Nature Worship has been regarded as the foundation of all religions. Aristotle left this remarkable saying, "When we try to reach the Infinite and the Divine by means of mere abstract terms, are we even now better than
children trying to place a ladder against the sky?" Early man could not
avoid anthropomorphizing the Deity. The god could show himself. He
could walk, talk, come down, go up. Earlier still, man saw the
reflection of the godhead in the sun, the storm, or the productive
Boscawen writes--"The religion of Assyria was in constitution essentially a Nature worship; its Pantheon was composed of
deifications of Nature powers. In this opinion I know I differ
considerably from other Assyriologists, Mr. Sayce, M. Lenormant and
others being of opinion that the system was one of solar worship." An
author speaks of "one great surge of voluptuous Nature worship that
swept into Europe."
According to Pliny--"The world and sky, in whose embrace all things are enclosed, must be deemed a god, eternal, immense, never begotten, and never to perish. To seek things
beyond this is of no profit to man, and they transcend the limits of his faculties." Not a few learned men of our day are satisfied with Pliny's principles.
That Nature worship is a natural impulse, has been well illustrated in a pretty story told of a little English girl, whose father was expected home from sea, and who was seen to take up some water from a basin near her, and say, "Beautiful water! send home my father here."
We have a right to assume that our island races, existing in the country long before the arrival of Celts in the west, did indulge in Nature worship, and continued to do so long after they came to these shores. Even Canute, at the end of a thousand years after Christ, found occasion to say, that "they worship heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or rivers, water, wells or stones, or forest trees of any kind."
Baron d'Holbach said, "The word Gods has been used to express the concealed, remote, unknown causes of the effects he (man) witnessed." And Dormer's Origin of Primitive Superstitions declared that, "If monotheism had been an original doctrine, traces of such a belief would have remained among all peoples." Lubbock considered the Andaman Islanders "have no idea of a Supreme Being." Professor Jodi talks of "the day on which man began to become God." Dr. Carus, while affirming that "the anthropomorphic idol is doomed before the tribunal of science," says, "The idea of God is and always has been a moral idea."
Pictet observes, "There existed very anciently in Ireland a particular worship, which, by the nature of its doctrines, by the character of its symbols, by the names even of its gods, lies near to that religion of the Cabirs of Samothracia, emanating probably from Phœnicia." He thought the Phœnicians introduced it into Erin, the Muc Innis, or Holy Isle. Of this system, Bryant's Ancient Mythology has much to relate.
A French author held that the Celtic religion was based upon a belief in the dual powers of good and evil in perpetual strife; and that the Irish associated with this a contradictory pantheism and naturalism, as in the Theogony of Hesiod.
Certainly the Irish called sea, land, or trees to witness to their oaths.
The Four Masters had this passage--"Laeghaire took oaths by the sun, and the wind, and all the elements, to the Leinster men, that he would never come against them, after setting him at liberty." The version in the Leabhar-na-Uidhri is that "Laeghaire swore by the sun and moon, the water and the air, day and night, sea and land, that he would never again, during life, demand the Borumean tribute of the Leinster men."
O'Beirne Crowe, at the Archaeological Association, 1869, declared the poem Faeth Fiada pre-Christian; adding, "That the pagan Irish worshipped and invoked, as did all other pagan people, the personified powers of Nature, as well as certain natural objects, is quite true."
The Irish prayer, in the Faeth Fiada, runs thus--"I beseech the waters to assist me. I beseech Heaven and Earth, and Cronn (a river) especially. Take you hard warfare against them. May sea-pouring not abandon them till the work of Fene crushes them on the north mountain Ochaine." And then we are told that the water rose, and drowned many. This prayer was said to have been used by Cuchulainn, when pressed hard by the forces of Medb, Queen of the Connachta.
If the Palæolithic man be allowed to have been susceptible to the impressions of Nature, the mixture of many races, driven one upon another in the western corner of Europe, and so coming in contact with some higher influences, could not be imagined without impulses of devotion to the mighty and mysterious forces of Nature.
