Fire-Worship

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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FROM the earliest time, the sun has been the object of human adoration. But the common flame itself, being destructive, yet beneficial, while ever mounting upward as if disdaining earth contact, became with most races of mankind a religious emblem, if not a Deity.

Pyrolatreia, or fire-worship, was once nearly universal. The Moloch of the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians, was the divinity of various nations under different names. Moloch was not the only deity tormenting simple maids and tender babes with fire. The blazing or fiery cross, in use among Khonds of India, was well known in both Ireland and Scotland. The Egyptians, with more modern Africans, have reverenced flame.

The Irish assuredly were not behind the most cultured peoples in this respect. The sanctity of their places for fire was notorious. The ancient lighting of fires was attended with solemn ceremonies. Even now, the trampling upon cinders in a household is regarded, in some way, as an indignity to the head of the establishment.

According to the old records of the Four Masters of Ireland, a curious spectacle was witnessed one St. George's day, having reference to this curious superstition. At Ross Dela, now Ross-dalla, of Westmeath, a tower of fire blazed up from a belfry for hours, while a great black bird, accompanied by a flock of smaller birds, kept flying in and out of the fire, the smaller taking shelter under the wings of the leader. When the great bird had finished its fiery purifications, it took up an oak tree by the roots, and flew off with it.

Persia was once the high seat of fire-worship. The Parsees of India were refugees from Persia at the time of the Mahometan conquest of that country, and these still retain the old fire religion. The natural flames that issued from the earth, and were regarded as divine, have pointed out to the practical moderns the mineral oil deposits of Baku. At the Sheb-Seze, or Fire-feast of Persia, says Richardson, birds and beasts were let loose with inflammable material about them.

American Indians, in some cases, retain this custom of their ancestors. Squier notes the supreme, holy, Spirit of Fire, Loak Ishte-hoola-aba, and the ignition of new fires at the solar festival. The priests got fire by friction. The Pawnees had a sacrifice of human beings in the fire at the vernal equinox. The Aztecs had a god of fire in Xiuhteuctli. The image of Hercules, the sun-god, was solemnly burnt once a year at Tarsus.

The Scriptures have many references to this worship.

A story is told in Maccabees of a priest who took sacred fire from the altar, and hid it in a cave. Upon Nehemiah sending for it, water only was found; yet, when the liquid was poured over an altar of wood, the whole burst into flame. Phené remarks—"The British spire now fills the place, in the plains, of the once aspiring flame which ascended from the hill-altars."

The Perpetual Lamps of the ancients sanctioned the same idea. No less than one hundred and seventy Roman, Arab, and Mediaeval writers record the finding of such lamps. In 1540 a lamp was reported still burning in the tomb of Cicero's daughter. Lights were buried in urns. Herodotus speaks of lamps in the tombs of Egypt. Augustine wrote of lights inextinguishable by either rain or wind. Asbestos wicks of lamps were known in Greek temples. Madame Blavatski says that Buddhist priests made use of asbestos wicks. Dr. Westcott, who records instances of Perpetual Lamps, adds, "There formerly existed an art that has been lost."

Ireland was not without her perpetual fire. St. Bridget and her nuns, in maintaining a constant flame in Kildare, were but continuing a very ancient heathen custom. Tradition says that Druidesses did the same, also, in sacred Kildare. As there was an Irish goddess Bridgit, Higgins remarked that the deity had become a saint, when the disciple of St. Patrick founded her nunnery at Kildare. The Welsh ecclesiastic, who wrote of the Norman Conquest of Ireland, says of this fire, that though ever recruited with fuel, "yet the ashes have never increased." It was fed with the wood of the hawthorn. The place of the fire is described as being twenty feet square, with a stone roof.

The virgin Daughters of the Fire were Inghean au dagha; but, as fire-keepers, were Breochwidh. The Brudins, a place of magical cauldron and perpetual fires, disappeared with Christianity. Those flames were devoted by the Celts, &c. to Hestia, who stood in the place of Vesta. Being in the Brudins now means in the fairies.

The Greek Pyrtaneium was, like the Brudins, a public feeding-house, where the fire never went out. The baptism of fire was an Indian institution. The Mexicans, Virginian Indians, and Peruvians, had their perpetual fire of a religious character. A curious sect arose once in Spain, that burnt a cross on the forehead of the child in baptism.

Lucius Florus said of Numa Pompilius, "He appointed a fire to be kept up by the Vestal Virgins, that a flame in imitation of the stars might perpetually watch as Guardian of the Empire."

The Archbishop of Dublin, in 1220, shocked at this revival of fire-worship, under the mask of Christianity, ordered the Kildare fire to be extinguished. It was, however, relighted, and duly maintained, until the suppression of the nunnery in the reign of Henry VIII. As an old poet sang:—

"The bright lamp that shone in Kildare's holy fane,
And burned through long ages of darkness and stain."

The Parsees of India have such a fire that has burned for twelve hundred years. This is at Oodwada, near Bulsar, which is much frequented by Parsee pilgrims during certain periods of the year. The writer once questioned a Parsee in Bombay on this matter. The gentleman repudiated the idea of Fire or Sun-worship, declaring that he saw the Deity better by that symbol than by any other.

