Idol Worship

SOME Irish writers, from a spirit of patriotism, have expressed the opinion that, though English, French, Germans, &c. may have bowed before idols, their countrymen had never been subject to that error.

While professing a derivation from Spain, they have ignored the fact that Iberian idolatry was well known. They equally ignore the testimony of St. Patrick and other missionaries in Erin, the writings of Irish Saints, and the evidence of objects which are substantial witnesses.

Roman authors had no doubt of the presence of idols among the Celtic inhabitants of Gaul; and any visitor to Hôtel Cluny, in Paris, can soon satisfy himself as to the truth, by a glance at the images stored in that noble museum of French history.

Vallencey said, "The Irish Druids were not idolaters, had no graven images." O'Kearney admits that "the pure monotheism of the Druids had dwindled down into a vulgar polytheism, previous to the date of the Fenian era." But O'Curry denies alike images, human sacrifices, and sun-worship. Arthur Clive could write—"There is abundant reason to suppose that there were no idols in use among the ancient Irish, no carved representations of the gods."

In the Museum Catalogue of the Irish Academy, it is written—"The ecclesiastical chroniclers of the period, in their zeal for the establishment of Christianity, would appear to have altogether ignored the subject of pagan worship." But Ennius distinctly records that when Patrick went to Cashel, "all the idols fell prostrate."

In St. Patrick's Confession we read—"Whence is it that in Ireland, those who never had the knowledge of a God, but worshipped even filthy idols," &c. Petrie declares it was "not unusual for St. Patrick to dedicate pagan monuments to the true God." In the Fiacc Hymn it is said—"There was darkness over Erin, they adored things of Faery." The Tripartite Life speaks of this adoration; the Confession says the adorers "shall unhappily fall into eternal punishment."

Dr. E. B. Tylor says, "The idol answers to the savage, in one province of thought, the same purpose that its analogue the doll does to the child. It enables him to give a definite existence and a personality to the vague ideas of higher beings." Elsewhere he declares that idols "belong to a period of transition and growth."

It was not possible that, while Celts and Iberians in Great Britain and Gaul should have idols, the same races in Erin should be without them.

Gaul had Hesus, Belenus, and other deities in images. Mên, the Bayeux god, had horns. Caesar called the chief Gaulish divinity by the name of Mars, whose shrine was on the Isle of Paris. Another, described as a Mercury, stood on the summit of Puy de Dome. Cernunnos was represented holding a bag of acorns. Belenus was declared, by Montfaucon, to be the same as a British Island idol. Lucan exclaimed, "Hesus, with cruel altars, horrid god." At Arles was found an idol, with a serpent twined about its legs. Elsewhere, it was a female in Gaul, with a serpent round the legs. Lucan left the following account of another:—

"The Gauls," said he, "call Hercules in their country language Ogmius. But they represent the appearance of their god in a very unusual manner. With them he is a decrepid old man, bald before, his beard extremely grey, as are the few other hairs he has remaining.—I was of opinion that all these things were perversely done, in dishonour of the Grecian gods.—This old Hercules draws after him a vast multitude of men, all tied by their ears. The cords by which he does this are small fine chains, artificially made of gold and electrum, like the most beautiful bracelets. And though the men are drawn by such slender bonds, yet none of them thinks of breaking loose, when they might easily do it.—The painter, to fix the extreme ends of the chains, made a hole in the god's tongue, who looks smiling towards those he leads."

The foreigner turned for explanation to a Gaul, who said, "We Gauls do not suppose, as you Greeks, that Mercury is speech or language, but we attribute it to Hercules, because he is far superior in strength." They thought Hercules, as speech, should draw men after him, with their ears tied to his tongue.

As to Wales—though some patriotic Welsh will not allow that their people ever were so degraded—there were idols, like that of Darvell-gadarn at St. Asaph. From a report on the Welsh, in 1538, we learn that they "come daily a pilgrimage unto him, some with kine, others with oxen or horses, and the rest with money." The old writer shows the respect paid to this idolatrous survival: remarking, "A common saying amongst them, that whosoever will offer anything to the said images of Darvell-gadarn, he hath power to fetch him or them that so offer out of hell when they are damned."