Our knowledge of so-called Celtic religion has been largely derived from Cæsar and other Roman authorities. These, imbued with Italian ideas, were not very reliable observers. They saw Jupiter in one Celtic deity;
Mars, Minerva, Apollo, and Mercury in others. They knew the people after relations, more or less intimate, with visitors or traders from more enlightened lands. They were acquainted with Iberians, Germans, and Celts in Gaul, but only partially with those across the Channel, until Christianity had made some way. The wilder men of those nationalities, in Ireland and Northern Scotland, were little known; these, at any rate, had not quite the same mythology as Romans saw in Gaul.
It may be granted that the traditional opinions of the Irish would be more safely conveyed to us through their early literature, rude as that might be, and capable of conflicting interpretations,--historical or mythological. In spite of the obscurity of Fenian and other poets of that remote age, their writings do furnish a better key to the religion of Erin, than theories founded upon the remarks, of Roman writers respecting Gaulish divinities. It must,
however, be conceded that, in the main, Ireland consisted of varieties of the three great ethnological divisions of Gaul, commonly classed as Iberian, German, and Celtic, and inherited something from each.
A difficulty. springs up from the language in which this early poets wrote. Like our English tongue, the Irish passed through many phases,
and the reading thereof has occasioned much contention among translators The early introduction of Latin, Norman-French, and English increased the obscurity, and hampered the labours of copyists in the
Middle Ages, as was the case with that composite language known now as Welsh.
The god most prominently set forth in early Irish missionary records, in the Lives of the Saints, and in the ancient Bards, is Crom, Cromm Cruach or Cenn Crûach, the bleeding head; or Cromm Cruaich, the Crooked or Bent One of the Mound. As Crom-cruaghair, the great Creator, he has, by some writers, been identified with the
Persian Kerum Kerugher. Crom has been rendered great; and Cruin, the thunderer. One considers Cromleac as the altar of the Great God. He is also known as Ceancroitihi, and the head of all gods. Cromduff-Sunday,
kept early in August, was the festival of Black Crom.
He figures in the several Lives of St. Patrick. At the touch of the Saint's sacred staff of Jesus, his image fell to the ground. He is associated with Mag Slecht, a mound near Ballymagauran, of Tullyhead Barony, County Cavan. The Welsh god Pen Crug or Cruc, Chief of the Mound, answered to the Irish deity. He was certainly the Sun-god, for his image was
surrounded by the fixed representations of twelve lesser divinities.
Irish imagination pictured the first of gold, the others of silver. They were certainly stones; and, as Andrew Lang remarks, "All Greek temples had their fetish stone, and each stone had its legend." The one surrounded with the twelve would readily suggest the Sun and the twelve Signs of the Zodiac.
An old reference to Crom has been recorded in Ogham letters, thus translated, "In it Cruach was and twelve idols of stone around him, and himself of gold." In the old book Dinseanchus we read thus of Crom Cruach--"To whom they sacrificed the first-born of every offspring, and the first-born of their children." This record of their heathen fathers must have been, doubtless, a libel in the excess of zeal. The priests of Crom were the Cruim-thearigh.
Instead of gold, one story declares the image was ornamented with bronze, and that it faced the South, or Sun. It was set up in the open air on the Mag Slechta, says Colgan, the Field of Adoration. They who are not Irish or
Welsh scholars have to submit to a great variety of readings and meanings in translators.
The mythology has been thus put into verse by T. D. McGee --
"Their ocean god was Menanan Mac Lir,
Whose angry lips
In their white foam full often would inter
Whole fleets of ships.
Crom was their Day god; and their Thunderer,
Made morning and eclipse;
Bride was their queen of song, and unto her
They prayed with fire-touched lips."
