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.

There is thus abundant evidence of the cult of fertility, vegetation, and corn-spirits, who tended to become divinities, male or female.  Here and there, through conservatism, the cult remained in the hands of women, but more generally it had become a ritual in which both men and women took part—­that of the great agricultural festivals.  Where a divinity had taken the place of the vaguer spirits, her image, like that of Berecynthia, was used in the ritual, but the image was probably the successor of the tree which embodied the vegetation-spirit, and was carried through the fields to fertilise them.  Similar processions of images, often accompanied by a ritual washing of the image in order to invigorate the divinity, or, as in the similar May-day custom, to produce rain, are found in the Teutonic cult of Nerthus, the Phrygian of Cybele, the Hindu of Bhavani, and the Roman ritual of the Bona Dea.  The image of Berecynthia was thus probably washed also.  Washing the images of saints, usually to produce rain, has sometimes taken the place of the washing of a divine image, and similarly the relics of a saint are carried through a field, as was the tree or image.  The community at Iona perambulated a newly sown field with S. Columba’s relics in time of drought, and shook his tunic three times in the air, and were rewarded by a plentiful rain, and later, by a bounteous harvest.[951]

Many of these local cults were pre-Celtic, but we need not therefore suppose that the Celts, or the Aryans as a whole, had no such cults.[952] The Aryans everywhere adopted local cults, but this they would not have done if, as is supposed, they had themselves outgrown them.  The cults were local, but the Celts had similar local cults, and easily accepted those of the people they conquered.  We cannot explain the persistence of such primitive cults as lie behind the great Celtic festivals, both in classical times and over the whole area of Europe among the peasantry, by referring them solely to a pre-Aryan folk.  They were as much Aryan as pre-Aryan.  They belong to those unchanging strata of religion which have so largely supplied the soil in which its later and more spiritual growths have flourished.  And among these they still emerge, unchanged and unchanging, like the gaunt outcrops of some ancient rock formation amid rich vegetation and fragrant flowers.


[889] Pliny, xvi. 45; Caesar, vi. 18.  See my article “Calendar (Celtic)” in Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Rel. and Ethics, iii. 78 f., for a full discussion of the problems involved.

[890] O’Donovan, Book of Rights, Intro. lii f.

[891] O’Donovan, li.; Bertrand, 105; Keating, 300.

[892] Samhain may mean “summer-end,” from sam, “summer,” and fuin, “sunset” or “end,” but Dr. Stokes (US 293) makes samani- mean “assembly,” i.e. the gathering of the people to keep the feast.

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