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Druidry : Animal Worship - Part Two - Traces of Totemism

Posted from the book “The Religion of the Ancient Celts" - By J. A. MacCulloch - [1911] - (Obtain this full work and many more backups by clicking here!)

This book, is one of the best scholarly treatments of the ancient Celtic religion. Written early in the 20th Century, "Religion of the Ancient Celts" includes extensive treatment of that perennially fascinating subject, the Druids.


Animal worship is connected with totemism, and certain things point to its existence among the Celts, or to the existence of conditions out of which totemism was elsewhere developed. These are descent from animals, animal tabus, the sacramental eating of an animal, and exogamy.


(1) Descent from animals

--Celtic names implying descent from animals or plants are of two classes, clan and personal names. If the latter are totemistic, they must be derived from the former, since totemism is an affair of the clan, while the so-called "personal totem," exemplified by the American Indian manitou, is the guardian but never the ancestor of a man. Some clan names have already been referred to. Others are the Bibroci of south-east Britain, probably a beaver clan (bebros), and the Eburones, a yew-tree clan (eburos). Irish clans bore animal names: some groups were called "calves," others "griffins," others "red deer," and a plant name is seen in Fir Bile, "men of the tree."


Such clan totemism perhaps underlies the stories of the "descendants of the wolf" at Ossory, who became wolves for a time as the result of a saintly curse. Other instances of lycanthropy were associated with certain families. The belief in lycanthropy might easily attach itself to existing wolf-clans, the transformation being then explained as the result of a curse. The stories of Cormac mac Art, suckled by a she-wolf, of Lughaid mac Con, "son of a wolf-dog," suckled by that animal, and of Oisin, whose mother was a fawn, and who would not eat venison, are perhaps totemistic, while to totemism or to a cult of animals may be ascribed what early travellers in Ireland say of the people taking wolves as god-fathers and praying to them to do them no ill.


In Wales bands of warriors at the battle of Cattraeth are described in Oneurin's Gododin as dogs, wolves, bears, and ravens, while Owein's band of ravens which fought against Arthur, may have been a raven clan, later misunderstood as actual ravens. Certain groups of Dalriad Scots bore animal names--Cinel Gabran, "Little goat clan," and Cinel Loarn, "Fox clan."


Possibly the custom of denoting Highland clans by animal or plant badges may be connected with a belief in descent from plants or animals. On many coins an animal is represented on horseback, perhaps leading a clan, as birds led the Celts to the Danube area, and these may depict myths telling how the clan totem animal led the clan to its present territory. Such myths may survive in legends relating how an animal led a saint to the site of his church. Celtic warriors wore helmets with horns, and Irish story speaks of men with cat, dog, or goat heads. These may have been men wearing a head-gear formed of the skin or head of the clan totem, hence remembered at a later time as monstrous beings, while the horned helmets would be related to the same custom. Solinus describes the Britons as wearing animal skins before going into battle. Were these skins of totem animals under whose protection they thus placed themselves? The "forms of beasts, birds, and fishes" which the Cruithne or Picts tattooed on their bodies may have been totem marks, while the painting of their bodies with woad among the southern Britons may have been of the same character, though Cæsar's words hardly denote this. Certain marks on faces figured on Gaulish coins seem to be tattoo marks.


It is not impossible that an early wolf-totem may have been associated, because of the animal's nocturnal wanderings in forests, with the underworld whence, according to Celtic belief, men sprang and whither they returned, and whence all vegetation came forth. The Gallo-Roman Silvanus, probably an underworld god, wears a wolf-skin, and may thus be a wolf-god. There were various types of underworld gods, and this wolf-type--perhaps a local wolf-totem ancestor assimilated to a local "Dispater"--may have been the god of a clan who imposed its mythic wolf origin on other clans. Some Celtic bronzes show a wolf swallowing a man who offers no resistance, probably because he is dead. The wolf is much bigger than the man, and hence may be a god.


These bronzes would thus represent a belief setting forth the return of men to their totem ancestor after death, or to the underworld god connected with the totem ancestor, by saying that he devoured the dead, like certain Polynesian divinities and the Greek Eurynomos.

In many individual names the first part is the name of an animal or plant, the second is usually genos, "born from," or "son of," e.g. Artigenos, Matugenos, "son of the bear" (artos, matu-); Urogenos, occurring as Urogenertos, "he who has the strength of the son of the urus"; Brannogenos, "son of the raven"; Cunogenos, "son of the dog." These names may be derived from clan totem names, but they date back to a time when animals, trees, and men were on a common footing, and the possibility of human descent from a tree or an animal was believed in. Professor Rhŷs has argued from the frequency of personal names in Ireland, like Cúrói, "Hound of Roi," Cú Corb, "Corb's Hound," Mac Con, "Hound's Son," and Maelchon, "Hound's Slave," that there existed a dog totem or god, not of the Celts, but of a pre-Celtic race.


This assumes that totemism was non-Celtic, an assumption based on preconceived notions of what Celtic institutions ought to have been. The names, it should be observed, are personal, not clan names.


