[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
‘The cult of forests, of fountains, and of stones is
to be explained by that primitive naturalism which all the Church
Councils held in Brittany united to proscribe. ‘
- ERNEST RENAN.
Edicts against pagan cults - Cult of Sacred Waters and its absorption by Christianity - Celtic Water Divinities - Druidic Influence on Fairy-Faith - Cult of Sacred Trees
THE evidence of paganism in support of our Psychological Theory concerning the Fairy-Faith is so vast that we cannot do more than point to portions of it - especially such portions as are most Celtic in their nature. Perhaps most of us will think first of all about the ancient cults rendered to fountains, rivers, lakes, trees, and, as we have seen, to stones. There can be no reasonable doubt that these cults were very flourishing when Christianity came to Europe, for kings, popes, and church councils issued edict after edict condemning them. The second Council of Aries, held about 452, issued the following canon :- ‘ If in the territory of a bishop, infidels light torches, or venerate trees, fountains, or stones, and he neglects to abolish this usage, he must know that he is guilty of sacrilege. If the director of the act itself, on being admonished, refuses to correct it, he is to be excluded from communion.’ The Council of Tours, in 567, thus expressed itself :- ‘We implore the pastors to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before. certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church, and also those who observe the customs of the Gentiles.’ King Canute in England and Charlemagne in Europe conducted a most vigorous campaign against all these pagan worships. This is Charlemagne’s edict :- ‘ With respect to trees, stones, and fountains, where certain foolish people light torches or practise other superstitions, we earnestly ordain that that most evil custom detestable to God, wherever it be found, should be removed and destroyed.’
The result of these edicts was a curious one. It was too much to expect the eradication of the old cults after their age-long existence, and so one by one they were absorbed by the new religion. In a sacred tree or grove, over a holy well or fountain, on the shore of a lake or river, there was placed an image of the Virgin or of some saint, and unconsciously the transformation was made, as the simple-hearted country-folk beheld in the brilliant images new and more glorious dwelling-places for the spirits they and their fathers had so long venerated.
THE CULT OF SACRED WATERS
In Brittany, perhaps better than in other Celtic countries to-day, one can readily discern this evolution from paganism to Christianity. Thus, for example, in the Morbihan there is the fountain of St. Anne d’Auray, round which centres Brittany’s most important Pardon; a fountain near Vannes is dedicated to St. Peter; at Carnac there is the far-famed fountain of St. Comely with its niche containing an image of Carnac’s patron saint, and not far from it, on the roadside leading to Carnac Plage, an enclosed well dedicated to the Holy Virgin, and, less than a mile away, the beautiful fountain of St. Columba. Near Ploermel, Canton of Ploermel (Morbihan), there is the fountain of Recourrance or St. Laurent, in which sailors perform divinations to know the future state of the weather by casting on its waters a morsel of bread. If the bread floats, it is a sure sign of fair weather, but if it sinks, of weather so bad that no one should take risks by going out in the fishing-boats. In some wells, pins are dropped by lovers. Tithe pins float, the water-spirits show favourable auspices, but if the pins sink, the maiden is unhappy, and will hesitate in accepting the proposal of marriage. Long after their conversion, the inhabitants of Concoret (Arrondissement de Ploermel, Morbihan) paid divine honours to the fountain of Baranton in the druidical forest of Broceliande, so famous in the Breton legends of Arthur and Merlin :- ‘ For a long time the inhabitants of Concoret · in place of addressing themselves to God or to his Saints in their maladies, sought the remedy in the fountain of Baranton, either by praying to it, after the manner of the Gauls, or by drinking of its waters.’ In the month of August 1835, when there was an unusual drought in the land, all the inhabitants of Concoret formed in a great procession with banners and crucifix at their head, and with chants and ringing of church bells marched to this same fountain of Baranton and prayed for rain. This curious bit of history was also reported to me in July 1909 by a peasant who lives near the fountain, and who heard it from his parents; and he added that the foot of the crucifix was planted in the water to aid the rain-making. We have here an interesting combination of paganism and Christianity.
