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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 7 - The Druids: The Sun Worship of Asia and Caledonia


We have travelled back thirty or forty centuries, and dug up the early Scottish world which, all the while, was lying entombed in our barrows and cairns. The historian of a former day never thought of looking into these ancient repositories, and hearing what they had to tell respecting the doings of a long past time. He obeyed, as he thought, a high authority, when he refused to entertain the hope of finding "knowledge or device in the grave." He knew of no record save a written one, and so turning to ancient chronicles, he accepted the picture which some pious father had painted in the twilight of his monastery, as the true and genuine image of the ancient world. He was all the while unaware that what he was in quest of was lying close at hand—in fact, under his feet. In yonder barrow, which he had passed and repassed a hundred times, but never once paused to inspect, was that same old world embalmed, and waiting through the long centuries to come forth and reveal the secrets of ancient time to the men of a later and more civilized age.

It is to this record we have turned. It is hardly possible that there should be deception or mistake in the picture. In truth it is no picture, it is the thing itself. It is that veritable world in all its barbarism: its battles, its boar hunts, its rude handicrafts, its earth-dug dwellings, its huts of wattled osiers plastered with mud, its feasts, its burials—in short, the men with all the scenery of their lives around them. It is not tradition speaking to us through the fallible voice of a hundred or more generations; the information comes direct, we receive it at first hand. For while the centuries have been revolving, and outside that tumulus races have been changing, and dynasties passing away, changes there have been none on the world within the tumulus, the ages have there stood still, and as regards the validity and certainty of the evidence it furnishes, it is all the same, as if we had opened that barrow on the morrow immediately succeeding the day on which it was raised and closed in.

From the barrow and the cist, where the history of the Caledonian is written in the weapons with which he fought and the tools with which he worked, we turn to another chapter in his history, one partly written and partly monumental. We have seen the Caledonian on his battlefields in the first age slaughtering or being slaughtered with his stone axe; in the next, plunging at his foe with his bronze sword; in the third, riding into battle in his iron chariot, and hewing down his foes with a sword of the same metal. We have seen him essaying the more profitable labours of art; first moulding the clay with his hand, not caring how unshapely his vessel if it served its purpose, then turning it on the wheel, and taking a pride in the symmetry and beauty of the cup out of which he drank. We have traced, too, his progress in dress: at first he is content to envelope himself in fur of fox or skin of deer, but by and by he aspires to be differently clad from the animals he pursued in the chase. With a stone whorle and spindle he converts flax into thread; and when the metals come to the assistance of his art, he spins wool, and clothes himself with a garment of that texture. Probably some visitor from the Phoenician shore, where the art is well understood, initiates him into the process of dyeing, and now his moors grew illuminated by the bright and glowing colours of the Caledonian tartan. We have seen his banquets and his funeral arrangements; but there is one chapter of his history we have not yet opened. How did the Caledonian worship?

There must all the while have been growing up at the heart of that barbarous world a higher life. Human society, however debased and barbarous, is ever at the core moral. Feeble, exceedingly feeble, its pulse may be so feeble as to be scarce perceptible, but that pulse never can totally cease. For the moral sense of society is no acquired quality, it was given it by the law of its creation. But how can its moral consciousness be developed, unless in some rite, or system of rites, by which it gives expression to its sense of a Being above itself? By what rite, or system of rites, did the early Caledonian indicate his knowledge—vague, shadowy, and undefined it may have been—of a Supreme Being? Let us observe him as he worships, we shall have a truer knowledge of him, not of his art or his bravery merely, but of himself, his thoughts and feelings, than when we see him chipping arrow heads, or tipping the spear with stone or bronze for the chase or the battle.

