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EVIDENCE OF THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF
THE ANCIENT BRITONS.
BY J. R. MORTIMER.
"IF," observes Mr. Kemble, "it be true that nothing human can be without interest for a man, surely that which is of the religious belief of our forefathers must be of the deepest interest. It has something to do with making us what we are." While Professor Macalister, in his presidential address in 1894, says: "How little do we know of the pre-Christian religion of our forefathers, and of the mythologies which were to them articles of faith."
What we gather from history of the religion of the Ancient Britons is scanty indeed, and is mainly from Cæsar's account. He informs us that the Britons had an influential order of priests called Druids, who practised human sacrifices and taught the knowledge of the stars, and that they also believed the soul passed from one body to another after death.
But then this account refers to a much later period, probably by some thousands of years of their occupation of this island, than that of the erection of many of their burial mounds I have examined. In these explorations on the wolds of Yorkshire I have often found relics with the interments, and traces of other customs, which seem to indicate a belief in a future state. Whilst in many cases the burial mounds are arranged after the plan or figure of the seven bright stars of Charles's Wain in the constellation of Ursa Majorindicating astral worship. Up to comparatively recent times nothing further was known on this interesting question.
Figuier in 1870 wrote: "Did any religious worship exist among the men of the Bronze epoch? Nothing could be more interesting than any discovery bearing on this point; but up to the present time no vestiges of anything in the shape of an idol have been found, or anything whatever which authorises us unhesitatingly to answer this question in the affirmative."
It is interesting, however, to know that since 1870 the barrows have afforded considerable information upon which to build a theory respecting the religious ideas of the Britons-information, indeed, even more varied than we could at first hope for.
1 Germaina, ix.
2 Journal of the Anthropological Institute for 1894, vol. xxiii, p. 415.
3 Primitive Man, p. 280.
Their burial mounds, not infrequently of large size, which must have been painfully constructed, seem to show strong evidence of ancestral worship, which was almost certainly one of the oldest forms of religion. The primitive recognition of elders and rulers on earth. would lead to their assistance being sought after death, and homage being paid to their spirits. While the depositing of various articles as amulets with the dead-such as portions of fossil shell (Gryphaea incurva) (in barrow No. 98), worked pieces of bone (in barrow No. 3), the portion of a whorl of an ammonite, and the grooved spindleshaped article of jet from barrow No. c 53, the front teeth of the beaver (barrows Nos. 98 and 273)—excavated by me, and the tusks of the boar, in many instances placed apparently as charms and fetishes to bring good fortune to their owners, indicate their belief in the practice of magical arts. These are superstitions natural to mankind at large, and especially powerful in races of low culture.
"The practice," says Canon Greenwell, "of burying various articles in the graves and of placing a vase, the supposed" [undoubted] "receptacle of food, beside the dead, has usually been looked upon as proof of a belief in a future state of existence. It necessarily follows that, if a belief in a future state is proved by the occurrence of weapons, implements, ornaments, and food, associated with the buried person" (as well as of domestic animals, also kindred, friends, and attendants in numerous instances), "that second life must be supposed to have been similar in kind to the first one which had just ended. In this future there were enemies against whom the warrior must be prepared in arms; there were wild animals which he must be provided with the means of capturing; there were husbands and friends to be charmed by the added decoration of ornament and dress; there were happy hours of childhood to be brightened by such pleasures as gladden the young heart. It may
1 "The rudimentary form of religion," says Spencer, "is the propitiation of the dead ancestors."
2 Dr.Thurnam on Round Barrows, p. 146, mentions fossils being found with interments, and similar articles have been found with the dead by nearly every explorer of grave mounds, whilst the three very remarkable chalk objects found by Canon Greenwell (which I mention later) came under this class.
3 As indicated by the bodies of three animals accompanying a man in barrow No. C72, and other instances. The entire skeleton of a bison found in a tumulus associated with human remains. (Morehead's Prehistoric Man in Ohio, p. 19.)
In a cist under a barrow in Staffordshire was a skeleton of a young hog, accompanied by a tine of a stag's horn. (Bateman's Ten Years' Diggings, p. 135.) Canon Greenwell found four goats accompanying a man in one of the mounds at Danes' Graves (Archæological Journal, vol. xxii.), and two pigs and two goats were found in 1898 with the body of a man in the same Danes' Graves. This custom continued into late RomanoBritish times, as proved by the burial of a pig in a graveyard at Plealand's Nook, and with the body of a man on North Grimston Brow. (See Forty Years' Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire," pp. 196 and 355, by J. R. Mortimer.)
well be that a hope like this took something of its sting from the dreaded forecast of death." The Canon adds: "A similar belief has been shared by many a different race, in ages far apart, in many a varying clime, and under forms of religious faith which have agreed in little beyond this natural expectation."
So would they leave this world full of bright expectations, and without any terror of the supposed torments many of us are taught to believe in. However, to these bright hopes of the future then believed in, I give two recorded exceptions. In Homer's Nekromanteia the Ghost of Achilles is made to say:
"Rather I'd choose laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
While Claudia said: "The weariest and most loathed worldly life is
A feeling, however, contrary to the above seems almost universally to have prevailed amongst the less cultivated races we have had to do with. This pious belief in an after life prompted the survivors to place food and implements with the dead, and also to sacrifice those animals and not infrequently relations and attendants—that had been their companions here, in the hope that they would accompany and be of use to them in the life which they were thought to continue after death. Such a belief, however, was not confined to this low state of culture of the Britons. The Ancient Egyptians placed figurines of slaves (ushabti) in the tombs, to do the field labours in the nether world, as decreed by the god Osiris, judge of the dead." This must have been a survival of the once actual burying of slaves. In these early times man believed that every animal and every tool he possessed would have a future life as well as himself."
