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The Veil of Isis; or, Mysteries of the Druids
Book the Fourth


I.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE DRUIDS.

ON the South coast of Britain the people were thronging by hundreds to the sea-shore. It was to see a vessel which was sailing past, and which had come from some strange country across the seas. Its prow was adorned with a swan's head and neck made of bronze. Below the prow and projecting a little above the keel was a brazen beak, which was called the rostrum and which had been invented by the Tyrrhenian Pisœus for breaking the sides of the enemy's ships.

The stern was elevated and adorned with the figure of a God. There seated, they could distinguish the prominent figure of a man who paddled a huge broad-bladed oar backwards and forwards in the water, and with which he appeared to guide the vessel.

There were two masts made of fire-wood from the forests of Scandinavia, and a triangular sail suspended from each, inflated by the wind. The sides of this vessel presented an extraordinary sight. Three banks of rowers, raised above each other, were plying their oars which swung in leather thongs, and which surrounded the ship with creamy foam, and which dashed the transparent spray high in the air.

The Britons perched upon the rocks, or in their little wicker boats, continued to watch this ship till it had disappeared, and then returned to their homes to relate this incident to their wives with Celtic garrulity. It remained to them an enigma, till they received intelligence from the merchants of the main that the ship was a Roman trireme, or war galley; that its commander was Caius Volusenus, and that he had been sent by Julius Cæsar the Divine, to explore the coasts of that country upon which he meditated an invasion.

In fact, it was this great general who, aspiring to outvie the conquests of Pompey, had determined to subdue this island of Britain, which was then only known to the world. by some vague and exaggerated reports of the ferocity of its inhabitants, the perils of its seas, the darkness of its sky, and the marvelous
beauty of its pearls.

However, the remoteness of the country with the difficulty and danger of the enterprise were those obstacles which form the stepping-stones to greatness; while the precious stones and metals with which it was said to abound, served to excite the cupidity of his soldiers whose souls were less open to those glorious passions which elevated that of their commander.

The brigands and pirates (that is to say the invaders) of those days even, considered it necessary to invent a paltry excuse for some act of lawless oppression; and Cæsar before he attacked the freedom and properties of a nation, affirmed that it was in revenge for the assistance which a small tribe of Britons had rendered to his enemies the Gauls.

The Britons terrified by this report, sent ambassadors to Rome. Cæsar received them kindly, and sent Commius, a Roman to whom he had given land in Gaul, as his ambassador in return.

The Britains violated the law of nations and put Commius in prison. Cæsar invaded Britain.

Then the groves of the Druids resounded with the cries of victims, and blood flowed from the knife of the sacrificer. Then the huge image of a bull made of wicker-work was erected, and filled with animals and men, was set on fire, while the drums and cymbals of the priests drowned those piteous cries which strange to say was thought ill-omened to bear.

Then the Bards who before had sung the blessings of peace, and who had parted armies in their fierce strife, sang the war-hymns of their ancestors, and fired every heart with fortitude and emulation.

On the 26th of August, in the year 55 B.C., at about ten o'clock in the forenoon, Cæsar reached the British coasts, where he found the hills covered with armed men.

He sailed along the coast till he came to that low sandy plain on which the town of Deal Dow stands. It was there that he intended to land, and there that the Britons, perceiving the prows of his vessels turned towards the shore, crowded with horse, foot and chariots to repel him.

The water was too shallow to admit of the galleys approaching close to land. The Romans had therefore to wade through the sea under a cloud of arrows, and fighting with waves as well as with men. Thus they were thrown into disorder, and the waters were reddened with their blood. But Cæsar had commanded the rowing-boats to approach, in which were erected slings with divers instruments of war, and which darted over the water like sharks springing to their prey. The Britons had begun to yield, but were rallying their courage as they saw that the Romans were fearing those waves which bore past on their dark bosoms the corpses of their comrades. When the standard-bearer of the tenth legion invoked the gods and cried:--"Follow me, if you do not wish me to lose my standard among the foe; but if I lose my life, I shall have done my duty to Rome, and to my general."

The brave man sprang into the sea, with the brazen eagle held aloft, and his bright sword flashing in his hand. The whole legion followed him, and after a long contest obtained a victory which had the Romans possessed cavalry to pursue their routed enemy, would have been as sanguinary as it was glorious and decisive.

From that epoch indeed, Britain may be considered as a Roman state, and its after history as merely the history of its insurrections.

Under Julius Cæsar, the rebellion of Cassebilanus compelled him to make a second expedition against Britain.

Augustus threatened to invade their island if the Britons continued to refuse to  pay taxes. Intimidated by his menaces, they sent ambassadors to Rome who implored the pardon of the Emperor, and brought him large gifts, and swore fealty to him in the temple of Mars.

The Britons broke their oath under the reign of Caligula, who made grand preparations for an invasion of the island, but who preferred leading his army against the ocean which he had conquered in this manner.

Having drawn up all his men in battle array upon the seashore, he caused the balistas, or slings, and other instruments of war to be ranged before them; he then sailed in a war-galley some little distance into the sea, returned, ordered his trumpeters to sound the charge, and the soldiers to fill their helmets with the shells from the beach, which he stored as the trophies of a conquered enemy in the Capitol. Having commended the courage of his soldiers and rewarded them profusely, he erected a tower upon the spot as if to prevent the nation from forgetting that Cæsar was a madman.