As the Egyptian priests were said to acknowledge the same, it is possible that the Irish priests recognized in sun and flame but symbols of the invisible God.

Mrs. Bryant, however, asserts that "there is more trace of sun and fire-worship in the peasantry lingering among us to-day, than in the Bardic literature of the remote Irish past." Dr. Waddell, in Ossian and the Clyde, has no doubt of fire-worship being extant in Ossian's days. Dr. O'Brennan thinks that the Gadelians or Gaels everywhere they went established fire-worship. The Gabha-Bheil was an ordeal by fire.

Two sects were said to be in the island—the Baalites, or fire adorers, and the Lirites, or devotees of water. O'Kearney tells us—"It is probable that very violent contentions were once carried on in Ireland by the partizans of the rival religions, who were accustomed to meet and decide their quarrels at the place set apart for battle." The Samhaisgs were devoted to fire-worship, and the Swans to Lir worship.

May-day in Ireland was very strictly observed, as it had been in Babylon ages before. "Even now," says Mrs. Bryant, "in remote places, if the fire goes out in a peasant's house before the morning of the first of May, a lighted sod from the priest's house to kindle it is highly esteemed." On that day they once burnt hares, from a fancy that they stole the butter.

The eve of May-day was a trying time, as fairies were then extra frolicsome in stealing the milk. For preventative, the cows were driven through fires, as in distant pagan days. According to Hone (1825), in Dublin, folks would cast horses' heads into the bonfire; horses were sun animals. May-eve rejoicings were known by the name of Nech-na-Bealtaine. According to the Book of Rights, Ultonian kings were not to bathe on May-day. O'Conor remarks that the May fire ceremonies were transferred by St. Patrick to the 24th of June, John Baptist's day. Leaping through fire symbolized human sacrifice.

Beltaine, or Baaltinne, was the Roman Compitalia, or glad times, for their beginning of the year. The Tailtean games of the Irish were said to have originated from Tailte, wife of Mac Erc, the last Firbolg king, killed in the Battle of Moy-tuir. May-eve was, with some, Neen na Bealtina, Baal's fire eve.

Keating, writing on the Fair at Uisneach, of Meath, says, "This fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May; and they were wont to exchange or barter their cattle and other property there. They were also accustomed to make offerings to the chief god which they worshipped, named Bel; and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred between the two fires as a preservative."

Easter-time was duly celebrated in pagan as it is now in Christian times. The joyful season of awakening summer was being celebrated on Tara hill, at the very moment when St. Patrick was lighting his Easter fire on Slane hill, within sight of the King and his Court.

The Book of Rights informs us that "Patrick goes afterwards to Fearta Fear Feic. A fire is kindled by him at that place on Easter Eve. Laegaire is enraged as he sees the fire, for that was the geis of Teamhair among the Gaedhil." The King had, according to custom, ordered all fires out, as no fresh blaze could be kindled but directly or indirectly from his own fire.

This incident in the life of the Saint is the most interesting of his career, but can only be briefly referred to here. It was when standing on the site of the royal palace at Tara hill, and looking across the beautiful country to the distant hill of Slane, that we seemed to realize the legend. Druids had forewarned the King of the coming of strangers, but were as much astonished as he was at the sight of a blaze afar, when no light could be raised but by the Sovereign's command.

Orders were issued for the arrest of the bold intruders. St. Patrick and his shaven companions were brought into the presence of the Master of Fire. Then he told his tale and lighted a flame in Erin never to be quenched. The story, as given us there by a bent old woman of seventy years, will not be soon forgotten. Leaning on her stick with one hand, and pointing over the almost deserted region to the hill of the Saint's fire with the other, heaving a sigh over the departed glories of Tara, she might have been taken for a Druidess herself.

That Paschal fire was the victor over pagan fires, with their abominable Moloch associations.

Midsummer fires served as sun charms to keep up the heat. Midsummer Eve, however, afterwards nominated as John the Baptist's Eve, was a great fire-day far and wide. Von Buch, the traveller, speaks of seeing the custom observed within the Arctic Circle.

An old writer about Ireland remarked—"A stranger would imagine the whole country was on fire." Brand writes of the Vigil of St. John—"They make bonfires, and run along the streets and fields with wisps of straw blazing on long poles, to purify the air which they think infectious, by believing all the devils, spirits, ghosts, and hobgoblins fly abroad this night to hurt mankind." One, writing in 1867, said—"The old pagan fire-worship still survives in Ireland, though nominally in honour of St. John. On Sunday night bonfires were observed throughout nearly every county in the province of Leinster."

As Easter Day was of old devoted to Astarte, the Eastern goddess, so was St. John's Day to Baal. But the eve of the first of November was the Hallow Eve or Samhain, when the fires were a thanksgiving to the sun at the end of harvest. Keating, who notes the sacred fire lighted by the Archdruid on Usnagh Hill, Kildare, tells of the fires on the hill of Ward, Meath County, on the last day of October. Some old writers identify this period, rather than Easter, as that of the meeting of St. Patrick and the King. The Samhain feast received a Christian baptism as the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

The festival known as the Lucaid-lamh-fada, or festival of Love, had no connection with the fires. It was held from the first to the sixteenth of August, in honour of the sun and moon, when games, more or less accompanied by greetings of the two sexes, were duly celebrated.

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