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The day in May on which the Beltane festival was held varied considerably. The first day of the month was the usual one, but we have also the second and third days as the time of the celebration. In the Highlands of Scotland it was usually the 1st of May. In the charter to the burgh of Peebles in 1621, granted by James VI., Beltane Fair is to be held, according to custom, on the 3d May, called Beltane Day. The fair was to last for forty-eight hours. This day was also regarded as Rood Day. The word is clearly derived from Bel or beal, the Celtic god of light, and tin or teine, fire. In Irish and Gaelic it is called bealtine, beiltine ; it is also written beltan, beltein, beltin. The Bel, beal, or beil, is not directly Belus, but one of the proper Celtic deities–Gaelic beal, Welsh beli, and in old Celtic, Belenus, Belinus. Cormac, Archbishop of Cashel about 908, is the first to mention the celebration under the name of Beiltine. Two fires were kindled closely adjoining, and between them people and cattle passed or were driven, in the belief that health and prosperity were thus to be secured. This passing through the fire was a Druidical rite, and accompanied by solemn incantations. According to Toland, there were three bealtines in one year-viz., 1st May, Midsummer, and 1st November. Curiously enough, it was customary up to last century to light large fires called taanles in the Strath of Clyde on Midsummer-night. Among the Bretons Beltane was celebrated on the 1st May and 1st November. We have still in the Lowlands numerous names of places and hills with the root Bel; and Needislaw and Neidpath
1 See especially Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, iii. c. xx. s. 512. See also Beltyne in Sibbald's Glossary, Chron. Scot. Poetry, iv.
very possibly refer to the Baal or Need-fire (Nöt-feuer or Nöd-feuer). The Need-fire of the Celts and Teutons alike obviously connects itself with the Baal or Moloch fires of Asia, and with the Palilia fires of the early Romans. Besides the ordinary function of yielding prosperity, they were also regarded as plague-staying. Into them at first were flung human victims, latterly the effigies only."
In the shadows of the woods the Cymri knelt in awe before the darker powers of the world, or sought to propitiate them by secret gruesome sacrifice; for, besides the Stone of the Sun, they, like the Caledonian Gael, had the Stone of the Cymbals, the notes of which were meant to drown the voices of the sacrificial victims. Forest
worship, or rather the worship of deity in the forest, was · both early Celtic and Teutonic. The temple, etymologi
cally and really, was originally the forest. Celts and Teutons equally believed that their deities inhabited the
The life and strength of the lofty tree—the grace of the waving bough-the gleam and shade of the leaves—the awe, the gloom, and the solitude of environment, all suggested the sacredness, even divine sanctity, of a forest dwelling, where the godlike presence could be felt if not seen. To do away with this condition of worship was a constant effort on the part of the early Christian Church; and to this end it was not uncommon to hew down tree and grove. Though the druidical worship implied reverence for tree and forest, the term druid does not seem to be derived from opūs, an oak, but
See Contemporary Review, February 1878, 527. 2 Κελτοι σέβουσι μεν Δία άγαλμα δε Διός κελτικόν υψηλή δρύς.-Maximus Tyrius. Cf. Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, c. iv.
from dry, magus, magician, or enchanter, and this again is from the Celtic draoi, magician, pl. draoithe, whence the Latin druido. 1
The Council of Tours, in 567, admonishes the Britons for their nature-worship, their reverence of stones and worship of fountains—“Veneratores lapidum, excolentes sacra fontium admonemus.” 2 To them also the air was full of spirits, and sons were born to these of their daughters-earthly, and yet superhuman in powers and sympathies. Of such was the weird Merlin, who could bend nature to his will, assume what shape he chose, and foresee the future; restless withal, unhappy, maniacal, as holding in him a divine and human element that were unreconciled. This type of character arose from an inherent craving in man to be, somehow or other, the master of nature. Now we rule the world by a knowledge of scientific law; then men sought to rise above it as the lords of invisible powers. Controlling or dogmatic system of thought there was none in this early religion. Its powers were simply natural impressions, soul-impulses, the feeling of an unsubdued earth ; varied, bright, and dark, soothing in sunshine, and awesome in storm and in overshadowing fears. Doubtless there would be vileness, brutality, cruelty; for unregulated naturalness leads to all that. We must have the rule of conscience, as well as the power of sense, in order to get true manhood. But there were touches of refinement, culture, superiority to low impulses—an
See Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, iii. 34, § 866.
Concilia Galliæ, Baluze, 110. Quoted by De la Villemarqué, La Table Ronde, 46.
inspiration from the soft and tender side of things. In the very earliest Cymric poems of the sixth century, there is love of the sweet spring blossom of the appletree, love of the fountain and of the forest shade, and a sense of soothing from the continuous yet fitful rush of the river in the long silence of the summer night. There was a good and pure element there which, renewed for a time in Chaucer, afterwards disappeared in a great measure from the course of the later literature of the country; and it has only come to its full development, if it really has done so, in our own time. God was to these nature-worshippers at least no isolated or otiose Deity. They sought and found Hin in their daily life and daily round of impressions.
It is remarkable enough that the Caledonians north of the Forth, be they Scot or Pict, had points of worship closely in common with the Britons of Strathclyde. In fact, the worship of the island now called Britain pointed in these early times unmistakably to a common, and probably an Eastern, origin. The Caledonian Gaels appear to have had a superstitious reverence for mountain and river. They felt them to be enduring and surpassingly strong, while human life was but feeble and trans
Hence they worshipped those objects of nature. We have names indicating the sense of power inscribed on mountains. Beinn-bhreac (Benvreach, Benvracky) is “ the spotted mountain." In Sutherland, cli, from clith, strong, is joined to this, and we have “the strong spotted mountain.” 1 Then, sun - worship seems to have been universal among the ancient Caledonians north of the
Forth. In Bernera, an island in the parish of Harris, there is a circle of stones, and in the centre of it there is a large one called “ Clach na greine,” i.e., the stone of the
And we have a marked approximation to the Druidic rites of the Strathclyde Britons in “ Clach-natiompan,” the stone of the cymbals. Clach, a stone, clachan, a circle of stones, so constantly to be met with in the Highlands, refer apparently to a place of worship. In North Uist we have “ Clach mohr a Ché," the great stone of Ché, the deity of the Caledonian Gael. Even now, or at least lately, one Highland man meeting another would say—“Are you going to the stones ?” meaning, Are you going to worship ?? That all this kind of religious feeling was Eastern, we have many significant hints. Annat or Andate was the goddess of victory, commemorated, for example, by a large stone in the Isle of Skye. She is mentioned by Dio and Origen. She was worshipped by the Assyrians and Persians. The name still remains in various parts of the Highlands. Curiously enough, in a charter of James VI. to the burgh of Peebles, there is preserved the name of Annat's Hope, not far from the town. In the view of some writers, there are traces of two forms of early Celtic worship. The one was polytheistic, and elevated natural phenomena and powers to the place of gods: the other was pantheistic, and regarded the divine or soul of the world as pervading all things. The former was the cult of the older Celts or Gauls; the latter of the Cymri, or branch of the same race which followed the earlier in the order of mi
1 Robertson, Gaelic Topography of Scotland, 270.