[This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
There was also, as we already know, more or less of direct worship offered to fairies like the Tuatha De Danann; and sacrifice was made to them even as now, when the Irish or Scotch peasant pours a libation of milk to the ‘good people’ or to the fairy queen who presides over the flocks. In Fiacc’s Hymn it is said, ‘On Ireland’s folk lay darkness: the tribes worshipped elves: They believed not the true godhead of the true Trinity.’ And there is a reliable legend concerning Columbkille which shows that this old cult of elves was not forgotten among the early Irish Christians, though they changed the original good reputation of these invisible beings to one of evil. It is said that Columbkille’s first attempts to erect a church or monastery on lona were rendered vain by the influence of some evil spirit or else of demons; for as fast as a wall was raised it fell down. Then it was revealed to the saint that the walls could not stand until a human victim should be buried alive under the foundations. And the lot fell on Oran, Columbkille’s companion, who accordingly became a sacrifice to appease the evil spirit, fairies, or demons of the place where the building was to be raised.
As an illustration of what the ancient practice of such sacrifice to place-spirits, or to gods, must have been like in Wales, we offer the following curious legend concerning the conception of Myrddin (Merlin), as told by our witness from Pontrhydfendigaid, Mr. John Jones (see p. 147) :- ‘When building the Castle of Gwrtheyrn, near Carmarthen, as much as was built by day fell down at night. So a council of the Dynion Hysbys or “Wise Men” was called, and they decided that the blood of a fatherless boy had to be used in mixing the mortar if the wall was to stand. Search was thereupon made for a fatherless boy (cf. p. 351), and throughout all the kingdom no such boy could be found. But one day two boys were quarrelling, and one of them in defying the other wanted to know what a fatherless boy like him had to say to him. An officer of the king, overhearing the quarrel, seized the boy thus tauntingly addressed as the one so long looked for. The circumstances were made known to the king, and the boy was taken to him. “Who is your father? “asked the king. “My mother never told me,” the boy replied. Then the boy’s mother was sent for, and the king asked her who the father of the boy was, and she replied: “I do not know; for I have never known a man. Yet, one night, it seemed to me that a man noble and majestic in appearance slept with me, and I awoke to find that I had been in a dream. But when I grew pregnant afterwards, and this wonderful boy whom you now see was delivered, I considered that a divine being or an angel had visited me in that dream, and therefore I called his child Myrddin the Magician, for such I believe my son to be.” When the mother had thus spoken, the king announced to the court and wise men, “Here is the fatherless boy. Take his blood and use it in mixing the mortar. The walling will not hold without it.” At this, Myrddin taunted the king and wise men, and said they were no better than a pack of idiots. “The reason the walling falls down,” Myrddin went on to say, “is because you have tried to raise it on a rock which covers two large sea-serpents. Whenever the wall is raised over them its weight presses on their backs and makes them uneasy. Then during the night they up-heave their backs to relieve themselves of the pressure, and thus shake the walling to a fail.”’ The story ends here, but presumably Merlin’s statements were found to be true; and Merlin was not sacrificed, for, as we know, he became the great magician of Arthur’s court.
There are two hills in the Highlands of Aberdeenshire where travellers had to propitiate the banshee by placing barley-meal cakes near a well on each hill; and if the traveller neglected the offering, death or some dire calamity was sure to follow.’ It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole. A few non-Celtic parallels determine this at once. Thus, exactly as to fairies here, milk is offered to the souls of saints in the Panjab, India, as a means of propitiating them. M. A. Lefèvre shows that the Roman Lares, so frequently compared to house-haunting fairies, are in reality quite like the Gaelic banshee; that originally they were nothing more than the unattached souls of the dead, akin to Manes; that time and custom made distinctions between them; that in the common language Lares and Manes had synonymous dwellings; and that, finally, the idea of death was little by little divorced from the worship of the Lares, so that they became guardians of the family and protectors of life. On all the tombs of their dead the Romans inscribed these names: Manes, inferi, silentes, the last of which, meaning the silent ones, is equivalent to the term ‘People of Peace’ given to the fairy-folk of Scotland. Nor were the Roman Lares always thought of as inhabiting dwellings. Many were supposed to live in the fields, in the streets of cities, at cross-roads, quite like certain orders of fairies and demons; and in each place these ancestral spirits had their chapels and received offerings of fruit, flowers, and of foliage. If neglected they became spiteful, and were then known as Lemures.
