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.
rite was an attenuated survival of something which had once been more important, but it is more likely that Pliny gives only a few picturesque details and passes by the rationale of the ritual.  He does not tell us who the “God” of whom he speaks was, perhaps the sun-god or the god of vegetation.  As to the “gift,” it was probably in his mind the mistletoe, but it may quite well have meant the gift of growth in field and fold.  The tree was perhaps cut down and burned; the oxen may have been incarnations of a god of vegetation, as the tree also may have been.  We need not here repeat the meaning which has been given to the ritual,[688] but it may be added that if this meaning is correct, the rite probably took place at the time of the Midsummer festival, a festival of growth and fertility.  Mistletoe is still gathered on Midsummer eve and used as an antidote to poisons or for the cure of wounds.  Its Druidic name is still preserved in Celtic speech in words signifying “all-healer,” while it is also called sugh an daraich, “sap of the oak,” and Druidh lus, “Druid’s weed."[689]

Pliny describes other Celtic herbs of grace. Selago was culled without use of iron after a sacrifice of bread and wine—­probably to the spirit of the plant.  The person gathering it wore a white robe, and went with unshod feet after washing them.  According to the Druids, Selago preserved one from accident, and its smoke when burned healed maladies of the eye.[690] Samolus was placed in drinking troughs as a remedy against disease in cattle.  It was culled by a person fasting, with the left hand; it must be wholly uprooted, and the gatherer must not look behind him.[691] Vervain was gathered at sunrise after a sacrifice to the earth as an expiation—­perhaps because its surface was about to be disturbed.  When it was rubbed on the body all wishes were gratified; it dispelled fevers and other maladies; it was an antidote against serpents; and it conciliated hearts.  A branch of the dried herb used to asperge a banquet-hall made the guests more convivial[692]

The ritual used in gathering these plants—­silence, various tabus, ritual purity, sacrifice—­is found wherever plants are culled whose virtue lies in this that they are possessed by a spirit.  Other plants are still used as charms by modern Celtic peasants, and, in some cases, the ritual of gathering them resembles that described by Pliny.[693] In Irish sagas plants have magical powers.  “Fairy herbs” placed in a bath restored beauty to women bathing therein.[694] During the Tain Cuchulainn’s wounds were healed with “balsams and healing herbs of fairy potency,” and Diancecht used similar herbs to restore the dead at the battle of Mag-tured.[695]


[659] Sacaze, Inscr. des Pyren. 255; Hirschfeld, Sitzungsberichte (Berlin, 1896), 448.

[660] CIL vi. 46; CIR 1654, 1683.

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