This display of imbecility naturally strengthened the Britons in their resolution to pay no taxes, and to re-assert their freedom.

When Claudius Cæsar came to the throne, he determined (partly on the advice of Bericus, a British outlaw) to invade this rebellious state.

Aulus Plautius, was placed at the head of a large army, and after several fierce engagements returned to Rome where he was rewarded with an ovation. Ostorius was sent to Britain in the same reign to quell an insurrection, and also returned successful, bringing with him Caractacus, its leader, as prisoner. In the reign of the blood-thirsty Nero, Suetonius was appointed Governor of Britain. For two whole years he made war upon the refractory Britons with great success, subduing fresh tribes and establishing garrisons.

But he had long perceived that there was an influence working against him, which was all the more powerful because it was concealed. It was that of the Druids, who still possessed an extraordinary sway over the minds of British warriors, and who animated them with promises of paradise to the defence of their country and their homes.

He discovered that the chief stronghold of the craft was the island of Mona, now Anglesea. It was to Mona that the British chieftains resorted as an oracle, to learn their destinies and to receive the encouragements of those whom they revered. It was to Mona that the wounded were borne, and were placed under the gentle care of those physicians who knew the secret properties of all herbs and flowers. It was to Mona that the Derwydd, weary with warfare had withdrawn, and for which they had deserted their magnificent seat at Abury, and their circular temple in Salisbury plain.

This island is reported to have been one of the fortunate islands sung of by the Grecian poets, as the Elysian fields. It was watered by clear streams it was clothed with fair meadows like a soft green mantle; it was full of oaken groves sacred to the Gods, from which it was called Ynys Dewyll the dark and shadowy island.

It was in the year A.D. 61, that Suetonius resolved to invade this delicious retreat, and to carry the sword into the palace of the Arch-Druid, into the seminary of the Bardic Muse.

He forded the narrow channel which divides the isle from the main-land with his cavalry, while his infantry crossed over in flat-bottomed boats, called scaphæ, and by which we learn that they landed near Llamdan where there is a place called Pant yr yscraphie to this day.

As the Romans landed, they were petrified by the horrible sight which awaited them.

It was night, and the British army dusky and grim, stood arrayed against them. Women clad in dark and mournful garments, and carrying torches in their hands like the furies of hell, were running up and down the ranks uttering loud wailing cries, while the Druids kneeling before them with hands raised to heaven, made the air resound with frightful imprecations. At some distance behind them, in the obscurity of a neighboring grove, twinkled innumerable fires.

In these the Roman prisoners were to be burnt alive.

At first, horror-struck, they remained motionless: it was only when their generals exhorted them not to fear a crowd of women and priests, and when a flight of arrows from the Britons assured them that they had really flesh and blood foes to contend with, that they could be brought to advance to the charge with their usual valor and precision.

That night the Druids were burnt in the flames which they themselves had lighted. But there were many who escaped into the recesses of the sacred groves, or by boat to the neighboring isles. These only waited for an opportunity to excite the Britons to fresh struggles for their freedom, and such an opportunity was soon afforded.

Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, having died, left the half of his property to Cæsar and half to his daughters. This which had been done to obtain the favor of the Romans had an opposite effect. His kingdom and palace were plundered and destroyed, his daughters ravished, his queen beaten like a slave.

The Britons driven to despair by these outrages took arms under Boadicea, the widow of Prasutagus.

Then the image of victory which the Romans had erected, fell down without any apparent cause and backwards as if it would give place to its enemies. And certain women, distempered with fury, went singing by way of prophecy that destruction was at hand. And strange sounds were heard in the council house of the Romans, and their theatre echoed with hideous howlings, and a bleeding sword was seen in the sky, and a spectre in the arm of the sea, and the ocean was reddened as if with blood, and the shape of men's bodies were left in the sand at the ebb of the tide.

The Britons won several battles, and cruelly massacred all the Romans that they took captive without distinction either of age or sex.

It was already sung by the Bards who accompanied the army with their three-stringed harps that Britain was free.

But Suetonius with his formidable fourteenth legion was as yet unconquered.  With ten thousand men he occupied a strong possession in a pass at the head of an open plain, with a thick wood behind for purposes of retreat and ambush. Here were drawn up the Roman cavalry, armed after the Greek fashion with spears and bucklers, and the infantry in due order of battle--the velites with javelin and target-the hastali with their shields and Spanish swords, and coats of mail--and the triarii with their pikes.

The British army numbered 230,000 men, which was divided into their infantry, their cavalry, and their war-chariots. The infantry also was divided into three nations, which were subdivided into family tribes resembling the Highland clans. Those of the South were habited like the Belgic Gauls in woolen tunics thickly woven with coarse harsh wool; their legs and thighs covered with close garments, called Brachæ. They wore also helmets of brass, adorned with figures of birds or beasts rudely carved; iron breastplates, protruding with hooks; a long sword hanging obliquely across their thighs; a shield ornamented with figures; and a huge dart whose shaft was of iron, a cubit in length and as broad as two hands put together.

