[from W Ralph Hall Caine Isle of Man]
IT has been asserted that the earliest form of religion among the Manx people was a mere lowly form of worship of animals, stones, trees, and wells.
If, however, there is anything in the theory of our non-Aryan descent, and all the other factors of our ancestry, these early inhabitants of Man had bred in their bones certain of the most treasured doctrines of a later era.
It would be an easy and agreeable task to show that an expanding intelligence led the early inhabitants of Man to realize their dependence upon gifts of Nature outside their control, and to regard with a veneration amounting to awe the light, the warmth, and magical vivifying power of the sun's rays.
How could they fail to adore the Sun as truly as those mundane gifts of Nature-the animal life on which they fed, the stream that quenched their thirst, and the trees whose burning embers gave them light and warmth when the day was spent and the night had closed in? All that our ancestors could realize in creation was visualized in the God of Life.
Upon some such groundwork of faith, sane and simple, we have been taught to believe that the Druids came to our island, and built an elaborate structure of religion, law, and morals. They uprooted nothing. Their religion is represented to us as a subtle code answering all human needs save, perhaps, one. It had its standard of punishments, sacrifices, and rewards; it had its teaching of a life beyond all material definition. But it had not the quality that prevails-the quality of charity or love, upon which man and society can alone develop.
Druidism was regarded as a growth peculiar to the soil in which it flourished, but the grounds upon which such opinions were based have undergone some strange transformations. That it was a great force among the Goidelic branch of the Celtic family is a feature of all the old histories.
The Druids, inspired by the learning of the East, held as one of the first articles of their faith that man did not perish in death and the destruction of his body; that there was only one God, the
Creator of the universe, and that it was an impiety to typify God in any image. But a doctrine or practice inherited by them from no ascertainable source that I can identify was excommunication. It proved a deadly weapon in the preservation of Druidical authority.
One sacred duty of the priests was to hand on to younger brethren the traditions of their office. Everything had to be committed to memory, for no one was permitted to set down in writing any of the articles of their faith, the precepts which guided their conduct, or the laws which controlled their lives.
Sacrifices were made in sacred groves of oak. Once a year a solemn procession was formed, in which a human victim and two white bulls were distinguished and honoured features. When the oak was reached the two white bulls were bound to the tree, and the Chief Druid, clothed in white, ascended the tree, and, with a knife of gold, cut the sacred parasite from the bark. Other priests, standing below, would catch the branches of mistletoe in the folds of their robes. The bulls and the human victims were then sacrificed, and high festival followed.
Great value was apparently set upon the sprigs thus ceremoniously cut. Over the entrance to a dwelling a tiny spray would be hung, as a means of propitiating the deities of the forest during the season of frost and cold.
An effort has been made to establish as fact that Druidism in Man approximated itself more closely to the faith of Druidical co-religionists in Ireland, rather than in Britain, with a view of showing that there were no human sacrifices in Ireland or in Man.
But why this effort to exonerate Druidism in Man from a supposed stigma? Religion, like love and the sea, ebbs and flows, and abnegation is as characteristic of devout faith and profound attachment as aggression and assertion.
The sacrifice of a man, woman, or child was regarded by most nations laying claim to high civilization as the most acceptable form of homage by a human being to the Creator. The East was full of it, and even among newly-discovered races in America, as Prescott shows, there were the same ceremonious offerings to the gods. Human sacrifice was an essential feature of the Hebrew code. It lies at the very root of the Christian faith.
To the Druids it was no less a great act of propitiation. In any event, it is less easy to dispose of the supposed stigma of human sacrifice offered to the Most High than the ridiculous tittle-tattle of the scandalous old chronicler who reports, as a tale he had heard, that in Ireland at this time -and presumably in Man-we were cannibals with enormous appetites, with a special relish for the flesh of our defunct parents!
If the Druidical priests were the force they are represented to be in all the old histories, they were not merely the fountain-head of all religion: they had arrogated to themselves every sacerdotal, priestly, and magisterial function. To the priest every dispute was referred, and no personal controversy was too private for his intervention.
Altogether, the story of the Druids in Man makes a pretty tale. Historians in times long past found that the period offered unlimited scope for the gentle play of imagination, and each seems to have added, out of the richness of his own fancy, a little variation to the beautiful tale of wonder.
The pity of it all is that we have no reliable knowledge that the Druids ever touched Man at all, or, in the alternative, if they did, that they were ever anything more in Man than they were in Ireland-a mere species of wizards, enchanters, or sorcerers, without any organization worthy of the name of a hierarchy, or distinguishable as a separate class or cult.
Neither is there any proof that the old stone structures which archŠologists assumed to be Druidical altars were ever dedicated to such a purpose. Stonehenge itself is not wholly free from the shadow of suspicion.
In truth, after centuries, in which we have been confidently adding fancy to fact and fact to fancy, we emerge at length to find that we know a great deal less than any previous generation of historians and archŠologists fondly placed to our credit.