child story

THE CORRELATION OF CELTIC RELIGION WITH THE GROWTH OF CELTIC CIVILISATION

In dealing with the long vista of prehistoric time, it is very difficult for us, in our effort after perspective, not to shorten unduly in our thoughts the vast epochs of its duration.  We tend, too, to forget, that in these unnumbered millennia there was ample time for it to be possible over certain areas of Europe to evolve what were practically new races, through the prepotency of particular stocks and the annihilation of others.  During these epochs, again, after speech had arisen, there was time enough to recast completely many a language, for before the dawn of history language was no more free from change than it is now, and in these immense epochs whatever ideas as to the world of their surroundings were vaguely felt by prehistoric men and formulated for them by their kinsmen of genius, had abundant time in which to die or to win supremacy.

There must have been æons before the dawn even of conscious animism, and the experiment of trying sympathetic magic was, when first attempted, probably regarded as a master-stroke of genius.  The Stone Age itself was a long era of great if slow progress in civilisation, and the evolution of the practices and ideas which emerge as the concomitants of its agricultural stage, when closely regarded, bear testimony to the mind’s capacity for religious progress in the light of experience and intelligent experiment, and at the same time to the errors into which it fell.  The Stone Age has left its sediment in all the folk-lore of the world.  To the casual observer many of the ideas embedded in it may seem a mass of error, and so they are when judged unhistorically, but when viewed critically, and at the same time historically, they afford many glimpses of prehistoric genius in a world where life was of necessity a great experiment.  The folk-lore of the world reveals for the same stages of civilisation a wonderful uniformity and homogeneity, as Dr. J. G. Frazer has abundantly shown in his Golden Bough

This uniformity is not, however, due to necessary uniformity of origin, but to a great extent to the fact that it represents the state of equilibrium arrived at between minds at a certain level and their environment, along lines of thought directed by the momentum given by the traditions of millennia, and the survival in history of the men who carefully regarded them.  The apparently unreasoned prohibitions often known as ‘taboos,’ many of which still persist even in modern civilised life, have their roots in ideas and experiences which no speculation of ours can now completely fathom, however much we may guess at their origin.  Many of these ancient prohibitions have vanished under new conditions, others have often survived from a real or supposed harmony with new experiences, that have arisen in the course of man’s history.

After passing through a stage when he was too preoccupied with his material cares and wants to consider whether he was haunted or not, early man in the Celtic world as elsewhere, after long epochs of vague unrest, came to realise that he was somehow haunted in the daytime as well as at night, and it was this sense of being haunted that impelled his intellect and his imagination to seek some explanation of his feelings.  Primitive man came to seek a solution not of the Universe as a whole (for of this he had no conception), but of the local Universe, in which he played a part.  In dealing with Celtic folk-lore, it is very remarkable how it mirrors the characteristic local colouring and scenery of the districts in which it has originated.  In a country like Wales, for example, it is the folk-lore of springs, caves, mountains, lakes, islands, and the forms of its imagination, here as elsewhere, reflect unmistakably the land of its origin.  Where it depicts an ‘other world,’ that ‘other world’ is either on an island or it is a land beneath the sea, a lake, or a river, or it is approachable only through some cave or opening in the earth.  In the hunting-grounds of the Celtic world the primitive hunter knew every cranny of the greater part of his environment with the accuracy born of long familiarity, but there were some peaks which he could not scale, some caves which he could not penetrate, some jungles into which he could not enter, and in these he knew not what monsters might lurk or unknown beings might live. 

In Celtic folk-lore the belief in fabulous monsters has not yet ceased.  Man was surrounded by dangers visible and invisible, and the time came when some prehistoric man of genius propounded the view that all the objects around him were no less living than himself.  This animistic view of the world, once adopted, made great headway from the various centres where it originated, and man derived from it a new sense of kinship with his world, but also new terrors from it.  Knowing from the experience of dreams that he himself seemed able to wander away from himself, he thought in course of time that other living things were somehow double, and the world around him came to be occupied, not merely with things that were alive, but with other selves of these things, that could remain in them or leave them at will.  Here, again, this new prehistoric philosophy gave an added interest to life, but it was none the less a source of fresh terrors.  The world swarmed with invisible spirits, some friendly, some hostile, and, in view of these beings, life had to be regulated by strict rules of actions and prohibitions.  Even in the neolithic stage the inhabitants of Celtic countries had attained to the religious ideas in question, as is seen not only by their folk-lore and by the names of groups of goddesses such as the Matres (or mothers), but by the fact that in historic times they had advanced well beyond this stage to that of named and individualised gods.  As in all countries where the gods were individualised, the men of Celtic lands, whether aborigines or invaders, had toiled along the steep ascent from the primitive vague sense of being haunted to a belief in gods who, like Esus, Teutates, Grannos, Bormanus, Litavis, had names of a definite character.

