The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 103

Dispater was a Celtic underworld god of fertility, and the statement probably presupposes a myth, like that found among many primitive peoples, telling how men once lived underground and thence came to the surface of the earth. But it also points to their descent from the god of the underworld. Thither the dead returned to him who was ancestor of the living as well as lord of the dead.771 On the other hand, if the earth had originally been thought of as a female, she as Earth-mother would be ancestress of men. But her place in the myth would easily be taken by the Earth or Under-earth god, perhaps regarded as her son or her consort. In other cases, clans, families, or individuals often traced their descent to gods or divine animals or plants. Classical writers occasionally speak of the origin of branches of the Celtic race from eponymous founders, perhaps from their knowledge of existing Celtic myths. Ammianus Marcellinus also reports a Druidic tradition to the effect that some Gauls were indigenous, some had come from distant islands, and others from beyond the Rhine. But this is not so much a myth of origins, as an explanation of the presence of different peoples in Gaul—the {230} aborigines, the Celtæ, and the Belgic Gauls. M. D'Arbois assumes that "distant islands" means the Celtic Elysium, which he regards as the land of the dead, but the phrase is probably no more than a distorted reminiscence of the far-off lands whence early groups of Celts had reached Gaul.

Of the creation of the world no complete myth has survived, though from a gloss to the Senchus Mór we learn that the Druids, like the Br[=a]hmans, boasted that they had made sun, moon, earth, and sea—a boast in keeping with their supposed powers over the elements. Certain folk-beliefs, regarding the origin of different parts of nature, bear a close resemblance to primitive cosmogonic myths, and they may be taken as disjecta membra of similar myths held by the Celts and perhaps taught by the Druids. Thus sea, rivers, or springs arose from the micturition of a giant, fairy, or saint, or from their sweat or blood. Islands are rocks cast by giants, and mountains are the material thrown up by them as they were working on the earth. Wells sprang up from the blood of a martyr or from the touch of a saint's or a fairy's staff. The sea originated from a magic cask given by God to a woman. The spigot, when opened, could not be closed again, and the cask never ceased running until the waters covered the earth—a tale with savage parallels. In all these cases, giant, saint, or fairy has doubtless taken the place of a god, since the stories have a very primitive facies. The giant is frequently Gargantua, probably himself once a divinity. Other references in Irish texts point to the common cosmogonic myth of the earth having gradually {231} assumed its present form. Thus many new lakes and plains are said to have been formed in Ireland during the time of Partholan and Nemed, the plains being apparently built up out of existing materials.778 In some cases the formation of a lake was the result of digging the grave of some personage after whom the lake was then named. Here we come upon the familiar idea of the danger of encroaching on the domain of a deity, e.g. that of the Earth-god, by digging the earth, with the consequent punishment by a flood. The same conception is found in Celtic stories of a lake or river formed from the overflowing of a sacred well through human carelessness or curiosity, which led to the anger of the divinity of the well.780 Or, again, a town or castle is submerged on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants, the waters being produced by the curse of God or a saint (replacing a pagan god) and forming a lake. These may be regarded as forms of a Celtic deluge-myth, which in one case, that of the Welsh story of the ship of Nevyd, which saved Dwyvan and Dwyfach and a pair of all kinds of animals when Lake Llion overflowed, has apparently borrowed from the Biblical story.782 In other cases lakes are formed from the tears of a god, e.g. Manannan, whose tears at the death of his son formed three lochs in Erin. Apollonius reports that the waters of Eridanus originated from the tears of Apollo when driven from heaven by his father.784 This story, which he says is Celtic, has been clothed by him in a Greek form, and the god in question may have been Belenos, equated with Apollo. Sometimes the formation of streams was ascribed to great hail-storms—an evident mythic rendering of the damage done by actual spates, while the Irish myths of {232} "illimitable sea-bursts," of which three particular instances are often mentioned, were doubtless the result of the experience of tidal waves.

Although no complete account of the end of all things, like that of the Scandinavian Ragnarok, has survived, scattered hints tell of its former existence. Strabo says that the Druids taught that "fire and water must one day prevail"—an evident belief in some final cataclysm. This is also hinted at in the words of certain Gauls to Alexander, telling him that what they feared most of all was the fall of the heavens upon their heads. In other words, they feared what would be the signal of the end of all things. On Irish ground the words of Conchobar may refer to this. He announced that he would rescue the captives and spoil taken by Medb, unless the heavens fell, and the earth burst open, and the sea engulphed all things. Such a myth mingled with Christian beliefs may underlie the prophecy of Badb after Mag-tured regarding the evils to come and the end of the world, and that of Fercertne in the Colloquy of the Two Sages.788 Both have a curious resemblance to the Sybil's prophecy of doom in the Voluspa. If the gods themselves were involved in such a catastrophe, it would not be surprising, since in some aspects their immortality depended on their eating and drinking immortal food and drink.789

Footnote 766:(return)

Avienus, Ora Maritima, 644 f.

