Chapter 2, Pre 55 BC – The Early Britons – Continued
Although it is impossible to determine with certainty the precise time when these massive stones were reared, or whether they were really used for the purposes of Druidical worship, much information, of a reliable character, has been transmitted concerning the varied orders of priest hood, the doctrines taught, and the ceremonies observed in connection with that worship. All ancient writers agree that the religious systems of Gaul and of Britain were identical, and Caesar has left the following account of the belief, the rites and the practices of the Gallic Druids: They are the ministers of sacred things, they have the charge of sacrifices, both public and private, they give directions for the ordinances of religious worship (religiones interpretantur). A great number of young men resort to them for the purpose of instruction in their system, and they are held in the highest reverence. For it is they who determine most disputes, whether of the affairs of the state or of individuals, and if any crime has been committed, if a man has been slain, if there is a contest concerning an inheritance or the boundaries of their lands, it is the Druids who settle the matter. They fix rewards and punishments, if any one, whether in an individual or public capacity, refuses to abide by their sentence, they forbid him to come to their sacrifices. This punishment is among them very severe, those on whom this interdict is laid are accounted among the unholy and accursed, all flee from them, and shun their approach and their conversation, lest they should be injured by their very touch, they are placed out of the pale of the law, and excluded from all offices of honour.
Over all, these Druids one presides, to whom they pay the highest regard of any among them. Upon his death, if there is any of the other Druids of superior worth, he succeeds, if there are more than one who have equal claims, a successor is appointed by the votes of the Druids, and the contest is sometimes decided by force of arms. These Druids hold a meeting at a certain time of the year, in a consecrated spot in the country of the Carnutes (people in the neighbourhood of Chartres), which country is considered to be in the centre of all Gaul. Hither assemble all from every part, who have a litigation, and submit themselves to their determination and sentence. The system of Druidism is thought to have been formed in Britain, and from thence carried over into Gaul, and now those who wish to be more accurately versed in it, for the most part go thither (i. e., to Britain), in order to become acquainted with it.
“The Druids do not commonly engage in war, I neither do they pay taxes like the rest of the community, they enjoy an exemption from military service, and freedom from all other public burdens. Induced by these advantages, many come of their own accord to be trained up among them, and others are sent by their parents and connexions. They are said in this course of instruction to learn by heart a number of verses and some accordingly remain twenty years under tuition. Nor do the Druids think it right to commit their instructions to writing, although in most other things, in the accounts of the state and of individuals, the Greek characters are used. They appear to me to have adopted this course for two reasons, because they do not wish either that the knowledge of their system should be diffused among the people at large, or that their pupils, trusting to written characters, should become less careful about cultivating the memory, because in most cases it happens that men, from the security which written characters afford, become careless in acquiring and retaining knowledge. It is especially the object of the Druids to inculcate this that souls do not perish, but after death pass into other bodies, and they consider that by this belief, more than anything else, men may be led to cast away the fear of death, and to become courageous. They discuss, moreover, many points concerning the heavenly bodies, and their motion, the extent of the universe and the world, the nature of things, the influence and ability of the immortal gods, and they instruct the youth in these things.
“The whole nation of the Gauls is much addicted to religious observances, and, on that account, those who are attacked by any of the more serious diseases, and those who are involved in the dangers of warfare, either offer human sacrifices, or make a vow that they will offer them, and they employ the Druids to officiate at these sacrifices, for they consider that the favour of the immortal gods cannot be conciliated, unless the life of one man be offered up for that of another, they have also sacrifices of the same kind appointed on behalf of the suite. Some have images of enormous size, the limbs of which they make of wicker work, and fill with living men, and setting them on fire, the men are destroyed by the flames. They consider that the torture of those who have been taken in the commission of theft or open robbery, or in any crime, is more agreeable to the immortal gods, but when there is not a sufficient number of criminals, they scruple not to inflict this torture on the innocent.
Pliny, who wrote not long after, thus describes the respect which was manifested for the mistletoe: The Druids, who are the magi of Gaul, esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe, and the tree on which it grows, if only it be an oak. Indeed they select groves of oak, and use their leaves in all sacred rites, so that their very name of Druids may seem to be derived from the Greek name for oak. Everything which grows upon these trees is considered by them as sent from heaven, and a sign that the tree is chosen by the deity himself. But the mistletoe is very rare to find, and where it occurs is sought with great avidity, particularly on the sixth moon, which, among these nations, marks the beginning of their months and years, and of a generation after thirty years, because it then has abundance of strength, though not yet half of its full size. They call it in their language by a name which signifies all heal (oninia sanandum), and when they have made ready their sacrifices and banquets under the tree they bring up two white bulls, whose horns are then bound for the first time. A priest clothed in a white robe ascends the tree, and with a golden pruning knife lops off the bough, which is caught in a white towel. Then they immolate the victims, praying that God may prosper the gift to all who shall partake of it, for they believe that by using it as a drink barren animals are rendered fruitful, and all kinds of poisons are deprived of their noxious power.
Strabo, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Diodorus Siculus, have left supplementary information respecting the Druids, from which the following additional particulars are gathered. They were divided into three orders or classes; the Bards, who were poets and musicians; the Yates, who were priests and physiologists; and the Druids proper, who were of loftier genius, and addressed themselves to occult and profound inquiries. They wore a peculiar dress and insignia and were very secluded in their mode of life. Divination, magic, astrology, were among the arts practised by them and into these their scholars were initiated. The pupils were enjoined to maintain a profound silence, and were required to commit to memory the instructions given, writing being forbidden, partly to strengthen the mental powers, but chiefly to prevent the Druidical doctrines becoming known to the uninitiated. The probationers were bound to maintain absolute secrecy and many years had to be passed ere they were admitted into the priest hood. It would seem that like some of the Greek philosophers, the Druids had both exoteric and esoteric doctrines, the latter of which were imparted only to the select few and to them only after long and severe probationary discipline. It has been conjectured that they believed and taught the unity and eternity of God, under the forms of a serpent and of fire and that they also taught the immortality of the soul burdened, however with the doctrine of transmigration. According to this, man was made to do penance after death, for the sins of life in the body of a beast or reptile, and after a certain number of transmigrations, his offences were expiated, his passions subdued, and the circle of felicity received him among its inhabitants. It was to this doctrine that the Romans attributed that contempt of death which was so conspicuous in the Celtic nations. The poet Lucan thus speaks of them in a celebrated passage:
“The Druids now, while arms are heard no more, Old mysteries and barbarous rites restore; A tribe who singular religion love, and haunt the lonely coverts of the Grove. To these, and these of all mankind alone, The Gods are sure revealed, or sure unknown. If dying Mortals’ dooms they sing aright, No ghosts descend to dwell in dreadful night; No panting souls to grisly Pluto go, Nor seek the dreary silent shades below; But forth they fly, immortal in their kind, And other bodies in new worlds they find. Thus life forever runs its endless race, and like a line Death but divides the space: A stop which can but for a moment last, A point between the future and the past. Thrice happy they beneath their northern skies, Who that worst fear,’ the fear of death, despise; Hence they no cares for this frail being feel, But rush undaunted on the pointed steel; Provoke approaching fate, and bravely scorn To spare that life which must so soon return.”
Chapter 2, The Early Britons
Categories: Book 1