Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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[pg 80]
“Now were summoned the souls of the dead by Cyllenian Hermes....
Touched by the wand they awoke, and obeyed him and followed him, squealing,
Even as bats in the dark, mysterious depths of a cavern
Squeal as they flutter around, should one from the cluster be fallen
Where from the rock suspended they hung, all clinging together;
So did the souls flock squealing behind him, as Hermes the Helper
Guided them down to the gloom through dank and mouldering pathways.”59

The classical writers felt rightly that the Celtic idea of immortality was something altogether different from this. It was both loftier and more realistic; it implied a true persistence of the living man, as he was at present, in all his human relations. They noted with surprise that the Celt would lend money on a promissory note for repayment in the next world.60 That is an absolutely Egyptian conception. And this very analogy occurred to Diodorus in writing of the Celtic idea of immortality—it was like nothing that he knew of out of Egypt.61

The Doctrine of Transmigration

Many ancient writers assert that the Celtic idea of immortality embodied the Oriental conception of the transmigration of souls, and to account for this the hypothesis was invented that they had learned the doctrine from Pythagoras, who represented it in classical antiquity. Thus Cæsar: “The principal point of their [the Druids'] teaching is that the soul does not perish, and that after death it passes from one body into another.” And Diodorus: “Among them the doctrine of Pythagoras prevails, according to which the souls of men are immortal, and after a fixed term recommence [pg 81] to live, taking upon themselves a new body.” Now traces of this doctrine certainly do appear in Irish legend. Thus the Irish chieftain, Mongan, who is an historical personage, and whose death is recorded about A.D. 625, is said to have made a wager as to the place of death of a king named Fothad, slain in a battle with the mythical hero Finn mac Cumhal in the third century. He proves his case by summoning to his aid a revenant from the Other-world, Keelta, who was the actual slayer of Fothad, and who describes correctly where the tomb is to be found and what were its contents. He begins his tale by saying to Mongan, “We were with thee,” and then, turning to the assembly, he continues: “We were with Finn, coming from Alba....” “Hush,” says Mongan, “it is wrong of thee to reveal a secret.” The secret is, of course, that Mongan was a reincarnation of Finn.62 But the evidence on the whole shows that the Celts did not hold this doctrine at all in the same way as Pythagoras and the Orientals did. Transmigration was not, with them, part of the order of things. It might happen, but in general it did not; the new body assumed by the dead clothed them in another, not in this world, and so far as we can learn from any ancient authority, there does not appear to have been any idea of moral retribution connected with this form of the future life. It was not so much an article of faith as an idea which haunted the imagination, and which, as Mongan's caution indicates, ought not to be brought into clear light.

