Irish Crosses

WHO could write the history of the Cross? It is the most ancient, and the most deeply reverenced of all religious symbols. To the men dwelling beside the Nile or the Euphrates, to the inhabitants of India to the East and of Mexico to the West, to those sojourners in Egypt before the Great Pyramid was built, not less than to modern Christians, the Cross, whatever may have been the meaning attached to it, in the ever-changing systems of faith, has been a source of wonder, of mystery, and of comfort.

When the Christians assaulted the Osirian temple at Alexandria, and with destructive force entered its sacred precincts, they saw a huge cross occupying the marble pavement. Great, too, was the surprise of the Spaniards to find the same emblem in the temples of aboriginal America. The Tau or Cross meets one's view in the ornamental relics of many lands.

Ancient Ireland was no exception in the display of cruciform objects.

The Edinburgh Review of 1870 truly said, "It appears to have been the possession of every people in antiquity; the elastic girdle, so to speak, which embraced the most widely-separated heathen communities; the most significant token of a universal brotherhood." It can, it adds, be traced "to the remotest antiquity, and is still recognized as a military and national badge of distinction."

The Rev. A. Hislop, in his Two Babylons, boldly asserts that "the cross was known to Adam." It is strange that the chosen people should have preserved no tradition of it, and that the only mention of it in the Old Testament (Ezek. ix.) should be a mark or tau on the forehead of idolaters, as may be seen to this day in the bazaars of India. Baring-Gould thinks "it is more than a coincidence that Osiris, by the Cross, should give life eternal to the spirits of the just." Is he not here confounding the archetypical emblem with the antitypical?

Oliver, the authority on Freemasonry, ventures this connection between Pagan and Christian crosses—"The system of salvation through the atonement of a crucified Mediator was the main pillar of Freemasonry ever since the Fall." (!) Were this true, Popes need not have excommunicated the Brotherhood.

The Spaniards saw the Indians bowing to the cross in worship. It has been found on the breasts of statuettes from the Indian cemetery of Jingalpa, Nicaragua, of unknown antiquity. Tablets of gypsum, in Mexico, bore it in the form of that cross adopted by the Knights in Malta. The Peruvians and Babylonians had the Maltese cross. The Druids were said to have made their cross of the stem and two branches of the oak.

The Buddhist tau or Swastika is a cross—having sometimes a Calvary, with buds and leaves. The Tree of Immortality in the palace of Assyrian Khorsabad forms a cross. Etruria and Pompeii exhibit the same symbol. The Reviewer of 1870 says, "Our commonplace book contains nearly two hundred distinct representations of the Pre-Christian Cross."

Only in recent days have British Protestants cared to use the cross. Now it may be seen on and in Methodist and Nonconformist chapels. It was once thought distinctly Papal in origin. But Tertullian, Jerome, and Origen, notify its use in their day. Processions in its honour were known in the fifth century. Cyprian records its use on the brow in baptism. The first Protestant Prayer-book (Edward VI.) ordered its mark on the infant's breast and forehead. The whole Christian world has either bowed to it, or raised but a feeble voice against its use.

Ireland has been, and is, the very land of crosses. Long before St. Patrick came to its shores, wise men from the East had brought it in Mediterranean galleys.

What did the Irish think of the Cross? What elevating ideas did it convey to them? Was the Pre-Christian emblem anything to the mass of the natives, or pertaining only to the foreign settlers encamped upon their coast? Did Irish Druids, mixing more with the people, adore the Cross, as was the custom with British Druids?

To the Christianized Irish, whether Culdees or not, it was the symbol of the once suffering but now exalted One. In bowing to it they beheld the image of their Saviour, and indulged the hope of a happier Home Beyond. If the heathen cross came to them from the East, it was from the East it afterwards approached them with a higher and nobler faith.

The pagan crosses being just the same in appearance as those subsequently introduced by Christian missionaries, we may reasonably be puzzled to distinguish one class from the other. Dr. Graves, Bishop of Limerick, compared Irish and Coptic crosses. "These," said he, "were brought into both Egypt and Ireland from Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Byzantium." He found oriental crosses with or without circles on Ogham Irish monuments.

