Essay on the druids (Richard Smiddy, 1871)

. . . . .  As we have already seen, Druidism dedicated every day in the week to one of their gods, and probably assigned to it special religious observances. But there were four periods or seasons of the year, at which the public worship was conducted on a scale of extraordinary magnificence. The names of these seasons are still preserved in the Irish language, as commonly spoken by the people. The first was Nuadhullig, which corresponds with Christmas, and is still, in Irish, the name of Christmas. The second was Beiltinne, which corresponds with May, and is still the Irish name of May. The third was ancient pagan roots of ChristmasLunas, which corresponds with the month of August, and is still the Irish name of that period. The fourth was Samhain (or La-Samhna), corresponding with the month of November, of which it is still the name in the Irish language.

What were the principal religious observances of that period called Nuadhullig, Christmas?

Nuadhullig, or Nodhlag, is an abbreviation of Nuadh-uile-iceadh, which means the New Allheal, that is, the New Mistletoe. At that period, when the new year was about to commence, the Druidical priests assembled in a large body outside the dwellings of their people, and set up the shout of Nuadh-uile-iceadh! Nuadh-uile iceadh! New All-heal! New All-heal! This was the thrilling note which announced that they were going to the woods in search of their sacred plant, the mistletoe. Immediately, all the people flocked around them to join in the solemn procession.

On reaching the forest they made the most diligent search for the plant, and when it was found, especially if growing upon their favourite oak, they gave expression to their great joy in loud shouts of exultation. Then, with much ceremony and form, the priest, highest in dignity amongst them, ascended the tree, and with a golden pruning-knife cut from its branches the divine plant, which was received by those below in a large linen cloth of unspotted whiteness.

Two white bulls, which had been conducted to the place for that purpose, were sacrificed to the gods; after which, the Mistletoe, or wonderful All-heal, was brought home in solemn procession, amidst shouts of joy, mingled with prayers, incantations, and hymns. Then followed a general religious feast, and a prolonged scene of boisterous merry enjoyment, to which all were admitted without any distinction.

A curious and particular account of this ceremony of the All-heal is given by the Latin writer, Pliny, in the 16th Book and 44th chapter of his Natural History. His words are, “The Druids (for so they call their Magi), have nothing more sacred than the mistletoe, and the tree on which it grows, provided it be an oak. They select particular groves of oaks, and perform no sacred rites without oak leaves, so that from this custom they may seem to have been called Druids according to the Greek derivation. For they think that whatever grows on these trees is sent to them from heaven, and is a proof that the tree itself is chosen by the deity. But the plant is very rarely found, and when found is sought for with the greatest religious ardour, and principally in the sixth moon, which is the beginning of their months and years, and when Pagan rites - roots of Christmasthe tree is thirty years old, because it is then not only half grown, but has attained its full vigour.

They call it All-healing in their own language; and having prepared sacrifices and feasts under the tree with great solemnity, they bring up two white bulls, whose horns are then first bound. The priest, clothed in a white garment, ascends the tree, and cuts it off with a golden pruning knife, and it is received in a white sheet or cloth. Then they sacrifice the victims, and pray that God would render his own gift prosperous to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that, administered in a potion, it will impart fecundity to any barren animal, and that it is a remedy against all kinds of poison.”

Pliny renders the name uile-iceadh (pronounced uil-eekey), all-healing, very accurately in his own language, by the term, omnia-sanans. It appears that the sixth moon, in which it was gathered, counted from the beginning of August, when the great religious feasts and solemnities of Lunas took place in honour of the moon. The mistletoe is a graceful branchy plant, which grows, like wood-ferns, on the branches of the oak, the apple, the pear, the hazel, the elm, and various other trees. It will not grow on the beech, holly, or walnut. Climate affects it much.

It is seldom found in some localities, though abundant in others; but under the care and culture of the Druids it was made to take root in almost every orchard and forest. It grows to about the height of two feet. It is of an olive-green colour; but, with the toning influence of age, assumes a yellow or golden hue, and looks very pretty, with its white berries, in winter. It is now, perhaps, impossible to account for the veneration in which it was held, and the wonderful qualities which it was supposed to possess. Religion, legend, and poetry, threw a halo of power and mystery around it. Even it has been gathered by the muse of Virgil to grace the beauty of his immortal lines. In the sixth book of the Aineid, is a beautiful passage, describing the interview between iAeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl. It is too long to be inserted here, but the allusion to the ” golden branch,” and to its power over even the invisible world, will justify a short quotation from it.