The inland nations were clothed in the skins of beasts and armed with spears and bucklers.

The Caledonians went naked, armed only with long broad pointless swords, and short spears with round balls of brass at the end, with which they used to make a noise before battle to frighten the horses of the enemy.

These Northern nations were of all the most resolute and troublesome enemies of Rome; for they could sleep on bogs covered with water, and live upon the barks and roots of trees, and possessed a peculiar kind of meat, a morsel of which no larger than a bean could protect them for days from hunger and thirst. The cavalry were mounted upon small but hardy and mettlesome horses, which they managed with great dexterity. Their arms were the same as those of the infantry, for they would often dismount from their horses and fight on foot.

Their war-chariots were adorned with beautiful carvings, and were guided by the flower of the nobility. They were furnished with enormous hooks and scythes, which spread death around as they were driven at terrific speed through the ranks of the foe.

The plain was surrounded by carts and wagons in which, according to the Celtic custom, were placed the wives and daughters of the warriors who animated them with their cries, and who tended the wounded that were brought to them from the field of blood.

In the midst of this army there was a woman standing in a chariot, clothed in a mantle, with a gold chain round her neck, her face grave and stern, her yellow hair falling to the ground.

It was Queen Boadicea, who with her two daughters by her side, had come to die or to be revenged.

With a royal dignity sublime in its shamelessness she showed them her body covered with sore and ignoble stripes; with a trembling hand she pointed to her two daughters disgraced and defiled; with a loud and fierce voice she reminded them of their victories, and prayed to God to complete their work of vengeance. "Ye Britons, she cried, are wont to fight under the conduct of a woman, but now I ask ye not to follow me because I am descended from illustrious ancestors, nor because my kingdom has been stolen from me. I ask ye to avenge me as a simple woman who has been whipped with rods, and whose daughters have been ravished before her eyes. These Romans are insatiable, they respect neither the age of our fathers, nor the virginity of our daughters. They tax our bodies; they tax our very corpses. And what are they? They are not men. They bathe in tepid water, live on dressed meats, drink undiluted wine, anoint themselves with spikenard and repose luxuriously. They are far inferior to us. Dread them not. They must have shade and shelter, pounded corn, wine and oil, or they perish. While to us every herb and root is food, every juice is oil, every stream wine, every tree a house. Come then, remember your past victories, remember the causes of this war, and you will understand that the day is come when you must either conquer or die. Such at least shall be a woman's lot; let those live who desire to remain slaves." So saying, she loosed a hare as an omen of victory from her bosom, and the Britons with wild shouts advanced upon their foe.

Suetonius cheered his veterans with a few emphatic words, and showed them with contempt the wild and disorderly multitude which poured confusedly towards them. He bid the trumpets sound and the troops advance. Then arose a terrible struggle--a nation fighting for its freedom--an army fighting for its fame.

Alas! that sea of blood, that dreadful apparition, those figures in the sand were omens of Britain's downfall. Four-score thousand of its proudest warriors were slain; their wives and daughters were butchered, and Boadicea overcome with sorrow and disgrace, destroyed herself with poison.

Thus ends the reign of the Druids; the priest-kings of the North. Thus they were stripped of their crowns, and their sceptres, and their regal robes, and compelled to fly to the islands of the Irish channel and the German Sea, where they dwelt in hollow oaks and in little round stone houses, many of which still remain and are held in reverence by the simple islanders.

In Gaul the work of destruction had been completed even prior to the time of Suetonius. This beautiful religion had been proscribed by Tiberius ostensibly because it permitted human sacrifices, really because it possessed a dangerous power. This prohibition had been afterwards enforced by Claudius, and the Druids were massacred by the Romans wherever they were to be found. The priestesses of Sena were burnt by one of the ancient Dukes of Brittany.

Yet it is difficult to subroot an ancient religion by imperial edicts. The minds of men though prone to novelty will frequently return fondly to their first faiths, as the hearts of maidens creep back to former and almost forgotten loves.

In the fifth century, Druidism sprang back to life under the mighty Merlin, whose prophecies became so famous throughout Gaul and Britain, and who forms so conspicuous a character in the Arthurian romances. But these wee drops of the elixir vitæ, which could only animate the corpse for a brief space--which but gave vigor to the frame, and light to the eyes, as a lamp apparently extinguished will burst into flame ere it dies out for ever.

We find many decrees of Roman emperors, and canons of Christian councils in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries against Druidism, and in the day of King Canute, the Dane, a law was made against the worship of the sun and moon, mountains, lakes, trees and rivers. It is possible to discover many vestiges of the Druids and their religion in our times, and many peculiar analogies between their superstitions and those of other nations and of other priests.

Having related how this order of Priests emanated from the Patriarchs; how they received their idolatrous and ceremonial usuages from the Phœnicians; how they obtained a supreme power in those two countries which ere now have struggled for the possession of the world; how they were attacked and annihilated by the Roman soldiers, I shall leap over a chasm of centuries, and trace their faint footsteps in our homes, in our churches and in our household words.


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