Sunday, January 07, 2018

Claudius the God

For instance, the God who 
inflicted the vengeance on him was not one of the urbane 
Olympian community: he was perhaps the oddest deity that 
you could find anjrwhere in my extensive dominions, or out 
of them, for that matter, a God of whom no image is in 
eiustence, whose name his devout worshippers are for- 
bidden to pronounce (though in his honour they clip their 
foreskins and practise many other curious and barbarous 
rites) and who is said to live alone, at Jerusalem, in an 
ancient cedar chest lined with badger-skins dyed blue and 
to refuse to have anything to do with any other deities in 
the world or even to acknowledge the existence of such. 
I was about to extend the Roman citizenship to large numbers of 
out more civilized French allies, but the one element in 
Northern France that was checking the orderly progress of 
civilization there was the Druidical cult, a magical religion 
which was still kept alive, in spite of all that we could do to 
. discourage or suppress it, by Druidical training-colleges in 
Britain from where it had originally been imported. Young 
Frenchmen went to Britain for their magical education as 
naturally as young Spaniards go to Rome to study law, or 
young Romans to Athens to study philosophy, or young 
Greeks to Alexandria to study surgery. Druidism could not 
readily be reconciled with Greek or Roman religious wor- 
ship, involving as it did human sacrifices and necromancy, 
and the Druids therefore, though they were not warriors 
themselves but only priests, were always fomenting re- 
bellion against us. Another reason for war was that the 
golden reign of Cymbeline was over. Togodumnus and 
Caractacus were, I learned, about to be involved in a struggle 
with their north-eastern neighbours, the Icenians, and with 
two subject tribes on the south coast; so that regular trade 
with Britain would be interrupted for some time if I did not 
intervene. I could now count on the help of the Icenians 
and the other tribes, not to mention the cross-Channel mer- 
chants, so the opportunity seemed too good to miss. 

It would be as well to give here in brief an account of the 
main features of Druidism, a religion which seems to be a 
fusion of Celtic and aboriginal beliefs. I cannot guarantee 
that the details are true, for reports are conflicting. No 
Druidical lore is allowed to be consigned to writing and a 
terrible fate is threatened to those who reveal even the less 
important mysteries. My account is based on the statements 
of prominent apostates from the religion, but these include 
no Druidical priests. No consecrated Druid has ever been 
persuaded to reveal the inner mysteries even under torture. 
The word ^Druid’ means 'Oak-man’, because that is their 
sacred tree. Their sacred year begins with the budding of 
the oak and ends with the falling of its leaves. There is a 
god called Tanams whose symbol is the oak. It is he who 
with a flash of lightning generates the mistletoe on the oak- 
tree branch, which is the sovereign remedy against witch- 
craft and all diseases. There is also a sun-god called Mabon 
whose symbol is a white bull And then there is Lug, a god 
of medicine, poetry and the arts, whose symbol is the snake. 
These are all, however, the same person, a God of Life-in- 
Death, worshipped in different aspects, like Osiris in Egypt. 
As Osiris is yearly drowned by a god of waste waters, so this 
triple deity is yearly killed by the God of Darkness and 
Water, his uncle Nodons, and restored to life by the power 
of his sister Sulis, the Goddess of Healing who corresponds 
to Isis. Nodons manifests himself by a monstrous wave of 
water, twelve feet high, that at regular intervals comes run- 
ning up the mouth of the Severn, chief of the western rivers, 
causing great destruction to crops and huts as far as thirty 
miles inland. The Druidical religion is not practised by the 
tribes as such, for they are fighting units commanded by 
kings and noblemen, but by thirteen secret societies, named 
after various sacred animals, the members of any one of 
which belong to a variety of tribes; because it is the month in 
which one is born — they have a thirteen-month year — 
which decides the society to which one is to belong. There 
are the Beavers, and the Mice, and the Wolves, and the 
Rabbits, and the Wild Cats, and the Owls and so on, and 
each society has a particular lore of its own and is presided 
over by a Druid. The Arch-Druid rules over the whole 
cult. The Druids take no part in fighting, and members of 
the same society who meet in tribal battles on opposite sides 
are pledged to run to each other’s rescue. 

The mysteries of the Druidical religion are concerned with 
a belief in the immortality of the human soul, in support of 
which many natural analogies are offered. One of these is 
the daily death and daily rebirth of the sun, another is the 
yearly death and yearly rebirth of the leaves of the oak, 
another is the yearly cutting of the corn and the yearly 
springing up of the seed. They say that man when he dies 
goes westward, like the setting sun, to live in certain sacred 
islands in the Atlantic ocean, until the time shall come for 
him to be born again. All over the island there are sacred 
altars known as dolmens’, one flat stone laid on two or 
more uprights. These are used in the initiation ceremonies 
of the societies. The initiation is at once a death and a re- 
birth. The candidate lies on the lintel stone and a mock- 
sacrifice is then performed. By some magical means the 
Druid who performs it seems to cut off the man’s head, 
which is exhibited bleeding to the crowd. The head is then 
joined to the trunk again and the supposed corpse is placed 
underneath the dolmen, as in a grave, with mistletoe between 
its lips; from which, after many prayers and charms, the new 
man comes forth as if he were a child emerging from the 
womb and is instructed in his new life by god-parents. 
Besides these dolmens there are upright stone altars, devoted 
to phallic rites; for the Celtic Osiris resembles the Egyptian 
one in this respect too. 