Among the prohibitions which had established themselves among the races of Celtic lands, as elsewhere, was that directed against the shedding of the blood of one’s own kin.  There are indications, too, that some at any rate of the tribes inhabiting these countries reckoned kinship through the mother, as in fact continued to be the case among the Picts of Scotland into historic times.  It does not follow, as we know from other countries, that the pre-Aryan tribes of Gaul and Britain, or indeed the Aryan tribes themselves in their earliest stage, regarded their original ancestors as human.  Certain names of deities such as Tarvos (the bull), Moccos (the pig), Epŏna (the goddess of horses), Damŏna (the goddess of cattle), Mullo (the ass), as well as the fact that the ancient Britons, according to Cæsar, preserved the hen, the goose, and the hare, but did not kill and eat them, all point to the fact that in these countries as elsewhere certain animals were held in supreme respect and were carefully guarded from harm.
Judging from the analogy of kindred phenomena in other countries, the practice of respecting certain animals was often associated with the belief that all the members of certain clans were descended from one or other of them, but how far this system was elaborated in the Celtic world it is hard to say.  This phenomenon, which is widely known as totemism, appears to be suggested by the prominence given to the wild boar on Celtic coins and ensigns, and by the place assigned on some inscriptions and bas-reliefs to the figure of a horned snake as well as by the effigies of other animals that have been discovered.  It is not easy to explain the beginnings of totemism in Gaul or elsewhere, but it should always be borne in mind that early man could not regard it as an axiomatic truth that he was the superior of every other animal. 

To reach that proud consciousness is a very high step in the development of the human perspective, and it is to the credit of the Celts that, when we know them in historic times, they appear to have attained to this height, inasmuch as the human form is given to their deities.  It is not always remembered how great a step in religious evolution is implied when the gods are clothed with human attributes.  M. Salomon Reinach, in his account of the vestiges of totemism among the Celts, suggests that totemism was merely the hypertrophy of early man’s social sense, which extended from man to the animals around him.  This may possibly be the case, but it is not improbable that man also thought to discover in certain animals much-needed allies against some of the visible and invisible enemies that beset him.  In his conflict with the malign powers around him, he might well have regarded certain animals as being in some respects stronger combatants against those powers than himself; and where they were not physically stronger, some of them, like the snake, had a cunning and a subtlety that seemed far to surpass his own.  In course of time certain bodies of men came to regard themselves as being in special alliance with some one animal, and as being descended from that animal as their common ancestor.  The existence side by side of various tribes, each with its definite totem, has not yet been fully proved for the Gaulish system, and may well have been a developed social arrangement that was not an essential part of such a mode of thought in its primary forms.  The place of animal-worship in the Celtic religion will be more fully considered in a later chapter.  Here it is only indicated as a necessary stage in relation to man’s civilisation in the hunting and the pastoral stages, which had to be passed through before the historic deities of Gaul and Britain in Roman times could have come into being.  Certain of the divine names of the historic period, like Artio (the bear-goddess), Moccus, Epŏna (the mare), and Damŏna (the sheep), bear the unmistakable impress of having been at one time those of animals.

As for the stage of civilisation at which totemism originated, there is much difference of opinion.  The stage of mind which it implies would suggest that it reflects a time when man’s mind was preoccupied with wild beasts, and when the alliances and friendships, which he would value in life, might be found in that sphere.  There is much plausibility in the view put forward by M. Salomon Reinach, that the domestication of animals itself implies a totemistic habit of thought, and the consequent protection of these animals by means of taboos from harm and death.  It may well be that, after all, the usefulness of domestic animals from a material point of view was only a secondary consideration for man, and a happy discovery after unsuccessful totemistic attentions to other animals.  We know not how many creatures early man tried to associate with himself but failed.

In all stages of man’s history the alternation of the seasons must have brought some rudiments of order and system into his thoughts, though for a long time he was too preoccupied to reflect upon the regularly recurring vicissitudes of his life.  In the pastoral stage, the sense of order came to be more marked than in that of hunting, and quickened the mind to fresh thought.  The earth came to be regarded as the Mother from whom all things came, and there are abundant indications that the earth as the Mother, the Queen, the Long-lived one, etc., found her natural place as a goddess among the Celts.  Her names and titles were probably not in all places or in all tribes the same.  But it is in the agricultural stage that she entered in Celtic lands, as she did in other countries, into her completest religious heritage, and this aspect of Celtic religion will be dealt with more fully in connection with the spirits of vegetation. 
This phase of religion in Celtic countries is one which appears to underlie some of its most characteristic forms, and the one which has survived longest in Celtic folk-lore.  The Earth-mother with her progeny of spirits, of springs, rivers, mountains, forests, trees, and corn, appears to have supplied most of the grouped and individualised gods of the Celtic pantheon.  The Dis, of whom Cæsar speaks as the ancient god of the Gauls, was probably regarded as her son, to whom the dead returned in death.  Whether he is the Gaulish god depicted with a hammer, or as a huge dog swallowing the dead, has not yet been established with any degree of certainty.