However it may have been conceived, it is certain that the belief in immortality was the basis of Celtic Druidism.63 Caesar affirms this distinctly, and declares [pg 82] the doctrine to have been fostered by the Druids rather for the promotion of courage than for purely religious reasons. An intense Other-world faith, such as that held by the Celts, is certainly one of the mightiest of agencies in the hands of a priesthood who hold the keys of that world. Now Druidism existed in the British Islands, in Gaul, and, in fact, so far as we know, wherever there was a Celtic race amid a population of dolmen-builders. There were Celts in Cisalpine Gaul, but there were no dolmens there, and there were no Druids.64 What is quite clear is that when the Celts got to Western Europe they found there a people with a powerful priesthood, a ritual, and imposing religious monuments; a people steeped in magic and mysticism and the cult of the Underworld. The inferences, as I read the facts, seem to be that Druidism in its essential features was imposed upon the imaginative and sensitive nature of the Celt—the Celt with his “extraordinary aptitude” for picking up ideas—by the earlier population of Western Europe, the Megalithic People, while, as held by these, it stands in some historical relation, which I am not able to pursue in further detail, with the religious culture of ancient Egypt. Much obscurity still broods over the question, and perhaps will always do so, but if these [pg 83] suggestions have anything in them, then the Megalithic People have been brought a step or two out of the atmosphere of uncanny mystery which has surrounded them, and they are shown to have played a very important part in the religious development of Western Europe, and in preparing that part of the world for the rapid extension of the special type of Christianity which took place in it. Bertrand, in his most interesting chapter on “L'Irlande Celtique,”65 points out that very soon after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, we find the country covered with monasteries, whose complete organisation seems to indicate that they were really Druidic colleges transformed en masse. Cæsar has told us what these colleges were like in Gaul. They were very numerous. In spite of the severe study and discipline involved, crowds flocked into them for the sake of the power wielded by the Druidic order, and the civil immunities which its members of all grades enjoyed. Arts and sciences were studied there, and thousands of verses enshrining the teachings of Druidism were committed to memory. All this is very like what we know of Irish Druidism. Such an organisation would pass into Christianity of the type established in Ireland with very little difficulty. The belief in magical rites would survive—early Irish Christianity, as its copious hagiography plainly shows, was as steeped in magical ideas as ever was Druidic paganism. The belief in immortality would remain, as before, the cardinal doctrine of religion. Above all the supremacy of the sacerdotal order over the temporal power would remain unimpaired; it would still be true, as Dion Chrysostom said of the Druids, that “it is they who command, and kings on thrones of gold, dwelling in [pg 84] splendid palaces, are but their ministers, and the servants of their thought.”66

Cæsar on the Druidic Culture

The religious, philosophic, and scientific culture superintended by the Druids is spoken of by Cæsar with much respect. “They discuss and impart to the youth,” he writes, “many things respecting the stars and their motions, respecting the extent of the universe and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods” (bk. vi. 14). We would give much to know some particulars of the teaching here described. But the Druids, though well acquainted with letters, strictly forbade the committal of their doctrines to writing; an extremely sagacious provision, for not only did they thus surround their teaching with that atmosphere of mystery which exercises so potent a spell over the human mind, but they ensured that it could never be effectively controverted.

Human Sacrifices in Gaul

In strange discord, however, with the lofty words of Cæsar stands the abominable practice of human sacrifice whose prevalence he noted among the Celts. Prisoners and criminals, or if these failed even innocent victims, probably children, were encased, numbers at a time, in huge frames of wickerwork, and there burned alive to win the favour of the gods. The practice of human sacrifice is, of course, not specially Druidic—it is found in all parts both of the Old and of the New World at a certain stage of culture, and was doubtless a survival from the time of the Megalithic People. The fact that it should have continued in Celtic lands after an otherwise [pg 85] fairly high state of civilisation and religious culture had been attained can be paralleled from Mexico and Carthage, and in both cases is due, no doubt, to the uncontrolled dominance of a priestly caste.

Human Sacrifices in Ireland

Bertrand endeavours to dissociate the Druids from these practices, of which he says strangely there is “no trace” in Ireland, although there, as elsewhere in Celtica, Druidism was all-powerful. There is little doubt, however, that in Ireland also human sacrifices at one time prevailed. In a very ancient tract, the “Dinnsenchus,” preserved in the “Book of Leinster,” it is stated that on Moyslaught, “the Plain of Adoration,” there stood a great gold idol, Crom Cruach (the Bloody Crescent). To it the Gaels used to sacrifice children when praying for fair weather and fertility—“it was milk and corn they asked from it in exchange for their children—how great was their horror and their moaning!”67

And in Egypt

In Egypt, where the national character was markedly easy-going, pleasure-loving, and little capable of fanatical exaltation, we find no record of any such cruel rites in the monumental inscriptions and paintings, copious as is the information which they give us on all features of the national life and religion.68 Manetho, indeed, the [pg 86] Egyptian historian who wrote in the third century B.C., tells us that human sacrifices were abolished by Amasis I. so late as the beginning of the XVIII Dynasty—about 1600 B.C. But the complete silence of the other records shows us that even if we are to believe Manetho, the practice must in historic times have been very rare, and must have been looked on with repugnance.

The Names of Celtic Deities