Wednesday, 2 September 2009

De Britannia Insula

From Atratinus’ De Britannia Insula, c. 70 BC: this is the earliest first-person travelogue from the ancient world, and the only classical text to give us a really detailed description of the beliefs of the ancient druids. It describes how Decimus Cominius Atratinus, an educated, well-off, if rather disaffected young man, travelled up through pre-Roman Celtic Britain to the region of the Votadinoi, in what is now south-eastern Scotland. His account of his alternately fascinating and hair-raising journey is, alas, incomplete.

* * *

DBI, III. ii. 17ff.

It was a great stroke of fortune that I found myself among the Corieltauvi at that very point when, according to their priests’ calculations, their most solemn sacrifices and most religious rituals were to be performed, an event which happens only once in nineteen years. To these reverent and august rites, which take three months to see through to the end, they give in their own language a title which means ‘The Recomposition of the World’. I was not to understand the full significance of this title until much later.

I first noticed that something unusual was happening thanks to a certain excitability among the younger druids; the house of the druid in the settlement seemed constantly thronged by obsequious visitors, and the younger druids were absolutely swollen with their own dignity at this time, affecting a very solemn manner whenever they approached the chief-druid himself. Indeed, it was my friend Togidubnos who, whilst always gawky and high-spirited like a young goat, seemed at this time positively beside himself with anticipation. (It was Togidubnos, you will remember, to whom the Britons had given the nickname Senuos, ‘old man’, because of his youthful appearance and lack of a beard. Such, I fear, passes for wit when you are at the ends of the earth.)

It was some time before I could persuade my young friend to explain why there was such a feverish scene of coming and going everyday at the chief-druid’s house. I found him sitting one afternoon by the river, plaiting osiers into a basket, a task which, for all his ungainliness, he did with a quick and practised hand. I sat down next to him, and asked him haltingly in the British language what on earth was going on. He seemed pleased to see me.

--Well, he said, replying in the sing-song, accented Latin to which I had grown accustomed and now no longer found absurd, it’s like this.

It takes, as you know, a very long time to train to be a druid. I began when I was seven winters old, and I completed the last rituals and tests of memory only last year. I am now twenty-six years of age. And whilst I am now a druid, in truth, the training is not considered quite complete until you have taken part in the ritual the preparations for which you see as we speak. A druid who has sat between the three sacred fires and chanted the hymns for the eighty-three nights which form the heart of this sacrifice, well, he has received a great honour in the eyes of both gods and men. He has participated in the creation of the world!---he said, closing his eyes reverently at the thought.

--What do you mean, friend Togidubnos? I asked, puzzled. The creation of the world?

He looked down at his half-finished basket, shifting position on the riverbank. There was a smell of mud and watermint.

--I will try to explain it clearly. The sacrifice that is about to be performed this summer recreates the world. The world, you know, is unstable; it totters on the edge of a great abyss of yawning water, an abyss threshing with a million terrible titans, Womorioi---unimaginable, hideous, misshapen beings with the heads of monsters, the tails of adders and the tusks of boars, who would tear the world asunder if they could. This whole universe could topple at any moment, and to ensure that it does not, the druids remake the whole world every nineteen years when the danger is at its greatest. Even the combined powers of the thirty-three gods are useless at this time, and it is only the continual prayers and sacrifices of the druids that maintain the world until the terrible danger passes. Imagine that! The whole world sifting through your fingers with the barley grains and the bowls of white curd, with the golden vessels, and the dishes of blood!

--So you yourself want to be present at this sacrifice? I said slowly, not really following.

--More than anything, Togidubnos breathed, his shoulders slumping and his eyes closing. More than anything.

Only nine druids in total, you see, can be present at the sacred nemeton, and only three at any one time. The rituals are kept up, without ceasing, for three times nine times three nights. The chanting of the hymns does not cease, the murmuring of the prayers over the fire does not cease, the constant sacrifices which keep the world alive and make it new, they do not cease, not for eighty-one nights. A druid who has served at the fire-pit for the rite of recreation is known ever afterwards in our language as a dumnonertaiyos, ‘one who has made strong the foundations of the world.’ While he is at the rites, Togidubnos added thoughtfully, he becomes a god.

