts. The tree embodied the ghost of the person buried under it, but such a ghost could then hardly be differentiated from a tree spirit or divinity. Even now in Celtic districts extreme veneration exists for trees growing in cemeteries and in other places. It is dangerous to cut them {203} down or to pluck a leaf or branch from them, while in Breton churchyards the yew is thought to spread a root to the mouth of each corpse. The story of the grave of Cyperissa, daughter of a Celtic king in the Danube region, from which first sprang the "mournful cypress,"680 is connected with universal legends of trees growing from the graves of lovers until their branches intertwine. These embody the belief that the spirit of the dead is in the tree, which was thus in all likelihood the object of a cult. Instances of these legends occur in Celtic story. Yew-stakes driven through the bodies of Naisi and Deirdre to keep them apart, became yew-trees the tops of which embraced over Armagh Cathedral. A yew sprang from the grave of Bailé Mac Buain, and an apple-tree from that of his lover Aillinn, and the top of each had the form of their heads. The identification of tree and ghost is here complete.


<<<
>>>