Of the Heathen or Pagan church.
THE Romans have described the priesthood of the ancient inhabitants of Britain, by the name of Druids; and the religion of Druidism is supposed to have prevailed over the whole island. From the Greeks, and Romans, we have derived the only information which we possess, concerning that religion, and its ministers. The fragments of old Caledonian poetry, which tradition has preserved, are too dark and ambiguous, upon this subject, to afford any clear or certain information. We have, however, the remains of many rude monuments, which, although they have not been described in the Roman accounts of Druidism, cannot be referred to any other thing in the oeconomy of the ancient Caledonians, with the same fair probability as to their religion. It is true, that the Druids, of whom the Romans speak, were found in South Britain, and in Gaul, not in Caledonia: But their accounts seem to imply, that the same superstition was common through all Britain; and the same monuments which are ascribed to Druidism, in South Britain, are also numerous in North Britain.
The word Druid is probably derived from the Greek, Drus, an oak, or wood; or from the Celtic, Deru, or Dru, an oak; because the Druids testified a profound veneration for that tree, or because the deep recesses of the thickest woods were chosen by them for the scenes of their religious solemnities. Mr. Smith, in his Gaelic Antiquities, affirms, that they “had their name from the word Druidh, which, in their own language, signifies wise men, and is still the Gaelic term for natural philosophers, or magicians.”
The sect of the Druids, beside the class properly distinguished by that denomination, consisting of their Priests, comprehended also the Vates and Bards. The grand articles of their religion were,
I. To worship the Deity.
II. To abstain from all evil. And,
III. To be intrepid.
They enforced the practice of the strictest virtue among men, and were at first held in great veneration for their piety and virtue; but afterward they degenerated, and practised the grossest idolatry and superstition.
They originally maintained the belief of one only eternal and self-existent God, whom they worshipped without images or statues, and to whom they gave the sublime attributes of infinity and immensity: and they believed in the immortality of the soul, and a future state. They afterward corrupted the purity of this doctrine, by admitting into their creed, a number of subordinate deities, whom they fancied to preside over the order of nature, and the concerns of human life; and by teaching the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. They made oblations daily, and used purifications. Their oblations may, perhaps, have consisted, at first, of the fruits of the earth; but that simplicity of sacrifice was soon abandoned, and gave way to the horrible practice of offering human victims.
Their stated worship consisted of sacrifices, and oblations. These were performed in groves, or on level ground, upon which they erected one or more circles of stones, placed in a vertical position. Their places of worship were circular, because dedicated to the sun, the emblem of their deity. The highlanders called them clachan, i.e. a collection of stones; and hence a church is called clachan.
Their more solemn worship was at their high festivals, particularly in the month of March, on May-day, at Mid-summer, and at Hallow-eve. These festivals were celebrated on conspicuous places, where they erected cairns and heaps of stones, on which they kindled fires, and offered sacrifices. In the March solemnity, they gathered and consecrated the misseltoe of the oak. On May-day, they offered sacrifices for the preservation of their cattle. That day was held sacred to Pan or Baal, and was called, as it still is in the highlands, La Baal-Tine, with us, by corruption, Beltan. The Mid-summer solemnity was celebrated in honour of Ceres, to obtain a blessing on their corns. The Hallow-eve solemnity was kept on the eve of the first of November, as a thanksgiving for the ingathering of the produce of the fields. In all these solemnities they offered sacrifices, and made tours, sun-ways, round their fires, called Deas-soil, from Deas, the south, and foil, the sun, i.e. south-about with the sun.
