Animal Worship

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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THAT religion was early associated with animals admits of no question. The Apis worship of Egypt prevailed several thousand years before Christ. Animals have served as Totems to the tribes of America and other parts, but have been certainly regarded as religious symbols in most lands. The four Evangelists are to this day symbolized by such creatures. How far this reverence, from association with an idea, degenerated into absolute worship of the living thing, is a well-recognized fact of history.

Every one knows that the twelve signs of the Zodiac, to distinguish periods of time, were named after animals, and are so to this day. The Chinese cycle is called after the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and pig. Abel Remusat notes "the cycle of twelve animals, imagined by the Kirghis, and now in use through nearly all eastern Asia."

Irish literature is full of tales respecting animals, particularly in connection with sorcery. Cats, dogs, bulls, cows, horses, and boars, figure largely therein. St. Kiaran frustrated the mischief intended by a cat, in the discharge of a red-hot bar from a blacksmith's forge. Because so many Irish stories are about the magical feats of lower animals, and such a number of places in Ireland are named after them, it has been supposed, said Patrick Kennedy, that the early Irish paid them the same divine honours as the Egyptians had done.

Birds share in the veneration. The Dove, which was held sacred at Hierapolis, and the symbol of Mithras, was honoured in West Scotland and in Ireland; for Bollandus records that "a snow-white dove, with a golden bill, was wont to sit on the head of St. Kentigarn while occupied in sacred rites." The name of St. Columba also suggests the dove.

The Wren is not yet forgotten in Ireland. It was thought to be the king of birds. It was hunted as the Cutty wren, and is still hunted on St. Stephen's Day, the 26th of December, the winter solstice. There, and in Western Scotland, it has been known as the Lady of Heaven's hen, with this refrain:—

"The wren! the wren! the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his family's great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a trate ."

The French hunt and kill it, devotionally, on Twelfth Day. Contributions should then be collected in a stocking. After the bird has been solemnly buried in the churchyard, a feast and a dance terminate the ceremony.

The wren in some way symbolized the sun, and was once sacrificed to Pluto. It perhaps represented the weak sun. Morien tells his readers—"The Druids, instead of a dove, employed a wren to symbolize the sun's divinity escaping into an Arkite shrine, to save himself from his murderous pursuers." "The worshipful animal," says J. G. Frazer, "is killed with special solemnity once a year; and before or immediately after death he is promenaded from door to door, that each of his worshippers may receive a portion of the divine virtues that are supposed to emanate from the dead or dying god."

The Hare, in like manner, was hunted once a year, but that was on May-day. The modern Irishman fancied it robbed his milch cows of the sweet draught that belonged by right to himself. On the other hand, hares have been styled St. Monacella's Lambs—being placed under her special protection.

The hare, however, was certainly reverenced in Egypt, and at Dendera was to be seen the hare-headed deity. Caesar mentions that the Celts would not eat of the animal, any more than did the Pythagoreans. In Irish tales witch-hares are declared to be only caught by a black greyhound. Elsewhere it is stated, that in the Cashel cathedral an ornament figures a couple of hares complacently feeding upon some trilobed foliage, as the shamrock.

Only a few months since a traveller gave an illustration of the persistence of some meaning being attached to the hare, even among the educated and Christian fishermen of Aberdeen. When out at sea, and in some danger from bad weather, it is thought unfortunate, and even calamitous, for any one in the boat to mention the name of this creature.

That animal reverence, to say the least of it, continued not in Ireland alone, but even in Scotland, among those of the same race, to quite modern times, is manifest from the fierce denunciation of certain practices relating thereto. The Presbytery of Dingwall, Ross, on September 5, 1656, made special reference to the heathenish customs, then prevalent in the North, of pouring out libations of milk upon hills, of adoring stones and wells, and above all, of sacrificing bulls!

The Ossianic Transactions contain some references to the Irish Holy Bulls and Cows. The bull has been called the Deity of the Ark. In Owen Connelan's translation of Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution , is an account of a magical cow which supplied milk to nine score nuns of Tuam-daghnalan. This is very like the tale of the Tuath smith's Glas Gaibhne , or Grey Cow, which nourished a large family and its numerous dependants. Though stolen by the General of the roving Fomorians, she contrived to live on, and practise her benevolence until the fifth century. Her camping places, numerous as they were, are localities recognized by Irish country folk to this day. There is also the story of Diarmuid Mac Cearbhall, half Druid, half Christian, who killed his son, because he had caused the death of a Sacred Cow.

As to the nine score nuns of Tuam, it must be noticed that the word caillach served alike for nun and druidess. This led W. Hackett, in the Transactions , to observe—"the probability is that they were pagan Druidesses, and that the cows were living idols like Apis, or in some sense considered sacred animals."

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