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Although it has been asserted' that Druidism was "the common religion of the aboriginal inhabitants from the Baltic to Gibraltar," it would seem that there is little ground for the belief that the Druids were pre-Celtic and were adopted by the Celts, but rather that they were "a native priesthood common to both branches of the Celtic people, and that they had grown up side by side with the growth of the native religion," so that "the Celtic religion, in effect, was Druidism." The Druids, a guild with an elective chief, were the priests and instructors of the people, and those who disobeyed them were forbidden the privilege of the sacrifice. They are declared to have "tamed the people as wild animals are tamed" (Diodoros Sikelos, V, xxxi, 5); and with a firm and jealous grasp they held within their own class all matters pertaining to religion, regulating all its ceremonies and determining the myths concerning the gods. Acting as arbiters and judges in other matters than religion, they acquired enormous political power, so that Cæsar (op. cit., vi, 13-14) called them nobles, a learned, priestly class, and the chief expounders and guardians of the law; while Pliny (Historia Naturalis, xxx, 4) refers to them as wizards and physicians ("Druidas et hoc genus vatum medicorumque"), although the latter are supposed to have formed a special subdivision. They were also bards, magicians, and soothsayers who practiced all kinds of divination and made prophecies.10
Rhys, Celtic Britain, 2d ed., p. 72.
8 J. A. MacCulloch, "Druids," in ERE v, 83, 84; cf. id., The Religion of the Ancient Celts, p. 301.
• MacCulloch, in ERE v, 85; and id., Religion, p. 300.
10 G. Dottin, "Divination (Celtic)," in ERE iv, 787-788.
Of the ceremonies and practices of the native religion very little is known except that they were liberally mingled with magic; many appear to have been secret or to have had a mystic significance attributed to them; and the religious rites were held in the open, in a forest or 'sacred grove,' or in a nemeton, an enclosure or ‘consecrated place,' as when Diodoros (ii, 47) speaks of a circular temple on the Island of the Hyperboreans (i.e., Celts)." The gods were invoked by prayers, sacrifices, incantations, and magic, with the chanting of mystic verses; and in the exercise of these rites priestesses, later called Druidesses, were employed, especially in divination and in prophecy. The Druids sacrificed animals and even human beings, in Gaul more particularly; and classical writers, shocked by the cruelties practiced in the name of religion, describe the horrors of the Druidic rites in the forests (Strabo, IV, iv, 5 p. 198 C; Lucan, Pharsalia, iii, 399-425; Dion Kassios, lxi, 7). Because of their 'magic arts,' Tiberius (Pliny, loc. cit.) and Claudius (Suetonius, loc. cit.), making an exception to the otherwise universal toleration of the Romans, issued edicts intended to abolish the Druidic religion with its human sacrifices and cruelties. These prohibitions in the interest of humanity were ostensibly based on the political ground that the Druids had resisted the majesty of Rome, and were not aimed directly at their religion; but it would seem that they did little more than abolish human sacrifice, which thereafter was celebrated symbolically by letting of harmless blood (Pomponius Mela, iii, 18), while the Druids retired farther into the forests to perform their rites (Lucan, op. cit., i, 450-454), where they lingered on until paganism finally disappeared.
11 Cf. Dottin, Manuel, pp. 22-23.
Disease and healing.
The Celts regarded disease with terror; and since it was believed to be a visitation from the gods or the work of some maleficent being of the 'other-world,' it came within the purview of religion, so that the people appealed to their divinities for relief through the priests as mediators and as representatives of the deities, the treatment consisting of prayers with sacrifices, incantations, magic, and the administration of various herbs. It has been asserted that temple-sleep for healing was known and practiced in Gaul, but there is no evidence that it was used in the cults of the native deities, and since the practices of Esculapius1s and Serapis" were well known in Gaul, it is entirely probable that incubation was used in the rituals there as it was in Rome. The adoration of Mithras, popular among the Roman soldiers, found its way to the Danube and Upper Rhone valleys,15 and this cult also exercised healing functions. Remains of these worships have occasionally been found in the regions of ancient Gaul and Britain.
Mythic healing tales.
Numerous mythic tales and traditions of the ancient Celtic deities have been handed down with the folklore, especially in Britain. Many herbs were used with the theurgic medicine of the Celts, and whatever grew on trees was regarded as coming from heaven. Among the herbs the mistletoe held the first rank, whence the Druids had great veneration for it and for the oak on which it grew. It was a gift direct from the Celtic Zeus; it was the 'sacred bough' of the Druids, being known as the 'all
12 Hopf, Die Heilgötter und Heilstätten des Altertums, pp. 52, 54. 13 Toutain, Les Cultes paiën dans l'empire romain, i, 380-381. 14 Renel, op. cit., pp. 333-334.
15 Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, pp. 69-70, 79.
healer,' and in Wales as 'the tree of pure gold' (Pliny, op. cit., xvi, 95); and at the New Year's festival, with mystic ceremonies and the sacrifice of white oxen, it was gathered by a priest clad in white, using a golden sickle and collecting it in a white cloth. With its life-giving powers, it was believed to be a cure for sterility in man and beast, a protection against poison, and a cure for epilepsy. Pliny (ib., xxiv, 62) mentions another plant, the selago, identified with the savin-tree, a species of juniper which was burned and used for eye-troubles; while the samolus was gathered, to the accompaniment of magic ceremonies, to cure diseases of cattle and swine (ib., xxiv, 63).
The 'cauldron of renovation.'
The myth of the 'cauldron of renovation' is prominently associated with the Irish god of healing, Díancecht, and figures in some of the Welsh Mabinogion tales. The cauldron had been brought out of the lake in Ireland and given to Bren, son of Llyr, while in the Welsh tale it was represented as a talisman of healing in the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr. "The Irish kindled a fire under the cauldron of renovation, and they cast the dead bodies into the cauldron until it was full, and the next day they came forth fighting-men as good as before, except that they were not able to speak.'" It was the equivalent of the cauldron of Dagda of Irish legend, and one of the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann; and it also represented the cauldron of sciences from which Gwion received three drops." Its fires were fed by nine maidens, and it was called 'undry,' because it was never empty.
16 Mabinogion, ed. A. Nutt, p. 39.
17 T. Barns, "Disease and Medicine (Celtic)," in ERE iv, 748; see also MacCulloch, op. cit., pp. 381-383; and id., Mythology, pp. 95-96, 120, 192, 203.
Supplementary List: Deities named in various inscriptions as being connected with healing of whom
little or nothing more is known.
THIS deity, whose name probably means 'the shining one, seems primarily to have been a solar divinity, whence he was frequently equated with Apollo. His cult centered mainly in Aquileia (CIL v, 732-755, 8212, 8250) and the neighboring regions (ib., 1829, 1866, 2143-2146; iii, 4774), but no traces of it are found in Gaul except for two somewhat dubious allusions by Ansonius (Professores, v, 7; xi, 24), though it is possible that the god was identical with the Welsh Beli." He apparently had a feminine counterpart in Belisama, 'the most shining one, "20 who was identified with Minerva," and after whom
Stokes, Urkeltischer Sprachschatz, p. 164.
19 MacCulloch, Religion, pp. 112-113.
20 Pedersen, Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen, ii, 122.
21 H. Steuding, in Roscher, i, 757. See in general on these two deities, H. d'Arbois de Jubainville, "Le Dieu gaulois Belenus, la déese gauloise Belisama," in RA, 1873, xxv, 197-206.