Professor Rhys has an explanation of Cromm Cruaich as the Crooked or Bent one of the Mound; saying--"The pagan sanctuary had been so long falling into decay, that of the lesser idols only their heads were to be seen above ground, and that the idol of Cenn Cruaich, which meant the Head or Chief of the Mound, was slowly hastening to its fall, whence the story of its having had an invisible blow dealt it by St. Patrick."
The Mother of the Irish gods,--the Bona Dea of Romans--appears to have been the Morrigan, to whom the white-horned bull was sacred. She was the Great Queen. Some old poet had sung, "Anu is her name; and it is from
her is called the two paps above Luachair." From her paps she was believed to feed the other deities, and hence became Mother of the gods. According to another, she was the goddess of battle with the Tuatha, and one of the wives of the Great Dagda. She was thought to have her home in the Sighi, or fairy palaces.
The Bona Dea of Rome is said to have been Hyperborean. Hence, observes Crowe, it may have been Ireland that gave the goddess and her worship to the Romans. As Ann, she may have been the goddess of wealth. Rea or Reagh: was, also, Queen of Heaven. Not a few crescents have been found in the neighbourhood of Castle-reagh. Dr. Keating calls the Moriagan, Badha, and Macha the three chief goddesses of the Tuath de Danaans.
Her white-horned bull of Cruachan, Find-bennach, was in direct opposition to the brown bull of Cualnge. She was the goddess of prosperity. She occasionally appeared in the shape of a bird and addressed the bull
Dond. She is the Mor Riogan, and identified with Cybele.
The Female Principle was adored by the old Irish in various forms. As the Black Virgin, she is the dark mould, or matter, from whose virgin material all things proceed. She is the Ana-Perema, of the Phœnicians, and the queen of women. She may be the Brid, Bride or Bridget, goddess of wisdom, but daughter of the Druid Dubhthach. Several goddesses are like the Indian Dawn goddesses. Aine, or circle, was mother of all gods. Ri, or Rol, says Rhys, was "the mother of the gods of the non-Celtic race."
The Celtic Heus or Esus was a mysterious god of Gaul. The Irish form was Aesar, meaning, he who kindles a fire, and the Creator. In this we are reminded of the Etruscan Aesar, the Egyptian sun bull Asi, the Persian Aser, the Scandinavian Aesir, and the Hindoo Aeswar. The Bhagavat-Gita says of the last that "he resides in every mortal."
Hesus was acknowledged in the British Isles. In one place he is represented with a hatchet, cutting down a tree. As the Breton Euzus, the figure is not attractive looking. Dom Martin styles Esus or Hesus "the Jehovah of the Gauls." He was, perhaps, the Aesar, or Living One, of the Etruscans. Leflocq declares, "Esus is the true god of the Gauls, and stands for them the Supreme Being, absolute and free." The name occurs on an altar erected in the time of the Emperor Tiberius, which was found in 1711 under the choir of Notre Dame, Paris.
Sun-gods were as common in Ireland as in other lands. Under the head of "Sun-worship" the subject is discussed; but some other references may be made in this place.
The Irish sun-gods, naturally enough, fought successfully in summer, and the Bards give many illustrations of their weakness in winter. Sun heroes were not precisely deities, as they were able to go down to Hades.
Aengus, the young sun, whose foster-father was Mider, King of the Fairies, was the protector of the Dawn goddess Etain, whom he discreetly kept in a glass grianan or sun-bower, where he sustained her being most delicately on the fragrance and bloom of flowers. His father was the great god Dagda.
Sun-gods have usually golden hair, and are given to shooting off arrows (sunbeams), like Chaldæan ones. As a
rule, they are not brought up by their mothers; one, in fact, was first discovered in a pig-sty. They grow very rapidly, are helpers and friends of mankind, but are engaged everywhere in ceaseless conflicts with the gods or demons of darkness.
The Irish sun-gods had chariots, like those of the East. They indulged in the pleasures of the chase, and of fighting, but were more given to the pursuit of Erin's fairest daughters. Occasionally they made improper acquaintance with darker beings, and were led into trouble thereby.
