Page images
PDF
EPUB

were poor and obscure men, and they had no regular places set apart for divine worship, and their adherents were in a forlorn and unprotected state. This gene. rous prince raised the Christians from their low condition, erected suitable places for the celebration of religious services, and thus became a nursing-father to the church.

During the tenth general persecution, under the emperor Dioclesian, the Christians in Britain were for a short time great sufferers. It is said that at this time the Christian religion was nearly rooted out of the country, and they who suffered martyrdom were almost without number. Gildas says, " that their churches were thrown down, and all the books of the Holy Scriptures that could be found were burnt in the streets, and the chosen priests of the flock of our Lord, together with the innocent sheep, murdered ; so that in some parts of the province, no footsteps of the Christian religion appeared. How many did then flee, how many were destroyed, how many different kinds of sufferings some did endure, how great was the ruin of apostates, how glorious the crown of martyrdom !” Bede adds, “ It made Pritain to be honoured with many holy martyrs, who firmly stood and died in the confession of their faith,”

9

15. AN ACCOUNT OF THE DRUIDS."

DRUIDISM prevailed chiefly in Britain and in Gaul, though it may be found among other Celtic nations ; and owing to a peculiarity of national character, which perhaps may be said to remain to the present day, the Britons were more famous for the observance of their religion than the Gauls. For this circumstance we have the authority of Cæsar, who says that " such of the Gauls as were desirous of being thoroughly instructed in the principles of their religion (which was the same with that of the Britons), usually took a journey into Britain for that purpose.

[ocr errors]

1

e

civil war.

[ocr errors]

The religion obtained its name from the Druids, who were its principal priests, and held in very high estimation. Cæsar affirms, that the nobles and the Druids were the only two privileged orders among the Britons. So greatly were they honoured, that the people, supposing them peculiar favourites of the gods, were perfectly obedient to their commands; and even when two hostile armies met, and were on the point of engaging in battle, they sheathed their swords on the mediation of the Druids. The persons of these priests were esteemed sacred and inviolable; they were even exempted from all taxes and military services; and, in fact, they enjoyed so many immunities and distinctions, that princes were ambitious of being admitted among them. The dignity of Arch-druid, or the supreme head of the order, was attended with so many honours, and so much power and riches, that the election of a person to fill it sometimes even occasioned a

The generality of the Druids seem to have lived a kind of monastic life. The services of every temple required the attendance of a considerable number of them; and these lived in community in the neighbourhood of the temple. The Arch-druid had his residence in the isle of Anglesea, and he there maintained an ecclesiastical court in all the magnificence of the times. Vestiges of his palaces are still remaining. It is also very probable, that some of these ancient priests lived in seclusion as hermits ; and the small circular houses in the western islands of Scotland, which are called by the people “ Druids' houses,” were most likely inhabited by such persons.

All of them are supposed to have lived in celibacy ; but this is not absolutely certain. They were at any rate attended and associated with a number of female devotees, called Druidesses, who assisted in the duties, and shared the honours and emoluments of the priesthood. The Roman soldiers were much terrified at seeing a number of these consecrated females, who ran up and down among the ranks of the British army; with faming torches in their hands and

[merged small][ocr errors]

imprecated the wrath of heaven on the invaders of their country.

With respect to the doctrines of the Druids, they had two sets of opinions—the one for the initiated, and the other for the vulgar. The former was considered to contain only genuine truth, in its simple form; the other admitted a variety of fables, which were thought better adapted for popular comprehension. The Druids were exceedingly jealous of their secret doctrines, and took a variety of precautions to prevent them from transpiring. They never committed them to writing, and they taught their disciples in caves, or the deepest recesses of forests, that they might not be heard by the uninitiated. In consequence of this strict concealment, we have at the present time but a very imperfect knowledge of these doctrines.

It is tolerably certain that the unity of the Godhead, and that there is one God, the creator and governor of the universe, was one of the doctrines of the Druids. There is also abundant evidence that the Druids taught the immortality of the souls of men; and Mela tells us, that this was one of their secret doctrines, which they were permitted to publish for political rather than religious reasons.

