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Landmarks of the Druids

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We must remind ourselves how very little we know about the ancient druids themselves. They are first heard of in Gaul somewhere about 200 b.c., and it is clear from Caesar's account of them a hundred and fifty years later that they were a powerful and semi-political priesthood at the time of the Gallic War; but after the beginning of the Christian Era we find that the Roman occupation of Gaul had broken this power and that as an organized body they were of no account at all. Thus after a century or two they cease even to be mentioned, save as disreputable magicians who doubtless lingered in remote places as purveyors of the old native lore. Caesar's testimony is incomparably the most precious statement about the early druids that we possess; but though he describes the priests and their religion he has not told us many things that we now want to know. For one thing, he never tells us where the druids worshipped, and he does not tell us what ceremonies they observed; nor does he tell us anything about druids in Britain. He seemed to think that druidism originated in Britain; but he never mentions British druids, and it is a strange thing that we do not even hear of them in the biography of the great general Agricola, who was seven years in Britain. In fact we only hear once of British druids, and that in a single and not nattering reference to them by Tacitus when he is describing the Roman raid on Anglesey in a.d. 60.

None of the later writers adds much to this little stock of information, but Pliny, who was interested in magic, describes the ceremony of the mistletoe-gathering, and his tale of the golden sickle and the white-robed priests sounds very impressive. The description of this rite is in accord with the general notion held by these later writers that the druids worshipped not in temples but in groves; there is, however, no decisive statement on that point. All we know in addition to this is that the name druid survived until the fourth century a.d., and that right up to early medieval times "druids" or wise-men were still to be found in Ireland. But from beginning to end there is no authoritative account of the druidic temples and the worship that was conducted therein.

Another point to be remembered is that the greater part of the present-day renown of the druids, and the fact that their name is so widely known even among simple country folk who have never read any history or archaeology, is certainly not due to the persistence of a folk-memory of the ancient priests, that is to say a wonderful tradition of them that had lasted through all the ages. On the contrary, it is directly due to a movement that was started by antiquaries of the eighteenth century and was fostered by the Romantic Movement. Men were tired of the classical legends and were beginning to explore Celtic literature, so that when the antiquaries Aubrey and Stukeley suddenly declared that it was the druids who had built the stone circles and stone chambers to be seen in various parts of the country, the idea was accepted with general enthusiasm on all sides. "Druids' Temples" and "Druids' Altars" were discovered all over the country; and it was not long before some over-enthusiastic folk claimed that they had found the secret doctrines of ancient druidism preserved in the writings of the Welsh bards. This religion was called Neo-druidism, and it was identified with the patriarchal religion of Abraham, so that the new druidism was held to have a semi-biblical authority and became popular.

Modern archaeology has established beyond all reasonable doubt that the majority of the stone monuments now called druids' altars and druids' temples are in reality far, far older than the druids of the first few centuries before Christ. Most of the so-called "altars," in fact, are huge stone chambers -boxlike structures originally covered by a mound of earth or rubble-that served an older prehistoric folk as tombs. Their date lies somewhere about 2,000 b.c., and unless they have been pillaged of their contents by treasure - seekers, they are found to contain the bones and ashes of this ancient folk accompanied by pottery and simple implements of stone and bone-very occasionally metal-that are undeniable proof of their high antiquity. Moreover, it is equally certain that some at least of the stone circles were also burial-places of the same people (the evidence from Scotland is decisive on this point), and though it is not possible to speak with conviction about all stone circles, it is clear that the utmost caution must be exercised before we venture to claim them as druidic.

On this same subject there is another word to be said, and that is that there is no evidence whatever in favour of a druidic origin of these stone structures to be derived from place-names. For instance, Stanton Drew is the name of one famous circle, but Drew has nothing to do with druid; it is merely the name of a former owner of the manor, as can be quite easily proved. Cerrig-y-Drudion, often misspelt Cerrig-y-Druidion, is another glaring example, for there were once the remains of some kind of stone monument there; but here again "drudion" (the plural of the Welsh "drud," meaning brave man or hero) has nothing to do with "druid."

All this may seem to suggest that we shall be hard put to it to find any druid landmarks at all, and it must be freely admitted that there is no monument of any kind in the British Isles or elsewhere that can be proved to have been the scene of druidic worship. But there is, nevertheless, something to be said on the other side. We do not know, for instance, the age and purpose of all the stone circles; some may be much later in date than most archaeologists seem to imagine, and thus may very well belong to druidic times.

It is possible that druidism was only a new form of the native prehistoric religion, and if that is so, what is more likely than that the sanctity of the ancient circle-rites should have been preserved by the priests of later days? Indeed, in some districts these circles may have been copied, for all we know, to serve as artificial groves. The probability is, on the whole, against this theory of the druidic use of the circles; but it is important to be on our guard against a too reckless desire to rob the druids of all the glory with which they have been invested in the last two centuries.

Stonehenge provides a rather interesting test of this point of view. Everyone is familiar with the present appearance of this extraordinary monument; it consists of a ring, 108 feet in diameter, of hewn sarsen stones with imposts, or lintels, across their tops, and an inner ring of rough "blue stones"; these two circles enclose a horseshoe of giant tri-lithons with an inner horseshoe of small " blue stones "and a recumbent" altar-stone "in the central apse. Surrounding this building is a circular earthwork consisting of a ditch and vallum with a diameter of 300 feet, and from this leads a broad avenue of approach bounded by a low earthwork.

The avenue is directly opposite the mouth of the horseshoe, and it is common knowledge that this faces a point of the horizon at which the sun rises at midsummer; in the avenue, and not far from the monument, stands a solitary stone called the Friar's Heel. But this is not all, for in the wide empty space between the building and the vallum excavation has recently established the existence of a series of deep round holes in the chalk that look as though they must be the sockets of three concentric stone circles that were demolished in very early times.