When the Trojan hero had formed the resolution of visiting the realms of Pluto in search of his deceased father, he applied to this famous priestess for instruction and counsel in the matter. She informed him that, even for the son of a goddess, it was a most perilous undertaking; but that it may be accomplished with the aid of a certain golden branch which grew in the dark recesses of the forest. “A branch with golden leaves and a slender stalk,” she said, ” is concealed in a dark tree, and no one can descend to the infernal regions till he has first plucked this plant from its parent trunk.” By the guidance of two mysterious doves, Aeneas discovers the treasure in the woods. It is thus described :— “Such was the appearance of this golden branch on the dark oak, as when the mistletoe doth flourish with new vigour in the woods during the winter’s cold.”

It is manifest that the poet had here in view the sacred plant of the Druids. Nor was it in this case without its utility. On the verge of the Stygian lake the progress of the hero was opposed, with wrath and threatening accents, by the grim Charon, thus :—

“Mortal, whoe’er thou art, in arms arrayed,
Stand off; approach not; but, at distance, say,
Why to these waters dar’st thou bend thy way?”

But the appearance of the branch disarmed his anger—

” Then show’d the bough that lay beneath the vest;
At onqe his rising wrath was hushed to rest,
At once stood reconcil’d the ruthless god,
And bowed with reverence to the golden rod.”

That was, surely, a high character for sacredness and mysterious power, which reached up even beyond the foundation of Rome. And yet, in all probability, the reputation of the All-heal of the Druids ascended many ages higher. We have no means of ascertaining all the uses to which it was converted. It appears that at the great annual solemnity the plant was broken orcut up in small fragments by the Druids, and distributed to the people as a remedy against all evil, and the pledge or harbinger of every good. Even the tree on which it was found growing was not without its reputed virtue. It appears that it, too, was cut down and distributed in small logs to the people for their fires, and that no small virtue was attached to the half-burnt fragments of them.

Of all these proceedings and ceremonies we have still living traditions in Ireland. Persons proceed to the woods to bring home the Christmas tree and the Christmas branches, and as the All-heal cannot often be found, its place is abundantly supplied by the holly and the ivy. With these the cottage is adorned, as also the temples of religion. Even the uile-eekey, or Allheal, is brought from great distances for the occasion, by those whose circumstances enable them to procure it in that way. But -what was once in honour of Paganism, is now in honour of Christianity, and to celebrate the great festival of Christmas.

Nor is the famous log ever forgotten. In Irish it is called bloc-na-nuadh-uile-iceadh, abbreviated, bloc-na-nodhlog, that is, the log or block of the new All-heal. It is a singular fact that other countries still retain a fragment of this word All-heal, as the name for Christmas, and, yet, even the learned there are totally ignorant of its meaning.

The word, Yule, has puzzled all the antiquaries of England and Scotland, and they have given it up in despair. It is simply an abbreviation of Uile-tci, which means All-heal, the Celtic name of that season, now called Christmas. In France, another Celtic country, the name of Christmas is Noel, a term that has completely baffled all their antiquarian researches. Some there think it comes from Emmanuel, or from the Latin word Nativitas, nativity, or from Nova, new things, or news. It is simply formed of Nuadh and Uile, that is No-ule, an abbreviation of the Celtic term, meaning new All-heal.

Thus it is that the fossil, here dug up whole and entire from the Irish soil, indicates the species to which the disjointed members found in other countries are to be assigned.

A most expressive emblem, thus, of Christmas is the branch of mistletoe, which, in the Celtic language, has given a name, for centuries without number, to that season of the year; and when properly understood, and purified from the grossness which, in some instances, a depraved custom has attached to it, its presence will, not inappropriately, typify the great All-heal of the Christians, that is, the birth of a Redeemer  . . . . .

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