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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 9 - The Druid's Egg; The Mistletoe; The Druid's Sacrifice


We have essayed to reproduce the theology of the Druids so far as we can glean it from the fragmentary notices of the classic writers. Had these writers been of the number of its inner disciples, and sat at the feet of Druid in dark cave or in gloom of oak forest, we should have known more of the tenets of those venerable teachers who might be seen in former ages traversing, in long white robes, the same fields and highways which are now trodden by ourselves. Instead of a meagre outline we might have had a full body of Druidic divinity transmitted to us. And yet it might not have been so We shrewdly suspect that we are in possession of all the truths which Druidism contained, and that what we lack is only the shadowy sublimities in which they were wrapped up, and which, by removing them beyond the sphere of clear and definite comprehension, made them imposing.

From the theology of Druidism we pass to its worship and rites. Some of these rites were curious, others were picturesque, and others were repulsive and horrible. If the first, the curious, but not less credulous than curious, was the Druid’s egg. This egg appears to have been an object of some interest to the ancients, seeing they speak of it, and some of the aver having actually seen and handled it. Of the number who have specially described it is Pliny. If half of what is related of this egg be true, it must be to us, as it was to the ancients, an object of no little wonder. It was formed of the scum of serpents. As the snakes twisted and writhed in a tangled knot, the egg, produced in some mysterious way, was seen to emerge from the foaming mass of vipers, and float upward into the air.1 It was caught by the priests while in the priests while in the act of falling. The Druid who found himself the fortunate possessor of this invaluable treasure took instant measures to prevent being stript of it almost as soon as he had secured it. Throwing himself upon a horse that was kept waiting for him, he galloped off, pursued by the snakes, nor halted till he had got on the other side of the first running water to which his flight brought him. His pursuers were stopped by the stream; they had power to follow him no farther. The egg was his. It was an inexhaustible magazine of virtues, a storehouse of mighty forces, all of them at his command, and endowing its happy possessor with the enviable but somewhat dangerous attribute, so liable to be abused, one should think of obtaining almost all he might desire, and of doing nearly all that he pleased. Of those who have testified to have seen this egg, we do not know one who was witness to its birth, or was prepared to speak to the extraordinary circumstances said to accompany its production, or the wonderful deeds performed, or that might have been performed, by the Druid who was so fortunate as to get it into his keeping.

The story of the mistletoe is less curious but more credible. The mistletoe grew upon the oak, the sacred tree of the Druids. The mighty parent trunk, its tender offshoot clinging to it, with its ever-green leaves and its bunches of yellow flowers, was a thing of beauty. But what made it so pleasing in the eyes of Druid was not its loveliness, but its significance. The mistletoe was the emblem of one of the more recondite mysteries of his creed. Its finding was an occasion of great joy, and the ceremony of gathering it wore the sunny air of poetry, reminding one of some of the festivals of ancient Greece, of which it had the gaiety but not the voluptuousness. The mistletoe—the child of his sacred tree—the Druid held in high veneration, and the serving of it from the parent oak was gone about with much solemnity. It was gathered on the sixth day of the moon. A procession was formed, and walked slowly to the oak on which the mistletoe grew: a priest in white robes climbed the tree, and cutting away the plant with a golden sickle, he let it drop into a white sheet held underneath, for it might not touch the ground without losing its virtue. The sacrifice of two milk-white bulls concluded the ceremony.

The reverence in which the Druids held the mistletoe, and the ceremonies connected with it, have led to the formation of some very extravagant theories respecting this system, as if it was almost, if not altogether, an evangelical one. While some will have it that the night of the ancient Caledonia was unbroken by a single ray from the great source of Divine revelation, there are others who are equally confident that Caledonia was nearly as brightly illuminated as Judea itself, and place the priesthood of the Druids only a little way below the priesthood of the Hebrews.2 These last find in the ritual of the mistletoe an amount of Christian doctrine and evangelical sentiment which we are very far from being able to see in it, and which we believe the Druids themselves did not see in it. Their views, however, have been set forth with great plausibility, and it may be right, therefore, that we give a few moments to the statement of them. The Druids named the mistletoe the "Heal-All;" and they made it, according to the theory of which we speak, the emblem of the Great Healer who was to appear on the earth at a later day, and by his sovereign interposition cure all our ills. The oak, out of which the mistletoe sprang, was held to represent the Almighty Father, eternal, self-existent, defying all assaults, and living through all time. From him was to come the "Branch" foretold by the prophets of Israel, and sung of also by the poets of classic antiquity. Virgil, speaking of this plant, calls it the "golden branch," and says that "by its efficacious powers alone could we return from the realms below." Homer, too, makes mention of the "golden rod or branch." Above these doubtful utterances, a far greater voice is heard predicting the advent of the Messiah, and saluting him as the "branch," "the rod from the stem of Jesse," the plant of renown." The Druids, catching up and prolonging the strain of the inspired prophet, hail the coming deliverer, and adopt the mistletoe as his symbol; they see in this plant, as it clings to the great oak, the figure of one who was to spring from an eternal stock, and who was to grow up as a tender plant, full of heavenly virtue, the desired of all nations, and by whose efficacious death man was to return from the realms of the grave. Such is the evangelical garb the system of Druidism has been made to wear.

