Friday, August 31, 2012

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shadows In A Timeless Myth and Ancient Druids

The Druids were the priests or ministers of religion among the ancient Celtic nations in Gaul, Britain, and Germany.  Our information respecting them is borrowed from notices in the Greek and Roman writers, compared with the remains of Welsh and Gaelic poetry still extant.

The Druids combined the functions of the priest, the magistrate, the scholar, and the physician.  They stood to the people of the Celtic tribes in a relation closely analogous to that in which the Brahmans of India, the Magi of Persia, and the priests of the Egyptians stood to the people respectively by whom they were revered.

The Druids taught the existence of one God, to whom they gave a
name "Be'al," which Celtic antiquaries tell us means "the life of
everything," or "the source of all beings,:" and which seems to
have affinity with the Phoenician Baal.  What renders this
affinity more striking is that the Druids as well as the
Phoenicians identified this, their supreme deity, with the Sun.
Fire was regarded as a symbol of the divinity.  The Latin writers
assert that the Druids also worshipped numerous inferior Gods.
They used no images to represent the object of their worship, nor
did they meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the
performance of their sacred rites.  A circle of stones (each
stone generally of vast size) enclosing an area of from twenty
feet to thirty yards in diameter, constituted their sacred place.
The most celebrated of these now remaining is Stonehenge, on
Salisbury Plain, England.

These sacred circles were generally situated near some stream, or
under the shadow of a grove or wide-spreading oak.  In the centre
of the circle stood the Cromlech or altar, which was a large
stone, placed in the manner of a table upon other stones set up
on end.  The Druids had also their high places, which were large
stones or piles of stones on the summits of hills.  These were
called Cairns, and were used in the worship of the deity under
the symbol of the sun.

That the Druids offered sacrifices to their deity there can be no
doubt.  But there is some uncertainty as to what they offered,
and of the ceremonies connected with their religious services we
know almost nothing.  The classical (Roman) writers affirm that
they offered on great occasions human sacrifices; as for success
in war or for relief from dangerous diseases.  Caesar has given a
detailed account of the manner in which this was done.  "They
have images of immense size, the limbs of which are framed with
twisted twigs and filled with living persons.  These being set on
fire, those within are encompassed by the flames."  Many attempts
have been made by Celtic writers to shake the testimony of the
Roman historians to this fact, but without success.

The Druids observed two festivals in each year.  The former took
place in the beginning of May, and was called Beltane or "fire of
God."  On this occasion a large fire was kindled on some elevated
spot, in honor of the sun, whose returning beneficence they thus
welcomed after the gloom and desolation of winter.  Of this
custom a trace remains in the name given to Whitsunday in parts
of Scotland to this day.  Sir Walter Scott uses the word in the
Boat Song in the Lady of the Lake:

  "Ours is no sapling, chance-sown by the fountain,
  Blooming at Beltane in winter to fade."

The other great festival of the Druids was called "Samh'in," or
"fire of peace," and was held on Hallow-eve (first of November),
which still retains this designation in the Highlands of
Scotland.  On this occasion the Druids assembled in solemn
conclave, in the most central part of the district, to discharge
the judicial functions of their order.  All questions, whether
public or private, all crimes against person or property, were at
this time brought before them for adjudication.  With these
judicial acts were combined certain superstitious usages,
especially the kindling of the sacred fire, from which all the
fires in the district which had been beforehand scrupulously
extinguished, might be relighted.  This usage of kindling fires
on Hallow-eve lingered in the British Islands long after the
establishment of Christianity.

