Universal Brotherhood – May 1898

THE ANCIENT DRUIDS: I — Rev. W. Williams

THEIR HISTORY AND RELIGION.

The Science of Comparative Religion originating out of the philosophic spirit of the age, has already won for itself a recognized position in the domain of positive knowledge. By its patient investigations amongst the wrecks and fragments of past and almost forgotten religious systems, that have reached us, and by a careful and accurate comparison of them with present existing religions, our knowledge of them has been considerably enlarged, so that taking a retrospective glance, we are able to realize the inner life and comprehend the thoughts and ideas which have swayed the minds and moulded the characters of mankind in all ages of human history.

Availing itself of the doctrine of evolution and its teachings, Comparative Religion has been able to translate and express in scientific terms, the historical development, as also the laws of growth and decay which govern the religious principle in man's nature. By the aid of Comparative philology it has tracked Religions in their migrations, followed them in their numerous ramifications and explained the causes of their chief distinctive features and even fixed the locality from which they first radiated as a common centre; so that the philosophic student, after a general review and calm consideration of the many interesting facts and data presented before him, arrives at this conclusion that the same fundamental truths and ideas lie at the basis of the many and diversified systems of religion; that all of them are but the reflections of man's faith, the expressions of his spiritual growth; — that their differences are mainly due to the influences of environment, of climate and natural scenery — the chief instruments in exciting intellectual thought and meditation that have entered so largely as formative elements in religious development.

This is particularly noticeable and perceptible in the history of Ancient Druidism, one of those old-world religions whose origin is shrouded in mystery as dark and impenetrable as the groves and forest recesses in which its rites and ceremonies were celebrated and performed. Out of the dim and mystic Past, the Druid Bards loom up as beings of a commanding and awe-inspiring character, invested with tremendous powers and possessors of a secret knowledge of Nature and an occult philosophy which caused them to be regarded with sentiments of the deepest reverence. In the unfolding of the great panorama of History they suddenly appear begirt with a power and authority more than kingly in its extent and influence, majestic in form and feature, calm and self-contained in their deportment, with brows encircled with golden coronets, and arrayed in all the splendid robes and glittering insignia of a lofty and learned priesthood. Thus they appear on the stage of human life, and after discharging their functions and playing their parts in the world's drama, they disappear, retiring into that dark oblivion, the grave and cemetery of all that is mutable and human and in the minds of posterity exist no more, save and except as umbra nominis magni shadows of a great past.

HISTORICAL SKETCH

The history of the Ancient Druids owing to the scanty details and meagre imperfect traditions of their religious and philosophic teachings that have been handed down, becomes a subject requiring deep and prolonged research, a discriminating analysis, and a clear intuition in the separation of those incrustations of truth and error, fact and fiction which in the course of centuries, have gathered round them and which have hitherto hindered and prevented us from obtaining right and adequate conceptions and views of their character as elements and factors in the religious life and development of Humanity. But few writers and historians have directed their researches in a field of knowledge which though limited and contracted in area, is rich with the relics and fragments of a race, the knowledge and details of which constitute a most interesting chapter in the universal history of Nations.

In the collection and marshalling of these various details, as also in piecing together the scattered historical data and placing them in their natural relationship and order, we hope to present, inadequate though it may be, a somewhat clear and vivid outline of a subject which to the theosophical mind is fraught with great interest and at the same time is calculated to become to the general reader, a source of instructive knowledge.

In order to avoid confusion in treating of the Ancient Druids and that the reader may obtain a clearer idea and conception of the subject, we shall first sketch their history and then present an outline of our investigations into their religion, its similarities to and differences from old-world faiths and systems of belief. Thousands of years ago the country of Bactria situated to the east of the Caspian Sea and stretching to the borders of northern India, was inhabited by a large number of tribes of the same origin and united together by the same manners and customs and modes of religious worship. They were chiefly agriculturists and possessors of large herds of cattle. Living at peace amongst themselves, their numbers became so much increased that their territories were finally unable to supply them with the necessaries of life. Calling together a council, it was decided that certain numbers should emigrate and form settlements for themselves and their families in lands that lay toward the regions of the setting sun. Accordingly a large body consisting of those who were headstrong and of fiery temperament, left their homes and after wandering across the wide plains of Asia Minor, some of them settled in northern Germany; while others forced their way into Italy and Greece. The first were the ancestors of the Celts, whose descendants Julius Caesar found in Britain when he invaded it; the latter were the progenitors of the Greeks and Romans. The tribes that remained at home, through some unknown causes, probably on account of climatic changes and a consequent dearth of the means of subsistence, were compelled to relinquish their homes when part of them settled in Persia. The remainder proceeded southeast and entered that part of India known as the Punjaub.

These facts in the early history of the Aryans are beyond question and constitute what a learned German has described as "the discovery of a new world" and we now know that Icelander and Roman, Greek and German, Persian and Hindoo, Briton and Arab are all brethren, the descendants of a common ancestry, wanderers from the same homestead.

Though to acquaint ourselves with the history of the wanderings of these various tribes is a subject of great interest, we are compelled to limit and restrict our investigations and follow in the rear and wake of the Celts who were the first to leave their fatherland. It was an eventful period in their history when they went forth in quest of new homes; — a hazardous enterprise entailing upon them great privations. It involved the clearing a pathway through dense forests, the fording of broad rivers and rapid streams, and contests with foes ever on the alert to oppose their advance and thwart them in their enterprise.