Scotland, too, had its idols. In a letter from Mr. Donald Clark to the author, several years ago, that gentleman added—"Since the above was written, an image of a female has been dug up from a moss in North Lochaber, of black oak, in good preservation, and about five feet long, which goes far to show that they had deity houses with images in North Britain also." Yet, as a linguist, he declared, "But there is nothing in their language to show that they worshipped those images—only venerating them." Apologists of other nations might say as much of their own ancestors' veneration of images.

King Laoghaire, contemporary with St. Patrick, was the worshipper of Crom Cruach, described as a pillar of stone. The Tripartite Life of the Saint called it "a crooked stone of adoration." As Magh-Sleacht meant field of slaughter, many supposed sacrifices were offered to the idol.

The Patron Saint made war against Crom. An old writer in 1695 said—"No sooner did he then eleuate his pure handes in prayer for the subuersion of the Idol, and had after a threatening manner lifted up the Rod of Jesus against it, but it fell downe upon the left side, and all the gold and silver dissolved into dust, the little gods were swallowed vp by the earth, euen to their neckes."

In the Four Masters is this version—"Crom Cruach stood near a river called Gathard, and St. Patrick erected a church near at Domhnachmor." Then they added, "According to Dinnsenchus (the geographer), this was the principal idol of all the colonies that settled in Ireland, from the earliest period to the time of St. Patrick, and they were wont to offer to it the firstlings of animals, and other offerings."

An inscription in Ogham tells that "in it Cruach was, and twelve idols of stone around him, and himself of gold." Another testimony is that it had much gold and silver, with twelve brass idols round it, as if in reference to the zodiac.

We are informed, that, when struck by St. Patrick, with his staff of Jesus, the image fell to the west, with the impression of the rod on its side, the twelve stone gods sinking into the ground. When the Saint called aloud for the Devil to come forth from the image, an ugly black fellow appeared, upon whom the Saint threw himself in anger. In the struggle, he lost a button from his coat. Though found soon after on the heath, nothing could grow on the spot ever after.

Toland, in 1728, had this account:—

"The chiefest in all Ireland was Crom Cruach, which stood in the midst of a circle of twelve obliscs on a hill in Brefin, a district of the county of Cavan, formerly belonging to Leitrim. It was all over covered with gold and silver, the lesser figures on the twelve stones about it being onely of brass; which mettals, both of the stones and the statues they bore, became everywhere the prey of the Christian priests upon the conversion of that kingdom." The legendary writers of Patrick's Life tell many things, not less ridiculous than incredible, about the destruction of this temple of Moysleet (Magh-Sleucht), or the Field of Adoration, in Brefin; where the stumps of the circular obliscs are yet to be seen.—"The Bishop's See of Clogher has its name from one of these stones, all covered with gold (Clogher signifying the Golden Stone), on which stood Kermand Kelstach, the chief Idol of Ulster. The stone is still in being." He continued, "Kermand Kelstach was not the only Mercury of rude stone, since the Mercury of the Greeks was not portray'd antiently in the shape of a youth, with wings to his heels and a caduceus in his hand, but without hands or feet, being a square stone, says Phurnutus, and I say without any sculpture."

Vallencey maintained the same; observing, "The ancient records of Ireland assert that the Irish Pagans worshipped no images; the rough unhewn stone, capped with gold and silver, representing the sun and moon, and round these were twelve others, showing the number of the Signs of the Zodiac." Herodian has a similar view of the sun temple of Emasa, near Tyre—"There is no image, as among the Greeks and Romans, to represent the God, but an exceeding large stone, round at the bottom, and terminating in a point, of a conical form, and black color."

An old MS. says—"Magh-sleacht was so called from an idol of the Irish, named Crom-cruaith, a stone capped with gold, about which stood twelve other rough stones."

It is curious that the last Sunday in summer was known as Domnach Crumdnibh, or Sunday of Black Crom; it was afterwards changed to St. Patrick's Sunday.

