Chapter IX

Ophiolatreia in Britain—The Druids—Adders—Poem of Taliessin—The Goddess Ceridwen—A Bardic Poem—Snake Stones—The Anguinum—Execution of a Roman Knight—Remains of the Serpent-temple at Abury—Serpent vestiges in Ireland of great rarity—St. Patrick.

It will probably be a matter of surprise to many, but it is a fact that even in Britain in ancient times Ophiolatreia largely prevailed. Deane says: “Our British ancestors, under the tuition of the venerable Druids, were not only worshippers of the solar deity, symbolized by the serpent, but held the serpent, independent of his relation to the sun, in peculiar veneration. Cut off from all intercourse with the civilized world, partly by their remoteness and partly by their national character, the Britons retained their primitive idolatry long after it had yielded in the neighbouring countries to the polytheistic corruptions of Greece and Egypt. In process of time, however, the gods of the Gaulish Druids penetrated into the sacred mythology of the British and furnished personifications for the different attributes of the dracontic god Hu. This deity was called “The Dragon Ruler of the World” and his car was drawn by serpents. His priests in accommodation with the general custom of the Ophite god, were called after him “Adders.”1)

In a poem of Taliessin, translated by Davies, in his Appendix, No. 6, is the following enumeration of a Druid’s titles:—

“I am a Druid; I am an architect; I am a prophet; I am a serpent” (Gnadr).

From the word “Gnadr” is derived “adder,” the name of a species of snake. Gnadr was probably pronounced like “adder” with a nasal aspirate.

The mythology of the Druids contained also a goddess “Ceridwen,” whose car was drawn by serpents. It is conjectured that this was the Grecian “Ceres;” and not without reason, for the interesting intercourse between the British and Gaulish Druids introduced into the purer religion of the former many of the corruptions ingrafted upon that of the latter by the Greeks and Romans. The Druids of Gaul had among them many {90} divinities corresponding with those of Greece and Rome. They worshipped Ogmius (a compound deity between Hercules and Mercury), and after him, Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva, or deities resembling them. Of these they made images; whereas hitherto the only image in the British worship was the great wicker idol into which they thrust human victims designed to be burnt as an expiatory sacrifice for the sins of some chieftain.

The following translation of a Bardic poem, descriptive of one of their religious rites, identifies the superstition of the British Druids with the aboriginal Ophiolatreia, as expressed in the mysteries of Isis in Egypt. The poem is entitled “The Elegy of Uther Pendragon;” that is, of Uther, “The Dragon’s Head;” and it is not a little remarkable that the word “Draig” in the British language signifies, at the same time, “a fiery serpent, a dragon, and the Supreme God.”2)

In the second part of this poem is the following sacrificial rites of Uther Pendragon:—

“With solemn festivity round the two lakes:
With the lake next my side;
With my side moving round the sanctuary;
While the sanctuary is earnestly invoking
The Gliding King, before whom the Fair One
Retreats upon the veil that covers the huge stones;
Whilst the Dragon moves round over
The places which contain vessels
Of drink offering:
Whilst the drink offering is in the Golden Horns;
Whilst the golden horns are in the hand;
Whilst the knife is upon the chief victim;
Sincerely I implore thee, O victorious Bell, etc., etc.”

This is a most minute and interesting account of the religious rites of the Druids, proving in clear terms their addiction to Ophiolatreia: for we have not only the history of the “Gliding King,” who pursues “The Fair One,” depicted upon “the veil which covers the huge stones”—a history which reminds us most forcibly of the events in Paradise, under a poetic garb; but we have, likewise, beneath that veil, within the sacred circle of “the huge stones,” the “Great Dragon, a Living Serpent,” moving round the places which contain the vessels of drink-offering; or in other words, moving round the altar stone in the same manner as the serpent in the Isiac mysteries passed about the sacred vessels containing the offerings. {91}

The Golden Horns which contained the drink offerings were very probably of the same kind as that found in Tundera, in Denmark.