There is not the least doubt about the great antiquity of the site; the excavation of the ditch and the socket-holes in the ground has proved absolutely that these features were in existence at least as early as 2,000-1,500 b.c.; and it is known that the "blue stones," that come from the Prescelly Mountains in Pembrokeshire and now form part of the existing building, were brought hither at this early date.

Clearly, then, Stonehenge cannot under any circumstances have a druidic origin; but it has to be admitted by any honest inquirer that it is impossible as yet to prove that the actual building we see to-day was set up in its final form at this distant period. Architecturally, the present structure is in many ways peculiar; the care with which the sarsen stones have been dressed, the mortise-and-tenon arrangement that secures the cross-pieces to the uprights, and, above all, the "elevation" (in the architectural sense) of the building, distinguish it absolutely from all the surviving stone monuments of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age times.

It would be a little presumptuous, therefore, to rule the druids out until we can be quite certain that the existing monument was set up before their day. The very fact that there are stones on the site brought all the way from Wales shows that even in the early period the place had much more than a mere local significance, and it is not too much to suppose that this almost national importance persisted even through the far-reaching cultural and ethnological changes that preceded the birth of druidism in Britain. It is conceivable, even, that the druids accepted this traditional sanctity of the place, and themselves constructed the present building on the old circle site, perhaps as an answer to the challenge of temple-building Greece and Rome. A suggestion of this kind is admittedly a dangerous and difficult hypothesis, but until a fuller knowledge of the archaeology of Stonehenge is forthcoming it seems, on the whole, to be an hypothesis that champions of the druids may reasonably entertain.

It must be confessed, however, that no claim of this kind can be considered on behalf of the great rings at Avebury, a village in the north of Wiltshire, on the road between Devizes and Swindon, and a mile or so off the Bath Road. Here, in an enormous earthwork three-quarters of a mile in circumference and about fifteen feet high, with a ditch originally thirty feet deep on its inner side, was a great circle of gigantic stones with a diameter of about 1,100 feet. In this enclosed area were two pairs of smaller concentric stone circles, and in the centre of one pair was a ruined stone chamber (suggesting a burial), while in the centre of the other was a single upright stone. Outside the great rampart there was an avenue, flanked by two rows of stones, which lead in a south-easterly direction for a distance of about 1,430 yards. All the stones in the circles and avenue are of unhewn sarsen. Many of them have now disappeared, and the fact that a very delightful village now occupies part of the enclosure makes it rather difficult to realize what a huge and remarkable structure Avebury must have been.

At Avebury, unlike Stonehenge, the sarsens, despite their size, represent the ordinary megalithic architecture, so there is nothing to suggest that they are later in date than the ditch and vallum surrounding them, and it has been proved by excavation that the ditch had already been dug in the Early Bronze Age, if not in the Stone Age itself. Moreover, it is said that a burial of the Early Bronze Age was found at the foot of one of the stones, so that there is every reason for supposing that the Avebury rings Were in existence at least a thousand years before the time of the druids. It cannot be proved, of course, that the druids in their own day did not utilise the site, but it is obviously the merest fancy to suppose that they did so.

These remarks apply to many of the other famous "druidical" circles of Britain, and notably to Arbor Low in Derbyshire, a circle of boulders with a diameter of 350 feet surrounded by a rampart and a ditch. Here there was a tumulus of the Bronze Age partly resting upon the vallum, while two flint arrowheads found in excavating the ditch confirm the early date of the surrounding earthwork.

On the other hand, there is only presumptive evidence in favour of this high antiquity for the famous circles of Stanton Drew in Somerset, the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, or the best known of the Cumberland monuments, Long Meg and Her Daughters. This last is a rather irregularly-shaped ring of sixty-eight stones that measures 360 feet in its longest diameter. Long Meg herself, an upright stone twelve feet high with curious cup-and-ring markings carved upon it, stands about sixty feet outside the ring, and there is an obvious opening or gateway in the circumference of the circle opposite to her. It is said that two cairns once stood within the great ring, but it is not quite certain whether they were burial-places or clearance heaps.

There are numerous stone circles in Scotland and Ireland, some of them being very remarkable monuments indeed. Among these the Lough Gur and Carrigalla circles in Ireland are as interesting and as important as any in England except Stonehenge and Avebury; but the Scottish circles seem to be better known, and one of the most famous of these is at Callernish in the Isle of Lewis. This is composed of thirteen stones ranging from twelve to fifteen feet in height, and is forty-two feet in diameter; in the centre of the ring stands a single upright seventeen feet high and five and a half feet broad at the base. Inside the circle in the eastern half was a chambered cairn in which were found traces of burial after cremation.

It has been suggested that this grave was a later addition, and not part of the original structure, but this was not the opinion of Dr. Joseph Anderson, a great Scottish archaeologist, who thought that the circle and the funerary chamber in it were built as a single monument. From the circle there are lines of stones, one of them double, radiating outwards to the east, west, south and north-northeast; this gives the monument a total length of 408 feet. In this instance there is said to have been a tradition of druidical worship on the site that can be traced back to the year 1700.

It is not only stone circles and chambers (now known to be graves) that are popularly called druidical remains. Most of the megalithic buildings of whatever kind have been attributed at one time or another to the druids, and among these other sites are the alignments of stones that are still a complete puzzle to the archaeologist. Since no one can say with certainty for what purpose they were set up, it is inevitable that the druids should appear as claimants for the honour of having erected them, though, in reality, there is nothing to justify the view that alignments are of a druidic origin.

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