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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 97

{219} and the possibility of human descent from a tree or an animal was believed in. Professor Rh[^y]s has argued from the frequency of personal names in Ireland, like Cúrói, "Hound of Rói," Cú Corb, "Corb's Hound," Mac Con, "Hound's Son," and Maelchon, "Hound's Slave," that there existed a dog totem or god, not of the Celts, but of a pre-Celtic race. This assumes that totemism was non-Celtic, an assumption based on preconceived notions of what Celtic institutions ought to have been. The names, it should be observed, are personal, not clan names.

(2) Animal tabus.—Besides the dislike of swine's flesh already noted among certain Celtic groups, the killing and eating of the hare, hen, and goose were forbidden among the Britons. Cæsar says they bred these animals for amusement, but this reason assigned by him is drawn from his knowledge of the breeding of rare animals by rich Romans as a pastime, since he had no knowledge of the breeding of sacred animals which were not eaten—a common totemic or animal cult custom.743 The hare was used for divination by Boudicca, doubtless as a sacred animal, and it has been found that a sacred character still attaches to these animals in Wales. A cock or hen was ceremonially killed and eaten on Shrove Tuesday, either as a former totemic animal, or, less likely, as a representative of the corn-spirit. The hare is not killed in certain districts, but occasionally it is ceremonially hunted and slain annually, while at yearly fairs the goose is sold exclusively and eaten.745 Elsewhere, e.g. in Devon, a ram or lamb is ceremonially slain and eaten, the eating being believed to confer {220} luck. The ill-luck supposed to follow the killing of certain animals may also be reminiscent of totemic tabus. Fish were not eaten by the Pictish Meatæ and Caledonii, and a dislike of eating certain fresh-water fish was observed among certain eighteenth century Highlanders. It has been already seen that certain fish living in sacred wells were tabu, and were believed to give oracles. Heron's flesh was disliked in Ireland, and it was considered unlucky to kill a swan in the Hebrides.748 Fatal results following upon the killing or eating of an animal with which the eater was connected by name or descent are found in the Irish sagas. Conaire was son of a woman and a bird which could take human shape, and it was forbidden to him to hunt birds. On one occasion he did so, and for this as well as the breaking of other tabus, he lost his life.749 It was tabu to Cúchulainn, "the hound of Culann," to eat dog's flesh, and, having been persuaded to do this, his strength went from him, and he perished. Diarmaid, having been forbidden to hunt a boar with which his life was connected, was induced by Fionn to break this tabu, and in consequence he lost his life by one of the boar's bristles entering his foot, or (in a variant) by the boar's killing him. Another instance is found in a tale of certain men transformed to badgers. They were slain by Cormac, and brought to his father Tadg to eat. Tadg unaccountably loathed them, because they were transformed men and his cousins. In this tale, which may contain the débris of totemic usage, the loathing arises from the fact that the badgers are men—a common form of myths explanatory of misunderstood totemic customs, but the old idea of the relation between a man and {221} his totem is not lost sight of. The other tales may also be reminiscent of a clan totem tabu, later centred in a mythic hero. Perhaps the belief in lucky or unlucky animals, or in omens drawn from their appearance, may be based on old totem beliefs or in beliefs in the divinity of the animals.

(3) Sacramental eating of an animal.—The custom of "hunting the wren," found over the whole Celtic area, is connected with animal worship and may be totemistic in origin. In spite of its small size, the wren was known as the king of birds, and in the Isle of Man it was hunted and killed on Christmas or S. Stephen's day. The bird was carried in procession from door to door, to the accompaniment of a chant, and was then solemnly buried, dirges being sung. In some cases a feather was left at each house and carefully treasured, and there are traces of a custom of boiling and eating the bird. In Ireland, the hunt and procession were followed by a feast, the materials of which were collected from house to house, and a similar usage obtained in France, where the youth who killed the bird was called "king." In most of these districts it was considered unlucky or dangerous to kill the bird at any other time, yet it might be ceremonially killed once a year, the dead animal conferred luck, and was solemnly eaten or buried with signs of mourning. Similar customs with animals which are actually worshipped are found elsewhere,753 and they lend support to the idea that the Celts regarded the wren as a divine animal, or perhaps a totem animal, that it was necessary to slay it ritually, and to carry it round the houses of the community to obtain its divine influence, to eat it sacramentally or to bury it. {222} Probably like customs were followed in the case of other animals,754 and these may have given rise to such stories as that of the eating of MacDatho's wonderful boar, as well as to myths which regarded certain animals, e.g. the swine, as the immortal food of the gods. Other examples of ritual survivals of such sacramental eating have already been noted, and it is not improbable that the eating of a sacred pastoral animal occurred at Samhain.

(4) Exogamy.—Exogamy and the counting of descent through the mother are closely connected with totemism, and some traces of both are found among the Celts. Among the Picts, who were, perhaps, a Celtic group of the Brythonic stock, these customs survived in the royal house. The kingship passed to a brother of the king by the same mother, or to a sister's son, while the king's father was never king and was frequently a "foreigner." Similar rules of succession prevailed in early Aryan royal houses—Greek and Roman,—and may, as Dr. Stokes thought, have existed at Tara in Ireland, while in a Fian tale of Oisin he marries the daughter of the king of Tír na n-Og, and succeeds him as king partly for that reason, and partly because he had beaten him in the annual race for the kingship.755 Such an athletic contest for the kingship was known in early Greece, and this tale may support the theory of the Celtic priest-kingship, the holder of the office retaining it as long as he was not defeated or slain. Traces of succession through a sister's son are found in the Mabinogion, and Livy describes how the mythic Celtic king Ambicatus sent not his own but his sister's sons to found new kingdoms.756 Irish and Welsh divine and heroic groups {223} are named after the mother, not the father—the children of Danu and of Dôn, and the men of Domnu. Anu is mother of the gods, Buanann of heroes. The eponymous ancestor of the Scots is a woman, Scota, and the earliest colonisers of Ireland are women, not men. In the sagas gods and heroes have frequently a matronymic, and the father's name is omitted—Lug mac Ethnend, Conchobar mac Nessa, Indech, son of De Domnann, Corpre, son of Etain, and others. Perhaps parallel to this is the custom of calling men after their wives—e.g. the son of Fergus is Fer Tlachtga, Tlachtga's husband. In the sagas, females (goddesses and heroines) have a high place accorded to them, and frequently choose their own lovers or husbands—customs suggestive of the matriarchate. Thus what was once a general practice was later confined to the royal house or told of divine or heroic personages. Possibly certain cases of incest may really be exaggerated accounts of misunderstood unions once permissible by totemic law. Cæsar speaks of British polyandry, brothers, sons, and fathers sharing a wife in common.758 Strabo speaks of Irish unions with mothers and sisters, perhaps referring not to actual practice but to reports of saga tales of incest. Dio Cassius speaks of community of wives among the Caledonians and Meatæ, and Jerome says much the same of the Scoti and Atecotti.760 These notices, with the exception of Cæsar's, are vague, yet they refer to marriage customs different from those known to their reporters. In Irish sagas incest legends circle round the descendants of Etain—fathers unite with daughters, a son with his mother, a woman has a son by her three brothers (just as Ecne was son of Brian, Iuchar, and {224} Iucharba), and is also mother of Crimthan by that son. Brother and sister unions occur both in Irish and Welsh story.762


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