Religion of the Celts

The Celts of Gaul, Britain, and Erin had practically the same religion. The Celtic race must have brought with them from the East a knowledge of the One true God, and, like the Patriarchs, they built altars, and offered sacrifice. In course of time they worshipped idols, and that religion was called Druidism. Caesar says it was supposed that the system came from Britain to Gaul, and that many of the Gauls went there to study the religion more carefully.

In the sixth Book of the Gallic war the system of Druidism is described by Caesar, and as he is the highest authority on that matter we shall give his statement translated into English:

“In all Gaul there are two classes of persons only who are held in any consideration or honour—for the common folk are reckoned almost as slaves. The Druids are one class, the Knights (warriors) the other. The former attend to religious matters, provide for sacrifices, public and private, and expound questions touching religious obligations and rites. All the Druids have one president, who has the greatest authority among them. On his death, if one is pre-eminent in worth he succeeds; if several are equal they contend for the presidency by the vote of the Druids, and sometimes even by fighting. The Druids abstain from war and pay no taxes. The main belief they wish to inculcate is that souls do not perish, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think this the greatest incentive to valour, as it leads man to despise death. They discourse much also concerning the heavenly bodies and their movements, the size of the earth and the universe, and the attributes and power of the immortal gods, and impart their lore to the young. The whole nation is addicted to superstition, and, for that reason, those who are afflicted with severe illness, or who are engaged in war, or exposed to danger, either sacrifice human beings as victims, or vow that they will do so, and employ the Druids to carry out these sacrifices. For they think that unless the life of man be rendered, the mind of the immortal gods cannot be appeased. They have also sacrifices of the same sort as public institutions. A little before our own time, slaves and retainers, of whom the deceased were known to have been fond, used to be burned along with them when a funeral was held with full rites. It is the god Mercury they chiefly worship; of him there are most images. Next to him they worship Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva.

"The Germans differ greatly from these habits. For they have no Druids to preside at divine worship, nor do they practise sacrifices. They recognise as gods only those whom they see and by whose aid they are manifestly assisted, namely, the Sun, Fire and the Moon; the rest they have not even heard of.”

Elegius, Bishop of Noyon, in Gaul, A.D. 640, gives a minute account of heathenish practices in a sermon delivered by him, and preserved in his Life by St. Ouen, Bishop of Rouen. We give it in part:—

“Above all, I warn and adjure you (the Bishop said). Let no man observe the sacrilegious practices of the pagans, or dare to consult persons who make charms, or practise fortune-telling, or sorcery, or magic on account of sickness, or for any other reason. Observe not auguries, or sneezing, nor, when on a journey, attend to the singing of birds. Let no Christian take note of the day on which he leaves home, nor the day on which he returns, nor the day of the month, nor of the moon, before commencing any work.

“Let no one, on the Feast of St. John, take part in the ‘Salistitia,’ or jumping, or dancing, or carolling, or devilish songs, or call on the name of Neptune, Diana, Orcus, Minerva, or the Genii, or believe in nonsense of that sort. Let no Christian light fires, and make vows or prayers at shrines or stones or springs or trees or places struck by lightning, or cross-roads. Let no one tie charms around the neck of man or beast. Let no one make sprinklings or incantations on herbs, or dare to make the cattle pass through the hollow of a tree, or through a hole in the earth, because by this he openly consecrates them to the devil.

“Let no woman hang amber from her neck. Let no one shout at an eclipse of the moon. Let no one call the sun and the moon lords, nor swear by them.”

This account of Druidism in Gaul is in complete accord with the practices of Druidism that prevailed in this country. The Druids of Erin practised fortune-telling, charms, sorcery, or magic; they observed auguries, lucky and unlucky days; they made prayers and vows at shrines, stones, wells, and trees. The sun and moon, however, were the principal objects of their worship. The first of May was dedicated to the sun under the name of Bel, and hence Bel-Taine. On the eve of that day a great festival was held, and all the culinary fires were put out. The fire sacred to Bel was ignited, and this was done by rubbing one stick against another until they caught fire. From this two fires of purification were made. The cattle of the district were driven between those fires for purposes of purification, and as a safeguard against diseases of the year. From those fires of purification the culinary fires were re-kindled.

The first of November was dedicated to the moon Samhain (Hallow E’en), and the same ceremonies were observed as on the feast of Bel-Taine.

The Church caused the feast of Bel-Taine to be transferred to the 23rd June, St. John’s Eve, and turned it into a Christian festival.

The trees regarded sacred by the Druids, were the mountain ash, hazel, yew, and blackthorn. When a sacred tree fell they would not use any part of it for fuel.

The Pagan Irish swore by the sun, wind and the elements. The oldest form of oath was to give the sun and elements as security. Leoghaire took this oath not long before his death, and broke it, and the next year the " sun and the wind killed him because he outraged them." It was regarded a grave crime to break the oath.

The Pagan Irish believed in the existence of demons or fairies, who dwelt under the green hills of Erin, and had power to injure man in his person and property. The Church found it hard to eradicate this belief, and in some remote parts it exists to the present day.

Read "The History of West Cork" at your leisure

Early Irish History and Antiquities, and the History of West Cork

Read The History of West Cork at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

Enjoy this book on just about any device of your choice. Full hyperlinked contents and index have been included to make navigation easy, and the experience pleasurable.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats. See details ».