Irish Worship of Idols

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....continued

5. Worship of Idols.

Idols were very generally worshipped. The earliest authentic document that mentions idols is St. Patrick's "Confession," in which the great apostle himself speaks of some of the Scots (i.e. Irish) who, up to that time, "had worshipped only idols and abominations." Elsewhere in the same document, as well as in many other ancient authorities, the practice of idol-worship is mentioned as a thing well known among the Irish; and the destruction of many idols in various parts of the country was an important part of St. Patrick's life-work.

There was a great idol called Cromm Cruach, covered all over with gold and silver, in Magh Slecht (the 'Plain of Prostrations '), near the present village of Ballymagauran, in the County Cavan, surrounded by twelve lesser idols, covered with brass or bronze. In our most ancient books Cromm Cruach is mentioned as the chief idol of the whole country, and as being "until the coming of Patrick, the god of every folk that colonised Ireland." In a very old legend, found in the Dinnsenchus in the Book of Leinster, it is related that many centuries before the Christian era, King Tigernmas [Teernmas] and crowds of his people were destroyed in some mysterious way, as they were worshipping it on Samain Eve—the eve of the 1st November. In the main facts regarding Cromm Cruach, the secular literature is corroborated by the Lives of St. Patrick. In the Tripartite Life it is stated that this idol was adored by King Laegaire, and by many others; and that Patrick, setting out from Granard, went straight to Magh Slecht, and overthrew the whole thirteen. They were all pillar-stones: and the remains of them were in Magh Slecht at the time of the compilation of the Tripartite Life (eighth to tenth century): for it states that they were then to be seen, buried up to their heads in the earth, as Patrick had left them.

In the Dinnsenchus it is stated that, down to the time of St. Patrick, the Irish killed their children in sacrifice to Cromm Cruach in order to obtain from him plenty of milk, corn, and honey. But this statement is not supported by any other authority, though Cromm Cruach is mentioned often enough: it stands quite alone. In such an important matter the Dinnsenchus is not a sufficient authority, for it is a comparatively late document, and the stories in it, of which this is one, are nearly all fabulous —invented to account for the names. Besides, St. Patrick knew all about this idol; and if children were sacrificed to it down to his time, it would be mentioned in some of the numerous Lives of him. It may then be taken as certain that the Dinnsenchus statement is a pure invention, and that this horrid custom of direct human sacrifice to idols or gods, though practised by the Gauls, never reached Ireland.

As Cromm Cruach was the "king-idol" of all Ireland, there was a special idol-god, named Kermand Kelstach, that presided over Ulster. This stone-idol was still preserved as a curiosity in the porch of the cathedral of Clogher down to the time of the annalist Cathal Maguire (died 1498), as he himself tells us.

Pillar-stones were worshipped in other parts of Ireland as well as at Moy-Slecht and Clogher. The Dinnsenchus, after speaking of Cromm Cruach and the other twelve, remarks that from the time of Heremon to the coming of the good Patrick of Armagh, there was adoration of pillar-stones in Ireland: a statement which we find also in other old authorities. In the Brehon Laws, one of the objects used for marking the boundaries of land is stated to be "a stone of worship." This interesting record at once connects the Irish custom with the Roman worship of the god Terminus, which god was merely a pillar-stone placed standing in the ground to mark the boundary of two adjacent properties—exactly as in Ireland. Even to this day some of these old idols or oracle-stones are known; and the memory of the rites performed at them is preserved in popular legend.

The Irish—like the Scottish Highlanders—had an idol called Bél [Bail], whose worship was celebrated with fire-ceremonies. There was a great meeting held at Ushnagh (in present Co. Westmeath) every year on the 1st May, when two fires were kindled in Bél's name, with solemn incantations, by the druids; and cattle were driven between the fires to protect them against the diseases of the coming year. On this occasion, moreover, the young of cattle were offered to the idol. These pagan ceremonies were practised on May Day, all through Ireland, in imitation of those at Ushnagh, and were continued down to late times.

We know, from Scriptural as well as from other authorities, that the Phoenicians had an idol-god named Baal or Bél, which they worshipped with great fire-ceremonies, and which they introduced to all the surrounding nations. Seeing that Ireland was well known to the Phoenicians, that the Irish god Bél is identical in name with the Phoenician god, and was worshipped with the same fire-ceremonies, it is obvious—though we have no direct authoritative statement on the point—that the Irish derived the name and worship of their god Bél—either directly or indirectly—from the Phoenicians.

The Irish, like the Continental nations of the Middle Ages, paid great reverence to their arms, especially swords, amounting sometimes to downright worship, which accounts for the custom of swearing by them. This oath, which was very usual in Ireland, was quite as binding as that by the elements. The reason is given in "The Sick Bed of Cuculainn":—"Because demons were accustomed to speak to them from their arms; and hence it was that an oath by their arms was inviolable."

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