Wakeman, in his Irish Inscribed Crosses, believes they "were used by the people of Erin as a symbol of some significance, at a period long antecedent to the mission of St Patrick." Rubbings from the stones on the Island of Inismurray, of Sligo, overlooking the Atlantic, led him to say—"We have the elements of all, or nearly all, spirals, chevrons, lozenges, cups and dots, crosslets, foliage, cable, wavy and other mouldings, upon cinerary urns, golden or bronze ornaments and implements, and most notably upon megalithic structures, associated with the practice of cremation, all of which are beyond the range of Western history."

Pre-Christian crosses he identifies at Dowth and New Grange upon the Boyne, Knockmany of Tyrone, Deer Park of Fermanagh, Cloverhill of Sligo, Slieve-na-Calliagh near Lough Crew of Meath. These are like the heathen inscriptions in Scotia Minor or Lesser Ireland, which we know now as Scotland.

Tuath-de-Danaan crosses are associated with Snakes, and are not likely to be Christian ones. The Tuath ones resemble those of Buddhist countries. That at Killcullen, county Kildare, bears the figures of nine Buddhist priests in oriental garb, and even with a sort of Egyptian beard. Keane, of Round Tower story, writes—"Gobban-Saer means the sacred past, or the Freemason sage, one of the Guabhres or Cabiri, such as you have seen him represented on the Tuatha-de-Danaan Cross of Clonmacnoise." The latter was adorned with birds and other animals.

Clonmacnoise was a sacred spot before Christianity came. It is ten miles from Athlone, in King's Co. The North Cross, thirteen feet high, bears carvings of priests or Brehons. The South Cross, twelve feet, has some splendid figures of birds, deer, &c. There are staves, with bunches of leaves. A dog appears among the animals. That would have no meaning with a Christian cross, but the sacredness of that friend of man in Zend books classes that cross among those of oriental origin.

The human figure has an eastern look, fully clothed and crowned. It holds two sceptres crossed in the arms, with crosses at the top. That Clonmacnoise was a sacred spot is evidenced by the two remaining Round Towers there. Its sanctity was continued, though in a Christian channel. Besides the cathedral, there are remains of nine churches. The author of the Round Towers of Ireland is led to exclaim, "Within the narrow limits of two Irish acres, we have condensed more religious ruins of antiquarian value, than are to be found, perhaps, in a similar space in any other quarter of the habitable world."

That writer is disposed to see proofs of some connection between the ancient Irish faith and that of the Zendavesta of Cyrus. Referring to the dog on those crosses, he says—"The personation of a dog—their invariable accompaniment, as it is also found among the sculptures of Persepolis, and in other places in the East—would in itself be sufficient to fix the heathen appropriation of these crosses, as that animal can have no possible relation to Christianity; whereas, by the Tuath de Danaans it was accounted sacred, and its maintenance enjoined by the ordinances of the State."

Buddhist crosses are well known throughout the East. The Rev. Ernest Eitel, of Hongkong, describing one on Amitabha Buddha, writes, "It is exactly the same diagram which you may have seen engraved on ancient church bells in England, and which learned antiquarians invariably declare to be the hammer of Thor (the Scandinavian god of Thunder). Perhaps, also, you remember to have heard that among the German peasantry, and in Ireland, this same figure is used as a magical charm to dispel thunder. Well, you turn to your friend (Chinese). 'What is the meaning of this?' He informs you that it is the mystic shibboleth of the believers in the Western Paradise, an accumulation of lucky signs." Anyhow it had a different significance to that we now recognize in the cross.

One need not be alarmed at the discovery, that not only the Cross, but the Crucifixion, was a sacred symbol many hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Yet, in Christianity, a different and more moral and elevated idea became associated with the figure of a crucifix. Mithras, as the Sun, is represented as crucified at the winter solstice. Vishnu, Buddha, and Indra were, also, said to have been crucified on the cross. The Scandinavians had a crucifixion of the sun ceremony on the shortest day.

Ireland, like other lands, had Pre-Christian crucifixions. The most remarkable one seen by us was that at Glendalough. The Persian head-dress, and the ancient kilt, were observed with the oriental crown. That character was afterwards imitated in Christian times, as some suppose, down to the twelfth century.