We have abundant evidence, both monumental and historic, that the Caledonian worshipped, and not only so, but that his worship was purer than that of most early nations, and purer even than that of some contemporary nations who were far higher in the scale of civilization. Fetichism appears never to have defiled, grotesque, hideous and horrible, as are objects of worship to some savage nations in our own day. We find no trace that such deities or demons were ever adored or dreaded by our early ancestors. The bestial idolatry of Egypt had not reached them. Their religious level appears to have been higher even than that of the Greeks and Romans. For, as we have said, by the side of the skeleton that three thousand years ago was a living man, there lies no image or god graven in stone, or in silver, or in bronze. Had such been in use by the men who sleep in these ancient cists, they would infallibly have been found in their graves. Around the dead man we discover that entire order of things amid which he lived: his battle-weapons, the trophies of the chase, the cups, clay or bronze, that graced his table, and brimed at his banquets; the trinkets of stone or of jet that he wore on his person, all are around him in the grave; but one thing is lacking, and, curious enough, it is that one thing which we should beforehand have made ourselves most sure of finding there, and which, had it formed part of the system amid which he lived, would infallibly have been there—the objects of his worship even. That the dead should sleep with their stone axe of their bronze sword by their side, and yet not seek to hallow their cist and guard their rest by the image of their god, is strange indeed. Yet so it is. We are driven, therefore, to the conclusion that the early Caledonians had no notion of a Supreme Being, in short, we atheists, or that their conceptions of God were higher and more spiritual than those entertained by many contemporaneous peoples.

It is the latter conclusion which is undoubtedly the true one. The Caledonian saw a Being above himself, All-powerful and Eternal. He had brought this great idea with him from his Aryan home, or rather—for that idea is not restricted to locality, or found only where man first began his career—it is the corner-stone of his constitution, and equally indestructible, and accordingly he instituted rites in honour of that Being, and reared, with his barbarian hands, structures, rough, huge, majestic, in which to perform these rites. This is a point which recent archaeological discoveries in many and far-sundered lands have placed beyond dispute, and it enables us to pass to a very important phase of our country’s early history—the Druidic, to wit.

Among the vestiges of a remote time that linger on the face of our country, none are more remarkable than the tall upright stones, ranged in circle, and the broad, massy horizontal slabs, resting table-wise on supports, that are so frequently met with on our moors and hill-sides, and sometimes in the depth of our forests. To both learned and unlearned these unique and mysterious erections are objects of curiosity and interest. The questions they suggest are, In what age were they set up, and what purpose were they meant to serve? Immemorial tradition connects them with the religious rites of the earliest inhabitants of Scotland, and teaches us to see in them the first temples in which our fathers worshipped. Till lately, the universal belief regarding these singular erections was in accordance with the immemorial tradition. It was not no more doubted that these great stones, ranged in solemn circle, filling the mind of the spectator with a vague awe, had been set up with a view to worship, than it was doubted that the stone hammer and axe, their contemporaries, had been fashioned with a view to battle. But in more recent times opinion on this point has shifted. The theory that referred these structures to a far-off time, and which saw in them the work of men unskilled in art but reverent of spirit, began, some half century ago, to be discredited. We were told that we were ascribing to them an antiquity far too high, and that we ought to seek for their origin in an age much nearer our own.

Yet another theory has been broached to account for the existence of monuments so unique in point of rugged grandeur, and so unlike any that are known certainly to belong to historic times. There are archaeologists of our day who will have it that they are graveyards. They are the mausolea of a barbarous age in which sleep the dead of a long-forgotten past: chieftains of note and warriors of renown, but whose names have gone into utter oblivion. This is a theory only a little less improbable than that on which we have been commenting. Where, we ask, are the signs and tokens that they are sepulchres? Are they placed near city, or seat of population, as we should expect a great cemetery to be? On the contrary, they are found in the solitudes and wildernesses of our land, in spots not then, or ever likely to become, the scene of populous life. It may indeed be said that these remote and solitary spots were chosen on purpose, the prince and warrior might sleep apart in lonely grandeur amid silence undisturbed. They, why were these supposed mausolea constructed on so vast a scale? A few feet of earth will suffice for the greatest monarch, and as regards a funeral pile to draw the eye to his resting-place, a cairn like those that rise on our northern moors, or a tumulus like that which towers on the plain of Troy, or a mountain of stone like that beneath which Cheops sleeps, will serve the purpose far better than an open ring of monoliths enclosing some hundred or so of acres We must surely grant to the builders of these structures some reasonable sense of fitness. Or if it again be urged that these places were meant to afford burial not to a few men of note only, but to the multitude, then, we ask, Did the thinly-peopled Orkney require a graveyard on the scale of the circles of Bogar and Stennes? Or did the England of that day demand a necropolis of a size so vast as Stonehenge and Avebury?

