Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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This was Religion; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Sacerdotalism—religion codified in dogma and administered by a priestly caste. Here lay the real weakness of the Celtic polity. There is perhaps no law written more conspicuously in the teachings of history than that nations who are ruled by priests drawing their authority from supernatural sanctions are, just in the measure that they are so ruled, incapable of true national progress.

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The free, healthy current of secular life and thought is, in the very nature of things, incompatible with priestly rule. Be the creed what it may, Druidism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or fetichism, a priestly caste claiming authority in temporal affairs by virtue of extra-temporal sanctions is inevitably the enemy of that spirit of criticism, of that influx of new ideas, of that growth of secular thought, of human and rational authority, which are the elementary conditions of national development.

The Cursing of Tara A singular and very cogent illustration of this truth can be drawn from the history of the early Celtic world. In the sixth century A. Patrick, a king named Dermot MacKerval26 ruled in Ireland. For ever since the time When Cathbad smothered Usnach's sons in that foul sea of slime Raised by abominable spells at Creeveroe's bloody gate, Do ruin and dishonour still on priest-led kings await.

The first condition of such a unity was evidently the establishment of an effective central authority. Such an authority, as we have said, the High King, in theory, represented. Now it happened that one of his officers was murdered in the discharge of his duty by a chief [48] named Hugh Guairy. Guairy was the brother of a bishop who was related by fosterage to St. Ruadan of Lorrha, and when King Dermot sent to arrest the murderer these clergy found him a hiding-place. Dermot, however, caused a search to be made, haled him forth from under the roof of St.

Ruadan, and brought him to Tara for trial. Immediately the ecclesiastics of Ireland made common cause against the lay ruler who had dared to execute justice on a criminal under clerical protection. They assembled at Tara, fasted against the king,27 and laid their solemn malediction upon him and the seat of his government. The plea of the king for his country, whose fate he saw to be hanging in the balance, is recorded with [49] moving force and insight by the Irish chronicler 27 It was the practice, known in India also, for a person who was wronged by a superior, or thought himself so, to sit before the doorstep of the denier of justice and fast until right was done him.

In Ireland a magical power was attributed to the ceremony, the effect of which would be averted by the other person fasting as well. O'Grady, p. The criminal was surrendered, Tara was abandoned, and, except for a brief space when a strong usurper, Brian Boru, fought his way to power, Ireland knew no effective secular government till it was imposed upon her by a conqueror.

How and whence it arose we shall consider later; here it is enough to call attention to it. It is a factor which forbade the national development of the Celts, in the sense in which we can speak of that of the classical or the Teutonic peoples. What Europe Owes to the Celt Yet to suppose that on this account the Celt was not a force of any real consequence in Europe would be altogether a mistake.

His contribution to the culture of the Western world was a very notable one. For some four centuries—about A. The verse-forms of Celtic poetry have probably played the main part in determining the structure of all modern verse. The myths and legends of the vellum manuscript found in Lismore Castle in , and translated by S. True, the Celt did not himself create any great architectural work of literature, just as he did not create a stable or imposing national polity.

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His thinking and feeling were essentially lyrical and concrete. Each object or aspect of life impressed him vividly and stirred him profoundly; he was sensitive, impressionable to the last degree, but did not see things in their larger and more far-reaching relations. He had little gift for the establishment or institutions, for the service of principles; but he was, and is, an indispensable and never-failing assertor of humanity as against the tyranny of principles, the coldness and barrenness of institutions.

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The institutions of royalty and of civic patriotism are both very capable of being fossilised into barren formulae, and thus of fettering instead of inspiring the soul. But the Celt has always been a rebel against anything that has not in it the breath of life, against any unspiritual and purely external form of domination. It is too true that he has been over-eager to enjoy the fine fruits of life without the long and patient preparation for the harvest, but he has done and will still do infinite service to the modern world in insisting that the true fruit of life is a spiritual reality, never without pain and loss to be obscured or forgotten amid the vast mechanism of a material civilisation.

There is, however, one thing which they did not carry across the gulf which divides us from the ancient world—and this was their religion. It was not merely that they changed it; they left it behind them so entirely that all record of it is lost. Patrick, himself a Celt, who apostolised Ireland during the fifth century, has left us an autobiographical narrative of his mission, a document of intense interest, and the earliest extant record of British Christianity; but in it he tells us nothing of the doctrines he came to supplant.

The copious legendary literature which took its present form in Ireland between the seventh and the twelfth centuries, though often manifestly going back to pre-Christian sources, shows us, beyond a belief in magic and a devotion to certain ceremonial or chivalric observances, practically nothing resembling a religious or even an ethical system. We know that certain chiefs and bards offered a long resistance to the new faith, and that this resistance came to the arbitrament of battle at Moyrath in the sixth century, but no echo of any intellectual controversy, no matching of one doctrine against another, such as we find, for instance, in the records of the controversy of Celsus with Origen, has reached us from this period of change and strife.

The literature of ancient Ireland, as we shall see, embodied many ancient myths; and traces appear in [52] it of beings who must, at one time, have been gods or elemental powers; but all has been emptied of religious significance and turned to romance and beauty. The Megalithic People The religions of primitive peoples mostly centre on, or take their rise from, rites and practices connected with the burial of the dead. The earliest people inhabiting Celtic territory in the West of Europe of whom we have any distinct knowledge are a race without name or known history, but by their sepulchral monuments, of which so many still exist, we can learn a great deal about them.

