The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 112

Another incantation, the Cétnad, was sung through the fist to discover the track of stolen cattle or of the thief. If this did not bring enlightenment, the Filé went to sleep and obtained the knowledge through a dream.867 Another Cétnad for obtaining information regarding length of life was addressed to the seven daughters of the sea. Perhaps the incantation was repeated mechanically until the seer fell into a kind of trance. Divination by dreams was also used by the continental Celts.868

Other methods resemble "trance-utterance." "A great obnubilation was conjured up for the bard so that he slept a heavy sleep, and things magic-begotten were shewn to him to enunciate," apparently in his sleep. This was called "illumination by rhymes," and a similar method was used in Wales. When consulted, the seer roared violently until he was beside himself, and out of his ravings the desired information was gathered. When aroused from this ecstatic condition, he had no remembrance of what he had uttered. Giraldus reports this, and thinks, with the modern spiritualist, that the utterance was caused by spirits. The resemblance to modern trance-utterance and to similar methods used by savages is remarkable, and psychological science sees in it the promptings of the subliminal self in sleep.

The taghairm of the Highlanders was a survival from pagan times. The seer was usually bound in a cow's hide—the {250} animal, it may be conjectured, having been sacrificed in earlier times. He was left in a desolate place, and while he slept spirits were supposed to inspire his dreams.870 Clothing in the skin of a sacrificial animal, by which the person thus clothed is brought into contact with it and hence with the divinity to which it is offered, or with the divine animal itself where the victim is so regarded, is a widespread custom. Hence, in this Celtic usage, contact with divinity through the hide would be expected to produce enlightenment. For a like reason the Irish sacrificed a sheep for the recovery of the sick, and clothed the patient in its skin.871 Binding the limbs of the seer is also a widespread custom, perhaps to restrain his convulsions or to concentrate the psychic force.

Both among the continental and Irish Celts those who sought hidden knowledge slept on graves, hoping to be inspired by the spirits of the dead. Legend told how, the full version of the Táin having been lost, Murgan the Filé sang an incantation over the grave of Fergus mac Roig. A cloud hid him for three days, and during that time the dead man appeared and recited the saga to him.

In Ireland and the Highlands, divination by looking into the shoulder-blade of a sheep was used to discover future events or things happening at a distance, a survival from pagan times.873 The scholiast on Lucan describes the Druidic method of chewing acorns and then prophesying, just as, in Ireland, eating nuts from the sacred hazels round Connla's well gave inspiration. The "priestesses" of Sena and the "Druidesses" of the third century had the gift of prophecy, {251} and it was also ascribed freely to the Filid, the Druids, and to Christian saints. Druids are said to have prophesied the coming of S. Patrick, and similar prophecies are put in the mouths of Fionn and others, just as Montezuma's priests foretold the coming of the Spaniards. The word used for such prophecies—baile, means "ecstasy," and it suggests that the prophet worked himself into a frenzy and then fell into a trance, in which he uttered his forecast. Prophecies were also made at the birth of a child, describing its future career. Careful attention was given to the utterances of Druidic prophets, e.g. Medb's warriors postponed their expedition for fifteen days, because the Druids told them they would not succeed if they set out sooner.

Mythical personages or divinities are said in the Irish texts to have stood on one leg, with one arm extended, and one eye closed, when uttering prophecies or incantations, and this was doubtless an attitude used by the seer. A similar method is known elsewhere, and it may have been intended to produce greater force. From this attitude may have originated myths of beings with one arm, one leg, and one eye, like some Fomorians or the Fachan whose weird picture Campbell of Islay drew from verbal descriptions.

Early Celtic saints occasionally describe lapses into heathenism in Ireland, not characterised by "idolatry," but by wizardry, dealing in charms, and fidlanna, perhaps a kind of divination with pieces of wood. But it is much more likely that these had never really been abandoned. They belong to the primitive element of religion and magic which people cling to long after they have given up "idolatry."

Footnote 790:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 16.

Footnote 791:(return)

Rh[^y]s, CB4 68.

Footnote 792:(return)

Justin, xxvi. 2; Pomp. Mela, iii. 2.

Footnote 793:(return)

Diod. Sic. xxii. 9.

Footnote 794:(return)

See Jullian, 53.

Footnote 795:(return)

Servius on Æneid, iii. 57.

Footnote 796:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 16; Livy, xxxviii. 47; Diod. Sic. v. 32, xxxi. 13; Athenæus, iv. 51; Dio Cass., lxii. 7.

Footnote 797:(return)

Diod. Sic, xxxiv. 13; Strabo, iv. 4; Orosius, v. 16; Schol. on Lucan, Usener's ed. 32.

Footnote 798:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 16; Strabo, iv. 4; Diod. Sic. v. 32; Livy, xxxviii. 47.

Footnote 799:(return)

Mannhardt, Baumkultus, 529 f.

Footnote 800:(return)

Strabo, ibid. 4. 4.

Footnote 801:(return)

S. Aug. de Civ. Dei, vii. 19.

Footnote 802:(return)

Tac. Ann. xiv. 30; Strabo, iv. 4. 4.