(2) Animal tabus

--Besides the dislike of swine's flesh already noted among certain Celtic groups, the killing and eating of the hare, hen, and goose were forbidden among the Britons. Cæsar says they bred these animals for amusement, but this reason assigned by him is drawn from his knowledge of the breeding of rare animals by rich Romans as a pastime, since he had no knowledge of the breeding of sacred animals which were not eaten--a common totemic or animal cult custom.


The hare was used for divination by Boudicca, doubtless as a sacred animal, and it has been found that a sacred character still attaches to these animals in Wales. A cock or hen was ceremonially killed and eaten on Shrove Tuesday, either as a former totemic animal, or, less likely, as a representative of the corn-spirit. The hare is not killed in certain districts, but occasionally it is ceremonially hunted and slain annually, while at yearly fairs the goose is sold exclusively and eaten.

Elsewhere, e.g. in Devon, a ram or lamb is ceremonially slain and eaten, the eating being believed to confer luck. The ill-luck supposed to follow the killing of certain animals may also be reminiscent of totemic tabus. Fish were not eaten by the Pictish Meatæ and Caledonii, and a dislike of eating certain fresh-water fish was observed among certain eighteenth century Highlanders.


It has been already seen that certain fish living in sacred wells were tabu, and were believed to give oracles. Heron's flesh was disliked in Ireland, and it was considered unlucky to kill a swan in the Hebrides. Fatal results following upon the killing or eating of an animal with which the eater was connected by name or descent are found in the Irish sagas. Conaire was son of a woman and a bird which could take human shape, and it was forbidden to him to hunt birds. On one occasion he did so, and for this as well as the breaking of other tabus, he lost his life. It was tabu to Cúchulainn, "the hound of Culann," to eat dog's flesh, and, having been persuaded to do this, his strength went from him, and he perished. Diarmaid, having been forbidden to hunt a boar with which his life was connected, was induced by Fionn to break this tabu, and in consequence he lost his life by one of the boar's bristles entering his foot, or (in a variant) by the boar's killing him.


Another instance is found in a tale of certain men transformed to badgers. They were slain by Cormac, and brought to his father Tadg to eat. Tadg unaccountably loathed them, because they were transformed men and his cousins. In this tale, which may contain the débris of totemic usage, the loathing arises from the fact that the badgers are men--a common form of myths explanatory of misunderstood totemic customs, but the old idea of the relation between a man and his totem is not lost sight of. The other tales may also be reminiscent of a clan totem tabu, later centred in a mythic hero. Perhaps the belief in lucky or unlucky animals, or in omens drawn from their appearance, may be based on old totem beliefs or in beliefs in the divinity of the animals.


(3) Sacramental eating of an animal

--The custom of "hunting the wren," found over the whole Celtic area, is connected with animal worship and may be totemistic in origin. In spite of its small size, the wren was known as the king of birds, and in the Isle of Man it was hunted and killed on Christmas or S. Stephen's day. The bird was carried in procession from door to door, to the accompaniment of a chant, and was then solemnly buried, dirges being sung. In some cases a feather was left at each house and carefully treasured, and there are traces of a custom of boiling and eating the bird. In Ireland, the hunt and procession were followed by a feast, the materials of which were collected from house to house, and a similar usage obtained in France, where the youth who killed the bird was called "king." In most of these districts it was considered unlucky or dangerous to kill the bird at any other time, yet it might be ceremonially killed once a year, the dead animal conferred luck, and was solemnly eaten or buried with signs of mourning. Similar customs with animals which are actually worshipped are found elsewhere, and they lend support to the idea that the Celts regarded the wren as a divine animal, or perhaps a totem animal, that it was necessary to slay it ritually, and to carry it round the houses of the community to obtain its divine influence, to eat it sacramentally or to bury it.


Probably like customs were followed in the case of other animals, and these may have given rise to such stories as that of the eating of MacDatho's wonderful boar, as well as to myths which regarded certain animals, e.g. the swine, as the immortal food of the gods. Other examples of ritual survivals of such sacramental eating have already been noted, and it is not improbable that the eating of a sacred pastoral animal occurred at Samhain.


(4) Exogamy

--Exogamy and the counting of descent through the mother are closely connected with totemism, and some traces of both are found among the Celts. Among the Picts, who were, perhaps, a Celtic group of the Brythonic stock, these customs survived in the royal house. The kingship passed to a brother of the king by the same mother, or to a sister's son, while the king's father was never king and was frequently a "foreigner."


Similar rules of succession prevailed in early Aryan royal houses--Greek and Roman,--and may, as Dr. Stokes thought, have existed at Tara in Ireland, while in a Fian tale of Oisin he marries the daughter of the king of Tír na n-Og, and succeeds him as king partly for that reason, and partly because he had beaten him in the annual race for the kingship. Such an athletic contest for the kingship was known in early Greece, and this tale may support the theory of the Celtic priest-kingship, the holder of the office retaining it as long as he was not defeated or slain.


