Britta in the Temple of Druids

Britta in the Temple of Druids.(the Last Human Sacrifice.)

Blencathra from his loftiest peak
Had often heard the victims' shriek,
When lapp'd by wreathing fire,
Their limbs in wicker bondage caged,
Dying, the draught and plague assuaged,
And calmed the Immortals' ire.

There came a Rumour,[1] strayed from far.
Helvellyn's bale-fire paled its star:
Hoarse Glenderaterra moaned.
The dark destroying angel fled:
And from Blencathra's topmost head
Old demons shrunk dethroned.

He saw beneath his rugged brow
The temple on the plain below,
By sacred Druids trod:
Mountains on mountains piled around;
Forests of oak with acorns crowned:
And distant, man's abode.

Where men had hewn by stream and dell
An opening in the woods to dwell,
The pestilence by night
Had fallen amidst their little throng;
Had changed, and stricken down the strong;
And put the weak to flight.

Who may the angry god appease?—
The oracle that all things sees,
And knows all laws divine,
Spake from the awful forest bower—
"A maiden in her virgin flower
Must her young life resign."—

Fallen is the lot on thee, so late
Betrothed to love, and now to fate.
Sweet Britta!—Forth she fares,
Led by the Druids to her doom,
Within that circle's ample room,
For which the rite prepares.

Fire cleanses: she must cleanse by fire.
With oaken garland, white attire,
Bearing the mistletoe,
Beside the wicker hut her feet
Pause—till her eyes her lover greet,
And cheer him as they go.

These two had heard of what had been
In Judah—of the Nazarene—
And talked of new things born
To them, that in their fathers' place
They might not speak of to their race,
But thought on eve and morn.

Now when the sound is given to pile
The branches each one—friends-erewhile,
Strangers, yea sisters, sire,
And brethren—all from far and near,—
Must furnish for the victim's bier;
His they in vain require.

No might of Druid, lord, or king,
Could move that hand one leaf to bring—
No, though they throng to slay.
Calmly beyond the crowd he stood,
Holding on high two staves of wood
Cross'd—till she turned away.

Then hoary Chief, Arch Druid, came
Thy hands to minister the flame,
Wrought from the quick-rubb'd pine.
It touch'd: it leapt: the branches blazed!
When to the hills they looked amazed,
And owned the wrath divine.

Bellowed the mountains, and cast forth
Their waters, east, south, west, and north.
Rivers and mighty streams
Down from their raging sides out-poured
Their cataracts, and in thunders roared
Along earth's opening seams.

They rolled o'er all the temple's bound,
Quenching the angry fire around
The hut unscathed by flame:
Then backward to their source retired.
While like a seraph's form inspired
The white-robed maiden came.

Upon her fair head garlanded
No brightest leaflet withered—
No berry from her hand
Dropt, of the branching mistletoe—
With crossing palms and paces slow
She mov'd across the land.

Then loud the hoary Druid cried,
"The god we serve is satisfied!
His are the unbidden powers.
A human sacrifice no more
He needs, our dwellings to restore,
And devastated bowers.

For thee, a maiden fair and pure,
Thou hast a treasure made secure
In heaven: depart in peace.
Earth's voices witness of a faith
In thee serene and sure, that saith
Here we too soon must cease."

Notes to "Britta in the Temple of the Druids."

Traces of the Celts are clearly distinguishable in the names of some of the more prominent mountains within a few miles of Keswick, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Glaramara, Cat-Bells, Helvellyn. The first is derived from the name of the solar god, Ska-da, one of the appellations of the chief deity of Celtic Britain, to whom Skiddaw was consecrated. The second has been supposed to be a corruption of blen-y-cathern, the "peak of witches"; the fourth to signify "the groves of Baal"; and the last El-Velin, "the hill of Baal or Veli." The worship of the Assyrian deity was celebrated amongst the Celtic inhabitants of our island with the greatest importance and solemnity. The stone circles are still remaining in many places where the bloody sacrifices to his honour were performed: and one of the most important of these is near Keswick. In the immediate vicinity is also a gloomy valley, Glenderaterra, the name of which is sufficiently indicative of the purpose for which, like Tophet of old, it was ordained; Glyn-dera taran signifying in Celtic, "the valley of the angel or demon of execution."

