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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 95

(1) Descent from animals.—Celtic names implying descent from animals or plants are of two classes, clan and personal names. If the latter are totemistic, they must be derived from the former, since totemism is an affair of the clan, while the so-called "personal totem," exemplified by the American Indian manitou, is the guardian but never the ancestor of a man. Some clan names have already been referred to. Others are the Bibroci of south-east Britain, probably a beaver clan (bebros), and the Eburones, a yew-tree clan (eburos). Irish clans bore animal names: some groups were called "calves," others "griffins," others "red deer," and a plant name is seen in Fir Bile, "men of the tree." Such clan totemism perhaps underlies the stories of the "descendants of the wolf" at Ossory, who became wolves for a time as the result of a saintly curse. Other instances of lycanthropy were associated with certain families. The belief in lycanthropy might easily attach itself to existing wolf-clans, the transformation being then explained as the result of a curse. The stories of Cormac mac Art, suckled by a she-wolf, of Lughaid mac Con, "son of a wolf-dog," suckled by that animal, and of Oisin, whose mother was a fawn, and who would not eat venison, are perhaps totemistic, {217} while to totemism or to a cult of animals may be ascribed what early travellers in Ireland say of the people taking wolves as god-fathers and praying to them to do them no ill. In Wales bands of warriors at the battle of Cattraeth are described in Oneurin's Gododin as dogs, wolves, bears, and ravens, while Owein's band of ravens which fought against Arthur, may have been a raven clan, later misunderstood as actual ravens.734 Certain groups of Dalriad Scots bore animal names—Cinel Gabran, "Little goat clan," and Cinel Loarn, "Fox clan." Possibly the custom of denoting Highland clans by animal or plant badges may be connected with a belief in descent from plants or animals. On many coins an animal is represented on horseback, perhaps leading a clan, as birds led the Celts to the Danube area, and these may depict myths telling how the clan totem animal led the clan to its present territory. Such myths may survive in legends relating how an animal led a saint to the site of his church. Celtic warriors wore helmets with horns, and Irish story speaks of men with cat, dog, or goat heads. These may have been men wearing a head-gear formed of the skin or head of the clan totem, hence remembered at a later time as monstrous beings, while the horned helmets would be related to the same custom. Solinus describes the Britons as wearing animal skins before going into battle. Were these skins of totem animals under whose protection they thus placed themselves? The "forms of beasts, birds, and fishes" which the Cruithne or Picts tattooed on their bodies may have been totem marks, while the painting of their bodies with woad among the {218} southern Britons may have been of the same character, though Cæsar's words hardly denote this. Certain marks on faces figured on Gaulish coins seem to be tattoo marks.739

It is not impossible that an early wolf-totem may have been associated, because of the animal's nocturnal wanderings in forests, with the underworld whence, according to Celtic belief, men sprang and whither they returned, and whence all vegetation came forth. The Gallo-Roman Silvanus, probably an underworld god, wears a wolf-skin, and may thus be a wolf-god. There were various types of underworld gods, and this wolf-type—perhaps a local wolf-totem ancestor assimilated to a local "Dispater"—may have been the god of a clan who imposed its mythic wolf origin on other clans. Some Celtic bronzes show a wolf swallowing a man who offers no resistance, probably because he is dead. The wolf is much bigger than the man, and hence may be a god. These bronzes would thus represent a belief setting forth the return of men to their totem ancestor after death, or to the underworld god connected with the totem ancestor, by saying that he devoured the dead, like certain Polynesian divinities and the Greek Eurynomos.


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