Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday, February 15, 1840, pp.30-31.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]



   INTERESTING as are the ancient superstitions and theological fables of Scandinavia, a notice of which formed the subject of the last paper in this series, British readers cannot but feel a still greater interest in the history of Druidism, the superstition which flourished peculiarly among their own forefathers, the aborigines of the British islands. Druidism was the religion of the ancient Celts or Gauls, and prevailed in France as well as in Britain – every where, indeed, where that ancient race had formed settlements. With the usual tendency of the learned to expend more attention upon words than things, inquirers into the nature of Druidism have cavilled much about the etymology of the word. Either the old British term dru, an oak, or the word dry, signifying a magician in the Saxon language, may be set down, it seems to us, as the source of the word Druid. The first is probably the correct etymon, as we find the oak to have been intimately and prominently connected with all the peculiar rites which constituted the Druidical religion. 

   As far as can be gathered from the statements of Cæsar, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and others, the Druids not only formed the priesthood of the Celts, but appropriated to themselves all the offices usually discharged, in modern days, by the separate learned professions. “Among the priests of Druidism,” says George Chalmers in his Caledonia, “there appear to have been three orders, the Druids (proper), the Vates, and the Bards, who severally performed very different functions; the Bards sang, in heroic verse, the brave actions of eminent men; the Vates studied continually, and explained nature, the productions of nature, and the laws; and the Druids, who were of a higher caste, and were disciplined in the forms of an established order, directed the education of youth, officiated in the affairs of religion, and presided in the administration of justice.” In consideration of these high and important duties, the members of the Druidical order were exempted from all taxes and burdens, and from military servitude. They were under the government of a single head, the Arch-Druid of his tribe, who was chosen by general election, and was invested with absolute authority. The Druids wore short hair and long beards. Their garments were of remarkable length, and when officiating at the altar, they wore a white surplice. In their hands they commonly carried a long wand, and their arms and necks were decorated with gold chains and bracelets. But the most notable of their ornaments, and that, in truth, in which much of their power was supposed to depend, was an artificial egg, set in gold, and or miraculous virtues. The Druids asserted that every one of these eggs, which they sold, it should be mentioned, to the rich and credulous, was formed by a number of serpents, mysteriously conjoining for its production. When made, it was raised up in the air by the hissing of these creatures, and was to be caught in a clean white cloth when falling to the ground. The person who was fortunate enough to catch it, was under the necessity of instantly mounting a swift horse to escape from the angry serpents, which were always desirous to keep the egg. Procured in this way, the egg possessed the property of making the bearer or wearer successful in all disputes, and gained for him the love of all good and great men. Pliny mentions his having seen one of these eggs. He says it was of the size of a small apple, it shell being a “cartilaginous encrustation,” full of little cavities, and he adds that “it is the badge of the Druids.” 

   This story of the mystic egg will prepare the reader for learning that the order of the Druids, such as we have described them to be, laid pretensions to miraculous powers, and that the art of magic intermingled largely with their religious system. The open sky was the canopy under which they worshipped. A wood or grove, consecrated by the priests, and fenced in by stones to prevent the entrance of unhallowed feet, constituted the mysterious scene where the rites were performed. In the centre of these groves, which were usually either circular or oblong, there was an open area, encompassed with large oaks, closely set together. Within this large circle were several smaller ones, surrounded with large stones; and near the centre of these smaller circles, were other stones of a prodigious size and convenient height, on which the victims were slain and offered up to the Supreme Being, whom they termed Esus or Hesus. They considered the oak as the emblem or symbol of this divinity, and chaplets of it were worn both by priests and people in their ceremonies. The fruit of the oak, and especially the mistletoe, was thought to possess a divine virtue, and on the sixth day of the moon it was anxiously looked for on the oak, where it is but rarely found. When found, the Druids prepared every thing for a grateful sacrifice under the oak. Two white bulls were brought and fastened to the tree by the horns, and the Arch-Druid ascended the tree, cropped the mistletoe with his golden knife, and received it in his robe, amid the acclamations of the people. The sacred mistletoe being brought down, the bulls were sacrificed, and the deity invoked to bless his gift, which was held highly valuable in a medicinal and in other points of view. 