It is a curious fact that till the last few years, a trace also of the ancient worship still lingered around two temples in this county, where it was once habitually performed. Both at Keswick, and at Cumwhitton where there is a similar druidical circle, the festival of the Beltein, or the fire of Baal, was till very recently celebrated on the first of May. As the Jews had by their "prophets of the groves," made their children "pass through the fire to Baal"; so the Britons, taught by their Druids, were accustomed once a year to drive their flocks and herds through the fire, to preserve them from evil during the remainder of the year. Indeed the custom still prevails. If the cows are distempered, it is actually a practice in many of the dales to light "the Need-fire"; notice being given throughout the neighbouring valleys, that the charm may be sent for if wanted. "Need-fire" is said to mean cattle-fire, and to be derived from the Danish nod, whence also is the northern word nolt or nowte. The Need-fire is produced by rubbing two slicks together. A great pile of combustible stuff is prepared, to give as much smoke as possible. When lighted, the neighbours snatch some of the fire, hurry home with it, and light their respective piles; and the cattle, diseased and sound, are then driven through the flame. Mr. Gibson says, that in 1841, when the cattle-murrain prevailed in Cumberland, he had many opportunities of witnessing the application of this charm to animals both diseased and sound. And he tells us, that to ensure its efficacy it was necessary to observe certain conditions. The fire had to be produced at first by friction, the domestic fires in the neighbourhood being all previously extinguished; then it had to be brought spontaneously to each farm by some neighbour unsolicited: and neither the fire so brought, nor any part of the fuel used, must ever have been under a roof. These conditions being observed, a great fire was made, and the cattle driven to and fro in the smoke. One honest farmer who had an ailing wife and delicate children passed them  through this ordeal, as was averred with most beneficial effect. Another inadvertently carried the fire just brought to him into his house to save it from extinction by a sudden shower: and it was declared that in his case the need-fire would be inoperative. "It is interesting," says Mr. Ferguson, "to see how men cling to the performance of ancient religious rites, when the significance of the ceremony has long been forgotten; and what a hold must that worship have held over the minds of men, which Thor and Odin have not supplanted, nor the Christianity of a thousand years."

The tribe of ancient Britons who occupied Cumberland previous to the Roman conquest, the Brigantes, who were as wild and uncultivated as their native hills, subsisting principally by hunting and the spontaneous fruits of the earth; wearing for their clothing the skins of animals, and dwelling in habitations formed by the pillars of the forest rooted in the earth, and enclosed by interwoven branches, or in caves; have left one undoubted specimen of their race behind them. In the parish of Scaleby, in Cumberland, the land on the north end is barren, and large quantities of peat are cut and sent to Carlisle and other places for sale. At the depth of nine feet in this peat moss, has been found the skeleton of an ancient Briton, enclosed in the skin of some wild animal, and carefully bound up with thongs of tanned leather. It is conjectured that the body must have lain in the moss since the invasion of Julius Cæsar, and from the position in which the skeleton was found, grasping a stick about three feet long and twelve inches in circumference, it is supposed he must have perished accidentally on the spot. The remains were not long ago in the possession of the rector and Dr. Graham of Netherhouse.

In this part of the island the Britons were not in the worst state of mental darkness; these were not ignorant of a Deity, and they were not idolators. Their druids and bards possessed all the learning of the age. And it is believed that some of the Chief Druids had their station in Cumberland, where many of their monuments still remain, and of these one of the most noble and extensive of any in the island is the circle near Keswick. It stands on an eminence, about a mile and a half on the old road to Penrith, in a field on the right hand. The spot is the most commanding which could be chosen in that part of the country, without climbing a mountain. Derwentwater and the vale of Keswick are not seen from it, only the mountains that enclose them on the south and west. Latrigg and the huge side of Skiddaw are on the north: to the east is the open country towards Penrith, with Mell fell in the distance, where it rises alone like a huge tumulus on the right, and Blencathra on the left, rent into deep ravines. On the south east is the range of Helvellyn, from its termination at Wanthwaite Craggs to its loftiest summits, and to Dunmail Raise. The lower range of Nathdale Fells lies nearer in a line parallel with Helvellyn. The heights above Leathes Water, with the Borrowdale mountains complete the panorama.