--A god?! I said, startled. I had not thought hubris of this sort germane to the British character, which, whilst certainly hot-tempered and flighty, was nothing if not reverent towards the divine numen.

--For those terrible nights every nineteen years, the gods vanish from the world, said Togidubnos. Taranis leaves off spinning his wheel, and the sky falters and slows without his hands upon it. Lugos withdraws his shimmering intellect and the world begins to grow dull and tarnish, as though it were an iron sword left in a bucket of well-water. The All-Father ceases his flow of generation, and death begins to outstrip life; and even all-mothering Earth closes up her hollows and her secret places begin to parch. The triple-faced daughter of flame, Briganti—she, even she, is menaced by the carrion-sisters, the black-cloaked death-mothers, and her fires go out.

Togidubnos shuddered.

---So, for that time, those few weeks, it is we, the druids, we ourselves who preserve the universe. For these months, we take upon ourselves the duties of the very gods. Deep in meditation, the druids at the heart of the fire-pit use the primordial formulae of the divine hymns to repair and restore every single facet of creation. Each syllable chanted over the fire, each sacred gesture, every drop of sacrificial blood, keeps the world poised between continuing life and utter destruction.

I realised suddenly the awesomeness of the responsibility that this young man hoped to take on himself, even as my hard-headed Roman brain found the whole edifice quite remarkably absurd. I caught myself trying to imagine the current priest of Apollo on the Palatine, Gaius Flavius Hortensius, trying to take on himself the divine power to recreate anything: it was an unlikely scenario, unless the items desired were several amphorae of excellent Falernian and some mushrooms grilled with oil and garlic, to which I knew this waddling figure was particularly devoted.

Togidubnos was searching my face to see if I understood.

--Go on, I said.

--The hymns are the gods. The hymns are the gods. Everything that a god is is concentrated into the very syllables of his or her hymns. We sometimes say biwotutis deiwom bowes deiwom. Have you heard me say this proverb before? It means ‘The gods’ cows are their life’ in your language, though it is not so snappy in Latin. The cows are the syllables, which the druids are continually yoking together in the hymns and herding up to heaven by chanting the syllables over the fire-pit.

--The cows are the...I said, rather lost.

Togidubnos sighed, putting down his willow bundles and the knife with which he had been skinning off the bark. Not for the first time I felt a strange sense that I, who had had the best education possible in the law-courts of Rome and Athens, was a little slow on the uptake compared with the aphoristic and endless eloquence of this young British man whose library was contained wholly in his head.

--The words of the hymn embody the power of the god, he said. Each god has many hymns; Briganti has eighty nine of them, all different. I know them all, he said, tapping the side of his head with a slight, shy smile. But Diglandos for example, the sea-god, he has only seventeen.

The hymns have various metres: three syllables in a line, five, seven, nine, and ten, with many variations. We say that these syllables are like cows yoked shoulder-to-shoulder to plough the fields. That is why Ambactonos, the Farmer, is also one of the most important gods of the sacrifice. The ordinary people---well, to them Ambactonos is a kind of ruddy-faced hedge-uncle, the brambly, rain-soaked old man to whom they leave a bleeding piglet at the field’s edge and a bowl of buttermilk poured in the furrow at the Ambactonaia. We know better. To the druids, Ambactonos is the Yoker-of-Cows, Bouyugionos. So he knows too how to yoke the syllables together in the hymns, because the syllables are the cows of the gods, and embody their power, their wealth and their life; he is the master of metres. So it is to Ambactonos that we pray at the start of any sacrifice, so that we may fashion the metres correctly and recite the hymns without any flaw. For if a mistake were made---and in these rites more than any others---even a mistake of a single syllable over eighty-one nights, the world might be destroyed.

He turned to me, sitting on the river bank with one leg crossed under him.