Most pleasing would it be to be able to put a little Bible light into the dark mysteries. Most pleasing assuredly would it be to think that our fathers heard in these legends the voices of the prophets, and saw in these rites the day of a coming Saviour. A new and more touching interest would gather round their sleeping places on moor and hill-side. But we cannot conceal from ourselves that these notions lack footing in historic fact; and neither do they receive countenance from a critical analysis of the system. Without the key of the prophets we should not have so unlocked the arcana of Druidism, and without the lamp of the apostles we should never have seen such evangelical things in it. The fact is, we bring these evangelical meanings to Druidism, we do not find them in it. Druidism was the worship of the fire—the world of Baal. Still it was better for Scotland that Druidism should be, than that it should not be. It was a link between man and the world above him. It kept the conscience from falling into the sleep of death; it maintained alive a feeble sense of guilt and the need of expiation, and to that extent it prepared the way for a better system, and a more sovereign remedy for the many maladies of the human soul that ever grew on oak of Druid.

As the great symbol in Druidism was the mistletoe, so the central act in its worship was sacrifice. Here, again, we approximate in point of form the divinely appointed worship of the Hebrews. In common with the whole heathen world, the druids connected the idea of expiation with their sacrifices. They offered them to propitiate the Deity. Nevertheless their sacrifices were pagan not evangelical. The victim on the altar of the Druid was itself the propitiation; the victim on the Jewish altar was the type, and nothing but the type, of that propitiation. He Hebrew looked beyond his sacrifice to the divine victim typified and promised by it. And whose blood alone could expiate and cleanse. Of this divine victim we have no proof that the Druid knew anything, beyond sharing, it may be, in the vague and uncertain expectation which then filled the world of the coming of a Great One who was to introduce a new and happier age, which should make the "golden morning" of which the poets sang, be forgotten in the greater splendour of the world’s noon. Beyond these vague hopes, the priests of Druidism had no settled beliefs or opinions, and to their own sacrifice, and that a sacrifice as yet in the distance.

It is long since the baleful fires of Druid were seen on our hill-tops. A purer light has since arisen in the sky of Scotland. But we are able to recall the scene which for ages continued to be witnessed in our land. Like all false religions, the spirit of Druidism was terror, and we can imagine the awe it inspired in the minds of men over who it had been its pleasure for ages to hang the threefold cloud of ignorance, superstition, and serfdom.

The festival has come round, and this day the fires are to be lighted, and the sacrifice is to be offered on the "high place." The procession has been marshalled. At its head walks the high-priest, a venerable and imposing figure in his long-flowing robes of white.3 His train is swelled by other priests, also attired in white, who follow, leading the animal destined for sacrifice. It is the best and choicest of its kind; for only such is it fit to lay upon the altar. It is a bullock, or a sheep, or a goat, or, it may be, other animal. It has been previously examined with the greatest care, least, peradventure, there should be about it defect, or maim, or fault of any sort. It has been found "without blemish," we shall suppose, and now it is crowned with flowers, and led away to be slain. As the procession moves onward, songs are sung by the attendant bards. The multitudes that throng round the priests and the victim perform dances as the procession, with slow and solemn steps, climbs the sacred mount. The height has been gained, and priests and victim and worshippers sweep in at the open portal of the stone circle, and gather round the massy block in the centre, on which "no tool of iron has been lift up," and on which the sacrifice is to be immolated. The more solemn rites are now to proceed; let us mark them..

The priest, in his robes of snowy whiteness, takes his stand at the altar. He lays his hand solemnly upon the head of the animal which he is abut to offer in sacrifice. In this posture—his hand on the sacrifice—he prays. In his prayer he makes a confession of sin, his own, and that of all who claim a part in the sacrifice. These transgressions he lays—such is his intention—on the victim, on whose flower-crowned head his hand is rested. It is not separated—devoted—for even the Druid feels that with sin is bound up doom, and that on whomsoever the one is laid the other lies also. Wine and frankincense are freely used in the ceremony of devotement. Set free from human ownership, the animal is now given to the deity. In what way? Is it dismissed to range the mountains as no man’s property? No: bound with cords, it is laid on the altar; its blood is poured on the earth, its flesh is given to the fire, its life is offered to God.