This circle is formed of stones of various forms, natural and unhewn, of a species of granite; of a kind, according to Clarke, not to be found within many miles of this place. The largest is nearly eight feet high, and fifteen feet in circumference; most of them are still erect, but some are fallen. They are set in a form not exactly circular; the diameter being thirty paces from east to west, and thirty-two from north to south. At the eastern end a small enclosure is formed within the circle by ten stones, making an oblong square in conjunction with the stones on that side of the circle, seven paces in length, and three in width within. At the opposite side a single square stone is placed at the distance of three paces from the circle.

Concerning this, like all similar monuments in great Britain, the popular superstition prevails, that no two persons can number the stones alike, and that no person will ever find a second count confirm the first. This notion is curiously illustrated by the various writers who have described it. According to Gough, Stukely states the number to be forty; Gray says they are fifty; Hutchinson makes them fifty; Clarke made them out to be fifty-two; others, more correctly, forty-eight. Southey says, the number of stones which compose the circle is thirty-eight, and besides these there are ten which form three sides of a little square within, on the eastern side, three stones of the circle itself forming the fourth; this being evidently the place where the Druids who presided had their station; or where the more sacred and important part of the rites and ceremonies (whatever they may have been) were performed.

The singularity noticed in this monument, and what distinguishes it from all other druidical remains of this nature, is the recess on the eastern side of the area. Mr. Pennant supposes it to have been allotted for the Druids, the priests of the place, as a peculiar sanctuary, a sort of holy of holies, where they met, separated from the vulgar, to perform their rites, their divinations, or to sit in council to determine on controversies, to compromise all differences about limits of land, or about inheritances, or for the trial of greater criminals. The cause that this recess was on the east side, seems to arise from the respect paid by the ancient Britons to Baal or the Sun; not originally an idolatrous respect, but merely as a symbol of the Creator.

The rude workmanship, or rather arrangement, of these structures, for it cannot be called architecture, indicates the great barbarity of the times of the Druids; and furnishes strong proof of the savage nature of these heathen priests. Within this magical circle we may conceive any incantations to have been performed, and any rites of superstition to have been celebrated; their human executions, their imposing sacrifices; and their inhuman method of offering up their victims, by enclosing them in a gigantic figure of Hercules (the emblem of human virtue) made of wicker work, and burning them alive in sacrifice to the divine attribute of Justice.

This impressive monument of former times (the Keswick circle) is carefully preserved: the soil within the enclosure is not broken; a path from the road is left, and a stepping style has been placed, to accommodate visitors with an easy access to it. The old legend about the last human sacrifice of the Druids belongs to this monument. Gilpin says, "a romantic place seldom wants a romantic story to adorn it." And here certainly, amidst unmistakeable evidences of the worship of Baal: within sight of the vale (St. John's) which reveals the isolated rock, once the enchanted fortress of the powerful Merlin: within sound of the Greta, "the mourner," "the loud lamenter," in whose torrents are heard voices complaining among the stones: within range of Souter Fell with its shadowy armies and spectres marching in military array, why and whence and whither we know not; here, if anywhere, the very realm of mystery and superstition is made manifest to us, with almost awful significance; overlying the fairest scenes of nature, and investing them with all the charms of a region of romance.