   We know nothing about the Druidical conceptions of a heaven or future state. They believed that one Supreme Being created and governed the world, but they also admitted the existence of a few subsidiary divinities, and among others of Bel or Baal, the god of fire, whose worship was spread over a great part of the earth by the enterprising mariners of Phœnicia. The sacrifices made to Esus, and these minor deities, consisted of animals for the most part; and we find, as in the sacrificial customs of most religions, that the priests took to themselves a tolerable share of all the offerings. After a third part had been burnt, the offerer or offerers received another third to feast on, along with friends; and the remainder went to the Druids. This was no trifling perquisite, as in all cases the finest and most valuable of the flocks and herds were selected for the altar. But it would have been well had the Druidical altars never been turned to a worse purpose than that of fattening the priestly officiators. Beyond a doubt, the Druids pursued the horrible practice of sacrificing human victims. They affected to possess the power of drawing predictions, from the appearance of persons killed at the altar, from the manner in which they fell, the flowing of their blood, and their movements in the mortal agony. To have the fate of a war or a battle foretold, therefore, the kings or chiefs of those days would seldom hesitate, it may be believed, to sacrifice dependents, or other procurable victims, by scores is necessary. The Druids also taught that in cases of sickness, the afflicted person might be saved by propitiating the angel of death with another victim; another notion evidently calculated to lead to a dreadful abuse of human life on the part of the great. Without such specific causes, however, human lives seem to have been regularly sacrificed, as a propitiation to the gods. Cæsar describes an idol of a most extraordinary and fearful kind, as having been used by the Druids in their sacrifices. This idol was a gigantic figure formed of wicker-work, in the rude likeness of a human being. Its interior was so arranged that every part, body and limbs, could be filled with human victims, men and women; and at the proper moment straw and wood were piled around it, and the prisoned unfortunates perished by a slow and most horrible death in the flames. It is related by the historian, that the persons who thus suffered were chiefly those condemned to death for offences against the laws or religion; but if a sufficient number of persons in this condition could not be procured, the innocent were ruthlessly thrust in, till the idol was filled. The imagination revolts at the idea of such wholesale butchery; and the fearful character of the picture is heightened to the fancy by the circumstance of women, stripped of every portion of their clothing, and painted over the body with the dark blue woad, having assisted in the consummation of these bloody rites. Some authors inform us, that women were more frequently the victims of the Druidical superstitions than men. Young, innocent, and beautiful maidens, we are told, were dragged to the altar or the stake, and their lives offered up as a propitiation to the powers above. 

   The power of the Druidical order was great among their countrymen, and their influence extended to all matters whatsoever, political as well as religious. This is scarcely to be wondered at, being but a natural sequence of the maxim, that “knowledge is power.” To the Druids was exclusively confined all the knowledge then existing among the Celtic nations, and, barbarous as their idolatrous rites show them to have been in some respects, they had certainly made considerable advances in many of the sciences, because a personal observer, and a writer of undoubted veracity, we are informed that the Druids were conversant with arithmetic and geometry, and that they carried the knowledge of these sciences even into the highest branches, speculating often at their meetings upon “the magnitude of the earth, and even of the universe.” Regarding astronomy, we are told by the same author that they had many “disquisitions concerning the heavenly bodies and their motions, in which they instructed their disciples;” and it is certain that they divided time in a fixed manner into year and month. The moon and its quarterly periods, which have guided all rude nations in their division of time, seem so peculiarly to have formed the rule of the Druids, that they counted by nights, not by days. From some unknown cause, they reckoned their month from the sixth day of the moon, and not from the change. As regarded the science of medicine, the opinions and practice of the Druids were founded on the assumption that all diseases proceeded from the anger of the gods, and that to appease them was to effect or ensure a cure. From this unfortunate belief sprang the baneful custom, already mentioned, of sacrificing one person for the cure or relief of another. According to Pliny, the Druids used a few herbs in medicine, and, in particular, the mistletoe, which they denominated All-heal, from the impression that this sacred substance was endowed with the power of curing all diseases. But every thing depended, according to them, on the mode of use or application. For example, in employing selago, a kind of hedge-hyssop, for the cure of sore eyes, the following ceremony was indispensable to its efficacy. The patient was to be clothed in a white robe; to have his feet bare, and washed in pure water; to offer a sacrifice of bread and wine, before he proceeded to cut the herb; and the cutting was to be accomplished by the patient with the right hand enveloped in the skirt of his garment, while the herb was to be held by a hook of some more precious metal than iron. Then the cut herb was to be received in a clean cloth, and applied afterwards. Treated in this way, the herb was infallible. Such a ridiculous ceremonial as this brings to one’s mind the saying of Cicero regarding the Roman priesthood and their rites. He said, that he marvelled how they were able to look each other in the face without laughing. The remark may well be applied to the Druidical priests. 

