Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

6.—THE DRUIDS. C. KNIGHT. (From “Old England.')

The great wonder of Salisbury Plain,_the most remarkable monument of antiquity in our island, if we take into account its comparative preservation as well as its grandeur-is Stonehenge. It is situated about seven miles north of Salisbury. It may be most conveniently approached from the little town of Amesbury. Passing by a noble Roman earth-work called the Camp of Vespasian, as we ascend out of the valley of the Avon, we gain an uninterrupted view of the undulating downs which surround us on every side. The name of Plain conveys an inadequate notion of the character of this singular district. The platform is not flat, as might be imagined; but ridge after ridge leads the eye onwards to the bolder hills of the extreme distance, or the last ridge is lost in the low horizon. The peculiar character of the scene is that of the most complete solitude. It is possible that a shepherd boy may be descried watching his flocks nibbling the short thymy grass with which the downs are everywhere covered; but, with the exception of a shed or a hovel, there is no trace of human dwelling. This peculiarity arises from the physical character of the district. It is not that man is not here, but that his abodes are hidden in the little valleys. On each bank of the Avon to the east of Stonehenge, villages and hamlets are found at every mile ; and on the small branch of the Wyly to the west there is a cluster of parishes, each with its church, in whose names, such as Orcheston Maries, and Shrawston Virgo, we hail the tokens of institutions which left Stonehenge a ruin. We must not hastily conclude, therefore, that this great monument of antiquity was set up in an unpeopled region; and that, whatever might be its uses, it was visited only by pilgrims from far-off places. But the aspect of Stonehenge, as we have said, is that of entire solitude. The distant view is somewhat disappointing to to the raised expectation. The hull of a large ship, motionless on the wide sea, with no object near by which to measure its bulk, appears an insignificant thing: it is a speck in the vastness by which it is surrounded. Approach that ship, and the largeness of its parts leads us to estimate the grandeur of the whole. So is it with Stonehenge. The vast plain occupies so much of the eye that even a large town set down upon it would appear a hamlet. But as we approach the pile, the mind gradually becomes impressed with its real character. It is now the Chorea Gigantum—the Choir of Giants; and the tradition that Merlin the Magician brought the stones from Ireland is felt to be a poetical homage to the greatness of the work.

However the imagination may be impressed by the magnitude of those masses of stone which still remain in their places, by the grandeur even of the fragments confused or broken in their fall, by the consideration of the vast labour required to bring such ponderous substances to this desolate spot, and by surmise of the nature of the mechanical skill by which they were lifted up and placed in order and proportion, it is not till the entire plan is fully comprehended that we can properly surrender ourselves to the contemplations which belong to this remarkable scene. It is then, when we can figure to ourselves a perfect structure, composed of such huge materials symmetrically arranged, and possessing, therefore, that beauty which is the result of symmetry, that we can satisfactorily look back through the dim light of history or tradition to the object for which such a structure was destined. The belief now appears tolerably settled that Stonehenge was a temple of the Druids. It differs, however, from all other Druidical remains, in the circumstance that greater mechanical art was employed in its construction, especially in the superincumbent stones of the outer circle and of the trilithons, from which it is supposed to derive its name: stan being the Saxon for a stone, and heng to hang or support, From this circumstance it is maintained that Stonehenge is of the very latest ages of Druidism; and that the Druids that wholly belonged to the ante-historic period followed the example of those who observed the command of the law: “If thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone : for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” (Exodus, chap. xx.) It was long a controversy, idle enough as such controversies generally are, whether Stonehenge was appropriated to religious or to civil purposes. If it is to be regarded as a Druidical monument, the discussion is altogether needless; for the Druids were, at one and the same time, the ministers of religion, the legislators, the judges amongst the people. The account which Julius Caesar gives of the Druids of Gaul, marked as it is by his usual clearness and sagacity, may be received without hesitation as a description of the Druids of Britain : for he says, “the system of Druidism is thought to have been formed in Britain, and from thence carried over into Gaul; and now those who wish to be more accurately versed in it for the most part go thither (i. e. to Britain) in order to become acquainted with it.” Nothing can be more explicit than his account of the mixed office of the Druids: “They are the ministers of sacred things; they have the charge of sacrifices, both public and private ; they give directions for the ordinances of religious worship (religiones interpretantur). A great number of young men resort to them for the purpose of instruction in their system, and they are held in the highest reverence. For it is they who determine most disputes, whether of the affairs of the state or of individuals: and if any crime has been committed, if a man has been slain, if there is a contest concerning an inheritance or the boundaries of their lands, it is the Druids who settle the matter: they fix rewards and punishments: if any one, whether in an individual or public capacity, refuses to abide by their sentence, they forbid him to come to their sacrifices. This punishment is among them very severe; those on whom this interdict is laid are accounted among the unholy and accursed ; all fly from them, and shun their approach and their conversation, lest they should be injured by their very touch; they are placed out of the pale of the law, and excluded from all offices of honour.” After noticing that a chief Druid, whose office is for life, presides over the rest, Caesar mentions a remarkable circumstance which at once accounts for the selection of such a spot as Sarum Plain, for the erection of a great national monument, a temple, and a seat of justice:– “These Druids hold a meeting at a certain time of the year in a consecrated spot in the country of the Carnutes (people in the neighbourhood of Chartres), which country is considered to be in the centre of all Gaul. Hither assemble all from every part who have a litigation, and submit themselves to their determination and sentence.” At Stonehenge, then we may place the seat of such an assize. There were roads leading direct over the plain to the great British towns of Winchester and Silchester. Across the plain, at a distance not exceeding twenty miles, was the great temple and Druidical settlement of Avebury. The town and hill-fort of Sarum was close at hand. Over the dry chalky downs, intersected by a few streams easily forded, might pilgrims resort from all the surrounding country. The seat of justice which was also the seat of the highest religious solemnity, would necessarily be rendered as magnificent as a rude art could accomplish. Stonehenge might be of a later period than Avebury, with its mighty circles and long avenues of unhewn pillars; but it might also be of the same period, the one distinguished by its vastness, the other by its beauty of proportion. The justice executed in that judgment-seat was, according to ancient testimony, bloody and terrible. The religious rites were debased into the fearful sacrifices of a cruel idolatry. But it is impossible not to feel that at the bottom of these superstitions there was a deep