Clonmacnoise has the figure fully clothed and crowned. The figures of Knockmoy, Galway, and Cashel wear the kilt of the East. As has been remarked, "The Hindoo Puranas corroborate to an iota this our Knockmoy crucifixion." That of India refers to the death of Sulioahana upon the tree. The Knockmoy figure has the same sort of philibeg, or kilt, as that worn by the arms-extended Deity in Nubia.

Another peculiarity noticed in some of the Irish Pre-Christian illustrations of the Crucifixion is the absence of nails; the legs being bound with cords at the ankles. Cords, also, pass round the chest, and under the arms. The arms are not fully outstretched, but rather hang downward. At Monasterboice the figure is bound by cords. As Keane observed—"Such a mode of representing the crucifixion never could have occurred to the early Irish Christian missionaries and bishops, who are universally allowed to have made the Scriptures their chief study." The crown resembles that worn by the goddess Diana. Keane is pleased to say of the whole—"It represents the Cuthite crucifixions of primeval tradition."

The Irish shrine of St. Manchin led that same writer to add—"The crucified figure in the sculptures from a Persian Rock Temple may assist in explaining the mummy-like figures on the Irish shrine. The similarity of the design would seem to confirm the idea that the figures were intended to signify the inmates of the Ark, undergoing the process of mysterious death, which was supposed to be exhibited in Arkite ceremonies."

O'Brien's Round Towers, which, with the exception of some extravagances, has been largely approved by the learned, alludes to a bronze crucifix, with arms extended, and with an oriental crown and kilt, in these words—"could not have been intended for our Saviour, wanting besides the INRI, and wearing the Iranian royal crown, instead of the Jewish crown of thorns. Therefore we are justified in ascribing it to its owner Buddha, whom again we find imprinted in the same crucified form." The supposed Virgin and John figures on one of the Round Towers, he declares to be Rama and Buddha's mother.

It is singular that the dress of one crucified figure, as worn about the loins, corresponds with that of the fabled crucified Christna. That Christian artists, who, as seen in the beautiful works of ancient Irish art, borrowed so much from the East, should imitate oriental Pre-Christian crucifixions, ought not to surprise us. Christian symbolism is generally borrowed, with new adaptation, from heathen mythology.

Myfyr, the late Welsh Archdruid, has this explanation of the mystery, viz.—"Hu, of light, died on the cross at the equinox, descending to the southern hemisphere, and was re-born at Christmas, when rising toward the northern summer lands."

Scotland, peopled by the same race, on its western side, as Ireland, had the like veneration for stone crosses. Donald Clark, a Gaelic scholar, derives Inverary from the river Aray and Aoradh (worshipped). "This place," says he, "is still called Crois-an-Sleuchdte (kneeling cross), because the pilgrims on arriving there were wont to kneel in prayer. Before, however, they arrived here, they had to ford the river Aray at a point where the cross came in sight, and in sight of the cross they aoradh (worshipped), and the stream was from this association called uisge aoradh (water of worship), not simply aoradh (worship)."

One cross of Kintyre is made of four round bosses, with a fifth in the centre. At Keills, of Kintyre, the cross is highly sculptured. A winged figure appears in the top compartment, and the centre is circular, with three bosses inside, surrounded by four dogs. Captain White finds "the conical or pyramidal weather-cope on so many of the Irish crosses is conspicuously absent in the Scottish examples." He observed, however, that "the primitive kind of four-holed cross, met with in Knapdale (Kintyre) is common to Wales, Cornwall, Cumberland, and other western districts."

His remarks on serpent crosses are as follows—"The representations of serpents, so prevalent in the one set of sculptures (Irish), are almost unknown to the other, though on the eastern pillar-shafts they so frequently appear. I cannot recall a single instance of a serpent delineated on a West Highland ecclesiastical carving in the mainland districts I have traversed; it appears, however, on a cross in Islay, and on one in Iona." The open wheel, so prevalent in Ireland, occurs, according to Captain White, but thrice in Scotland.

Eugene Hucher, in L'Art Gaulois, has some remarkable illustrations of the cross among a kindred people to the Irish across the Channel. It is there associated with the pig, lion, serpent, eagle, winged horse, bird, chariot, pig under a horse, fleur-de-lis, &c. The Gaulish coins have the cross frequently impressed on them.