And then, too, where are the memorials of the dead supposed to have been interred in these ancient graveyards? When we dig into the barrow or the cairn, we are at no loss as to their character and design. Their contents make it clear that they were meant to be receptacles of the dead; for there to this day is the skeleton of the chieftain or warrior who was committed to its keeping, and along with their leader, it may be, the bones of the men who fell fighting around him, and now sleep in a common tomb. But when we search around the Cyclopean monoliths on the plain of Stonehenge, or the wilds of Stennes, we fail to discover relic or memorial of the dead. We light on nothing to show that bier of prince or of peasant was ever borne within their precincts; nothing, at least, to show that the dead of a nation, great and small, and not for one generation only, but for many, were brought hither and interred, as must have been the case, if they were national burying places.

It is the fact, no doubt, that, in some instances, explorers have found the remains of mortality beneath or adjoining these stones. But this is just what we should expect. If these structures bore a sacred character, and were the scene of religious rites, as we believe them to have been, what so likely as the men of note should wish to lie within their hallowed enclosure, and that the wish, in some cases, should be acceded to. But these few solitary graves only strengthen our contention that these places were temples, not graveyards, for if these exceptional burials still attest themselves by the presence of stone cists with their mouldering contents, why should there not be traces also of that great multitude of burials which must have taken place here, if they were public receptacles for the dead? Why have the few been preserved, while the majority have disappeared? In fact, many of these stone circles and cromlechs stand on a bed of rock, where grave never could have been dug, or the dead interred.

Moreover, it is not a fact universally true of all early nations, that their first great monuments were reared not in memory of their dead, but in reverence of their deities? They honored the departed warrior by piling over his remains a heap of stones, the height of the cairn corresponding to the rank of the deceased: their common dead they disposed of with less ceremony. In short, they did not need public graveyards; their earliest buildings were altars, or sacred towers. The tower on the plain of Shinar, the earliest monument of which we read, being an instance in point 1 We may adduce, also, in corroboration of our assertion, the colossal temples of Egypt and India, and the less immense, but more beauteous, fanes of Greece and Italy. They were not mausolea, but shrines. The race started with the idea of the Deity strong in them, and it was their delight to expend the appliances of their labour and the resources of their skill in rearing structures that might be worthy of Him The proudest of their edifices, those that challenged admiration the most by their size, or by their strength, or by their glory, rose not in honour of their dead, not even in honour of their kings, but in adoration of their gods. This fact, so universal as to amount to a law, authenticates the tradition which connects the grandest of our early fabrics with the service of our early worship.

The oldest of our monuments are stones set on end, and standing singly, or in groups. All savage nations are seen rearing such memorials; they are their first attempts to communicate with posterity. Some event has happened deemed by them of importance, and which they wish, therefore, should be known to those who are to come after them. How shall they hand it down to posterity? They have not yet acquired the art of committing transactions to writing: they know not to engrave or to paint; but they have simpler and readier methods. They set up a tall stone on the spot where the occurrence took place. Farther tells to son the story of the Pillar. It is a public and perpetual memorial of the fact; for should the tempest throw it down, pious hands will set it up again, that the event committed to its keeping may not fall into oblivion.

