Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology

Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology

Author: Bullfinch, Thomas

The Druids - Iona


The Druids were the priests or ministers of religion among the ancient

Celtic nations in Gaul, Britain, and Germany. Our information respecting them

is borrowed from notices in the Greek and Roman writers, compared with the

remains of Welsh and Gaelic poetry still extant.

The Druids combined the functions of the priest, the magistrate, the

scholar, and the physician. They stood to the people of the Celtic tribes in

a relation closely analogous to that in which the Brahmans of India, the Magi

of Persia, and the priests of the Egyptians stood to the people respectively

by whom they were revered.

The Druids taught the existence of one god, to whom they gave a name

"Be'al," which Celtic antiquaries tell us means "the life of every thing," or

"the source of all beings," and which seems to have affinity with the

Phoenician Baal. What renders this affinity more striking is that the Druids

as well as the Phoenicians identified this, their supreme deity, with the Sun.

Fire was regarded as a symbol of the divinity. The Latin writers assert that

the Druids also worshipped numerous inferior gods.

They used no images to represent the object of their worship, nor did

they meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the performance of their

sacred rites. A circle of stones (each stone generally of vast size)

enclosing an area of from twenty feet to thirty yards in diameter, constituted

their sacred place. The most celebrated of these now remaining is Stonehenge,

on Salisbury Plain, England.

[See Stonehenge: The Druids used no images to represent the object of their

worship, nor did they meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the

performance of their sacred rites.]

These sacred circles were generally situated near some stream, or under

the shadow of a grove or wide-spreading oak. In the centre of the circle

stood the Cromlech or altar, which was a large stone, placed in the manner of

a table upon other stones set up on end. The Druids had also their high

places, which were large stones or piles of stones on the summits of hills.

These were called Cairns, and were used in the worship of the deity under the

symbol of the sun.

That the Druids offered sacrifices to their deity there can be no doubt.

But there is some uncertainty as to what they offered, and of the ceremonies

connected with their religious services we know almost nothing. The classical

(Roman) writers affirm that they offered on great occasions human sacrifices;

as for success in war or for relief from dangerous diseases. Caesar has given

a detailed account of the manner in which this was done. "They have images of

immense size, the limbs of which are framed with twisted twigs and filled with

living persons. These being set on fire, those within are encompassed by the

flames." Many attempts have been made by Celtic writers to shake the testimony

of the Roman historians to this fact, but without success.

The Druids observed two festivals in each year. The former took place in

the beginning of May, and was called Beltane or "fire of God." On this

occasion a large fire was kindled on some elevated spot, in honor of the sun,

whose returning beneficence they thus welcomed after the gloom and desolation

of winter. Of this custom a trace remains in the name given to Whitsunday in

parts of Scotland to this day. Sir Walter Scott uses the word in the Boat

Song in the Lady of the Lake: -

"Ours is no sapling, chance sown by the fountain,

Blooming at Beltane in winter to fade;" &c.

The other great festival of the Druids was called "Samh'in," or "fire of

peace," and was held on Hallow-even, (first of November,) which still retains

this designation in the Highlands of Scotland. On this occasion the Druids

assembled in solemn conclave, in the most central part of the district, to

discharge the judicial functions of their order. All questions, whether

public or private, all crimes against person or property, were at this time

brought before them for adjudication. With these judicial acts were combined

certain superstitious usages, especially the kindling of the sacred fire, from

which all the fires in the district, which had been beforehand scrupulously

extinguished, might be relighted. This usage of kindling fires on Hallow-eve

lingered in the British islands long after the establishment of Christianity.