Footnote 803:(return)

Suet. Claud. 25.

Footnote 804:(return)

Pomp. Mela, iii. 2. 18.

Footnote 805:(return)

Pliny, HN xxx. 4. 13.

Footnote 806:(return)

Dio. Cass. lxii. 6.

Footnote 807:(return)

O'Curry, MC ii. 222; Joyce, SH i. ch. 9.

Footnote 808:(return)

RC xvi. 35.

Footnote 809:(return)

LL 213b.

Footnote 810:(return)

See p. 52, supra.

Footnote 811:(return)

See, however, accounts of reckless child sacrifices in Ellis, Polynesian Researches, i. 252, and Westermarck, Moral Ideas, i. 397.

Footnote 812:(return)

O'Curry, MC Intro, dcxli.

Footnote 813:(return)

LU 126a. A folk-version is given by Larminie, West Irish Folk-Tales, 139.

Footnote 814:(return)

Book of Fermoy, 89a.

Footnote 815:(return)

O'Curry, MC Intro. dcxl, ii. 222.

Footnote 816:(return)

Adamnan, Vita S. Col. Reeve's ed. 288.

Footnote 817:(return)

Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, ii. 317.

Footnote 818:(return)

Nennius, Hist. Brit. 40.

Footnote 819:(return)

Stokes, TIG xli.; O'Curry, MC ii. 9.

Footnote 820:(return)

Pliny, HN xxx. 1. The feeding of Ethni, daughter of Crimthann, on human flesh that she might sooner attain maturity may be an instance of "medicinal cannibalism" (IT iii. 363). The eating of parents among the Irish, described by Strabo (iv. 5), was an example of "honorific cannibalism." See my article "Cannibalism" in Hastings' Encycl. of Rel. and Ethics, iii, 194.

Footnote 821:(return)

Diod. Sic. vi. 12; Paus. x. 22. 3; Amm. Marc. xxvii. 4; Livy, xxiii. 24; Solin. xxii. 3.

Footnote 822:(return)

This custom continued in Ireland until Spenser's time.

Footnote 823:(return)

Leahy, i. 158; Giraldus, Top. Hib. iii. 22; Martin, 109.

Footnote 824:(return)

Sil. Ital. iv. 213; Diod. Sic. xiv. 115; Livy, x. 26; Strabo, iv. 4. 5; Miss Hull, 92.

Footnote 825:(return)

Diod. Sic. v. 29; Strabo, iv. 4. 5.

Footnote 826:(return)

D'Arbois, v. 11; Diod. Sic. v. 29; Strabo, loc. cit.

Footnote 827:(return)

Annals of the Four Masters, 864; IT i. 205.

Footnote 828:(return)

Sil. Ital. iv. 215, v. 652; Lucan, Phar. i. 447; Livy, xxiii. 24.

Footnote 829:(return)

See p. 71, supra; CIL xii. 1077. A dim memory of head-taking survived in the seventeenth century in Eigg, where headless skeletons were found, of which the islanders said that an enemy had cut off their heads (Martin, 277).

Footnote 830:(return)

Belloguet, Ethnol. Gaul. iii. 100.

Footnote 831:(return)

Sil. Ital. xiii. 482; Livy, xxiii. 24; Florus, i. 39.

Footnote 832:(return)

ZCP i. 106.

Footnote 833:(return)

Loth, i. 90 f., ii. 218-219. Sometimes the weapons of a great warrior had the same effect. The bows of Gwerthevyr were hidden in different parts of Prydein and preserved the land from Saxon invasion, until Gwrtheyrn, for love of a woman, dug them up (Loth, ii. 218-219).

Footnote 834:(return)

See p. 338, infra. In Ireland, the brain of an enemy was taken from the head, mixed with lime, and made into a ball. This was allowed to harden, and was then placed in the tribal armoury as a trophy.

Footnote 835:(return)

L'Anthropologie, xii. 206, 711. Cf. the English tradition of the "Holy Mawle," said to have been used for the same purpose. Thorns, Anecdotes and Traditions, 84.

Footnote 836:(return)

Arrian, Cyneg. xxxiii.

Footnote 837:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 17; Orosius, v. 16. 6.

Footnote 838:(return)

D'Arbois, i. 155.

Footnote 839:(return)

Curtin, Tales of the Fairies, 72; Folk-Lore, vii. 178-179.

Footnote 840:(return)

Mitchell, Past in the Present, 275.

Footnote 841:(return)

Mitchell, op. cit. 271 f.

Footnote 842:(return)

Cook, Folk-Lore, xvii. 332.

Footnote 843:(return)

Mitchell, loc. cit. 147. The corruption of "Maelrubha" to "Maree" may have been aided by confusing the name with mo or mhor righ.

Footnote 844:(return)

Mitchell, loc. cit.; Moore, 92, 145; Rh[^y]s, CFL i. 305; Worth, Hist. of Devonshire, 339; Dalyell, passim.

Footnote 845:(return)

Livy, xxiii. 24.