Rank in the societies is decided by the number of sacrifices 
a man makes to the Gods, standing on the lintel stone of his 
ancestral dolmen, by the number of enemies he kills in 
battle and by the honours he wins in the annual religious 
games as charioteer, juggler, wrestler, poet or harper. Rank 
is shown by the masks and head-dresses which are worn 
during the ceremonies and by the blue designs executed in 
woad (a marsh plant) with which their whole bodies are 
painted. The Druid priesthood is recruited from young men 
who have attained high rank in their secret societies and to 
whom certain marks of divine favour have been given. But 
twenty years of hard study at the Druidical college are first 
called for and it is by no means every candidate who suc- 
ceeds in passing through the necessary thirty-two degrees. 
The first twelve years are spent in being initiated in turn into 
all the other secret societies, in learning by heart enormous 
sagas of mythological poetry and in the study of law, music 
and astronomy. The next three years are spent in the study 
of medicine. The next three are spent in the study of omens 
and magic. The tests put upon candidates for the priest- 
hood are immensely severe. For example, there is a test of 
poetical composition. The candidate must lie naked all 
night in a coffin-like box, only his nostrils protruding above 
the icy water with which it is filled, and with heavy stones 
laid on his chest. In this position he must compose a poem 
of considerable length in the most difficult of the many 
difficult bardic metres, on a subject which is given him as he 
is placed in the box. On his emergence next morning he 
must be able to chant this poem to a melody which he has 
been simultaneously composing, and accompany himself on 
the harp. Another test is to stand before the whole body of 
Druids and be asked verse-questions in riddling form which 
must be answered in further riddles, also in verse. These 
riddles all refer to obscure incidents in the sacred poems 
with which the candidate is supposed to be familiar. Besides 
all this he must be able to raise magic mists and winds and 
perform all sorts of conjuring tricks. 

I will tell you here of my only experience of Druidical 
magic. I once asked a Druid to show me his skill. He 
called for three dried peas and put them in a row across the 
palm of my outstretched hand. He said: ‘Without moving 
your arm, can you blow away the middle pea and not blow 
away the outer ones?’ I tried, but of course I could not: my 
breath blew all three peas away. He picked them up and 
laid them in a row across his own palm. Then he held down 
the outer ones with the forefinger and little finger of the 
same hand and blew the centre one away easily. I was angry 
at being fooled. ‘Anyone could do that,’ I said. ‘That’s not 

He handed me the peas again. ‘Try it,’ he ordered. 

I began to do what he had done, but to my chagrin I 
found that not only could I not command enough breath to 
blow away the pea — ^my lungs seemed suddenly tightened — 
but that when I wanted to straighten out my bent fingers 
again I could not. They were tightly cramped against my 
palm and the nails were gradually driving into my flesh so 
that it was with difficulty that I refrained from crying out. 
The sweat was pouring down my face. 

He asked, Is it so easy to do?’ 

I answered ruefully: ‘Not when a Druid is present.’ He 
touched my wrist and my fingers recovered from their 

The candidate’s last test but one is to spend the longest 
night of the year seated on a rocking-stone called the 
Terilous Seat’ which is balanced over a deep chasm in a 
mountain somewhere in the west of the island. Evil spirits 
come and talk to him all night and try by various means to 
make him lose his balance. He must not answer a word, but 
address prayers and hymns of praise to the Gods. If he 
escapes from this ordeal he is permitted to take the final test, 
which is to drink a poisoned cup and go into a death trance, 
and visit the Island of the Dead, and bring back from there 
such proofs of his visit as will convince the examining 
Druids that he has been accepted by the God of Life-in- 
Death as his priest. 

There are three ranks of Druid priests. There are those 
who have passed all the tests, the true Druids; then come the 
Bards, those who have passed in the bardic tests but have 
not yet satisfied the examiners in soothsaying, medicine and 
magic; then come those who have satisfied the examiners in 
these latter tests, but have not yet taken their bardic degree 
— they are known as the Ovates or Listeners. It needs a 
bold heart to enter for the final tests, which result in the 
death of three candidates out of every five, I am informed, so 
most men are content enough with the degree of Bard or 

The Druids, then, are the law-givers and judges and the 
controllers of public and private religion, and the greatest 
punishment that they can inflict is to interdict men from 
the holy rites. Since this excommunication is equivalent to 
sentencing men to perpetual extinction — ^for only by taking 
part in these rites can they hope to be reborn when they 
come to die — ^the Druids are all-powerful, and it is only a 
fool who will dare to oppose them. Every five years there 
is a great religious cleansing — like our five-yearly census — 
and in expiation of national sins human victims are burned 
alive in great wicker cages built to resemble men. The vic- 
tims are bandits, criminals, men who have revealed religious 
secrets or have been guilty of any similar crime, and men 
whom the Druids accuse of having unlawfully practised 
magic to suit their private ends and of having blighted crops 
or caused a pestilence by doing so. The Druids at that 
time outlawed any man who had embraced the Roman 
religion or allied himself by marriage with a family that had 
done so. That, I suppose, they were entitled to do; but 
when it came to burning such people alive, then they had to 
be taught a lesson. 