O'Beirne Crowe thinks it absurd to suppose that the golden idol of Mag Slecht was only a stone pillar; but "that the most ancient Irish idols, however, were of wood and stone is most probable, and that some of these ancient idols would be continued through pure veneration, even after the introduction of metallurgy, is also not improbable."

In Richardson's Folly of Pilgrimage is the record of a wooden image, carved and painted like a woman, kept in the house of the O'Herlebys, in Ballyvourney, Cork Co. The sick sent for it as a means of cure, and sometimes sheep were offered to it with peculiar ceremonies.

The Gentleman's Magazine for 1742, notes "two silver images found under the ruins of an old tower." They were described as being three inches high, in armour, with an Osirian helmet and neck covering.

Hindoo-like images of brass have been several times dug up. They appear in Oriental garb, or in a short petticoat or kilt, with the fingers touching a forked beard. One of such, now in the Dublin Museum, was taken from beneath the root of a large tree in Roscommon. In that instance, the arms were crossed. The height of this brazen idol was five inches. It had once been gilt. A metal idol, weighing twenty-four lbs., and fifteen inches high, was recovered from the soil at Clonmel, near the spot where another was seen, with a similar expression of face, and the hand holding something round.

A letter written to Pownall by the Rev. Mr. Armstrong, about 1750, has the story of an image found sixty years previously, in the bog of Cullen, Tipperary. It was a large wooden image. Mention is made that "little pins or pegs were stuck in different parts of it; and that Mr. Damer imagined that the little gold plates found there (four inches by three each), one of which I saw with him, were suspended by these pegs in different parts of that image." Subsequently the god was converted into a gate-post, and lost sight of after.

A bronze one, from Clonmacnoise, had a waved pattern on its eastern kilt and sleeves, with a conical head-dress ornamented with figures, a waving beard, and long prominent nose.

A Phallic image of Fro or Friceo, like the Priapus guardian of Brussels, was useful in driving disease from the Irish cattle. Feminine figures were employed down to quite modern times to remove evil; like that female deity found in December, 1880, in the moss bed, north of Lochaber, which was of black oak, and five feet in height.

King Cormac is mentioned as refusing to worship the Golden Calf set up by the Druids. As, however, he met his death shortly after, through a salmon-bone sticking in his throat, the priests concluded he suffered through the vengeance of the god Crom Cruach. Later bards made him declare—"I will offer no adoration to any stock or image shaped by my own mechanic. It were more rational to offer adoration to the mechanic himself."

In the Lays of the Western Gael we have the bardic story of King Cormac, who lived 300 years before St. Patrick, refusing a burial after the heathen custom:—

"For all the Kings who lie in Brugh
Put trust in gods of wood and stone;
And 'twas at Ross that first I knew
One, unseen, who is God alone.

His glory lightens from the East,
His message soon shall reach our shore;
And idol god and cursing priest
Shall plague us from Moy Slaught no more."

The Winged Lion of Cashel may remind scholars of the like looking creature of the Assyrian Nergal. The tail, which has a Phallic termination, was curled round the hind-leg and over the back. The hair was composed of curved lines. The animal was, apparently, to be attacked by a Centaur with a Norman helmet. These, perhaps, were not idols, but figures with a Freemasonic meaning, by some mystic architect of the Middle Ages.

Very different were the petticoated images, as the brass one of Roscommon, resembling those still to be observed in India, and recognized among the figures on pre-Christian crosses in Ireland. These bear evident traces of being brought to Erin by a people from the Mediterranean shores, and whose blood is yet mingled with that of the many varied races of the Western Island.

The old Tuath, vaulted, stone temple at Knockmoy, in Galway, which was afterwards turned into an abbey, had a remarkable figure, like Apollo, bound to a tree, pierced by arrows, yet slaying the Python by a shaft. This was congenial to a land with such strong serpent reminiscences.

A curious bronze instrument, extricated from the bog of Ballymoney, Antrim, was found to be of three parts, and may have held liquor. The figures about it were suggestive of ancient idolatry. Four birds were attached to it by pins passing through the tube, with rings outside. These may have been the two swans of Apollo, and the two bulbul of Iran. As Aristotle speaks of the brass appendage of Dodona, through which the oracles were announced, some regard this remarkable Irish ornament as pertaining to that ancient heathen superstition.

