The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 92

{204} or stones, and against the belief that certain trees were too sacred to be cut down or burned. Heavy fines were levied against those who practised these rites, yet still they continued.683 Amator, Bishop of Auxerre, tried to stop the worship of a large pear-tree standing in the centre of the town and on which the semi-Christian inhabitants hung animals' heads with much ribaldry. At last S. Germanus destroyed it, but at the risk of his life. S. Martin of Tours was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine-tree which stood beside it—an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil, from which it sprang, could not be entirely eradicated. The Church often effected a compromise. Images of the gods affixed to trees were replaced by those of the Virgin, but with curious results. Legends arose telling how the faithful had been led to such trees and there discovered the image of the Madonna miraculously placed among the branches. These are analogous to the legends of the discovery of images of the Virgin in the earth, such images being really those of the Matres.

Representations of sacred trees are occasionally met with on coins, altars, and ex votos. If the interpretation be correct which sees a representation of part of the Cúchulainn legend on the Paris and Trèves altars, the trees figured there would not necessarily be sacred. But otherwise they may depict sacred trees.


We now turn to Pliny's account of the mistletoe rite. The Druids held nothing more sacred than this plant and the tree on which it grew, probably an oak. Of it groves were formed, while branches of the oak were used in all religious rites. Everything growing on the oak had been sent from heaven, and the presence of the mistletoe showed that God had selected the tree for especial favour. Rare as it was, when found the mistletoe was the object of a careful ritual. On the sixth day of the moon it was culled. Preparations for a sacrifice and feast were made beneath the tree, and two white bulls whose horns had never been bound were brought there. A Druid, clad in white, ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. As it fell it was caught in a white cloth; the bulls were then sacrificed, and prayer was made that God would make His gift prosperous to those on whom He had bestowed it. The mistletoe was called "the universal healer," and a potion made from it caused barren animals to be fruitful. It was also a remedy against all poisons.687 We can hardly believe that such an elaborate ritual merely led up to the medico-magical use of the mistletoe. Possibly, of course, the rite was an attenuated survival of something which had once been more important, but it is more likely that Pliny gives only a few picturesque details and passes by the rationale of the ritual. He does not tell us who the "God" of whom he speaks was, perhaps the sun-god or the god of vegetation. As to the "gift," it was probably in his mind the mistletoe, but it may quite well have meant the gift of growth in field and fold. The tree was perhaps cut down and burned; the oxen may have been incarnations of a god of vegetation, as the tree also may have been. We need not here repeat the meaning which has been given to the ritual, but it may be added that if this meaning is {206} correct, the rite probably took place at the time of the Midsummer festival, a festival of growth and fertility. Mistletoe is still gathered on Midsummer eve and used as an antidote to poisons or for the cure of wounds. Its Druidic name is still preserved in Celtic speech in words signifying "all-healer," while it is also called sùgh an daraich, "sap of the oak," and Druidh lus, "Druid's weed."

Pliny describes other Celtic herbs of grace. Selago was culled without use of iron after a sacrifice of bread and wine—probably to the spirit of the plant. The person gathering it wore a white robe, and went with unshod feet after washing them. According to the Druids, Selago preserved one from accident, and its smoke when burned healed maladies of the eye.690 Samolus was placed in drinking troughs as a remedy against disease in cattle. It was culled by a person fasting, with the left hand; it must be wholly uprooted, and the gatherer must not look behind him.691 Vervain was gathered at sunrise after a sacrifice to the earth as an expiation—perhaps because its surface was about to be disturbed. When it was rubbed on the body all wishes were gratified; it dispelled fevers and other maladies; it was an antidote against serpents; and it conciliated hearts. A branch of the dried herb used to asperge a banquet-hall made the guests more convivial692

The ritual used in gathering these plants—silence, various tabus, ritual purity, sacrifice—is found wherever plants are culled whose virtue lies in this that they are possessed by a spirit. Other plants are still used as charms by modern Celtic peasants, and, in some cases, the ritual of gathering {207} them resembles that described by Pliny. In Irish sagas plants have magical powers. "Fairy herbs" placed in a bath restored beauty to women bathing therein.694 During the Táin Cúchulainn's wounds were healed with "balsams and healing herbs of fairy potency," and Diancecht used similar herbs to restore the dead at the battle of Mag-tured.695

Footnote 659:(return)

Sacaze, Inscr. des Pyren. 255; Hirschfeld, Sitzungsberichte (Berlin, 1896), 448.