Grian was the appellation of the sun, and Carneach for the priest of the solar deity. Strabo mentions a temple in Cappadocia to Apollo Grynæus. Ovid notes a goddess called by the ancients Grane. The Phrygians had a god Grynæus.
Grane and Baal both refer to the sun. J. T. O'Flaherty regarded the Irish word Grian as pure Phœnician. The Four Masters inform their readers that "the monarch Laogaire had sworn ratha-Greine agus Gavithe"; that is, by the sun and wind. Breaking his oath, he was killed by those divinities. Eusebius held that Usous, King of Tyre,
erected two pillars for worship to the sun and wind.
It has been affirmed by an Erse scholar, that the Irish Coté worshipped the sun under forty different names. Dal-greine, or sun standard, was the banner of the reputed Fingal. Daghda was an Apollo, or the sun. He was
also the god of fire.
The Phœnicians have been credited as the introducers of Irish solar deities. Sir S. Rush Meyrick held their
origin in these Islands from Arkite sun-worship: Tydain was the Arkite god, the Lord of Mystery. H. O'Brien, in Phœnician Ireland, Dublin, 1822, spoke of the Irish word Sibbol as "a name by which the Irish, as well as almost all other nations, designated and worshipped Cybele;" sibola, an ear of corn, being a symbol of Ceres and Cybele of the Phœnicians. Several supposed Phœnician relics, especially swords, have been discovered in Ireland.
The Gaulish Belenus was known over these Islands. In his temples at Bayeux and at Bath there were images
of the Solar god. He was adored, too, at Mont St. Michel. A remnant of his worship is seen in the custom of maids washing their faces in May-morn dew, and then mounting a hill to see the sunrise. According to
Schedius, the word may be rendered 2 + 8 + 30 + 5 + 50 + 70 + 200 or 365, the period in days of the sun's annual round. The solar Hercules was represented in Irish by Ogmian or Ogham. The god of light was ever
god of the Heavens.
Belenus was Belus or Belis, from belos, an arrow, or ray, and therefore a form of Apollo. As Apollo-Belinus, he
was the young Sun, armed with arrows or rays, and was exhibited as a young man without beard, and rays round his head. As Apollo-Abelios, he was the old or winter sun, having no rays. The Breton god was
Beletucadrus--Mars and Apollo being identical. The votive altar at St. Lizier bears the names of Minerva and Belisana. Baron Chaudruc-de-Crazannes, writing upon Belisana, goddess of the Gauls, observes that Cæsar "had found in Esus, Taranis, Teutates, Camulus, Belisana, an identity with Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo, Mars, and Minerva, of Greeks and Romans." Belisana, without lance or shield, was called the Queen of Arrows, i. e. the solar rays. She was represented as thinking profoundly.
Samhan, literally servant, is derived from Sam, the sun; so, samh-an, like the sun. As the Irish Pluto, he is guardian of the Dead. As such, he would receive the prayers for souls on Hallow Eve. The Arab schams is the sun. Cearas, god of fire, has a feminine equivalent in Ceara, goddess of Nature. As the horse was a symbol of the sun, we are not surprised to see it associated with the god Cunobelin of Gaul, who had the sun's face, with locks of hair. The Gaulish Cernunnos appeared as an old man with horns on his head.
Le Blanc, in Etude sur le Symbolisme Druidique, asserts that the name of Bal-Sab proves that Bâl, Bel, or Beal is the same as the Irish Samhan. Bâl is the personification. of the sacred fire become visible. The year, the work of Samhan, the Sun, was known as the Harmony of Beal. Samhan, adds Le Blanc, "was that idol which the King of Ireland adored after the name of head of all the gods." In the Psalms we read, "They join themselves to Baal-Peor, and eat the sacrifice of the dead." This was true of many ancient countries, and may; perhaps, be applied to Ireland.