   The Druids, it has been stated, had the office of instructing youth. This was done in groves, under the sacred branches of the oak. There seems to have been a strong resemblance between the forms of instruction pursued by the Druids, and those adopted by some of the Greek sages. The children of the nobility, and of important families generally, were carried away by the Druids into the most retired and desolate potions of the forests which then covered the British soil, and there kept sometimes for the space of twenty years, undergoing the while a course of discipline as severe as that to which Pythagoras subjected his pupils. The teachers made the young Celts get by heart immense strings of verses, in which the actions of the great men of the race were recorded. In their common course of learning, the Druids are said to have taught their pupils not less than twenty-four thousand such verses. These they would not allow to be written down; a plan which they adopted with regard to the great body of their knowledge, and which had the effect of keeping it almost entirely among themselves. Among other branches of learning taught by the Druids, oratory held a high place. Eloquence was the great instrument by which the Celts were moved, on the field of battle and in the council; and from the various fragments of their speeches, preserved by Roman writers, it is obvious that many of the Celtic kings and chiefs, instructed by the Druids, had carried the rhetorical art to a high pitch of excellence. 

   After all, however, it was by their pretences to supernatural powers, to the arts of magic and divination, that the Druids arose to such commanding influence over the rude generality of their countrymen. “In Britain (says Pliny) the magic arts are cultivated with such astonishing success, that the Britons seem to be capable of instructing even the Persians themselves in these arts. The Vates, in particular, investigate and display the most sublime secrets of nature, and by auspices and sacrifices they foretell future events.” The Druids were indeed so famous in these respects, that even the emperors of Rome sent to consult them about things to come. There can be little doubt that much of this magical repute arose from the possession of a few scientific secrets, which they were careful to keep to themselves. When their fame was once established, moreover, the credulity of mankind readily discovered proofs of their power in the simplest operations of nature. Plutarch relates that an officer, named Demetrius, was sent by one of the Roman emperors to examine some of the islands adjacent to Britain, and that he landed on one inhabited by a few Druids, who were esteemed powerful magicians by their countrymen. Soon after his arrival, the air grew black and troubled, and fiery spouts were seen flashing from all parts of the heavens. Demetrius and his men fled from the island in dismay, convinced that these appearances were caused by their own invasion of the sacred isle; a belief which the Druids took good care to encourage. In such a light may men view a simple storm, when looking at it through the mists of ignorance and credulity. 

   Even the monuments and temples of the Druids afforded strong additional grounds in support of the belief in their supernatural powers. Now-a-days these remarkable relics, of which many still exist, only give proof of the possession of considerable mechanical skill by the Druids. By far the most extraordinary of these remains are those at Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire. This temple, for such almost all antiquaries consider it to have been, consists of two circles, and two ovals, the latter forming the cell or sanctum to the circles, the largest of which measures three hundred feet in circumference. The walls of this temple are composed of huge unconnected stones, standing upright, and computed, some of them, to weigh upwards of seventy tons. The greater number of the stones are flat, and bear the mark of tools, but they are still in an extremely rude estate. Some stones have others laid over them, forming a kind of architrave. The longest stones measure about twenty-two feet, and the highest thirteen. “We can hardly suppose (says a writer on this subject) that it was possible to cut these prodigious masses of stone without wedges, or to raise them out of the quarry without levers. But it certainly required still greater knowledge of the mechanical powers, and of the method of applying them, to transport these huge stones from the quarry to the places of their destination; to erect the perpendicular pillars, and to elevate the imposts to the tops of these pillars.” Possessing the exclusive knowledge of such mechanical arts, as well as all the science and learning of their race and age, it is no matter of surprise that the order of the Druids should have acquired so much importance among their countrymen, ignorant and superstitious as these were in the main. 

   It would be a little out of our way to describe at length the other Druidical relics yet extant in Great Britain. Mona, or Anglesea as it is now called, was their chief settlement, but it is in North Britain that the Druid monuments are most abundant. They appear either in the shape of circles of upright stones, with or without a sacrificial altar in the centre, or in the shape of carns, for sepulchral or other purposes. As one example of a Druidical carn, we may mention that on the moor of Strath-Ardle, in Perthshire, which is a stony mound, ninety yards in circumference, and twenty-five feet high. Such monuments are particularly numerous along the Grampian range. There are also curious stones, called Rocking-stones, supposed to be of Druid origin. In the parish of Kells, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, there is one rocking-stone, called the Logan stone, which is about eight or ten tons in weight, and is so nicely balanced upon some protuberances of another stone, that the pressure of a finger can set it in motion. These stones are found both in England and Scotland. Their exact purpose, if they ever had one, cannot now be ascertained, and the same may be said of other relics of a similar kind, believed to be Druidical. 

   Such as they have now been described, the Druid superstitions were at one time prevalent over a large part of the continent of Europe and the adjacent isles. Their extinction is enveloped in the mystery of the dark ages. Up to a late period, however, some traces of the Druid customs were perceivable among the Scottish Celts, and Dr Jamieson mentions that an old Highlander, so lately as the end of the eighteenth century, was in the habit of always addressing the Deity by the title of the Arch-Druid. Druidism certainly gives us no pleasing idea of the character of our ancestors. In some respects, their superstitions were among the darkest and cruelest that have ever been cherished by man in his rude and pagan condition.