All these examples tend to show what the reviewer of Curtin’s Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World states, that ‘The attributes of a ghost - that is to say, the spirit of a dead man - are indistinguishable from those of a fairy. And it is well known how world-wide is the worship of the dead and the offering of food to them, among uncivilized tribes like those of Africa, Australia, and America, as well as among such great nations as China, Corea, India, and Japan; and in ancient times it was universal among the masses of the people in Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
CELTIC AND NON-CELTIC FEASTS OF THE DEAD
Samain, as we already know, was the great Celtic feast of the dead when offerings or sacrifice of various kinds were made to ancestral spirits, and to the Tuatha De Danann and the spirit-hosts under their control; and Beltene, or the first of May, was another day anciently dedicated to fetes in honour of the dead and fairies. Chapter ii has shown us how November Eve, the modern Samain, and like it, All Saints Eve or La Toussaint, are regarded among the Celtic peoples now; and the history of La Toussaint seems to indicate that Christianity, as in the case of the cult of trees and fountains, absorbed certain Celtic cults of the dead which centred around the pagan Samain feast of the dead, and even adopted the date of Samain.
Among the ancient Egyptians, so much like the ancient Celts in their innate spirituality and clear conceptions of the invisible world, we find a parallel feast which fell on the seventeenth Athyr of the year. This day was directly dependent upon the progress of the sun; and, as we have throughout emphasized, the ancient symbolism connected with the yearly movements of the Great God of Light and Life cannot be divorced from the ancient doctrines of life and death. To the pre-Christian Celts, the First of November, or the Festival of Samain, which marked the end of summer and the commencement of winter, was symbolical of death. Samain thus corresponds with the Egyptian fte of the dead, for the seventeenth Athyr of the year marks the day on which Sitou (the god of darkness) killed in the midst of a banquet his brother Osiris (the god of light, the sun), and which was therefore thought of as the season when the old sun was dying of his wounds. It was a time when the power of good was on the decline, so that all nature, turning against man, was abandoned to the divinities of darkness, the inhabitants of the Realms of the Dead. On this anniversary of the death of Osiris, an Egyptian would undertake no new enterprise: should he go down to the Nile, a crocodile would attack him as the crocodile sent by Sitou had attacked Osiris, and even as the Darkness was attacking the Light to devour it ; should he set out on a journey, he would part from his home and family never to return. His only course was to remain locked in his house, and there await in fear and inaction the passing of the night, until Osiris, returning from death, and reborn to a new existence, should rise triumphant over the forces of Darkness and Evil. It is clear that this last part of the Egyptian belief is quite like the Celtic conception of Samain as we have seen Aiill and Medb celebrating that festival in their palace at Cruachan.
There is a great resemblance between the christianized Feast of Samain, when the dead return to visit their friends and to be entertained, for example as in Brittany, and the beautiful festivals formerly held in the Sinto temples of Japan. Thus at Nikko thousands of lanterns were lighted, ‘each one representing the spirit of an ancestor,’ and there was masquerading and revelry for the entertainment of the visiting spirits. It shows how much religions are alike.
Each year the Roman peoples dedicated two days (February 21 - 2) to the honouring of the Dead. On the first day, called the Feralia, all Romans were supposed to remain within their own homes. The sanctuaries of all the gods were closed and all ceremony suspended. The only sacrifices made at such a time were to the dead, and to the gods of the dead in the underworld; and all manes were appeased by food-offerings of meats and cakes. The second day was called Cara Cognatio and was a time of family reunions and feasting. Of it Ovid has said (Fasti, ii. 619), ‘After the visit to the tombs and to the ancestors who are no longer [among us], it is pleasant to turn towards the living; after the loss of so many, it is pleasant to behold ;those who remain of our blood and to reckon up the generations of our descendants.’ And the Greeks also had their feasts for the dead.
The fact of ancient Celtic cults of stones, waters, trees, and fairies still existing under cover of Christianity directly sustains the Psychological Theory; and the persistence of the ancient Celtic cult of the dead, as illustrated in the survival of Samain in its modern forms, and perhaps best seen now among the Bretons, goes far to sustain the opinion of Ernest Renan, who declared in his admirable Essais that of all peoples the Celts, as the Romans also recorded, have most precise ideas about death. Thus it is that the Celts at this moment are the most spiritually conscious of western nations. To think of them as materialists is impossible. Since the time of Patrick and Columba the Gaels have been the missionaries of Europe; and, as Caesar asserts, the Druids were the ancient teachers of the Gauls, no less than of all Britain. And the mysteries of life and death are the key-note of all things really Celtic, even of the great literature of Arthur, Cuchulainn, and Finn, now stirring the intellectual world.
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