Our Ancient Capital (4) - Legends, Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland

We have spoken hitherto but of the maritime colonists—that portion of the primal race who launched their ships on the Mediterranean to found colonies and kingdoms along its shores; then passing out through the ocean straits, the human tides surged upon the western limits of Europe, till the last wave found a rest on the green sward of ancient Erin. The habits of these first colonists were agricultural, commercial, and unwarlike; and ancient historians have left us a record of their temperament; volatile and fickle; passionate in joy and grief, with quick vivid natures prone to sudden excesses; religious and superstitious; a small, dark-eyed race, lithe of limb and light of heart; the eternal children of humanity.

For illustrations we need not here refer to the Royal Irish Academy, for as they looked and lived three thousand years ago, they may be seen to this day in the mountains of Connemara and Kerry.

While this race travelled westward to the ocean by the great southern sea, other families of the Japhetian tribes were pressing westward also, but by the great northern plains. From Western India, by the Caspian and the Caucasus, past the shores of the Euxine, and still westward along the great rivers of Central Europe, up to the rude coasts of the Baltic, could be tracked "the westward marches of the unknown crowded nations," carrying with them fragments of the early Japhetian wisdom, and memories of the ancient primal tongue brought from the far East but, as they removed further from the great lines of human intercourse, and were subjected to the influence of rigorous climates and nomadic habits, gradually becoming a rude, fierce people of warriors and hunters, predatory and cruel, living by the chase, warring with the wild wolves for their prey, and with each other for the best pasture-grounds. Driven by the severity of the seasons to perpetual migration, they built no cities and raised no monuments, save the sepulchral mound, which can be traced from Tartary to the German Ocean.

Without the civilizing aids of commerce or literature, their language degenerated into barbarous dialects; their clothing was the skin of wild beasts; their religion, confused relics of ancient creeds, contributed by the wandering colonies of Egypt, Media, Greece, and Tyre, which occasionally blended with the Scythian hordes, wherein Isis, Mercury, and Hercules, the symbols of wisdom, eloquence, and courage, were the objects worshipped, though deteriorated by savage and sanguinary rites, whose sacrifices were human victims, and whose best votary was he who had slain most men.

From long wandering through the gloomy regions where the sun is darkened by perpetual clouds, they called themselves the "Children of the Night," and looked on her as the primal mother of all things.

Their pastimes symbolized the fierce daring of their lives. At their banquets they quaffed mead from the skulls of the slain, and chanted war-songs to the music of their clashing bucklers, while their dances were amid the points of their unsheathed swords.

From the influence of climate, and from constant intermarriage amongst themselves, certain physical and mental types became permanently fixed, and the gigantic frame, the fair hair and "stern blue eyes"* of the Scythian tribes, along with their bold, free, warlike, independent spirit, are still the marked characteristic of their descendants. For amidst these rude races of lion-hearted men, who cleared the forests of Central Europe for future empires, there were great and noble virtues born of their peculiar mode of life: a love of freedom, a lofty sense of individual dignity, bold defiance of tyranny, a fortitude and courage that rose to heroism —the spirit that brooks no fetter either on the mind or frame. We see that such men were destined for world-rulers. To them Europe is indebted for her free political systems; the chivalry that ennobled warfare and elevated women, and the religious reformation that freed Christianity from superstition. Every charter of human freedom dates from the Scythian forests.

The great northern concourse of fierce, wild tribes, comprehended originally under the name of Scythians, or Wanderers, having spread themselves over the north to the very kingdom of the Frost-Giants, amidst frozen seas and drifting glaciers, turned southward, tempted by softer climes and richer lands, and under the names of Goth, Vandal, Frank, and Norman, devastating tribes of the Scythian warriors poured their rude masses upon the early and refined civilization of the Mediterranean nations, conquering wherever they appeared and holding bravely whatever they conquered.

The Roman empire trembled and vanished before the terrible might of the long-haired Goths. They sacked Home and threatened Constantinople: Africa, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany yielded to the barbaric power. Before the fifth century the Scythians had conquered the world, and every kingdom in Europe is ruled by them to this hour.

How strangely contrasted the destinies of the two great Japhetian races! What vicissitudes of fortune! The refined, lettered, oriental light-bringers to Europe—the founders of all kingdoms, the first teachers of all knowledge, the race that peopled Tyre, Carthage, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Gaul, degraded, humbled, and almost annihilated; the last poor remnant of them crushed up in the remote fastnesses of the hills along the coastline of Europe; step by step driven backwards to the Atlantic, as the red man of America had been driven to the Pacific, till, over the whole earth they can be found nowhere as a nation, save only in Ireland, while the rude, fierce Scandinavian hordes have risen up to be the mightiest of the earth. Greece subdued Asia, and Rome subdued Greece, but Scythia conquered Rome! The children of night and of the dark forests rule the kingdoms that rule the world.

They have given language and laws to modern empires, and at the present day are at the head of all that is most powerful, most thoughtful, most enterprising, and most learned throughout the entire globe.

NOTES

* The expression of Tacitus.