reverence for what was high and spiritual: that not only were the Druids the instructors of youth, but the preservers and disseminators of science, the proclaimers of an existence beyond this finite and material world—idolaters, but nevertheless teaching something nobler than what belongs to the mere senses, in the midst of their idolatry. We give entire what Caesar says of the religious system of this remarkable body of men :“It is especially the object of the Druids to inculcate this—that souls do not perish, but after death pass into other bodies; and they consider that by this belief more than anything else men may be led to cast away the fear of death, and to become courageous. They discuss, moreover, many points concerning the heavenly bodies and their motion, the extent of the universe and the world, the nature of things, the influence and ability of the immortal gods; and they instruct the youth in these things. “The whole nation of the Gauls is much addicted to religious observances, and, on that account, those who are attacked by any of the more serious diseases, and those who are involved in the dangers of warfare, either offer human sacrifices or make a vow that they will offer them; and they employ the Druids to officiate at these sacrifices; for they consider that the favour of the immortal gods cannot be conciliated unless the life of one man be offered up for that of another: they have also sacrifices of the same kind appointed on behalf of the state. Some have images of enormous size, the limbs of which they make of wicker-work, and fill with living men, and setting them on fire, the men are destroyed by the flames. They consider that the torture of those who have been taken in the commission of theft or open robbery, or in any crime, is more agreeable to the immortal gods; but when there is not a sufficient number of criminals, they scruple not to inflict this torture on the innocent. “The chief deity whom they worship is Mercury; of him they have many images, and they consider him to be the inventor of all arts, their guide in all their journeys, and that he has the greatest influence in the pursuit of wealth and the affairs of commerce. Next to him they worship Apollo and Mars, and Jupiter and Minerva; and nearly resemble other nations in their views respecting these, as that Apollo wards off diseases, that Minerva communicates the rudiments of manufactures and manual arts, that Jupiter is the ruler of the celestials, that Mars is the god of war. To Mars, when they have determined to engage in a pitched battle, they commonly devote whatever spoil they may take in the war. After the contest, they slay all living creatures that are found among the spoil; the other things they gather into one spot. In many states, heaps raised of these things in consecrated places may be seen : nor does it often happen that any one is so unscrupulous as to conceal at home any part of the spoil, or to take it away when deposited; a very heavy punishment with torture is denounced against that crime. “All the Gauls declare that they are descended from Father Dis (or Pluto), and this, they say, has been handed down by the Druids: for this reason, they distinguish all spaces of time not by the number of days, but of nights; they so regulate their birth-days, and the beginning of the months and years, that the days shall come after the night.” + The precise description which Caesar has thus left us of the religion of the Druids —a religion which, whatever doubts may have been thrown upon the subject, would appear to have been the prevailing religion of ancient Britain, from the material monuments which are spread through the country, and from the more durable

* Caesar de Bell. Gall, lib. vi. Our translation is that of the article “Britannia," in the “Penny Cyclopaedia. - - - -