--That’s why everyone wants to take part in the ritual. A druid who has remade the world has taken the role of a god, and after death, he will be assured of being reborn in the otherworld paradise of the gods, to dwell with them as of right. He will also be that much more powerful and respected in life, and more likely to be magnificently rewarded by kings and chieftains for his services; that, I am afraid, may be the primary motivation of a number of my brothers.

He smiled.

--There are twenty-three of them: many have waited for a decade or more for this opportunity, and know that they are unlikely to see another such ceremony come round again. Only nine can be chosen, and the archdruid wants the nine best who know the hymns most perfectly, who have studied the rituals of the Recomposition in the greatest detail, who will not make any mistakes, even if they have been chanting and sacrificing for hour after hour with little food or sleep. And also, he is searching for those who have nerves of steel; though the ceremonies involve the sacrifice of horses, cows, sheep, goats, fowl of all kinds, even insects, it may emerge in the course of the sacrifice that the situation this cycle is especially dire. In such circumstances, it is not unknown for the sacrifice of a man to become necessary.

Togidubnos saw my look of horror and disgust, and shrugged.

--It is rare, but it does happen. In my father’s time it happened. As the ceremony was reaching its height, just as the whole universe was most at peril, most at risk of utter disintegration, the third fire, the fire into which butter and curds are placed, fizzled and went out. The archdruid—that was Cunobarros then—knew that a man had to be sacrificed, immediately, to replicate again the primordial sacrifice of the god Cintugenatir, by which the universe was created .

--Who? I said, queasily.

--Cintugenatir. ‘The firstborn-father’ in your language. If you want to know, you will have to listen to a story.

I nodded.

---Well, Cintugenatir. He was the oldest of the gods, you see---far older than the thirty three deities. In fact, he was more than a god: to call him a god is neither accurate or sufficient. He was almost being itself.

But anyway, he was born, or appeared, or came to be, back in the time when there was only water. No gods, no earth existed: only a vast sea of water, black and featureless and bottomless. He floated on that freezing, blue-black sea for aeons, for unimaginable ages, concentrating the fire in his belly, focusing and refining it. He was the only warm thing in the whole universe, all alone, floating. For that reason, we sometimes call him Dubromapos, the Son of Waters, and Oinowiros, the Lonely, though he has lots of other names. He had three heads, you know.

My eyes widened at this: three heads? I thought of night-barking Hekate and felt a frisson of fear at this outlandish godling of the Britons. Sometimes, I reflected, these Celts seemed stark mad to me.

--What were they like, these heads? I asked.

--One was of a bull, said Togidubnos, confidently. The second was a serpent, though I believe the foolish druids of Gaul say an owl. And the third, in the centre, was the face of a man, or of a god.

--And? I asked.

--Cintugenatir knew both the past and the future. As the fire in his belly grew, he could see further and further in thought. Behind him, as he floated alone on the dark waste of waters, there was nothing. Nothing, extending back further than his superdivine mind could perceive. But in front of him, he knew---he saw---that there was the possibility that something could exist. Other beings, teeming generations of men and gods. Whole worlds of colour and form, of light and life instead of this endless roaring dark ocean and his solitude.

--So what did he do, this lonely old deity of yours? I asked, and Togidubnos shot me a look as if to check my levity.

--He emanated three other beings from himself. Gods can do that, you know. From the centre of each of his three foreheads, three beings erupted, bursting forth in an explosion of power. Cintugenatir writhed in the dark waters in agony as they fought themselves free, like hen-chicks hatching from three eggs. These were the Mapoi Atrigutous, the Sons of the Father’s Voice. They were the Dagodeiwos, the All-Father (he came from the human-looking forehead), and Wedionos, the divine Druid (he came from the serpent) and Taranis, the Thunderer---he came from the bull’s head.

Then Cintugenatir told his sons what they had to do. There were to take their knives and sacrifice him, their own father. Remember that: the first speech in the universe, in the whole of existence, was the instruction to perform sacrifice. Chanting the hymns which Wedionos would teach them---because as a god his knowledge was infinite, so he already knew them---they should sever his head and cut off his limbs. Then they should reach into the cavity of his belly and remove what they found there.