The Druid priests were formed into a college, under the presidency of a supreme pontiff, or arch-Druid. They were the instructors of youth in the mysteries of religion, and in philosophy and morality. They were also judges in all causes, religious, civil, and criminal: their persons were deemed sacred and inviolable: they were excused from military service; and they were exempted from taxes and impositions of every kind. Their authority was great, their sentence final; and the contumacious were excommunicated, excluded from all social intercourse, and pronounced profane. The priests administered justice on round green hillocs, many of which may be found over the country. In their dress, and personal appearance, they assumed several marks of distinction. They wore long garments that reached their heels, while the skins or mantles, worn by the generality of the people descended only to the waist or knee. They permitted their beards to grow to a considerable length, contrary to the practice of the laity, from whom they also differed in wearing the hair of the head short. They usually carried in their hands a wand as a badge of the office and authority of judge, and had an amulet of an oval form about their necks, called indifferently the serpent’s or druid’s egg, enchased in gold. That egg was, according to Pliny, about the size of a moderate apple, and its shell was a cartilaginous incrustation full of small cavities. The Druids pretended that it was formed from the interweaving of several serpents, and attributed great virtues to it both as an amulet and a medicine.
The Vates are supposed by some, to have been next to the priests, but according to others they were the lowest class of the order. It is generally believed, that they assisted in the performance of the sacrifices, and in the rites of divination; that they were also physicians, and that they endeavoured to explain the sublimest properties of nature.
The Bards were historians, chronologists, genealogists, musicians, and poets. The word Bard in Celtic, signifies a poet and orator. As the mysteries and philosophy of the Druids were not committed to writing, the Bards turned these into rhymes, which they repeated on proper occasions. When armies were to engage, the Bard stood on some eminence, and harangued them to rouse their courage. They presided in their music; acted a part at festivals; recited genealogies at marriages and funerals; and sung the praises of their heroes. But how honourable soever this order might have been at first, they afterwards became ignorant, venal, and despicable buffoons.
The druids seem to have had among them some recluses and hermits. In the isles and other places, there are many small cells of stone of a round figure, and each cell capable of accommodating one single person, called Ti na druididhe, i.e. “The druid’s house.”
Many of the customs observed by the druids are mentioned by historians. Some superstitious ceremonies still practised by the people of this country, particularly in the Highlands, appear to be of druidical origin. Of these we shall only notice the following.
When a contagious disease enters among cattle, the fire is extinguished in some villages round: Then they force fire with a wheel, or by rubbing one piece of dry wood upon another, and therewith burn juniper in the stalls of the cattle, that the smoke may purify the air about them: They likewise boil juniper in water, which they sprinkle upon the cattle. This done, the fires in the houses are rekindled from the forced fire.
They narrowly observe the changes of the moon, and will not go upon any expedition of importance, or fell wood, or cut turf, &c. but at certain periods of the revolution of that planet. So the druids avoided, if possible, to fight, till after the full moon.
At burials they retain many heathenish practices; such as music, and dancing at late-wakes, when the nearest relations of the deceast dance first. At burials mourning women chant the coronach, or mournful extemporary rhymes, reciting the valorous deeds, expert hunting, and other qualities of the deceast. When the corpse is lifted, the bed-straw, on which the deceast lay, is carried out and burnt in a place where no beast can come near it; and they pretend to find next morning, in the ashes, the print of the foot of that person in the family, who shall first die.
They believe that the material world will be destroyed by fire. So general is this persuasion, that when the Highlanders express the end of time, they say Gu Braith, i.e. “To the conflagration or destruction.”
The use which the druids made of juniper, and their regard to the changes of the moon, shew that they were no strangers to the virtues of plants and the influence of the celestial bodies.
Throughout this kingdom, many places have their names, and some persons their surnames, from the druid Bards, Carns, &c. as Baird, Cairnie, Monibhard, Tullibardin, Carn-wath, Carn-cross, &c.
The druidịcal doctrines had a near resemblance to the tenets of the Persian Magi, the Indian Bramins, the Chaldeans, and other ancient oriental sects. The religion of the magi, as well as the druids, seems to have been borrowed from the patriarchs and Jews, in the following and some other particulars. They owned one Supreme Being, worshipped without images or statues, and used sacrifices and sacred fire. Their religious ceremonies were performed, at first, sub dio, in high places, or under spreading oaks, but afterward in temples. They compassed their altars by going Deas-soil round them, had many ablutions and purgations, and had mourning women at funerals. The priests were the instructors of youth, had their academies and schools in retired high places, and had a rod of office. This druidism was the religion of the Scots and Picts, as it was of the Gauls and Britains, before the light of the gospel of Christ was made to shine among them.