They were the so-called Megalithic People,30 the builders of dolmens, cromlechs, and chambered tumuli, of [53] which more than three thousand have been counted in France alone. Dolmens are found from Scandinavia southwards, all down the western lands of Europe to the Straits of Gibraltar, and round by the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Roughly, if we draw a line from the mouth of the Rhone northward to Varanger Fiord, one may say that, except for a few Mediterranean examples, all the dolmens in Europe lie to the west of that line.

To the east none are found till we come into Asia.

Myths And Legends Of The Celtic Race

But they cross the Straits of Gibraltar, and are found all along the North African littoral, and thence eastwards through Arabia, India, and as far 30 From Greek megas, great, and lithos, a stone. Dolmens, Cromlechs, and Tumuli Dolmen at Proleek, Ireland After Borlase A dolmen, it may be here explained, is a kind of chamber composed of upright unhewn stones, and roofed generally with a single huge stone.

They are usually wedge-shaped in plan, and traces of a porch or vestibule can often be noticed. The primary intention of the dolmen was to represent a house or dwelling-place for the dead. A cromlech often confused in popular language with the dolmen is properly a circular arrangement of standing stones, often with a dolmen in their midst.

It is believed that most if not all of the now exposed dolmens were originally covered [54] with a great mound of earth or of smaller stones. Sometimes, as in the illustration we give from Carnac, in Brittany, great avenues or alignments are formed of single upright stones, and these, no doubt, had some purpose connected with the ritual of worship carried on in the locality. The later megalithic monuments, as at Stonehenge, may be of dressed stone, but in all cases their rudeness of construction, the absence of any sculpturing except for patterns or symbols incised on the surface , the evident aim at creating a powerful impression by the brute strength of huge monolithic masses, as well as certain subsidiary features in their design which shall be described later on, give these megalithic monuments a curious family likeness and mark them out from the chambered tombs of the early Greeks, of the Egyptians, and of other more advanced races.

The dolmens proper gave place in the end to great chambered mounds or tumuli, as at New Grange, which we also reckon as belonging to the Megalithic People. They are a natural development of the dolmen. But in the tumuli not only stone, but also bronze, and even iron, instruments are found—at first evidently importations, but afterwards of local manufacture.

Welch, Belfast The language originally spoken by this people can only be conjectured by the traces of it left in that of their conquerors, the Celts. It must, however, be borne in mind that while originally, no doubt, a distinct race, the Megalithic People came in the end to represent, not a race, but a culture.

The human remains found in these sepulchres, with their wide divergence in the shape of 31 See p. The monuments themselves, which are often of imposing size and imply much thought and organised effort in their construction, show unquestionably the existence, at this period, of a priesthood charged with the care of funeral rites and capable of controlling large bodies of men. Their dead were, as a rule, not burned, but buried whole—the greater monuments marking, no doubt, the sepulchres of important personages, while the common people were buried in tombs of which no traces now exist. The Celts of the Plains De Jubainville, in his account of the early history of the Celts, takes account of two main groups only—the Celts and the Megalithic People.

But A. There are, besides the Megalithic People, the two groups of lowland Celts and mountain Celts. The lowland [56] Celts, according to his view, started from the Danube and entered Gaul probably about B. They were the founders of the lake-dwellings in Switzerland, in the Danube valley, and in Ireland.

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They knew the use of metals, and worked in gold, in tin, in bronze, and towards the end of their period in iron. Unlike the Megalithic People, they spoke a Celtic tongue,33 though Bertrand seems to doubt their genuine racial affinity with the true Celts. They were perhaps Celticised rather than actually Celtic. They were not warlike; a quiet folk of herdsmen, tillers, and artificers. The weight of authority, as well as such direct evidence as we possess, seems to be against his view.

At a great settlement of theirs, Golasecca, in Cisalpine Gaul, interments were found. In each case the body had been burned; there was not a single burial without previous burning. This people entered Gaul not according to Bertrand , for the most part, as conquerors, but by gradual infiltration, occupying vacant spaces wherever they found them along the valleys and plains.

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The Celts of the Mountains Finally, we have a third group, the true Celtic group, which followed closely on the track of the second. It was at the beginning of the sixth century that it first made its appearance on the left bank of the Rhine. The second group, as we have said, were Celts of the plains. The third were Celts of the mountains. The earliest home in which we know them was the ranges of the Balkans and Carpathians. Their organisation was that of a military aristocracy—they lorded it over the subject populations on whom they lived by tribute or pillage.

They are the warlike Celts of ancient history—the sackers of Rome and Delphi, the mercenary warriors who fought for pay and for the love of warfare in the ranks of Carthage and afterwards of Rome. Yet, if this ruling race had some of the vices of untamed strength, they had also many noble and humane qualities. They were dauntlessly brave, fantastically chivalrous, keenly sensitive to the appeal of poetry, of music, and of speculative thought. Posidonius found the bardic institution flourishing among them about B.

The culture of these mountain Celts differed markedly from that of the lowlanders.