Bowing low to their father, because this was the first and last time they would meet him, the Sons of the Father’s Voice set to work, hacking and cutting. Cintugenatir’s body was vast---unimaginable millions of miles in length---and soon the sea was entirely black with his blood where it poured from the wounds in his lopped trunk.

Finally Taranis went to slit his father down the middle with his sacrificial knife. But Cintugenatir's skin was hard as rock, where he had been washed by the salt water for aeons without number. Taranis could not cut through the skin. So his brother the Dagodeiwos, who had better aim, took the knife and slammed it down into the thorax, splitting the skin and breaking the breastbone. (That, incidentally, is why we call the Dagodeiwos Sucellos, the 'Good Striker', and because he opened Cintugenatir's body like a bag, that primordial being is sometimes himself referred to as Bolgos Maros in our language, 'the Great Bag'.)

Then the Dagodeiwos reached inside the cavity in his father's body. As he did so, he suddenly roared in pain: he drew out the burning, blazing mass of the inner heat which Cintugenatir had been meditating on for an eternity. That was the first light and heat in the universe. As the fire scorched him, the Dagodeiwos hurled the burning mass, which shone infinitely brightly, like liquid gold in the furnace, as far as he could. It fell into the dark waters, and, as quick as thought, as quick as light itself, the waters began to harden and dry up. An island was emerging from the vast abyss of water.

The three brothers watched astonished as the land emerged under their feet, warmed by the primordial heat of their father’s inner fire.

‘Let us take our father’s limbs’, said Wedionos, ‘and fashion a world out of them.’ The others agreed. Taranis took their father’s human head, and knocked its eyeballs out. These he placed up above as the sun and the moon, and set them circling. From the dome of his father’s skull he fashioned the vault of heaven itself. ‘From now on’, said Taranis, ‘I will dwell in the heavens, because it is I who have made sun and moon and clouds, and framed the vault of heaven.’

Wedionos in turn drew forth from his father’s mutilated corpse the webwork of veins and blood vessels, holding his knife in his mouth as he worked skilfully and with concentration. Then he took the dripping spiderweb, and flung it over the land. It became the threads of rivers and streams, all leading to the ocean of Cintugenatir’s dark, pooled blood. Then he took his father’s teeth—-the bull teeth, serpent teeth, man teeth—-and scattered them. Instantly they became mountain ranges and rocks. Wedionos smiled at his handiwork.

Then the Dagodeiwos took his father’s skin. From the snake’s skin came the fish and the reptiles; from the bull’s skin he made all the warm animals of the earth; —

--Did he make human beings from the man-head? I asked.

--No, said Togidubnos coldly, clearly not pleased at having been interrupted. The man-head had already been used to make the heavens and the sun and moon, remember? Not to mention the teeth for the rocks.

He scowled, and I apologised.

--No. The Dagodeiwos took the organs of the body and fashioned them into people. The heart was the first bit he took—that became the kings, chieftains and warriors. The second bit he took was the stomach. That became the farmers and the peasants. The third bit, well, that was the brain. Who do you suppose that became? He smiled at me, smugly.

--The druids? I asked, also smiling at his evident pleasure in conceitedness.

--Quite so. The bards, the seers, and the druids. And that is why human beings are divided into druids, warriors and chieftains, and farmers and peasants, because of where we came from in the dismembered body of Cintugenatir by the wisdom of the All-Father, who got his name from that primal creative act.

--What happened then? I asked. It had grown rather chilly: a crow was croaking in the willow opposite us, and I pulled my cloak around me.

---Well, there were the three gods, surveying the new earth, with its rivers and oceans and mountains and animals and people and its sun and moon. And then, to their astonishment, they saw a figure approaching them. At first they were startled, for as far as they knew, they and their father had been the only divinities in the universe.

--Who was he, this figure?

--He was a she. A woman, naked, with red hair down to her waist and a divine effulgence about her. Like Cintugenatir, she had three heads, but all three were human in appearance. She was emanating a vast and crackling heat, so much so that the air seemed to swim and shimmer before her as she walked towards the brothers.

