The Druid Isle

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David Michael Lukasik JR

On these boughs Legend also told that often the subterranean hollows quaked and bellowed, that yew-trees fell down and rose up again, that the glare of conflagration came from trees that were not on fire, and that serpents twined and glided round the stems. The people never resorted thither to worship at close quarters, but left the place to the gods. When the sun is in mid-heaven or dark night fills the sky, the priest himself dreads their approach and fears to surprise the lord of the grove dominum luci.

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The Celtic place names 'Nemeton' and 'Llanerch' are associated with Celtic religious centres. These words can be translated as a clearing in the woods and this seems to support the idea that the clearings in the woods rather than the groves themselves were the central place of worship. Old trees like the yew and the oak were important to their religion and the title Druid or Derwyddon in Welsh actually means oak knowledge.

The yew tree as mentioned in Lucan's poem above also seems to have been associated with these places and it survived in the Welsh 'Llan' or churchyards of Celtic Christianity.

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Some yew trees like the bleeding yew at Nevern in Pembrokeshire actually wooze out a red sap which looks like blood. These early Christian enclosures followed the same circular plan of the pagan religious centres that they supplanted. Whist Tacitus' account may be tainted with predjudice it also seems to contain more than a grain of truth. Some modern schools of thought tend to argue that the Roman sources are wrong about the Druids performing human sacrifice but this is to ignore the historical and archaeological records.

The evidence of human bodies ritually strangled and placed in bogs etc. The Gundestrup Cauldron shows that cauldrons were used to ritually drown their victims.

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The Gundestrup Cauldron shows Celtic warriors being ritually dunked into the cauldron of rebirth. It is unlikely that the Druids themselves would have regarded these sacrificial acts as 'pious' as Tacitus indicates but more likely as necessary to recruit the help of their Gods. Offerings were made to the Gods in return for protection and good fortune and this is common to many religions. The ritual deposition of items in Llyn Cerig Bach in Anglesey include swords, spears, chariot fittings, horse bridles, cauldrons, a trumpet, currency bars, animal bones and two sets of slave chains. Many of these items were damaged before they were put into the lake and symbolise the destruction of wealth which is being given to the Gods.

From the archaeological record it generally seems that human sacrifice was not as common as the provision of other gifts to the Gods. However, in the case of Llyn Cerig Bach the resident engineer on the excavation recorded human remains too but these did not appear in the report written by Cyril Fox who did not conduct the excavation and may have had reason to hide such a find. The bodies found at Lindow Moss and in particular Lindow man do show us that human sacrifice was definatlely taking place at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain.

For the Celts, the ultimate sacrifice was a human one which might have been considered necessary in certain circumstances, for instance if the Romans were coming to take your land, destroy your power and culture and kill anyone who resisted! The extreme religious practices of the Celts don't sit easy with the modern mind and so most of the Pagan reconstructionists of today deny that it was part of the religion of these ancient people.

The Roman writers may also have been equally horrified by what they call acts of savagery but it was used as an excuse for the destruction of the power of the Celtic people.

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Whilst the Romans attempt to take the moral high ground we should remember also the savagery of the Romans who themselves performed the ritual sacrifice of the Gallic leader Vergingetorix in the Colosseum not to mention the execution and horrific deaths of countless Christians and others in the name of entertainment. There is probably artistic licence in Tacitus' description of the women who were amongst their adverseries on the shores of Anglsey but at the same time it is quite likely that there were women amongst the British who were encouraging their men who were about to do battle.

The women in the description are likened to the 'Furies' of classical mythology who were the furious avengers of wrongful deeds. These mythical women are indeed depicted as being robed in black and are often depicted brandishing torches or sometimes snakes.

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To Tacitus' Roman readership the description would have emphasised the strangeness of the Celts and would also have been symbolic of Celtic irrationality versus the good sense of the Romans. Playing along with Tacitus and in the context of the Druids the description of the women dressed in black reminded me of 'gwrach' or witches. The Furies also symbolised vengeance and rebirth and Tacitus' analogy may have been a good one given the revenge that Boudica and the Iceni were about to inflict on the Romans. Orestes tormented by the Furies for killing his mother. The causes of the revolt of the Iceni led by Boudica tend to be viewed in isolation from the events that occured in Anglesey even though the Roman forces were recalled from there to deal with the revolt.

The Romans attack on the religious heart of Celtic Britain would surely have been viewed very gravely by all of the Celtic tribes. The Iceni's attack on the Roman Capital of Colchester may not have been the best military target but it was their religious centre in Britain and had previously been an important religious centre for the Iceni. Some have argued that Suetonius' recall from Anglesey to deal with the revolt of the Iceni allowed elements of Druidism to survive.

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