Footnote 660:(return)

CIL vi. 46; CIR 1654, 1683.

Footnote 661:(return)

D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 52.

Footnote 662:(return)

Lucan, Phar. Usener's ed., 32; Orosius, v. 16. 6; Dio Cass. lxii. 6.

Footnote 663:(return)

Pliny, xvi. 44. The Scholiast on Lucan says that the Druids divined with acorns (Usener, 33).

Footnote 664:(return)

Max. Tyr. Diss. viii. 8; Stokes, RC i. 259.

Footnote 665:(return)

Le Braz, ii. 18.

Footnote 666:(return)

Mr. Chadwick (Jour. Anth. Inst. xxx. 26) connects this high god with thunder, and regards the Celtic Zeus (Taranis, in his opinion) as a thunder-god. The oak was associated with this god because his worshippers dwelt under oaks.

Footnote 667:(return)

Helbig, Die Italiker in der Poebene, 16 f.

Footnote 668:(return)

Mannhardt, Baumkultus; Frazer, Golden Bough2 iii. 198.

Footnote 669:(return)

Frazer, loc. cit.

Footnote 670:(return)

Evans, Arch. Rev. i. 327 f.

Footnote 671:(return)

Joyce, SH i. 236.

Footnote 672:(return)

O'Curry, MC i. 213.

Footnote 673:(return)

LL 199b; Rennes Dindsenchas, RC xv. 420.

Footnote 674:(return)

RC xv. 455, xvi. 279; Hennessey, Chron. Scot. 76.

Footnote 675:(return)

Keating, 556; Joyce, PN i. 499.

Footnote 676:(return)

Wood-Martin, ii. 159.

Footnote 677:(return)

D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 51; Jullian, 41.

Footnote 678:(return)

Cook, Folk-Lore, xvii. 60.

Footnote 679:(return)

See Sébillot, i. 293; Le Braz, i. 259; Folk-Lore Journal, v. 218; Folk-Lore Record, 1882.

Footnote 680:(return)

Val. Probus, Comm. in Georgica, ii. 84.

Footnote 681:(return)

Miss Hull, 53; O'Ourry, MS. Mat. 465. Writing tablets, made from each of the trees when they were cut down, sprang together and could not be separated.

Footnote 682:(return)

Stat. Account, iii. 27; Moore, 151; Sébillot, i. 262, 270.

Footnote 683:(return)

Dom Martin, i. 124; Vita S. Eligii, ii. 16.

Footnote 684:(return)

Acta Sanct. (Bolland.), July 31; Sulp. Sever. Vita S. Mart. 457.

Footnote 685:(return)

Grimm, Teut. Myth. 76; Maury, 13, 299. The story of beautiful women found in trees may be connected with the custom of placing images in trees, or with the belief that a goddess might be seen emerging from the tree in which she dwelt.

Footnote 686:(return)

De la Tour, Atlas des Monnaies Gaul, 260, 286; Reinach, Catal. Sommaire, 29.

Footnote 687:(return)

Pliny, HN xvi. 44.

Footnote 688:(return)

See p. 162, supra.

Footnote 689:(return)

See Cameron, Gaelic Names of Plants, 45. In Gregoire de Rostren, Dict. françois-celt. 1732, mistletoe is translated by dour-dero, "oak-water," and is said to be good for several evils.

Footnote 690:(return)

Pliny, xxiv. 11.

Footnote 691:(return)


Footnote 692:(return)

Ibid. xxv. 9.

Footnote 693:(return)

See Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica; De Nore, Coutumes ... des Provinces de France, 150 f.; Sauvé, RC vi. 67, CM ix. 331.

Footnote 694:(return)

O'Grady, ii. 126.

Footnote 695:(return)

Miss Hull, 172; see p. 77, supra.