Gregory of Tours says that the country-folk of Gevaudan rendered divine honours to a certain lake, and as offerings cast on its waters linen, wool, cheese, bees’-wax, bread, and other things ; and Mahe adds that gold was sometimes offered, quite after the manner of the ancient Peruvians, who cast gold and silver of great value into the waters of sacred Lake Titicaca, high up in the Andes. To absorb into Christianity the worship paid to the lake near Gevaudan, the bishop ordered a church to be built on its shore, and to the people he said :- ‘ My children, there is nothing divine in this lake: defile not your souls by these vain ceremonies; but recognize rather the true God.’ The offerings to the lake-spirits then ceased, and were made instead on the altar of the church. As Canon Mahe so consistently sets forth, other similar means were used to absorb the pagan cults of sacred waters :- ‘ Other pastors employed a similar device to absorb the cult of fountains into Christianity; they I consecrated them to God under the invocation of certain saints; giving the saints’ names to them and placing in them the saints’ images, so that the weak and simple-hearted Christians who might come to them, struck by these names and by these images, should grow accustomed to addressing their prayers to God and to his saints, in place of honouring the fountains themselves, as they had been accustomed to do. This is the reason why there are seen in the stonework of so many fountains, niches and little statues of saints who have given their names to these springs.’
Procopius reports that the Franks, even after having accepted Christianity, remained attached to their ancient cults, sacrificing to the River Po women and children of the Goths, and casting the bodies into its waters to the spirits of the waters. Well-worship in the Isle of Man, not yet quite extinct, was no doubt once very general. AsA. W. Moore has shown, the sacred wells in the Isle of Man were visited and offerings made to them to secure immunity from witches and fairies, to cure maladies, to raise a wind, and for various kinds of divination. And no doubt the offerings of rags on bushes over sacred wells, and the casting of pins, coins, buttons, pebbles, and other small objects into their waters, a common practice yet in Ireland and Wales, as in non-Celtic countries, are to be referred to as survivals of a time when regular sacrifices were offered in divination, or in seeking cures from maladies, and equally from obsessing demons who were thought to cause the maladies. In the prologue to Chretien’s Conte du Graal there is an account, seemingly very ancient, of how dishonour to the divinities of wells and springs brought destruction on the rich land of Logres. The damsels who abode in these watery places fed travellers with nourishing food until King Amangons wronged one of them by carrying off her golden cup. His men followed his evil example, so that the springs dried up, the grass withered, and the land became waste.
According to Mr. Borlase, ‘it was by passing under the waters of a well that the Sidh, that is, the abode of the spirits called Sidhe, in the tumulus or natural hill, as the case might be, was reached.’ And it is evident from this that the well spirits were even identified in Ireland with the Tuatha De Danann or Fairy-Folk. I am reminded of a walk I was privileged to take with Mr. William B. Yeats on Lady Gregory’s estate at Coole Park, near Gort (County Galway); for Mr. Yeats led me to the haunts of the water-spirits of the region, along a strange river which flows underground for some distance and then comes out to the light again in its weird course, and to a dark, deep pool hidden in the forest. According to tradition, the river is the abode of water-fairies; and in the shaded forest-pool, whose depth is very great, live a spirit-race like the Greek nymphs. More than one mortal while looking into this pooi has felt a sudden and powerful impulse to plunge in, for the fairies were then casting their magic spell over him that they might take him to live in their under-water palace for ever.
One of the most beautiful passages in The Tripartite Life of Patrick describes the holy man at the holy well called Cliabach :- ‘ Thereafter Patrick went at sunrise to the well, namely Cliabach on the sides of Cruachan. The clerics sat down by the well. Two daughters of Loegaire son of Niall went early to the well to wash their hands, as was a custom of theirs, namely, Ethne the Fair, and Fedelm the Ruddy. The maidens found beside the well the assembly of the clerics in white garments, with their books before them. And they wondered at the shape of the clerics, and thought that they were men of the elves or apparitions. They asked tidings of Patrick: “Whence are ye, and whence have ye come? Are ye of the elves or of the gods?” And Patrick said to them: “It were better for you to believe in God than to inquire about our race.” Said the girl who was elder: “Who is your god? and where is he? Is he in heaven, or in earth, or under earth, or on earth? Is he in seas or in streams, or in mountains or in glens? Hath he sons and daughters? Is there gold and silver, is there abundance of every good thing in his kingdom? Tell us about him, how he is seen, how he is loved, how he is found? if he is in youth, or if he is in age? if he is ever-living; if he is beautiful? if many have fostered his son? if his daughters are dear and beautiful to the men of the world? “ ‘
And in another place it is recorded that ‘Patrick went to the well of Findmag. Sl‡n is its name. They told Patrick that the heathen honoured the well as if it were a god.’ And of the same well it is said, ‘ that the magi, i. e. wizards or Druids, used to reverence the well Sl‡n and” offer gifts to it as if it were a god.” ‘ As Whitley Stokes pointed out, this is the only passage connecting the Druids with well-worship; and it is very important, because it establishes the relation between the Druids as magicians and their control of spirits like fairies. As shown here, and as seems evident in Columba’s relation with Druids and exorcism in Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba, the early Celtic peoples undoubtedly drew many of their fairy-traditions from a memory of druidic rites of divination. Perhaps the most beautiful description of a holy well and a description illustrative of such divination is that of Ireland’s most mystical well, Connia’s Well :- ‘Sinend, daughter of Lodan Luchargian, son of Ler, out of Tir Tairngire (“ Land of Promise, Fairyland “), went to Connla’s Well which is under sea, to behold it. That is a well at which are the hazels and inspirations (?) of wisdom, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit, and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the (sacred] salmon chew the fruit, and the juice of the nuts is apparent on their purple bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth and turn there again.’