Traces of succession through a sister's son are found in the Mabinogion, and Livy describes how the mythic Celtic king Ambicatus sent not his own but his sister's sons to found new kingdoms. Irish and Welsh divine and heroic groups are named after the mother, not the father--the children of Danu and of Don, and the men of Domnu. Anu is mother of the gods, Buanann of heroes.


The eponymous ancestor of the Scots is a woman, Scota, and the earliest colonisers of Ireland are women, not men. In the sagas gods and heroes have frequently a matronymic, and the father's name is omitted--Lug mac Ethnend, Conchobar mac Nessa, Indech, son of De Domnann, Corpre, son of Etain, and others. Perhaps parallel to this is the custom of calling men after their wives--e.g. the son of Fergus is Fer Tlachtga, Tlachtga's husband.


In the sagas, females (goddesses and heroines) have a high place accorded to them, and frequently choose their own lovers or husbands--customs suggestive of the matriarchate. Thus what was once a general practice was later confined to the royal house or told of divine or heroic personages. Possibly certain cases of incest may really be exaggerated accounts of misunderstood unions once permissible by totemic law. Cæsar speaks of British polyandry, brothers, sons, and fathers sharing a wife in common. Strabo speaks of Irish unions with mothers and sisters, perhaps referring not to actual practice but to reports of saga tales of incest.


Dio Cassius speaks of community of wives among the Caledonians and Meatæ, and Jerome says much the same of the Scoti and Atecotti. These notices, with the exception of Cæsar's, are vague, yet they refer to marriage customs different from those known to their reporters. In Irish sagas incest legends circle round the descendants of Etain--fathers unite with daughters, a son with his mother, a woman has a son by her three brothers (just as Ecne was son of Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba), and is also mother of Crimthan by that son. Brother and sister unions occur both in Irish and Welsh story.


In these cases incest with a mother cannot be explained by totemic usage, but the cases may be distorted reminiscences of what might occur under totemism, namely, a son taking the wives of his father other than his own mother, when those were of a different totem from his own. Under totemism, brothers and sisters by different mothers having different totems, might possibly unite, and such unions are found in many mythologies.


Later, when totemism passed away, the unions, regarded with horror, would be supposed to take place between children by the same mother. According to totem law, a father might unite with his daughter, since she was of her mother's totem, but in practice this was frowned upon. Polygamy also may co-exist with totemism, and of course involves the counting of descent through the mother as a rule. If, as is suggested by the "debility" of the Ultonians, and by other evidence, the couvade was a Celtic institution, this would also point to the existence of the matriarchate with the Celts. To explain all this as pre-Aryan, or to say that the classical notices refer to non-Aryan tribes and that the evidence in the Irish sagas only shows that the Celts had been influenced by the customs of aboriginal tribes among whom they lived is to neglect the fact that the customs are closely bound up with Celtic life, while it leaves unexplained the influence of such customs upon a people whose own customs, according to this theory, were so totally different. The evidence, taken as a whole, points to the existence of totemism among the early Celts, or, at all events, of the elements which elsewhere compose it.

Celtic animal worship dates back to the primitive hunting and pastoral period, when men worshipped the animals which they hunted or reared. They may have apologised to the animal hunted and slain--a form of worship, or, where animals were not hunted or were reared and worshipped, one of them may have been slain annually and eaten to obtain its divine power. Care was taken to preserve certain sacred animals which were not hunted, and this led to domestication, the abstinence of earlier generations leading to an increased food supply at a later time, when domesticated animals were freely slain. But the earlier sacramental slaying of such animals survived in the religious aspect of their slaughter at the beginning of winter.

The cult of animals was also connected with totemic usage, though at a later stage this cult was replaced by that of anthropomorphic divinities, with the older divine animals as their symbols, sacrificial victims, and the like. This evolution now led to the removal of restrictions upon slaying and eating the animals. On the other hand, the more primitive animal cults may have remained here and there. Animal cults were, perhaps, largely confined to men. With the rise of agriculture mainly as an art in the hands of women, and the consequent cult of the Earth-mother, of fertility and corn-spirits probably regarded as female, the sacramental eating of the divine animal may have led to the slaying and eating of a human or animal victim supposed to embody such a spirit. Later the two cults were bound to coalesce, and the divine animal and the animal embodiment of the vegetation spirit would not be differentiated.

On the other hand, when men began to take part in women's fertility cults, the fact that such spirits were female or were perhaps coming to be regarded as goddesses, may have led men to envisage certain of the anthropomorphic animal divinities as goddesses, since some of these, e.g. Epona and Damona, are female. But with the increasing participation of men in agriculture, the spirits or goddesses of fertility would tend to become male, or the consorts or mothers of gods of fertility, though the earlier aspect was never lost sight of, witness the Corn-Mother. The evolution of divine priest-kings would cause them to take the place of the earlier priestesses of these cults, one of whom may have been the divine victim. Yet in local survivals certain cults were still confined to women, and still had their priestesses.

Related Post: Druidry : Animal Worship - Part One - Traces of the older animal cults - The transformation of animal gods into symbols

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