The sanctity of the serpent showed itself in another very curious part of the superstition of the British Druids, namely, in that which related to the formation and virtues of the celebrated anguinum, as it is called by Pliny, or gleinen nadroeth, that is, “snake-stones,” as they were called by the Britons. Sir R. C. Hoare in his Modern Wiltshire, Hundred of Amesbury, gives an engraving of one, and says: “This is a head of imperfect vitrification representing two circular lines of opaque skylight and white, which seem to represent a snake twined round a centre which is perforated.” Mr. Lhwyd, the Welsh antiquary, writing to Ralph Thornley says:—“I am fully satisfied that they were amulets of the Druids. I have seen one of them that had nine small snakes upon it. There are others that have one or two or more snakes.”

A story comes to us, on Roman authority (that of Pliny), that a knight entering a court of justice wearing an anguinum about his neck was ordered by Claudius to be put to death, it being believed that the influence would improperly wrest judgment in his favour.

Of this anguinum (a word derived from anguis, a snake,) Pliny says: “An infinite number of snakes, entwined together in the heat of summer, roll themselves into a mass, and from the saliva of their jaws and the froth of their bodies is engendered an egg, which is called ‘anguinum.’ By the violent hissing of the serpents the egg is forced into the air, and the Druid destined to secure it, must catch it in his sacred vest before it reaches the ground.”

Information relative to the prevalence of this superstition in England will be found in Davies’ Myths of the Druids, Camden’s Britannia, and Borlase’s Cornwall.

Perhaps the most remarkable of all British relics of this worship are to be found on the hills overlooking the village of Abury, in the county of Wiltshire. There, twenty-six miles from the celebrated ruins of Stonehenge, are to be found the remains of a great Serpentine Temple—one of the most imposing, as it certainly is one the most interesting, monuments of the British Islands. It was first accurately described by Dr. Stukeley in 1793 in his celebrated work entitled Abury, a Temple of the British Druids. It was afterwards carefully examined by Sir {92} R. C. Hoare and an account published in his elaborate work Ancient Wiltshire. Dr. Stukeley was the first to detect the design of the structure and his conclusions have been sustained by the observations of every antiquary who has succeeded him.

The temple of Abury consisted originally of a grand circumvallation of earth 1,400 feet in diameter, enclosing an area of upwards of twenty-two acres. It has an inner ditch and the height of the embankment, measuring from the bottom of the ditch, is seventeen feet. It is quite regular, though not an exact circle in form, and has four entrances at equal distances apart, though nearly at right angles to each other. Within this grand circle were originally two double or concentric circles composed of massive upright stones: a row of large stones, one hundred in number, was placed upon the inner brow of the ditch. Extending upon either hand from this grand central structure were parallel lines of huge upright stones, constituting, upon each side, avenues upwards of a mile in length. These formed the body of the serpent. Each avenue consisted of two hundred stones. The head of the serpent was represented by an oval structure consisting of two concentric lines of upright stones; the outer line containing forty, the inner eighteen stones. This head rests upon an eminence known as Overton, or Hakpen Hill, from which is commanded a view of the entire structure, winding back for more than two miles to the point of the tail, towards Bekhampton.

Hakpen in the old British dialects signified Hak, serpent, and pen, head, i.e., Head of the Serpent. “To our name of Hakpen,” says Stukeley, “alludes ochim, called ‘doleful creatures’ in our translation.” Isa. (13 v. 21), speaking of the desolation of Babylon, says: “Wild beasts of the desert shall lie there, and their houses shall be full of ochim, and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.” St. Jerome translates it “serpents.” The Arabians call a serpent Haie, and wood-serpents Hageshin; and thence our Hakpen; Pen is “head” in British.

“That the votaries of Ophiolatreia penetrated into every part of Britain is probable from the vestiges of some such idolatry even now to be found in Scotland and the western isles. Several obelisks remain in the vicinity of Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth, upon which appear devices strongly indicative of Ophiolatreia. They are engraved in Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale. The serpent is a frequent and conspicuous hieroglyphic. From the Runic characters traced upon some of these stones it is {93} conjectured that they were erected by the Danes. Such might have been the case; but the Danes themselves were a sect of Ophites, and had not the people of the country been Ophites also, they might not have suffered these monuments to remain.”

Remains indicating the presence of Serpent Worship in Ireland are extremely scarce, but we must remember the story prevalent in the country, accepted as truthful by a large majority of its inhabitants, that St. Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland by his prayers. After all, this may mean nothing more than that by his preaching he overturned and uprooted the superstitious practices of the serpent worshippers of his times.

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Davies’ Mythol. of Druids.
Owen’s Dict. Art. Draig.