By far the most remarkable idol known to the author was that shown him at Cashel many years ago, but which may have been since discreetly hidden away. The guardian of the ruins, who was somewhat excited by the national drink, perceiving an extra inquisitiveness on the part of his visitor, who had been entranced by a splendid illustration of serpent worship, loudly exclaimed, "I will show you something." He soon returned with a stone image, some two feet high, bearing the rough lineaments of a female, but with the legs being serpents crossed.

Epiphanius vehemently attacked a Gnostic idol of his day; saying, "Yea, even his legs are an imitation of the serpent, through which the Evil One spake and deceived Eve."

Governor Pownall, last century, traced Irish idols to Carthaginian intercourse; "rather," said he, "than to the Celtic Druidical theology of the more ancient Irish; for though their symbolic idols are said to be covered with gold and silver, yet they were but unhewn stones, and not images containing any organized form." His account of the find in the Tipperary Bog of Cullen was addressed to the Society of Antiquaries in 1774.

"The fragment," said he, "which is said to be part of an image found at the same time, is of a black wood, entirely covered and plated with thin gold, and seems to have been part of the breasts, the tet or nipple of which is radiated in hammered or chased work, in lines radiating from a centre, as is usual in the images of the sun; and round the periphery, or setting on of the breast, there are like radiations in a specific number, with other linear ornaments. There is another fragment of the same kind of wood, which seems to be a fragment of an Ammonian horn; there are in it the golden studs or rivets by which it may be supposed to have been plated with gold. The first account I had of this image was that it was of a human form, with a lion's face; then, that it was indeed biform, but of what sort not specified. I have since been informed that the image, whatever it was, was of a size sufficient to make a gate-post."

The lion's face he regarded as "the symbolic image of Mithras, as used by the Gadetani (of Spain), for which I will refer to the Saturnalia of Macrobius, when he quotes a historical passage to show that the Hercules of Gades (Cadiz) and of the sun were one and the same numen, represented by biform figures with heads of lions, radiating like the sun." As Pownall found the sword, recovered from the same bog, to be of Carthaginian work, he was disposed, as he says, to refer the image "to this line of later theology, rather than to the Celtic Druid theology of the more ancient Irish." He means that of the Carthaginian colony of Spain, which he thought held commerce with Ireland. The idol might be that of the foreign visitors. "I feel persuaded," he added, "to refer the idol, and the various vessels and instruments of religious ceremonies, found in the same part, to the ritual of this later idolatry used in these particular settlements, but never in general use amongst the people of Ireland at large."

An image was found on Innis Mura, Sligo, being called after St. Molas,—known as the Bal fargha, a Phallic emblem. It has a singular likeness to the Phallic Mahoody of the Isle of Elephanta. It is an erect stone in a sort of basin (masculine and feminine emblems), and being, like the Mahoody, enclosed by a wall. The like symbol is still an object of worship in India.

Two rude stones were discovered in Neale Park, Mayo Co. One had the appearance of a goat, and the other of a lion. There was the inscription of Dié na feile.

Jean Reynaud held that the Gauls had no image of any sort. Henri Martin affirmed that "no idols recovered upon our soil belong to the age of independence"—that is, before the Roman Conquest. Herodotus bears testimony to one ancient people free from idols. The Persians he observed to have none—"because," said he, "they do not believe that the gods partake of our human nature."

Before the day when teraphim idols were known in the family tent of Jacob, men were accustomed to symbolize by images the attributes of the Deity; and it is no great reflection upon the Irish character that Erin should once have bowed to idols.

We are told by the Wisdom of Solomon, 14th chap., that "graven images were worshipped by the commandment of Kings." Froude reminds us that, now, "in place of the old material idolatry, we erect a new idolatry of words and phrases." It might be added, that many of the political, religious, and social sentiments of the day are bowed to as fetishes, in defiance alike of reason and common sense. There are more forms of idolatry than the old Irish worship of Black Crom. In kneeling to that image, the man had doubtless in his mind and heart the real God whom it but symbolized.