The Student's Mythology A Compendium of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Hindoo, Chinese, Thibetian, Scandinavian, Celtic, Aztec, and Peruvian Mythologies

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Amber was valued for certain mysterious properties; it was manufactured into beads by the Druids, and these were given as charms to warriors going to battle; such beads are sometimes found in their tombs.

Ques. Were the Druids acquainted with the art of writing?

Ans. They were, at least in Gaul and Ireland. Their alphabet contained seventeen letters, and resembled the characters used by the ancient Pelasgi. It is probable, therefore, that they received it from the early Greek colonists. Writing was employed for ordinary affairs, whether public or private, but the mystic learning of the Druids was handed down by oral tradition only. The few inscriptions they have left are in symbolic writing, which resembles the runes of Scandinavia, and originated in the same manner from the rods and branches of certain plants used in divination. These inscriptions are called in Ireland “ogham;” they are principally straight lines, grouped in different ways.

[264] Ques. Did the Druids exercise any political authority?

Ans. Yes; they were the legislators of the people, and had the right of deciding in all controversies. There was no appeal from their sentence, and those who ventured to resist were excommunicated and outlawed.

The college of Druids was governed by a chief or Arch-druid, chosen by vote from among their number. The elections were eagerly contested, and were often attended with much bloodshed. The Arch-druid held his office for life.

Ques. Who were the Druidesses?

Ans. They were prophetesses or sorceresses, most generally wives or daughters of the Druids, who exercised an unbounded influence over the people. They were supposed to read the future, to conjure tempests, and appease them again at will. The Gallic mariner often went to consult them amid the reefs of the Armorican coast, and trembled with superstitious awe as he saw them gliding like phantoms among the misty crags, waving flaming torches, and mingling their wild chants with the voices of wind and sea. Some of these sorceresses were obliged to assist at nocturnal rites, where, with their bodies painted black, and their hair dishevelled, they joined in a frantic dance, and abandoned themselves to the wildest transports of frenzy. A peculiar rite was practised by the Druidesses who resided in an island at the mouth of the Loire. They were [265] obliged once every year, between sunrise and sunset, to demolish and rebuild the roof of their rustic temple. If any of their number should let fall the least part of the sacred material, her fate was sealed. She was torn to pieces by her companions, amid paroxysms of wild frenzy which recalled to the Greeks the orgies of their own Bacchantes. It is said that no year passed without a victim.

The nine virgin priestesses who dwelt on the island of Sena, an almost inaccessible rock off the promontory of Plogoff, on the coast of Brittany, were regarded with particular veneration, and constituted, perhaps, the highest religious authority among the ancient Gauls. There was a class of Druidesses in Gaul and Germany, who, in addition to practices of sorcery and incantation, presided at fearful rites. Strabo tells us that when the Cimbri had taken prisoners of war, they were offered in sacrifice by these terrible women. The chief Druidess, standing by a rude stone altar, received the victim dragged thither by her companions. She plunged her knife into his heart, and watched carefully to obtain an omen, according as the blood should flow more or less rapidly. This ceremony was repeated with other victims until the augury was deemed decisive. The superstitions with regard to witches and their nocturnal revels, which prevailed so long in Europe, originated, no doubt, from popular traditions concerning these sorceresses.

[266] In Ireland, they do not appear to have played either so terrible or so important a part. We only know that at Tara, certain virgins of royal blood were consecrated to Baal and Samhain, (the moon,) and watched the perpetual fire which burned on their altars. In one of the civil wars so common in the island, a chief of Leinster destroyed this sanctuary and massacred its inmates. The entire country united to punish the perpetrators of this sacrilege; they were put to death, and a perpetual fine was imposed on the province of Leinster.

Ques. What sacrifices were offered by the Druids?

Ans. In time of peace, fruits and cattle; in war, human sacrifices were preferred.

Ques. How were the victims chosen?

Ans. They were generally captives taken in war, slaves or criminals. In some cases, warriors and others devoted themselves voluntarily to the altar, either to propitiate the gods, and obtain victory for their people, or because they were weary of life, and desired to hasten the moment of transmigration. These acts of self-immolation were esteemed exceedingly meritorious. Cæsar supposes Teu´tates to be the same with Dis or Pluto; but in the mythology of the Gauls, there were no infernal regions, and consequently, there was no Pluto. The soul passed into another body, and the transmigration was happy, or the [267] contrary, as the actions performed during its last state of existence had been good or evil.