Footnote 767:(return)

IT i. 25; Gaidoz, ZCP i. 27.

Footnote 768:(return)

Annales de Bretagne, x. 414.

Footnote 769:(return)

IT i. 50, cf. 184; Folk-Lore, vi. 170.

Footnote 770:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 18.

Footnote 771:(return)

See p. 341, infra.

Footnote 772:(return)

Diod. Sic. v. 24; Appian, Illyrica, 2.

Footnote 773:(return)

Amm. Marcel, xv. 9.

Footnote 774:(return)

D'Arbois, ii. 262, xii. 220.

Footnote 775:(return)

Antient Laws of Ireland, i. 23. In one MS. Adam is said to have been created thus—his body of earth, his blood of the sea, his face of the sun, his breath of the wind, etc. This is also found in a Frisian tale (Vigfusson-Powell, Corpus Poet. Bor. i. 479), and both stories present an inversion of well-known myths about the creation of the universe from the members of a giant.

Footnote 776:(return)

Sébillot, i. 213 f., ii. 6, 7, 72, 97, 176, 327-328. Cf. RC xv. 482, xvi. 152.

Footnote 777:(return)

Sébillot, ii. 6.

Footnote 778:(return)

LL 56; Keating, 117, 123.

Footnote 779:(return)

RC xv. 429, xvi. 277.

Footnote 780:(return)

See p. 191, supra.

Footnote 781:(return)

Sébillot, ii. 41 f., 391, 397; see p. 372, infra.

Footnote 782:(return)

Triads in Loth, ii. 280, 299; Rh[^y]s, HL 583, 663.

Footnote 783:(return)

RC xvi. 50, 146.

Footnote 784:(return)

Apoll. iv. 609 f.

Footnote 785:(return)

Strabo, iv. 4. 4.

Footnote 786:(return)

Arrian, Anab. i. 4. 7; Strabo, vii. 3. 8. Cf. Jullian, 85.

Footnote 787:(return)

LL 94; Miss Hull, 205.

Footnote 788:(return)

RC xii. 111, xxvi. 33.

Footnote 789:(return)

A possible survival of a world-serpent myth may be found in "Da Derga's Hostel" (RC xxii. 54), where we hear of Leviathan that surrounds the globe and strikes with his tail to overwhelm the world. But this may be a reflection of Norse myths of the Midgard serpent, sometimes equated with Leviathan.




The Semites are often considered the worst offenders in the matter of human sacrifice, but in this, according to classical evidence, they were closely rivalled by the Celts of Gaul. They offered human victims on the principle of a life for a life, or to propitiate the gods, or in order to divine the future from the entrails of the victim. We shall examine the Celtic custom of human sacrifice from these points of view first.

Cæsar says that those afflicted with disease or engaged in battle or danger offer human victims or vow to do so, because unless man's life be given for man's life, the divinity of the gods cannot be appeased. The theory appears to have been that the gods sent disease or ills when they desired a human life, but that any life would do; hence one in danger might escape by offering another in his stead. In some cases the victims may have been offered to disease demons or diseases personified, such as Celtic imagination still believes in,791 rather than to gods, or, again, they may have been offered to native gods of healing. Coming danger could also be averted on the same principle, and though the victims were usually slaves, in times of great peril wives and children were sacrificed. After a defeat, which showed that the gods were still implacable, the wounded and feeble were slain, or a great leader would {234} offer himself. Or in such a case the Celts would turn their weapons against themselves, making of suicide a kind of sacrifice, hoping to bring victory to the survivors.

The idea of the victim being offered on the principle of a life for a life is illustrated by a custom at Marseilles in time of pestilence. One of the poorer classes offered himself to be kept at the public expense for some time. He was then led in procession, clad in sacred boughs, and solemnly cursed, and prayer was made that on him might fall the evils of the community. Then he was cast headlong down. Here the victim stood for the lives of the city and was a kind of scape-victim, like those at the Thargelia.795