In the pages of the Bible, especially in its earlier pages, we meet with numerous traces of this custom. It was thus the patriarchs marked whatever was most eventful and memorable in their lives. Jacob sealed the vow which he made to the august Being who was seen by him in his dream, by setting up a stone on the spot when the morning broke, and anointing it with oil. The covenant betwixt the same patriarch and Laban, made on the summit of Gilead, instead of being written and attested by the signatures of the contracting parties, had, as its sole record, a cairn on the top of the mount. Twelve stones, rough as when taken from the bed of the river, rose, on the banks of the Jordan as the perpetual witnesses of that miraculous act which opened to the Tribes the gates of the Land of Promise. At times the column of stone rose as a trophy of victory, and at other times as a symbol of personal or domestic sorrow. When Jacob laid his Rachel in the grave, he set up a pillar to mark the spot. By this simple act, the stricken man signified his desire that his descendants in days to come should mourn with him in a sorrow, the shadow of which was destined to hang around him till he reached the grave. And well, as we know, did that pillar fulfill its trust; for there was not an Israelite but knew where Rachel slept, nor ever passed her tomb without rehearsing the touching story of her death.

Simple blocks of unhewn stone were the earliest altars. Such were the altars, doubtless, which Abraham, and after him his son and grandson, built on the scene of their successive encampments as they journeyed through Palestine. Man in the earliest ages had no tools with which to quarry the rock; but the agencies of nature came to his assistance. The tempest, or the lightning, or the shock of earthquake, or simply the winter’s frosts, tore up the strata, and made it ready for his use, whatever the purpose to which he meant to devote it, whether the record of a vow, or the seal of a covenant, or the trophy of a victory, or the symbol of grief. But of all uses to which stones were put in the early ages, none was more common than the religious one. They were shrines at which worship was performed. In the instances that have already come before us, the pillar simply indicated the spot hallowed by some special appearance, and henceforth set apart at the place where the family or the tribe was to assemble, at stated times, to worship Jehovah. When the knowledge of the true God waxed dim, the Sun was installed as his Vicar,2 and worshipped as the Power who daily called the world out of darkness, and yearly awoke the vitalities and powers of nature. Towers or temples now rose to the sun and his goodly train of secondary gods, the moon, and the seven planets, or "seven lights of the world." The more civilized nations embellished the centres of their idol worship with great magnificence of art, but ruder nations, having neither the skill nor the materials for the construction of such splendid temples, were content to rear humbler shrines. They took a tall stone, unhewn and uncouth, as the tempest or the earthquake had torn it from the strata, and setting it on end, and consecrating it as the representative of the sun, or of some deified hero, they made it the rallying point and centre of their worship. Descending yet a stage lower, the stone so set up was no longer a mere stone like its fellows in the quarry, having neither more or less virtue than they; it was now a consecrated pillar, and, as such, was filled with the spirit and potency, to some degree at least, of the god who it represented. Worship at the stone passed easily, naturally, and speedily into the worship of the stone. Lower still, and now it was believed that these stones were inhabited by a race of genii, or inferior gods, to whom had been given power over the destinies of men, and whom, therefore, it was the interest of man to propitiate by offering and sacrifices. And thus it is that we find the worship of stones one of the earliest forms of idolatry, and one of the most widely-spread and universally practiced. Palestine bristled throughout with these demon-stones when the Israelites entered it. Hardly a hill-top without its cluster of monoliths, or grove without its altar of unhewn, massy block, on which fires burned in honour of the Sun of Bel, or human victims bled in propitiation of the deity who was believed to haunt the place. Hence the command to the Israelites to break down and utterly destroy these hateful and horrible objects, and to cleanse their land by sweeping from off its surface the last vestiges of an idolatry so foul and bloody. The specification of these idolatrous objects is very minute, and might equally apply to the Druidic shrines of Caledonia. It includes the menhir, or single stone pillar, and the altar-dolmen, as well as the graven image. Over both the Divine injunction suspended the same doom—entire and utter demolition.3 Their stone pillars were to be demolished, their graven images of gold were to be battered and broken with the hammer, their wooden deities hewn with the axe, their sacrificial dolmens overturned, and the groves in which these demon-altars had stood were to be burned with fire. It is the very picture of Scotland some thousand years later; and hence the fallen menhirs, the broken and ragged stone circles, and the over turned and moss-grown dolmens that strew the face of our country,--the ruins which a once flourishing superstition has left behind it to attest its former prevalence and dominancy in our island.