‘Who are you?’ asked Wedionos.
‘Who are you? asked Taranis.
‘Who are you?’ asked the Dagodeiwos.

She smiled, with all her faces, and pointed at the All-Father with all six of her arms.

‘I am Speech’, said one face.
‘I am Dawn’, said another.
‘I am Fire’, said the third, and she pointed again at the Dagodeiwos.

‘I am the heat of Cintugenatir which you flung into the ocean. And because you drew me out of my grandfather’s belly and released me, it is you who are my father.’ And she kissed him, and not how a daughter would normally kiss her father.

At this point, Togidubnos grew somewhat sheepish. From that incestuous kiss, I had an sudden intuition where the rest of the divinities of the Britons were going to come from.

--Anyway, the druid continued, you can see from this story that the world is built on the foundation of sacrifice. It was the sacrifice of Cintugenatir, the Primordial Man, which created this universe. And when it is threatened, that sacrifice needs to be repeated. That is why---and here he eyed me solemnly---sometimes the rite of the Recomposition of the World requires the sacrifice of a living man.

As I said, it is not common---amongst all the peoples of the Britons, perhaps it happens no more than three of four times each cycle. I believe the Gauls favour it rather more often, mainly because it is not uncommon for a people that has sacrificed a living man as part of their rites to especially prosper during the next nineteen years, compared to their neighbours.

I wondered how he could possibly think this made the unspeakable act acceptable.

--What happened when Cunobarros was performing the ceremonies? You said he had to find a victim in a hurry.

--Yes. He did. It was a terrible thing, terrible.

The sacrifice, you see, must be perfect: if he is not, then the victim’s flaws will be replicated on a universal scale as the sacrifice is accomplished and perhaps bring disaster on the next cycle of time. So the man must be young, tall, and in perfect health and strength. But that year, there had been raids in the borderlands all spring and summer, and the majority of the able-bodied and healthy men were away on the outer reaches of our land, defending it. Cunobarros needed a victim fast. I cannot emphasise enough how essential it is that the rites be completed in due time and due order. We believe---I myself believe---that the stability and continued existence not just of the Corieltauvi but of all Britain and Gaul and the whole world, the whole universe, depends on the correct performance of our rites here.

---Whom did he find? I asked, apprehensive.

--Cunobarros was elderly. He, almost uniquely, had already performed one such ceremony, nineteen years before. Because he was frail, his youngest son, Briocos, had stayed behind with him whilst his brothers were away at the edges of our territory, to look after him, as the rituals are a great strain. He was the only suitable victim who was near enough at hand. He came willingly, that was the terrible thing, accepting his father’s orders without complaint.

---What happened?

Togidubnos sighed, and plunged on quickly.

---Cunobarrus tied his son down, and then cut off his head, his arms, and his legs, and took out his organs one by one and burned them on the fire, while his druids chanted the hymns. Briocos only cried out at the very last second as the knife approached to cut his throat, my father heard. It broke Cunobarros’ heart: he died that winter.


Togidubnos and I sat side by side by the river in the gloom. I could tell how much my British friend wanted the honour of proving himself at the ritual, and how frightened he was that he himself could be called upon to do such a terrible, grotesque thing. I stood, and extending my hand, pulled the young druid to his feet. Picking up his half-finished osier baskets, we made our way back to the village.

5 comments:

Fionnchú said...

Where are the illustrations for this (and on "Expvlsion" where I also commented on this wonderfully written germ of what I hope sprouts much harvest) from? I like their simplicity and execution; out of such youthfully recalled pictures some of us turn (underemployed for me or happily otherwise for you!) medievalists.

arth frown said...

Do you think the 'the black-cloaked death-mothers' are the Genii Cucullati?

Bo said...

No, they're the trio of battle-goddesses, like the Badb, Macha etc. :)

arth frown said...

The ritual takes place every 19 years. I wonder if this coincides with the cycle of the moon?

Bo said...

Uh-huh. Why not? ;)

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