But thongh such might be the secret doctrines of the Druids, their public ones were far less agreeable to truth and reason.

They taught the people that there were a great number of gods; and they partly invented, and partly adopted, an infinity of fables respecting them. These fables were generally contained in sacred verses, and were delivered by the Druids from little eminences (many of which are still remaining) to the surrounding multitudes. With these narratives were, of course, mixed many moral precepts; and their orations are said to have made great impression on the people, inspiring them with veneration for their gods, dent love to their country, an undaunted courage, and a sovereign contempt for death."

“ Their Supreme Being was originally worshipped under the name of Heses : the worship of the sun was

an ar

joined with that of fire, which was held sacred as a symbol of the Divinity. Those celebrated circles of stones, which are still remaining at Stonehenge, and many other places, seem to have been temples of the sun, or of the moon, or probably of both. The Druids likewise adored a very considerable number of deified mortals, who substantially corresponded with the Greek and Roman gods; they also held certain plants sacred, especially the misletoe.

Their mode of worship consisted in sacrifices, prayers, and offerings. Their sacrifices were principally such animals as they used for food; but on some occasions human victims were offered. These occasions, too, were more frequent than we may be willing to suppose; for it was a part of the Druid's creed, that “ nothing but the life of man could atone for the life of man." In times of particular emergency or national calamity, or for persons of very high rank, not merely a single victim, but a great number, were sacrificed at once. It is well known that huge colossal figures, made of osier, were filled with men, and then set on fire and reduced to ashes. But the avarice of the priests encouraged the people to present offerings as well as sacrifices. These generally consisted of the most costly and excellent things that could be procured, and of course contributed much to the luxury and splendour both of the temples and of the priesthood.

Like other heathen nations, also, the Druids had their acts of divination, their auguries, and omens. With respect to their times of worship, it is probable that they had daily sacrifices, and other acts of religion; and from the authority of Lucan, they seem to have chosen the hour of noon for the worship of the sun and the celestial gods; and midnight for that of the moon and the infernal gods. They certainly knew the division of time into weeks, although it is doubtful whether one of the seven days was consecrated to religion. · The sixth day of

every lunar month, which by them was reckoned as the first day, was a religious festival. The first day of May was a great annual festival in honor of Belinus,

or the sun. There are some vestiges of this festival still remaining in Ireland, and in the highlands of Scotland. Midsummer day, and the first of November, were likewise annual festivals. All their gods and goddesses seem to have had similar festivals. The chief festival was, when the ceremony of cutting the misletoe from the oak was performed; the day was about. the beginning of March. On these festivals, after the appointed sacrifices and acts of devotion were finished, the rest of their time was spent in feasting, singing, dancing, and other diversions.

The places in which the Druids performed their worship were always in the open air; for it was considered unlawful to build temples to the gods, or to worship them within walls or under roofs. Sacred groves, if possible of oak trees, were especially chosen. In the centre of the grove was a circular area, enclosed with one or two rows of large stones, placed perpendicularly on the earth. This was the temple ; and within it stood the altar upon which the sacrifices were offered. It does not appear, though the Druids admitted a great number of gods, that they had any images. All the Celtic nations worshipped their principal deity under the symbol of an oak; and this seems to be the nearest approach to the worship of images.

The period at which the religion of the Druids took its rise cannot be well ascertained ; but it seems to have been at its zenith at the time of the invasion of the Romans ; after this it declined. The Druids both possessed and exerted a political as well as a religious influence

upon

the minds of the people ; and the Romans, finding it inimical and dangerous to their authority, soon manifested a great animosity against the persons and the religion of these priests. They used every means to deprive them of their power, and showed them no mercy when they were found engaged in a revolt. At last, they pursued them into their sacred island of Anglesea ; and Suetonius Paulinus, who was governor of Britain, having defeated the Britons who attempted to defend it, made a cruel use of his victory.

« PreviousContinue »