The neighbourhood of this temple, too, is not without a certain notoriety on account of the violent floods with which it has been visited even in modern times. Hutchinson speaks of a remarkable one caused by impetuous rains, which happened on the twenty-second of August, 1749, in the vale of St. John's. "The clouds discharged their torrents like a waterspout; the streams from the mountains uniting, at length became so powerful a body, as to rend up the soil, gravel, and stones to a prodigious depth, and bear with them mighty fragments of rocks; several cottages were swept away from the declivities where they had stood in safety for a century; the vale was deluged, and many of the inhabitants with their cattle were lost. A singular providence protected many lives, a little school, where all the youths of the neighbourhood were educated, at the instant crowded with its flock, stood in the very line of one of these torrents, but the hand of God, in a miraculous manner, stayed a rolling rock, in the midst of its dreadful course, which would have crushed the whole tenement with its innocents; and by its stand, the floods divided, and passed on this hand and on that, insulating the school-house, and leaving the pupils with their master, trembling at once for the dangers escaped and as spectators of the horrid havock in the valley, and the tremendous floods which encompassed them on every side." He received this account from one of the people then at school: and also gives the following description of that inundation, which he had met with. "It began with most terrible thunder and incessant lightning, the preceding day having been extremely hot and sultry; the inhabitants for two hours before the breaking of the cloud, heard a strange noise, like the wind blowing in the tops of high trees. It is thought to have been a spout or a large body of water, by which the lightning incessantly rarifying the air, broke at once on the tops of the mountains, and descended upon the valley below, which is about three miles long, half a mile broad, and lies nearly east and west, being closed on the south and north sides with prodigious high, steep, and rocky mountains. Legbert Fells on the north side, received almost the whole cataract, for the spout did not extend above a mile in length; it chiefly swelled four small brooks, but to so amazing a degree, that the largest of them, called Catchertz Ghyll, swept away a mill and other edifices in five minutes, leaving the place where they stood covered with fragments of rocks and rubbish three or four yards deep, insomuch that one of the mill stones could not be found. During the violence of the storm, the fragments of rock which rolled down the mountain, choked up the old course of this brook; but the water forcing its way through a shivery rock, formed a chasm four yards wide and about eight or nine deep. The brooks lodged such quantities of gravel and sand on the meadows, that they were irrecoverably lost. Many large pieces of rocks were carried a considerable way into the fields; some larger than a team of ten horses could move, and one of them measuring nineteen yards about." Clarke says, "Many falsehoods are related of this inundation: for instance, the insulation of the school-house with its assembled master and scholars, which, though commonly told and believed, is not supported by any tradition of the kind preserved in the neighbourhood." No doubt, the circumstances are exaggerated: but even his own narrative shows it to have been one of the most dreadful and destructive inundations ever remembered in this country. He relates that "all the evening of that 22nd day of August, horrid, tumultuous noises were heard in the air; sometimes a puff of wind would blow with great violence, then in a moment all was calm again. The inhabitants, used to bosom-winds, whirlwinds, and the howling of distant tempests among the rocks, went to bed as usual, and from the fatigues of the day were in a sound sleep when the inundation awoke them. About one in the morning the rain began to fall, and before four such a quantity fell as covered the whole face of the country below with a sheet of water many feet deep; several houses were filled with sand to the first story, many more driven down; and among the rest Legberthwaite mill, of which not one stone was left upon another; even the heavy millstones were washed away; one was found at a considerable distance, but the other was never discovered. Several persons were obliged to climb to the tops of the houses, to escape instantaneous death; and there many were obliged to remain, in a situation of the most dreadful suspense, till the waters abated. Mr. Mounsey of Wallthwaite says, that when he came down stairs in the morning, the first sight he saw was a gander belonging to one of his neighbours, and several planks and kitchen utensils, which were floating about his lower apartments, the violence of the waters having forced open the doors on both sides of the house. The most dreadful vestiges of this inundation, or waterspout, are at a place called Lob-Wath, a little above Wallthwaite; here thousands of prodigious stones are piled upon each other, to the height of eleven yards; many of these stones are upwards of twenty tons weight each, and are thrown together in such a manner as to be at once the object of curiosity and horror.

"The quantity of water which had fallen here is truly astonishing; more particularly considering the small space it had to collect in. The distance from Lob-Wath to Wolf-Crag, is not more than a mile and a half, and there could none collect much above Wolf-Crag; nor did the rain extend more than eight miles in any direction. At Melfell only three miles distant, the farmers were leading corn all night (as is customary when they fear ill weather,) and no rain fell there; yet such was the fury of the descending torrent, that the fields at Fornside exhibited nothing but devastation. Here a large tree broken in two, there one torn up by the root, and the ground everywhere covered with sand and stones." The rivulet called Mosedale Beck, which has its source between the mountains Dodd and Wolf-Crag, was by its sudden and continuous overflow the chief contributory of the inundation.

[1]Birth of Christ.