Besides these two great annual festivals, the Druids were in the
habit of observing the full moon, and especially the sixth day of
the moon.  On the latter they sought the mistletoe, which grew on
their favorite oaks, and to which, as well as to the oak itself,
they ascribed a peculiar virtue and sacredness.  The discovery of
it was an occasion of rejoicing and solemn worship.  "They call
it," says Pliny, "by a word in their language which means 'heal-
all,' and having made solemn preparation for feasting and
sacrifice under the tree, they drive thither two milk-white
bulls, whose horns are then for the first time bound.  The priest
then, robed in white, ascends the tree, and cuts off the
mistletoe with a golden sickle.  It is caught in a white mantle,
after which they proceed to slay the victims, at the same time
praying that god would render his gift prosperous to those to
whom he had given it.  They drink the water in which it has been
infused, and think it a remedy for all diseases.  The mistletoe
is a parasitic plant, and is not always nor often found on the
oak, so that when it is found it is the more precious."

The Druids were the teachers of morality as well as of religion.
Of their ethical teaching a valuable specimen is preserved in the
Triads of the Welsh Bards, and from this we may gather that their
views of moral rectitude were on the whole just, and that they
held and inculcated many very noble and valuable principles of
conduct.  They were also the men of science and learning of their
age and people.  Whether they were acquainted with letters or not
has been disputed, though the probability is strong that they
were, to some extent.  But it is certain that they committed
nothing of their doctrine, their history, or their poetry to
writing.  Their teaching was oral, and their literature (if such
a word may be used in such a case) was preserved solely by
tradition.  But the Roman writers admit that "they paid much
attention to the order and laws of nature, and investigated and
taught to the youth under their charge many things concerning the
stars and their motions, the size of the world and the lands ,
and concerning the might and power of the immortal gods."

Their history consisted in traditional tales, in which the heroic
deeds of their forefathers were celebrated.  These were
apparently in verse, and thus constituted part of the poetry as
well as the history of the Druids.  In the poems of Ossian we
have, if not the actual productions of Druidical times, what may
be considered faithful representations of the songs of the Bards.

The Bards were an essential part of the Druidical hierarchy.  One
author, Pennant, says, "The bards were supposed to be endowed
with powers equal to inspiration.  They were the oral historians
of all past transactions, public and private.  They were also
accomplished genealogists."

Pennant gives a minute account of the Eisteddfods or sessions of
the bards and minstrels, which were held in Wales for many
centuries, long after the Druidical priesthood in its other
departments became extinct.  At these meetings none but bards of
merit were suffered to rehearse their pieces, and minstrels of
skill to perform.  Judges were appointed to decide on their
respective abilities, and suitable degrees were conferred.  In
the earlier period the judges were appointed by the Welsh
princes, and after the conquest of Wales, by commission from the
kings of England.  Yet the tradition is that Edward I., in
revenge for the influence of the bards, in animating the
resistance of the people to his sway, persecuted them with great
cruelty.  This tradition has furnished the poet Gray with the
subject of his celebrated ode, the Bard.

There are still occasional meetings of the lovers of Welsh poetry
and music, held under the ancient name.  Among Mrs. Heman's poems
is one written for an Eisteddfod, or meeting of Welsh Bards, held
in London May 22, 1822.  It begins with a description of the
ancient meeting, of which the following lines are a part:

  "---- midst the eternal cliffs, whose strength defied
  The crested Roman in his hour of pride;
  And where the Druid's ancient cromlech frowned,
  And the oaks breathed mysterious murmurs round,
  There thronged the inspired of yore! On plain or height,
  In the sun's face, beneath the eye of light,
  And baring unto heaven each noble head,
  Stood in the circle, where none else might tread."

The Druidical system was at its height at the time of the Roman
invasion under Julius Caesar.  Against the Druids, as their chief
enemies, these conquerors of the world directed their unsparing
fury.  The Druids, harassed at all points on the main-land,
retreated to Anglesey and Iona, where for a season they found
shelter, and continued their now-dishonored rites.

The Druids retained their predominance in Iona and over the
adjacent islands and main-land until they were supplanted and
their superstitions overturned by the arrival of St. Columba, the
apostle of the Highlands, by whom the inhabitants of that
district were first led to profess Christianity.

A Druid curse features prominently in the plot of Shadows In A Timeless Myth.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915