This form of worship came to Scotland from the far east. We trace it by the footprints it leaves behind it as it journeys westward. It accompanied, probably, not the first, but the second great wave of immigration which poured itself forth from the great birthplace of nations in Central Asia. East and west we behold this mighty system extending its dark shadow, and enveloping all lands. For though it has now passed away, at least in the names and rites it then sanctioned and made obligatory, it has left its roots in the supposed mystic virtue of rites, images, and holy places, as well as in the rude Cyclopean monuments which it set up, and which, after enduring the shock of the tempest and the violence of thousands of years, still show their gigantic fragments cumbering the soil of almost all countries. Yonder, in the far east, on the mountains of India, we descry the menhir, the ancestor of the obelisk. Tribes that knew no other art knew to rear the stone column in honour of the sun. Rude stone monuments are found in the hills of the Ganges, and in the heart of Africa; on the plains of Persia, and amid the mountains of Spain; in the countries bordering on the Dead Sea, and on the shores of the Euxine and the Baltic. They are found in Tuscanty and in Orkney. We lose trace of them among the Negro races. Their builders, it is supposed, were the sprung of an early Asiatic stock, which preceded the Aryans and Semitic races, and flourished in the pre-historic stone and bronze ages, and whose migration westward into Europe can be traced by the etymological as well as monumental proofs.4

The Land of Moab bristles from valley to mountain-top with menhirs, stone circles, and cromlechs, offering at this day the very spectacle which some of our moors present. The Phoenician plain afford a magnificent theatre for this worship where it was fed by the riches of an opulent commerce, and embellished by the skill of a consummate art. Westward along either shore of the Mediterranean these idol-altars flamed. Travelling beyond the Pillars of Hercules, this system turned northwards, and extending along the western shores of Europe—then the farthest knows West—it ultimately reached our island. Here grafting itself upon an earlier and purer system, it reared, with barbarous strength a rude pomp, its cromlechs, and its circles of tall, shaggy columns, and taught to the men of Caledonia the names of new deities, and the practice of new rites.

We have thought it necessary thus to trace at some length the early rise and eastern origin of this form of worship, because it throws light on the history of our country, and on its oldest existing monuments. It enables us to guess at the time when these monuments were erected, and it leaves hardly a doubt as regards their character and use. They were reared for worship. They form a part of that great system of sun-worship which spring up soon after the flood, and which, with essential unity, but great variety of names and forms, travelled over the earth, and set up its altars, and taught the practice of its foul and cruel rites in every land and to every people.


FOOTNOTES

1. The dwellers on the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates reared towers of from 500 to 700 feet in height for astro-theological uses. Some they dedicated to the sun, others to the moon, or to the seven planets. These towers were of brick, sun-dried or burned, and cemented with bitumen. The builders began by rearing a high and solid platform. On this basis they erected a series of receding towers, rising storey on storey to the height we have indicated. In the upper chamber was placed sometimes an image of the god for whose worship the tower was raised; at other times it was occupied by a priestess. The ruins of these earliest temples still remain in the mighty mounds that rise on that great plain, and which mark the site of its earliest cities. Our ancestors did the best they could to imitate these structures by piling up an altar of huge blocks, and drawing around it a grand circle of tall, shaggy columns.—See Smith and Syce’s Babylonia; Rawlinson’s Ancient Monarchies, vol. I.

2. Grivet quotes an Accadean (the earliest race) liturgy, in which Merodach is called, "I am he who walks before Ea—I am the warrior, the eldest son of Ea—the messenger." This is strickingly like the language of one who claims to stand before God in the way of being His vice regent or vicar. This would seen to indicate that idolatry crept in at first, not by a direct denial of the true God, but by a claim on the part of a class, or more probably a single usurper, to wield the power of God, and to act in His room.

3.See Lev. xxvi. 1.

4.Conder, Heth. And Moab, p. 196. Lond., 1883.


 

 


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