Animal worship pure and simple had declined among the Celts of historic times, and animals were now regarded mainly as symbols or attributes of divinities. The older cult had been connected with the pastoral stage in which the animals were divine, or with the agricultural stage in which they represented the corn-spirit, and perhaps with totemism. We shall study here (1) traces of the older animal cults; (2) the transformation of animal gods into symbols; and (3) traces of totemism.


The presence of a bull with three cranes (Tarvos Trigaranos) on the Paris altar, along with the gods Esus, Juppiter, and Vulcan, suggests that it was a divine animal, or the subject of a divine myth. As has been seen, this bull may be the bull of the Táin bó Cuailgne. Both it and its opponent were reincarnations of the swine-herds of two gods. In the Irish sagas reincarnation is only attributed to gods or heroes, and this may point to the divinity of the bulls. We have seen that this and another altar may depict some myth in which the bull was the incarnation of a tree or vegetation spirit. The divine nature of the bull is attested by its presence on Gaulish coins as a religious symbol, and by images of the animal with {209} three horns—an obvious symbol of divinity. On such an image in bronze the Cimbri, Celticised Germans, swore. The images are pre-Roman, since they are found at Hallstadt and La Tène. Personal names like Donnotaurus (the equivalent of the Donn Taruos of the Táin) or Deiotaros ("divine bull"), show that men were called after the divine animal.697 Similarly many place-names in which the word taruos occurs, in Northern Italy, the Pyrenees, Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere, suggest that the places bearing these names were sites of a bull cult or that some myth, like that elaborated in the Táin, had been there localised.698 But, as possibly in the case of Cúchulainn and the bull, the animal tended to become the symbol of a god, a tendency perhaps aided by the spread of Mithraism with its symbolic bull. A god Medros leaning on a bull is represented at Haguenau, possibly a form of Mider or of Meduris, a surname of Toutatis, unless Medros is simply Mithras.699 Echoes of the cult of the bull or cow are heard in Irish tales of these animals brought from the síd, or of magic bulls or of cows which produced enormous supplies of milk, or in saintly legends of oxen leading a saint to the site of his future church. These legends are also told of the swine, and they perhaps arose when a Christian church took the place of the site of a local animal cult, legend fusing the old and the new cult by making the once divine animal point out the site of the church. A late relic of a bull cult may be found in the carnival procession of the Boeuf Gras at Paris.


A cult of a swine-god Moccus has been referred to. The boar was a divine symbol on standards, coins, and altars, and many bronze images of the animal have been found. These were temple treasures, and in one case the boar is three-horned. But it was becoming the symbol of a goddess, as is seen by the altars on which it accompanies a goddess, perhaps of fertility, and by a bronze image of a goddess seated on a boar. The altars occur in Britain, of which the animal may be the emblem—the "Caledonian monster" of Claudian's poem. The Galatian Celts abstained from eating the swine, and there has always been a prejudice against its flesh in the Highlands. This has a totemic appearance. But the swine is esteemed in Ireland, and in the texts monstrous swine are the staple article of famous feasts. These may have been legendary forms of old swine-gods, the feasts recalling sacrificial feasts on their flesh. Magic swine were also the immortal food of the gods. But the boar was tabu to certain persons, e.g. Diarmaid, though whether this is the attenuated memory of a clan totem restriction is uncertain. In Welsh story the swine comes from Elysium—a myth explaining the origin of its domestication, while domestication certainly implies an earlier cult of the animal. When animals come to be domesticated, the old cult restrictions, e.g. against eating them, usually pass away. For this reason, perhaps, the Gauls, who worshipped an anthropomorphic swine-god, trafficked in the animal and may have eaten it. Welsh story also tells of the magic boar, the {211} Twrch Trwyth, hunted by Arthur, possibly a folk-tale reminiscence of a boar divinity. Place-names also point to a cult of the swine, and a recollection of its divinity may underlie the numerous Irish tales of magical swine.708 The magic swine which issued from the cave of Cruachan and destroyed the young crops are suggestive of the theriomorphic corn-spirit in its occasional destructive aspect.709 Bones of the swine, sometimes cremated, have been found in Celtic graves in Britain and at Hallstadt, and in one case the animal was buried alone in a tumulus at Hallstadt, just as sacred animals were buried in Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere. When the animal was buried with the dead, it may have been as a sacrifice to the ghost or to the god of the underworld.