Besides these two great annual festivals, the Druids were in the habit of

observing the full moon, and especially the sixth day of the moon. On the

latter they sought the Mistletoe, which grew on their favorite oaks, and to

which, as well as to the oak itself, they ascribed a peculiar virtue and

sacredness. The discovery of it was an occasion of rejoicing and solemn

worship. "They call its," says Pliny, "by a word in their language which

means 'heal-all,' and having made solemn preparation for feasting and

sacrifice under the tree, they drive thither two milk-white bulls, whose horns

are then for the first time bound. The priest then, robed in white, ascends

the tree, and cuts off the mistletoe with a golden sickle. It is caught in a

white mantle, after which they proceed to slay the victims, at the same time

praying that God would render his gift prosperous to those to whom he had

given it." They drink the water in which it has been infused, and think it a

remedy for all diseases. The mistletoe is a parasitic plant, and is not

always nor often found on the oak, so that when it is found it is the more


The Druids were the teachers of morality as well as of religion. Of

their ethical teaching a valuable specimen is preserved in the Triads of the

Welsh Bards, and from this we may gather that their views of moral rectitude

were on the whole just, and that they held and inculcated many very noble and

valuable principles of conduct. They were also the men of science and

learning of their age and people. Whether they were acquainted with letters

or not has been disputed, though the probability is strong that they were, to

some extent. But it is certain that they committed nothing of their doctrine,

their history, or their poetry to writing. Their teaching was oral, and their

literature (if such a word may be used in such a case) was preserved solely by

tradition. But the Roman writers admit that "they paid much attention to the

order and laws of nature, and investigated and taught to the youth under their

charge many things concerning the stars and their motions, the size of the

world and the lands, and concerning the might and power of the immortal gods."

Their history consisted in traditional tales, in which the heroic deeds

of their forefathers were celebrated. These were apparently in verse, and

thus constituted part of the poetry as well as the history of the Druids. In

the poems of Ossian we have, if not the actual productions of Druidical times,

what may be considered faithful representations of the songs of the Bards.

The Bards were an essential part of the Druidical hierarchy. One author,

Pennant, says, "The Bards were supposed to be endowed with powers equal to

inspiration. They were the oral historians of all past transactions, public

and private. They were also accomplished genealogists, &c."

Pennant gives a minute account of the Eisteddfods or sessions of the

Bards and minstrels, which were held in Wales for many centuries, long after

the Druidical priesthood in its other departments became extinct. At these

meetings none but Bards of merit were suffered to rehearse their pieces, and

minstrels of skill to perform. Judges were appointed to decide on their

respective abilities, and suitable degrees were conferred. In the earlier

period the judges were appointed by the Welsh princes, and after the conquest

of Wales, by commission from the kings of England. Yet the tradition is that

Edward I. in revenge for the influence of the Bards, in animating the

resistance of the people to his sway, persecuted them with great cruelty This

tradition has furnished the poet Gray with the subject of his celebrated ode,

the Bard.

There are still occasional meetings of the lovers of Welsh poetry and

music, held under the ancient name. Among Mrs. Hemans's poems is one written

for an Eisteddfod, or meeting of Welsh Bards, held in London May 22, 1822. It

begins with a description of the ancient meeting, of which the following lines

are a part: -

". . . midst the eternal cliffs, whose strength defied

The crested Roman in his hour of pride;

And where the Druid's ancient cromlech frowned,

And the oaks breathed mysterious murmurs round,

There thronged the inspired of yore! on plain or height,

In the sun's face, beneath the eye of light,

And baring unto heaven each noble head,

Stood in the circle, where none else might tread."

The Druidical system was at its height at the time of the Roman invasion

under Julius Caesar. Against the Druids, as their chief enemies, these

conquerors of the world directed their unsparing fury. The Druids, harassed

at all points on the main land, retreated to Anglesey and Iona, where for a

season they found shelter and continued their now-dishonored rites.

The Druids retained their predominance in Iona and over the adjacent

islands and main land until they were supplanted and their superstitions

overturned by the arrival of St. Columba, the apostle of the Highlands, by

whom the inhabitants of that district were first led to profess Christianity.


One of the smallest of the British Isles, situated near a rugged and

barren coast, surrounded by dangerous seas, and possessing no sources of

internal wealth, Iona has obtained an imperishable place in history as the

seat of civilization and religion at a time when the darkness of heathenism

hung over almost the whole of Northern Europe. Iona or Icolmkill is situated

at the extremity of the island of Mull, from which it is separated by a strait

of half a mile in breadth, its distance from the main land of Scotland being

thirty-six miles.

Columba was a native of Ireland, and connected by birth with the princes

of the land. Ireland was at that time a land of gospel light, while the

western and northern parts of Scotland were still immersed in the darkness of

heathenism. Columba with twelve friends landed on the island of Iona in the

year of our Lord 563, having made the passage in a wicker boat covered with

hides. The Druids who occupied the island endeavored to prevent his settling

there, and the savage nations on the adjoining shores incommoded him with

their hostility, and on several occasions endangered his life by their

attacks. Yet by his perseverance and zeal he surmounted all opposition,

procured from the king a gift of the island, and established there a monastery

of which he was the abbot. He was unwearied in his labors to disseminate a

knowledge of the Scriptures throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland,

and such was the reverence paid him that though not a bishop, but merely a

presbyter and monk, the entire province with its bishops was subject to him

and his successors. The Pictish monarch was so impressed with a sense of his

wisdom and worth that he held him in the highest honor, and the neighboring

chiefs and princes sought his counsel and availed themselves of his judgment

in settling their disputes.