They have two peculiarly holy places. The first is the 
island of Anglesey on the west coast, where their winter 
quarters are, among great groves of sacred oaks, and the 
sacred oak-log fire is kept burning. This fire, kindled 
originally by lightning, is distributed for the cremation of 
corpses, to ensure their reincarnation. The other sacred 
place is a great stone temple in the middle of Britain, con- 
sisting of concentric rings of enormous trilithic and mono- 
lithic altars. It is dedicated to the God of Life-in-Death, and 
from the New Year, which they reckon from the spring 
equinox, until midsummer, they hold their annual religious 
Games there. A red-haired young man is chosen to repre- 
sent the God and is dressed in marvellous robes. While the 
Games last he is free to do exactly as he pleases. Everything 
is at his disposal, and if he takes a fancy to any jewel or 
weapon, the owner counts himself honoured and gives it up 
gladly. All the most beautiful girls are his playmates, and 
the competing athletes and musicians do everything they can 
to win his favour. Shortly before midsummer, however, he 
goes with the Arch-Druid, who is the representative of the 
God of Death, to an oak on which mistletoe grows. The 
Arch-Druid climbs the oak and cuts the mistletoe with a 
golden sickle, taking care that it does not touch the ground. 
This mistletoe is the soul of the oak, which then mysteriously 
withers away. A white bull is sacrificed. The young man 
is wrapped in leafy oak branches and taken to the Temple, 
which is so oriented that at dawn on Midsummer Day the 
sun strikes down an avenue of stones and lights up the 
principal altar where the young man is laid, fast bound, and 
where the Arch-Druid sacrifices him with the sharpened 
stem of the mistletoe. I cannot discover what eventually 
happens to the body, which for the present remains laid out 
on the stone of sacrifice, showing no sign of decay. But the 
priestess of Sulis, from a western town called the ‘Waters of 
Sulis’, where there are medicinal springs, comes to claim it 
at the autumn festival of farewell and the Goddess is then 
supposed to restore it to life. The God is said to go by boat 
to the western island where Nodons lives and to conquer 
him after a fierce fight. The winter storms are the noise of 
that fight. He reappears next year in the person of the new 
victim. The withered oak tree provides new logs for the 
sacred fire. At the autumn festival of farewell each society 
sacrifices its tribal animal, burning a wicker cage full of 
them, and all ritual masks and head-dresses are burned too. 
It is at this stone temple that the complicated initiation cere- 
mony for new Druids takes place. It is said to involve the 
sacrifice of newly-born children. The temple stands in the 
centre of a great necropolis, for all Druids and men of high 
religious rank are buried here with ceremonies that ensure 

There are British battle-gods and goddesses too, but they 
have little connexion with the Druid religion and sufficiently 
resemble our own Mars and Bellona to make no description 

In France the centre of Druidism was at Dreux, a town 
lying to the west of Paris, some eighty miles from the 
Channel coast. Human sacrifices continued to be per- 
formed there just as if Roman civilization did not exist. 
Imagine, the Druids used to cut open the bodies of victims 
whom they had sacrificed to the God Tanarus and examine 
their entrails for auspices with as little compunction as you 
or I would feel in the case of a ram or sacred chickeni 
Augustus had not attempted to put down Druidism; he had 
merely forbidden Roman citizens to belong to secret societies 
or to attend Druidical sacrifices. Tiberius had ventured to 
publish an edict dissolving the Druidical order in France; 
but this edict was not intended to be literally obeyed, only to 
withhold Roman official sanction from any decisions arrived 
at or penalties imposed by a Druidical council. 

The Druids continued to cause us trouble in France, 
though many tribes now abandoned the cult altogether, and 
adopted our Roman religion. I was determined, as soon as 
I had conquered Britain, to strike a bargain with the Arch- 
Druid: in return for permission to conduct his religion in 
Britain in the customary way (though abstaining from any 
unfriendly preaching against Rome) he must refuse to admit 
French candidates for initiation into the Druidical order and 
must allow no British Druids to cross the Channel. With- 
out priests the religion would soon die out in France, where 
I would make illegal any Druidical ceremony or festival 
involving human sacrifice, and charge with murder all who 
were found to have taken part in one. Eventually, of 
course, Druidism would have to be stamped out in Britain 
too; but that need not be thought about yet. 

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