records of popular superstitions—is different in some particulars which have been supplied to us by other writers. According to Caesar, the Druids taught that the soul of man did not perish with his perishable body, but passed into other bodies. But the language of other writers, Mela, Diodorus Siculus, and Ammianus Marcellinus, would seem to imply that the Druids held the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as resting upon a nobler principle than that described by Cesar. They believed, according to the express statement of Ammianus Marcellinus, that the future existence of the spirit was in another world. The substance of their religious system, according to Diogenes Laertius, was comprised in their three precepts—to worship the gods, to do no evil, and to act with courage. It is held by some that they had a secret doctrine for the initiated, whilst their ritual observances were addressed to the grosser senses of the multitude; and that this doctrine was the belief in one God. Their veneration for groves of oak and for sacred fountains was an expresion of that natural worship which sees the source of all good in the beautiful forms with which the earth is clothed. The sanctity of the mistletoe, the watch-fires of spring and summer and autumn, traces of which observances still remain amongst us, were tributes to the bounty of the All-giver, who alone could make the growth, the ripening, and the gathering of the fruits of the earth propitious. The sun and the moon regulated their festivals, and there is little doubt formed part of their outward worship. An astronomical instrument found in Ireland, is held to represent the moon's orbit and the phases of the planets. They worshipped, too, according to Caesar, the divinities of Greece and Rome, such as Mars and Apollo: but Caesar does not give us their native names. He probably found ascribed to these British gods like attributes of wisdom and of power as those of Rome, and so gave them Roman names. Other writers confirm Caesar's account of their human sacrifices. This is the most revolting part of the Druidical superstition. The shuddering with which those who live under a pure revelation must regard such fearful corruptions of the principle of devotion, which in some form or other seems an essential part of the constitution of the human faculties, produced this description of Stonehenge from the pen of a laborious and pious antiquary, Mr. King :-" Although my mind was previously filled with determined aversion, and a degree of horror, on reflecting upon the abominations of which this spot must have been the scene, and to which it even gave occasion, in the later periods of Druidism, yet it was impossible not to be struck, in the still of the evening, whilt the moon's pale light illumined all, with a reverential awe, at the solemn appearance produced by the different shades of this immense group of astonishing masses of rock, artificially placed, impending over head with threatening aspect, bewildering the mind with the almost inextricable confusion of their relative situations with respect to each other, and from their rudeness, as well as from their prodigious bulk, conveying at one glance all the ideas of stupendous greatness that could well be assembled together.” And yet the “determined aversion and degree of horror” thus justly felt, and strongly expressed, might be mitigated by the consideration that in nations wholly barbarous the slaughter of prisoners of war is indiscriminate, but that the victim of the sacrifice is the preserver of the mass. If the victims thus slain on the Druidical altars were culprits sacrificed to offended justice, the blood-stained stone of the sacred circle might find a barbarous parallel in the scaffold and the gibbet of modern times. Even such fearful rites, if connected with something nobler than the mere vengeance of man upon his fellows, are an advance in civilization, and they are not wholly inconsistent with that rude cultivation of our spiritual being which existed under the glimmerings of natural impulses, before the clear light of heaven descended upon the earth. The Druidical circles in their uniformity of character present the indubitable cvidence that they were symbolical of the mysteries of the prevailing religion of the country. They were essentially religious edifices. They were probably, at the same time, what the Icelandic writers call Doom rings, or Circles of Judgment. That these monuments, in association with religious rites and solemn decisions, had a deep influence upon the character of our rude forefathers, we cannot reasonably doubt. They were a bold and warlike race, an imaginative race, not placing the sole end of existence in the consumption of the fruits of the earth, but believing in spiritual relations and future existences. Degrading as their superstitions raight be, and blind their notions of the future, their belief was not a mere form.tal and conventional pretence; it was a principle operating upon their actions. We have the express testimony of an ancient poet to this effect of the old worship of this land. Lucan, in a noble passage in the first book of the Pharsalia, addresses the Druids in the well known lines beginning “Et vos barbaricos.” The translation of Rowe is generally quoted: but it appears to us that the lines are rendered with more strength and freedom by Kennett, who translated the poetical quotations in Gibson's edition of Camden's ‘Britannia:' “And you, O Druids, free from noise and arms, Renew'd your barbarous rites and horrid charms. What Gods, what powers in happy mansions dwell, Or only you, or all but you can tell. To secret shades, and unfrequented groves, From world and cares your peaceful tribe removes. You teach that souls, eas'd of their mortal load, Nor with grim Pluto make their dark abode, Nor wander in pale troops along the silent flood, But on new regions cast resume their reign, Content to govern earthy frames again. Thus death is nothing but the middle line Betwixt what lives will come, and what have been. Happy the people by your charms possess'd! Nor fate, nor fears, disturb their peaceful breast. On certain dangers unconcern'd they run, And meet with pleasure what they would not shun; Defy death's slighted power, and bravely scorn To spare a life that will so soon return."

In reading this remarkable tribute to the national courage of our remote ancestors, let us not forget that this virtue, like all other great characteristic virtues of a community, was based upon a principle, and that the principle, whatever might be its errors, rested upon the disposition of man to believe and to reverence.

7.—SEWERUS. XIPHILINE.

(From the Translation in the ‘Monumenta Historica Britannica.')

Among the Britons the two greatest tribes are the Caledonians and the Maeatae; for even the names of the others, as may be said, have merged in these. The Maatae dwell close to the wall which divides the island into two parts; the Caledonians beyond them. Each of these people inhabit mountains wild and waterless, and plains desert and marshy, having neither wall nor cities nor tilth, but living by pasturage, by the chace, and on certain berries; for of their fish, though abundant and inexhaustible, they never taste. They live in tents, naked and bare

« ForrigeFortsett »