When Columba landed on Iona he was attended by twelve followers whom he

had formed into a religious body of which he was the head. To these, as

occasion required, others were from time to time added, so that the original

number was always kept up. Their institution was called a monastery and the

superior an abbot, but the system had little in common with the monastic

institutions of later times. The name by which those who submitted to the

rule were known was that of Culdees, probably from the Latin "cultores Dei" -

worshippers of God. They were a body of religious persons associated together

for the purpose of aiding each other in the common work of preaching the

gospel and teaching youth, as well as maintaining in themselves the fervor of

devotion by united exercises of worship. On entering the order certain vows

were taken by the members, but they were not those which were usually imposed

by monastic orders, for of these, which are three, celibacy, poverty, and

obedience, the Culdees were bound to none except the third. To poverty they

did not bind themselves; on the contrary they seem to have labored diligently

to procure for them selves and those dependent on them the comforts of life.

Marriage also was allowed them, and most of them seem to have entered into

that state. True their wives were not permitted to reside with them at the

institution, but they had a residence assigned to them in an adjacent

locality. Near Iona there is an island which still bears the name of "Eilen

nam ban," women's island, where their husbands seem to have resided with them,

except when duty required their presence in the school or the sanctuary.

Campbell, in his poem of Reullura, alludes to the married monks of

Iona: -

". . . The pure Culdees

Were Albyn's earliest priests of God,

Ere yet an island of her seas

By foot of Saxon monk was trod,

Long ere her churchmen by bigotry

Were barred from holy wedlock's tie.

'Twas then that Aodh, famed afar,

In Iona preached the word with power.

And Reullura, beauty's star,

Was the partner of his bower."

In one of his Irish Melodies, Moore gives the legend of St. Senanus and

the lady who sought shelter on the island, but was repulsed: -

"O, haste and leave this sacred isle,

Unholy bark, ere morning smile;

For on thy deck, though dark it be,

A female form I see;

And I have sworn this sainted sod

Shall ne'er by woman's foot be trod."

In these respects and in others the Culdees departed from the established

rules of the Romish Church, and consequently were deemed heretical. The

consequence was that as the power of the latter advanced that of the Culdees

was enfeebled. It was not however till the thirteenth century that the

communities of the Culdees were suppressed and the members dispersed. They

still continued to labor as individuals, and resisted the inroads of Papal

usurpation as they best might till the light of the Reformation dawned on the


Iona, from its position in the western seas, was exposed to the assaults

of the Norwegian and Danish rovers by whom those seas were infested, and by

them it was repeatedly pillaged, its dwellings burned, and its peaceful

inhabitants put to the sword. These unfavorable circumstances led to its

gradual decline, which was expedited by the subversion of the Culdees

throughout Scotland. Under the reign of Popery the island became the seat of

a nunnery, the ruins of which are still seen. At the Reformation, the nuns

were allowed to remain, living in community, when the abbey was dismantled.

Iona is now chiefly resorted to by travellers on account of the numerous

ecclesiastical and sepulchral remains which are found upon it. The principal

of these are the Cathedral or Abbey Church, and the Chapel of the Nunnery.

Besides these remains of ecclesiastical antiquity, there are some of an

earlier date, and pointing to the existence on the island of forms of worship

and belief different from those of Christianity. These are the circular

Cairns which are found in various parts, and which seem to have been of

Druidical origin. It is in reference to all these remains of ancient religion

that Johnson exclaims, "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would

not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow

warmer amid the ruins of Iona."

In the Lord of the Isles, Scott beautifully contrasts the church on Iona

with the cave of Staffa, opposite -

"Nature herself, it seemed, would raise

A minster to her Maker's praise!

Not for a meaner use ascend

Her columns, or her arches bend;

Nor of a theme less solemn tells

That mighty surge that ebbs and swells,

And still between each awful pause,

From the high vault an answer draws,

In varied tone, prolonged and high,

That mocks the organ's melody;

Nor doth its entrance front in vain

To old Iona's holy fane,

That Nature's voice might seem to say,

Well hast thou done, frail child of clay

Thy humble powers that stately shrine

Tasked high and hard - but witness mine.

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