The Religion of the Ancient Celts eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 445 pages of information about The Religion of the Ancient Celts.
he could be slain.  This may explain Pliny’s account of the mistletoe rite.  The mistletoe or branch was the soul of the tree, and also contained the life of the divine representative.  It must be plucked before the tree could be cut down or the victim slain.  Hypothetical as this may be, Pliny’s account is incomplete, or he is relating something of which all the details were not known to him.  The rite must have had some other purpose than that of the magico-medical use of the mistletoe which he describes, and though he says nothing of cutting down the tree or slaying a human victim, it is not unlikely that, as human sacrifice had been prohibited in his time, the oxen which were slain during the rite took the place of the latter.  Later romantic tales suggest that, before slaying some personage, the mythico-romantic survivor of a divine priest or king, a branch carried by him had to be captured by his assailant, or plucked from the tree which he defended.[530] These may point to an old belief in tree and king as divine representatives, and to a ritual like that associated with the Priest of Nemi.  The divine tree became the mystic tree of Elysium, with gold and silver branches and marvellous fruits.  Armed with such a branch, the gift of one of its people, mortals might penetrate unhindered to the divine land.  Perhaps they may be regarded as romantic forms of the old divine kings with the branch of the divine tree.

If in early times the spirit of vegetation was feminine, her representative would be a woman, probably slain at recurring festivals by the female worshippers.  This would explain the slaying of one of their number at a festival by Namnite women.  But when male spirits or gods superseded goddesses, the divine priest-king would take the place of the female representative.  On the other hand, just as the goddess became the consort of the god, a female representative would continue as the divine bride in the ritual of the sacred marriage, the May Queen of later folk-custom.  Sporadically, too, conservatism would retain female cults with female divine incarnations, as is seen by the presence of the May Queen alone in certain folk-survivals, and by many Celtic rituals from which men were excluded.[531]


[516] O’Grady, ii. 228.

[517] Ibid. ii. 203.  Cf.  Caesar, vi. 14, “the immortal gods” of Gaul.

[518] Cf.  Ch.  XXIV.; O’Grady, ii. 110, 172; Nutt-Meyer, i. 42.

[519] Leahy, ii. 6.

[520] IT iii. 203; Trip.  Life, 507; Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 14; RC xxii. 28, 168.  Chiefs as well as kings probably influenced fertility.  A curious survival of this is found in the belief that herrings abounded in Dunvegan Loch when MacLeod arrived at his castle there, and in the desire of the people in Skye during the potato famine that his fairy banner should be waved.

[521] An echo of this may underlie the words attributed to King Ailill, “If I am slain, it will be the redemption of many” (O’Grady, ii. 416).

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The Religion of the Ancient Celts from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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