The three very remarkable chalk objects-described and figured in the Archaeologia, vol. lii.-accompanying the unburnt bones of a youth found by Canon Greenwell in a barrow (No. 255) in the parish of Folkton in the Yorkshire Wolds, during the summer of 1889, have almost certainly some religious bearing."
In shape they much resemble the Melton Mowbray pork pies, and measure from 5 to 4 inches in width, and a little less in
1 Irish Druids, p. 289, by James Bonwick, F. R.G.S.
2 Anthropological Journal, May, 1895, P. 355.
3 Nearly seven hundred ushabti figures were found in the tomb of Seti I.
4 At the present time civilised man in general believes only in his own future existence. Will a further mental development retain this?
5 These objects are now in the British Museum.
height. Their sides are ornamented with raised lines, partly after the ornamentation of some of the finest kind of drinking-cups, with, in places, the addition of what seems to be the representation of the upper part of the human face. This latter is almost identical in form with the so-called "owl-faces" engraved on idols and vases found by Dr. Schliemann in his excavation in the third burnt city on the site of Troy.
This figure also resembles the Egyptian symbol of the two eyes of the sun, the one symbolising the northern half of the sun's daily course, and the other the southern half.
The Egyptians supposed that those who wore it, whether living or dead, were safe and happy under the eye of Ra,' the Sun God. Mr. A. J. Evans, in his address to the Anthropological Section of the meeting of the British Association at Liverpool in 1896, alludes to these three specimens, and says: "Upon the sides of two of these chalk caskets, associated with chevrons, saltires, and lozenges, were rude indications of faces-eyes and nose of bird-like character— curiously recalling the early Ægean and Trojan types of Dr. Schliemann." He adds: "The third chalk disc exhibits, in place of the human faces, a butterfly with volute antennæ, reminding us of the appearance of butterflies as a decorative motive on the gold roundels from the shaft graves of Mycenæ, as also on early Mycenaean gems of steatite from Crete, in the latter case with the feelers curved outward in the same way."
The latter figure may have symbolised, both on the chalk caskets and on the Mycenaean gems, the supposed form the spirit took in its flight to the stars-its heavenly abode. A very beautiful conception, probably derived from observing the butterfly emerging or springing forth from its chrysalis and taking its ærial flight.2
That these three remarkable and quite unique objects were of the nature of idols or inscribed amulets, placed with the dead person to protect him in another world, there can be little doubt; and it is highly probable that they are symbols bearing on sun-worship."
Three was considered a sacred number in all early religious faiths, this number being acceptable to the gods, and its divinity survived in our belief in the Trinity.
These revered funeral ceremonies, the preparation for that state in the next and distant world which was expected to be but a
1 The Mummy, by E. A. Wallis Budge, p. 264.
2 The Naga and other frontier tribes of North-East India, believe the spirit of a dead person is finally changed into insects, especially butterflies. (Journal
of Anthropological Institute, vol. xxvii., No. 1, August, 1897.)
3 Tylor, in Primitive Culture, vol. ii., p. 259, says that one great foundation of all idolatry (?) was the veneration paid to the sun.
continuance of this, seem to have been more of the nature of rejoicing than that of mourning, and probably were at one period the chief, if not the only, religious ceremonies practised.
The poet Lucan thus describes the religion or belief of the Druids of Gaul and Britain :
"If dying mortals' dooms they sing aright,
No ghosts descend to dwell in dreadful night;
No parting souls to grisly Pluto go,
Nor seek the dreary silent shades below.
And their bodies in new worlds they find."
That their belief was that this future life would be among the innumerable multitude of stars in the boundless vault of heaven is more than probable. Sabianism was undoubtedly an early basis of all the religions of the ancients.'
The sun would first impress a feeling of reverence on the mind of primitive man, and an adoration of the heavenly bodies would follow. Burning the body, and by so doing purifying and liberating the spirit for a renewed life, to enable it more readily to take its flight to another world," was probably one of the chief recommendations of the practice of cremation, producing as it did a transmutation and escape from dark perishable clay to luminous ether.
That fire entered in some way or other into the religious obsequies of every burial, whether by cremation or by inhumation, is shown by the ever-present portions of carbonised wood, more or less numerous near the body in the grave, and also in the substance of the barrow. The same may be said regarding the presence of chips of flints, which occur with the interments and scattered in the substance of the barrow. In early times flint with pyrites would be the chief and readiest agent for procuring fire, and would consequently acquire a sacred value.
The first person who put into practice the obtaining of fire from flint and pyrites was a great benefactor. The simplest, the purest, and one of the most ancient and universal forms of religion seems to have been the worship of fire and of the sun. It would not be natural had it been otherwise. They have bestowed more blessings on man than have any other two things.
The adoration of fire was the adoration of what was considered to be one of the greatest or sovereign powers of nature. In the
1 The Sabbath-a Babylonian wordPhilo says, was kept by all nations of antiquity. The sun, moon, and five planets were the guardians of the days. Irish Druids, by Bonwick, p. 37.)
2 To the Brahmin the sun is the soul of all that is fixed or locomotive. (Tylor's Primitive Culture, vol. ii., p. 266.)
3 The soul of a good man rises with the smoke of his funeral pyre. (Ibid., P. 44.)