They were a tall, muscular race of men, carrying stone battle-axes on their shoulders and horn bows at their backs. As they wended their way westward and traversed the extensive plains over which they had first to pass, and as the dim outlines of the mountain peaks and summits of their native country faded from view, their courage abated not, for they were buoyant with hope in the future. In their hearts was an innate love of liberty and freedom, whilst their natures vibrated with those religious sentiments which form the basis of all true manliness and earnestness of character, essential in the achievement of lofty aims and purposes. By their indomitable energy and ceaseless perseverance, they entered Europe at length, leaving traces of the route they took in the Celtic names of places where they settled and of the rivers on whose banks they dwelt.

Nowhere in the countries through which they passed could they settle for any length of time, for they were hurried forward by an ever-increasing wave of numerous hordes of emigrants who were on the same quest as themselves and never found rest until they reached Brittany, a province in the north of France. Here they found their home and also in the island of Britain. In process of time, becoming settled and established, the Celts formed amongst themselves for purposes of mutual defense vast confederations of warlike tribes. They became fond of hunting, expert and skillful agriculturists and dwelt in conical huts formed of the branches of trees, covered with the skins of animals slain in the chase. They painted their bodies with figures to distinguish their families and rank, of which they felt so proud that in the most inclement season they preferred the dispensing with any kind of clothing. Like the Persians, their distant relatives, they held idolatry in abhorrence and overturned and destroyed the images and temples of the vanquished.

Whilst in their native land, the heads of families discharged all priestly duties and were termed Rishis, by whom were composed most of the hymns forming the Rig Veda, but owing now to their altered conditions and circumstances of life, the Celts, in order that they might be better able to attend to the means of self-preservation and provide for their respective families, relegated and intrusted the discharge of all priestly functions to certain individuals who have become known to us as the Druids; the derivation and meaning of which name is still a matter of dispute and uncertainty. Pliny the Elder, a noted Roman author, derives it from the Greek word drus, an oak, but several Welsh scholars maintain that it comes from Derwyda, the old British form of the word, a compound of derw, a wise man, a vaticinator or prophet. However this may be, the word Druid was used to designate a class of priests and philosophers corresponding to the Brahmans of India, the Magi of the Persians, as also to the hierophants and scholars of ancient and modern people.

Amongst classical writers Caesar in the sixth book of his De bello Gallico, is the first who states that the Druids were the religious guides of the people as well as the chief expounders and guardians of the law. As, unlike the Brahmans in India, they were not an hereditary caste, and enjoyed exemption from military service as well as payment of taxes; admission to their order was eagerly sought after by the youth of Gaul. The course of training to which a novice had to submit was protracted, extending over twenty years, — resembling in this particular the system of education still in vogue in India. The office of Arch Druid was elective, extending over a lifetime, and involved supreme authority over all others. Desultory references and brief notices of the learning of the Druids are met with in the writings of Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius, the church fathers Origin, Clement of Alexandria and St. Augustine.

According to Pliny, the Druids held the mistletoe in the highest veneration. Groves of oak were their chosen retreat, esteeming as a gift from heaven whatever grew thereon, more especially the mistletoe. When thus found, it was cut with a golden knife by a priest clad in a white robe, two white bulls being sacrificed on the spot. The name given to the mistletoe signified in their language All-Heal, and its virtues were believed to be great. The Moon Plant was held in great reverence by the Druids, as also by the Hindoos, whose praises of its occult virtues are dwelt upon in many of their most ancient writings.

The Druids had schools in the forests, where youths committed to memory certain maxims in verse, inculcating the worship of the gods, bravery in battle, respect to chastity of women and implicit obedience to Druids, magistrates and parents. These verses sometimes contained an allegorical meaning which was explained under an oath of secrecy to those educated for the higher orders of the priesthood. They were divided into three classes, the Druids proper, who were the sole judges and legislators, presided at the sacrifices and were the instructors of the novitiates. They were dressed in white robes. The second class were the Bards, who accompanied chiefs to battle and sang hymns to the god of war. They had to undergo a novitiate-ship of twenty years, during which they committed to memory the traditionary songs, the exploits and deeds of daring and valor of past chiefs. After passing the customary ordeals and examinations, they were given to drink of the waters of inspiration, which we are inclined to think was the same as the juice of the soma plant amongst the Hindoos; after which, like the Brahmans, they were said to be twice born and were henceforth held in the highest respect and veneration by their countrymen. The color of their garb was green.

The third class was that of the Vates or Diviners of omens and all the phenomena of nature, the flight and song of birds. They were also skilful in compounding herbs, philtres and medicines, and wore a blue and white colored robe.

Such is a brief outline of the history of the Druids, their functions and duties. The subject of their religion and philosophy will receive a separate consideration when we come to deal with them. For the present we must leave them in the seclusion and silence of their forest groves, surrounded by admiring neophytes, and as the last echoes of their mystic teachings resound in our ears, we divine the reason of that reverence and veneration with which they were regarded by all nations, and why they were able to wield an influence which in its extent and power has never been paralleled, either in ancient or modern times

(To be continued.)


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