The Ancient Mysteries

Ireland, from its remote position and immunity from Roman conquest, remained longer in the possession of the Druidic mysteries than any other nation of Europe. Besides, the early missionaries adopted no intolerant measures against the ancient creed; no persecutions are recorded. The sacred trees were not cut down, nor the sacrificial stones destroyed; but the holy wells and the antique monuments were sanctified by association with a saint's name and history, and from being objects of pagan idolatry became shrines of prayer and centres of holy worship, where enlightened men preached the new gospel of light, purity, and love to an awe-struck, wondering multitude.

To this tolerant policy, as Mr. Windell, the learned antiquary, remarks, may be attributed the strong endurance of Druidic superstitions and usages in Ireland. Much also is due to the peculiar and truly Oriental tenacity with which the Irish at all times have clung to the customs and traditions of their forefathers. The belief in a fairy race ever present amongst them and around them, is one of these ineffaceable superstitions which the people still hold with a faith as fervent as those of the first Aryan tribes who wandered westward from the mystic East, where all creeds, symbols, and myths had their origin.

Many other broken fragments of the early ritual of the world can also still be traced in the popular superstitions and usages of the people. The sun and moon with the mysterious powers of nature were the first gods of humanity. Astarte, Ashtaroth, and Isis were all the same moon-goddess under different names, and all were represented by the symbol of the horned cow. The Egyptians typified the sun and moon, Osiris and Isis, as the ox and the cow: and these symbols were still used at the Irish wake ceremonial until very recently: for the Druids also worshipped the sun and moon and the winds, and venerated trees, fountains, rivers, and pillar stones, like their Persian ancestry. But the Irish considered the east wind demoniacal, the Druidic wind of accursed power. They called it "The Red Wind," "A wind that blasts the trees and withers men is that Red Wind," according to a bard.

The Hindus had their triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, representing the sun at morning, noon, and evening; so the Irish Druids had their triad of Baal, Budh, and Grian, and they called the May festival Lá Budha na Baal tinne (the day of Buddha of the Baal fires). Chrishna was another Hindu name for the sun, and the Irish had Crias, a name for the sun likewise.

The Hindus had their cattle, or cow festival in spring, when they walked round the animals with great ceremony, always going westward, while they flung garlands on their horns. So in Ireland there was also a procession, when the cows were decorated with vervain and the rowan, and were sprinkled with the Sgaith-an-Tobar (the purity of the well), that is, the first water drawn from a sacred well after midnight on May Eve. This was considered an effective antidote to witchcraft, and whoever succeeded in being first at the well, cast into it a tuft of grass, called Cuisheag grass, to show that the Sgaith-an-Tobar had been abstracted, So also the Hindus esteem the Cusha grass as sacred, and cast it into their wells for a like purpose. The ceremonial of wreathing the horns of the cows was in honour of the moon, the wife of the Sun-god, whose emblem, as we know, all through the East, as in Ireland, was the horned cow.

Many and strange, indeed, are the analogies between the practices of the Egyptians, Hindus, Persians, and the Irish; and the legend may, after all, have some truth in it which brings the first Colonists of Ireland from Egypt, and makes the first Queen of Erin a daughter of Pharaoh. The ancient war-cry of the Irish clans was Pharrah! a word that has no significance in the Irish language, but which is supposed by some antiquarians to be the same as Phi-Ra, the sun—the regal title of the Egyptian kings, by which they were invoked by the warriors as they rushed into battle.

The ancient funeral ceremonies of Egypt can be still seen and studied at the wake of an Irish peasant; especially in that singular symbol, when a man and a woman appeared, one bearing the head of an ox, the other that of a cow at the funeral games; a custom which has now lost all its meaning, but which originally, no doubt, represented Isis and Osiris waiting to receive the soul of the dead.

The Persians held that fire and water were the most sacred of all things and so did the Irish; hence their reverence for the waters of purification at the holy wells. And as the heathen passed their children and cattle through the fire to Moloch, so the Irish performed the same rite at the Baal festival, when the young men leaped through the flames, and the cattle were driven through the hot embers. Fire was held to be the visible symbol of the invisible God, endowed with mystic cleansing powers, and the ascending flame was thought to be a divine spirit dwelling in the substance ignited. For this reason the Irish made a circle of fire round their children and their cattle to guard them from evil, holding the belief that no evil spirit could pass this special emblem of divinity.

But even in matters less divine there was a similarity between the Persian and Irish usages. The Persian Magi made a considerable revenue from the sacred fire; for each devotee paid a silver coin for the ember carried away from the holy temple, to light the home fire on the day of the Sun-festival. And fire was also a source of wealth to the Druid priests; each person being obliged to buy it from them on the great day of Baal. Therefore it was a sin to give away fire on that day; and the habit of borrowing it to light the home fire was denounced as fatal and unlucky. The true reason being that to borrow the sacred element was to injure the priestly revenue. Yet this ancient ordinance is still religiously observed in Ireland; and even to this day no peasant would venture to give away fire or milk on May Day, for fear of the worst consequences to the giver; while any one who came to borrow a lighted brand would be looked on as an emissary of Satan.

The sacred fire of Tara (Tamhair-na-Righ, Tara of the Kings) was only lit every three years, and then with great ceremony. The sun's rays were concentrated by means of a brazen lens, on some pieces of dried wood, and from this alone were all the sacred fires in Ireland kindled in the holy places.

At the present time, if a peasant has to light a fire in the house on May morning, which does not often happen, as the custom is to keep the fire burning all night, a lighted sod taken from the priest's house is esteemed of great virtue and sacredness, just as in old time a lighted brand from the altar of Baal was used to light the domestic fire.

The sacred fire was also obtained from the friction of wood, or the striking of stones: and it was supposed that the spirits of fire dwelt in these objects, and when the priest invoked them to appear, they brought good luck to the household for the coming year; but if invoked by other hands on that special day their influence was malific.