Such was the worship of the Druid. It consisted of three great acts. First, the laying of his offence on the victim. Second, the offering up of the life of that victim. Third, the expiation, as he believed, thereby effected. The three principles which underlie these three acts look out upon us with unequivocal and unmistakable distinctness. We can neither misunderstand nor misinterpret them. We do not say that the three principles were full and clear to the eye of Druid in his deep darkness. But though he had become unable to read them, that no more proves that they were void of significance and taught no truth, than the inability of the barbarian to understand a foreign tongue or a dead language proves that its writings express no intelligible ideas, and that it never could have been the vehicle of thought. We leave its meaning to be interpreted by the men to whom it was a living language. So in respect to these rites, we look at them in the light of their first institution, and we place ourselves in the position of those to whom they were, so to speak, a living language, and when we do so the three doctrines that shine out upon us from the sacrificial rites of the Druid are the doctrine of the Fall, the doctrine of a substitutionary Victim, and the doctrine of Expiation and Forgiveness. Such is the testimony borne by the altars of the Druid to the three earliest facts in human history, and the three fundamental doctrines of revealed religion.

How came to the Druids to worship by sacrifice? No philosophy is sounder than that which, following up these traces, arrives at the conclusion of an original revelation, of which this is the remote and dim reflection. Sacrifice is no mere Druidic rite, transacted nowhere save in the oak forests of Scotland. A consensus of all nations had adopted sacrifice as the method of worship, and wherever we go backward into history, or broad over the earth, to ages the most remote, and lands the farthest removed from each other, we find the altar set up and the victim bleeding upon it. Strange and amazing it is the nations of the earth, the most polished as well as the most barbarous, the Greek with his passionate love of beauty, and the untutored and realistic Goth, should with one consent unite in a worship, the main characteristics of which are BLOOD and DEATH. Who told man that the Almighty delights to "eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats"? Left to the prompting of his own instincts, this method of worship is the last which man would have chosen. From what he knew of the Creator from nature, he would have judged that of all modes of worship this would prove the most unacceptable, and would even be abhorrent. "What!" he would have reasoned, "shall He who has spread loveliness with so lavish a hand over all creation; who has taught the morning to break in silvery beauty and the evening to set in golden glory; who clothes the mountain in purple, dyes the clouds in vermillion, and strews the earth with flowers—shall He take pleasure in a sanctuary hung in gloom, may, filled with horrors, or delight in an altar loaded with ghastly carcasses and streaming with the blood of slaughtered victims?" So did the first-born of men reason; and in accordance with what he judged fit and right in the matter, he brought no bleeding lamb, he laid upon the altar instead an offering of new-gathered flowers and fruits. And so would the race have worshipped to this day but for some early and decisive check which crossed their inclinations and taught them that it was not only idle but even perilous to come before the Deity, save with blood, and to offer to Him but life.

Apart from the idea of an original divine appointment, there is no fact of history, and no phenomenon of the human mind more inexplicable than this consensus of the nations in the rite of sacrifice. A problem so strange did not escape the observation of the wise men of the heathen world; but their efforts to solve it were utterly abortive. To those of the moderns who refuse to look at the inspired explanation of this phenomenon, it remains as abstruse and dark as it was to the ancients.

These red prints—these altars and victims—which we trace down the ages, and all round the earth, what are they? They are the foot-prints which have been left by the soul of man. They are like the etymological and archaeological traces, which the early races have left on the countries which they inhabited, and which so surely attest the fact of their presence at a former era in the regions where these traces occur. So of these moral traces. They could no more have imprinted themselves upon the mind of the species apart from causes adequate to their production, than the etymological and archaeological ones could have written themselves upon the soil of a country, without its previous occupation by certain races. These moral vestiges lay a foundation for philosophical deduction, quite as solid as that which the other lay for historic and ethnical conclusions. They form a chain by which we ascend to the fountain-head of history. We have in them the most indubitable attestation of the great fact of the fall. We have its historic imprint made visible to us in the sense of guilt, so deep, so inextinguishable, and so universal, which that primal act of transgression has left on the conscience of the world, and which has transformed worship, in every age, and among every people, from an act of thanksgiving into an act of propitiation. This is the world’s confession that it has sinned: it is the cry of the human soul for pardon.

We have DEATH in the worship of man; we have GUILT in the conscience of man: and these two facts compel us to infer the existence of a third great fact, without which the first two are inexplicable, even SIN in the history of man. No other solution can even philosophy accept.


FOOTNOTES

1. Plinii, Nat. Hist., lib. iii c. 12, xvi. 44.

2. Religion of Ancient Britain historically considered. London, 1846; Yeowell,

Chronicles of the Ancient British Church. London, 1847; Nash, Taliesin, pp. 12, 13. London, 1858.

3. Toland, Hist. of the Druids, p. 69. Lond. 1726.