Some Irish crosses are distinguished by the Buddhist symbol in all sorts of positions. The Triple Tau of India is equally manifest. The Thor's-hammer cross is very common among other Pre-Christian crosses. Fosbroke affirms that there are twenty-two instances of the cross on Ogham stones, but none on the fifty-three inscribed stones in Rath chambers. It is his opinion that "stone crosses owe their origin to marking Druid stones with crosses, in order to change the worship without breaking the prejudice."

The Irish cross within a circle has been seen not only in the far East, but in the Indian Mounds of Ohio. The Druid's Cross is fully acknowledged in the Two Babylons of the Rev. A. Hislop. The form of the Philistine Dagon is detected in the sculptured mermaid on Meath's cross, and at Clontarf cathedral; where the fish-woman has a forked tail. The Tau, mentioned in Ezek. ix. 4, is declared by St. Jerome to have been a cross.

The base of the cross at Kells, Co. Meath, has the figure of a centaur with the trident, another centaur behind armed with a bow and arrows, birds, fishes, and a sacred hare. The sandstone cross of Arboe, by Lough Neagh, 20 feet high, is covered with men and horses, trees and serpents. That of Monasterboice, 23 feet in height, has figures on the panels. Brash has interesting records of the sculptured crosses of Ireland. He describes those of Kilkenny and Clonmel, of sandstone, having in the centre of one, coiled around the boss, four serpents. On the panel of the left arm is a hunting scene; on the right are chariots, horsemen, and dogs. A human head had a forked, oriental-looking beard.

Lucan mentions that the Druids wrote over the cross, Pan Daran, Lord of Thunder, bearing Hesus or Hu on the right arm, and Beli on the left.

Mrs. Wilkes, in her Ireland the Ur of the Chaldees, has thus declared her views—"The cross as a symbol is traceable to the crossed rods of the Chaldaean Shepherd Kings, —as ancient as the fish and the serpent signs, and as the ring and cup cuttings to be seen on the stones of Scotland and Ireland." Again, "The inhabitants of Erin, previous to the arrival of St. Patrick, were well acquainted with the cross as a symbol." Further she writes, "As we find the Christian emblem was general among the Druids, no one need fear assigning to many of the crosses of Ireland and Scotland a period far anterior to the introduction of Christianity."

The crann tau-ré or crois-tau-ré, the Fiery Cross, which was carried through the Highlands thirty miles in three hours, in the year 1745, at the Stuart Rebellion, was known in very remote times among the western Celts, as it still is in India. When dipped in the blood of goats, and bearing a flame, it was the message of alarm among the wild tribes. A serpentine figure was often twisted round the cross in heathen times.

It is curious to find that the pagan crosses of Central India resemble many still existing in Cornwall and Ireland. A St. Andrew's cross marked the ancient Holy Cakes of Egypt. A Buddhist god bore the cross and trident in his hand. The Emperor Decius had the cross on coins. Some of the early Fathers were led to call the old heathen cross an invention of the devil.

The cross of Finglas has a romantic history. It was exhumed in 1816, after having been buried for ages. Its cross was represented in a sun figure, as in Egypt. There were the marks of the snake about it, though much defaced.

The so-called Druidical temple of New Grange, one of the most wonderful monuments of old Ireland, is in the form of a Latin cross. There are four angled crosses or fylfots within a circle. The emblem, seen also on cromlechs, may be a reminiscence of Baal, or of the Scandinavian Thor, both being associated with crosses. The pyramidal cross, observed at New Grange, was known in countries as far apart as India and the Tonga Isles. Every one knows that the several deities of ancient Egypt are recognized by the cross they hold in their hands.

They who would study the subject further may consult O'Neal's Irish Crosses, and Rolt Brash's Sculptured Crosses of Ireland. By comparing the information therein with accounts of Egyptian, Persian, Phoenician, Babylonian, Hindoo, and other ancient crosses, the conviction will be strengthened that, from whatever sources derived, Ireland was acquainted with the Cross, as a religious emblem of some sort, long before the Christian era.