To these cults of sacred waters numerous non-Celtic parallels could easily be offered, but they seem unnecessary with Celtic evidence so clear. And this evidence which is already set forth shows that the origin of worship paid to sacred wells, fountains, lakes, or rivers, is to be found in the religious practices of the Celts before they became christianized. They believed that certain orders of spirits, often called fairies, and to be identified with them, inhabited, or as was the case with Sinend, who came from the Other-world, visited these places, and must be appeased or approached through sacrifice by mortals seeking their favours. Canon Mahe puts the matter thus :- ‘ The Celts recognized a supreme God, the principle of all things; but they rendered religious worship to the genii or secondary deities who, according to them, united themselves to different objects in nature and made them divine by such union. Among the objects were rivers, the sea, lakes and fountains.’
THE CULT OF SACRED TREES
The things said of sacred waters can also be said of sacred trees among the Celts; and, in the case of sacred trees, more may be added about the Druids and their relation to the Fairy-Faith, for it is well known that the Druids held the oak and its mistletoe in great religious veneration, and it is generally thought that most of the famous Druid schools were in the midst of sacred oak-groves or forests. Pliny has recorded that ‘the Druids, for so they call their magicians, have nothing which they hold more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, provided only it be an oak (robur). But apart from that, they select groves of oak, and they perform no sacred rite without leaves from that tree, so that the Druids may be regarded as even deriving-from it their name interpreted as Greek (a disputed point1 among modern philologists). Likewise of the Druids, Maximus Tyrius states that the image of their chief god, considered by him to correspond to Zeus, was a lofty oak tree ; and Strabo says that the principal place of assembly for the Galatians, a Celtic people of Asia Minor, was the Sacred Oak-grove.
Just as the cult of fountains was absorbed by Christianity, so was the cult of trees. Concerning this, Canon Mahe writes :- ‘ One sees sometimes, in the country and in gardens, trees wherein, by trimming and bending together the branches, have been formed niches of verdure, in which have been placed crosses or images of certain saints. This usage is not confined to the Morbihan. Our Lady of the Oak, in Anjou, and Our Lady of the Oak, near Orthe, in Maine, are places famous for pilgrimage. In this last province, says a historian, “One sees at various cross-roads the most beautiful rustic oaks decorated with figures of saints. There are seen there, in five or six villages, chapels of oaks, with whole trunks of that tree enshrined in the wall, beside the altar. Such among others is that famous chapel of Our Lady of the Oak, near the forge of Orthe, whose celebrity attracts daily, from five to six leagues about, a very great gathering of people.” ‘
Saint Martin, according to Canon Mahe, tried to destroy sacred pine-tree in the diocese of Tours by telling the people there was nothing divine in it. The people agreed to let it cut down on condition that the saint should receive its great trunk on his head as it fell; and the tree was not cut own.’ Saint Germain caused a great scandal at Auxerre hanging from the limbs of a sacred tree the heads of wild animals which he had killed while hunting.’ Saint Gregory the Great wrote to Brunehaut exhorting him to abolish among his subjects the offering of animals’ heads to certain trees.
In Ireland fairy trees are common yet; though throughout Celtdom sacred trees, naturally of short duration, are almost forgotten. In Brittany, the Forest of Broceliande still enjoys something of the old veneration, but more out of sentiment than by actual worship. A curious survival of an ancient Celtic tree-cult exists in Carmarthen, Wales, where there is still carefully preserved and held upright in a firm casing of cement the decaying trunk of an old oak-tree called Merlin’s Oak; and local prophecy declares on Merlin’s authority that when the tree falls Carmarthen will fall with it. Perhaps through an unconscious desire on the part of some patriotic citizens of averting the calamity by inducing the tree-spirit to transfer its abode, or else by otherwise hoodwinking the tree-spirit into forgetting that Merlin’s Oak is dead, a vigorous and now flourishing young oak has been planted so directly beside it that its foliage embraces it. And in many parts of modern England, the Jack-in-the-Green, a man entirely hidden in a covering of green foliage who dances through the streets on May Day, may be another example of a very ancient tree (or else agricultural) cult of Celtic origin.
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