Footnote 846:(return)

Sébillot, ii. 166-167; L'Anthrop. xv. 729.

Footnote 847:(return)

Carmichael, Carm. Gad. i. 163.

Footnote 848:(return)

Martin, 28. A scribe called "Sonid," which might be the equivalent of "Shony," is mentioned in the Stowe missal (Folk-Lore, 1895).

Footnote 849:(return)

Campbell, Superstitions, 184 f; Waifs and Strays of Celtic Trad. ii. 455.

Footnote 850:(return)

Aelian, xvii. 19.

Footnote 851:(return)

Tacitus, Ann. xiv. 30; Dio Cass. lxii. 6.

Footnote 852:(return)

Appian, Celtica, 8; Livy, xxi. 28, xxxviii. 17, x. 26.

Footnote 853:(return)

Livy, v. 38, vii. 23; Polybius, ii. 29. Cf. Watteville, Le cri de guerre chez les differents peuples, Paris, 1889.

Footnote 854:(return)

Livy, v. 38.

Footnote 855:(return)

Appian, vi. 53; Muret et Chabouillet, Catalogue des monnaies gauloises, 6033 f., 6941 f.

Footnote 856:(return)

Diod. v. 31; Justin, xxvi. 2, 4; Cicero, de Div. ii. 36, 76; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30; Strabo, iii. 3. 6.

Footnote 857:(return)

Dio Cass. lxii. 6.

Footnote 858:(return)

Reinach, Catal. Sommaire, 31; Pseudo-Plutarch, de Fluviis, vi. 4; Mirab. Auscult. 86.

Footnote 859:(return)

Strabo, iv. 4. 6.

Footnote 860:(return)

Justin, xxiv, 4; Cicero, de Div. i. 15. 26. (Cf. the two magic crows which announced the coming of Cúchulainn to the other world (D'Arbois, v. 203); Irish Nennius, 145; O'Curry, MC ii. 224; cf. for a Welsh instance, Skene, i. 433.)

Footnote 861:(return)

Joyce, SH i. 229; O'Curry, MC ii. 224, MS Mat. 284.

Footnote 862:(return)

IT i. 129; Livy, v. 34; Loth, RC xvi. 314. The Irish for consulting a lot is crann-chur, "the act of casting wood."

Footnote 863:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 14.

Footnote 864:(return)

O'Curry, MC ii. 46, 224; Stokes, Three Irish Homilies, 103.

Footnote 865:(return)

Cormac, 94. Fionn's divination by chewing his thumb is called Imbas Forosnai (RC xxv. 347).

Footnote 866:(return)

Antient Laws of Ireland, i. 45.

Footnote 867:(return)

Hyde, Lit. Hist. of Ireland, 241.

Footnote 868:(return)

Justin, xliii. 5.

Footnote 869:(return)

O'Grady, ii. 362; Giraldus, Descr. Camb. i. 11.

Footnote 870:(return)

Pennant, Tour in Scotland, i. 311; Martin, 111.

Footnote 871:(return)

Richardson, Folly of Pilgrimages, 70.

Footnote 872:(return)

Tertullian, de Anima, 57; Coll. de Reb. Hib. iii. 334.

Footnote 873:(return)

Campbell, Superstitions, 263; Curtin, Tales, 84.

Footnote 874:(return)

Lucan, ed. Usener, 33.

Footnote 875:(return)

See examples in O'Curry, MS Mat. 383 f.

Footnote 876:(return)

Miss Hull, 19, 20, 23.

Footnote 877:(return)

LU 55.

Footnote 878:(return)

RC xii. 98, xxi. 156, xxii. 61.

Footnote 879:(return)

RC xv. 432; Annals of the Four Masters, A.M. 2530; Campbell, WHT iv. 298.

Footnote 880:(return)

See "Adamnan's Second Vision." RC xii. 441.




The Irish geis, pl. geasa, which may be rendered by Tabu, had two senses. It meant something which must not be done for fear of disastrous consequences, and also an obligation to do something commanded by another.

As a tabu the geis had a large place in Irish life, and was probably known to other branches of the Celts.881 It followed the general course of tabu wherever found. Sometimes it was imposed before birth, or it was hereditary, or connected with totemism. Legends, however, often arose giving a different explanation to geasa, long after the customs in which they originated had been forgotten. It was one of Diarmaid's geasa not to hunt the boar of Ben Gulban, and this was probably totemic in origin. But legend told how his father killed a child, the corpse being changed into a boar by the child's father, who said its span of life would be the same as Diarmaid's, and that he would be slain by it. Oengus put geasa on Diarmaid not to hunt it, but at Fionn's desire he broke these, and was killed. Other geasa—those of Cúchulainn not to eat dog's flesh, and of Conaire never to chase birds—also point to totemism.

In some cases geasa were based on ideas of right and {253} wrong, honour or dishonour, or were intended to cause avoidance of unlucky days. Others are unintelligible to us. The largest number of geasa concerned kings and chiefs, and are described, along with their corresponding privileges, in the