My observation in recent posts that interpretation of history has changed somewhat led to a few exclamation marks elsewhere in the halls of social media. In evidence, I present for your delectation a chapter which passed for history in the 1891 edition of Wilson Armistead’s Tales and Legends of the English Lakes.
‘The old road between Keswick and Penrith passes over a rough hill, called Castle Rigg1, which the new road now avoids. In a field adjoining this road, on the right hand side going on to Penrith, and at the distance of a mile-and-a half east by north from Keswick, are the remains of a Druidical2 Temple, popularly named the Druid’s Stones3…
The situation of this ancient place for superstitious worship has been skilfully chosen, when considered with reference to the idolatrous superstitions of the Druids; the objects of which were the subdue the mind with appalling images, and to extort obedience though the agency of terror… Hither the trembling worshippers repaired, to hear and to acknowledge the teachings and the denunciations of their potent masters. In the eyes of the barbarian Britons, alike ignorant, credulous, and superstitious, the place would appear to be the very sanctuary of Omnipotence, and the Druid ministers themselves an impersonation of their gods…
When their town was become very populous, there lived in it a youth of superior strength and agility, who was remarked for being particularly expert with the bow, and so swift that few could outstrip him in the race… It is an old maxim, with few exceptions, that love is the companion of bravery – and Mudor loved the gentle Ella. They had retired, at an early age, to a grove farther up the river, where stood the image of their God Mogan, which had been purchased of some Phenician merchants5, along with some iron hatchets, in exchange for the skins of beast, slain in the chase. Before this rude representation of the Deity they mutually pledged their vows; and to render those pledges more binding, they each stained a blue sun on their breasts, as a memorial of that their faith should be as durable as the light of that luminary… Thus circumstanced, their hearts were knit together by those ties which bind the savage as well as the civilised; for the heart of the naked Indian who treads the burning sands of the desert is as warm to the tender impressions of love as the prince who stretches his thumbs on a silken couch6, or reposes on a bed of down.
These faithful lovers dreamt of no unkindly fate interfering, when a fever broke out in the town, and swept away a number of its inhabitants. Application was made to the priest of Mogan to avert the awful visitation by prayer; but he returned for answer, that the wickedness of the people had offended the Great Invisible, and the fever was sent as just punishment. The Druids, therefore who resided in the neighbourhood, made a pilgrimage to one of their largest temples, situated in the mountains, in the midst of a vast forest. The Arch-Druid, having gathered the misteltoe7, just as the rising sun licked the dew its berries, and performed a number of other rites, to obtain answer from the Great Spirit, informed them that Heaven would not be appeased unless a young virgin was immolated as a sacrifice for the sins of the inhabitants…
The Druids of the neighbouring groves assembled together, and cast lots, according to established usage. The lot fell on Ella! Sad was the heart of Mudor when he heard this; and vainly did he entreat that some other victim might be selected in her stead. It was the irrevocable decree of Heaven, and the priests had not the power to alter it. No one felt the sentence less severely than Ella did. She resigned herself to the will of the Deity; and would not render unavailable the sacrifice by any vain and foolish complaints. Still the affection she felt for Mudor would steal across her mind… the morning arrived when Ella was to be conveyed far into the deserts, among the northern mountains, to the gloomy dell8, where Heaven would alone by appeased… They at length arrived at the place of sacrifice, which was a gloomy dell8, in the midst of a forest, near the banks of a river, surrounded by magnificent scenery. This dell8 was a curious cavity in the rock, of considerable extent, and rendered almost dark by the overhanging branches on the ancient oaks which grew above it. A small circular area, surrounded by upright stones, was the place of sacrifice. The priests assembled to perform their horrid rites; while the gaping crowd hung in the fissures of the rock on each side, or sat on the branches of the trees, waiting the celebration of the awful ceremony. The bards, with their head crowned with oak, advanced to the north side of the circle; and after being obedience to the sun, they chanted the following hymn:-9
Being great, who reign’st alone;
Veiled in clouds, unseen, unknown,
Centre of the vast profound,
Clouds of darkness close thee round.
Thy nod make storms and tempest rise,
They breath makes thunder shake the skies,
Thy frown turns noon-day into night,
And makes the sun withdraw his light.
Beneath thy anger we expire;
The victims of the vengeful ire;
Destruction rules at they command,
And ruin blackens all the land.
A small cabin of basket-work10 was erected near the western side of the circle, in the lowest part of the dell8, with a door opening into the Druidical circle. In this the youthful Ella was to be immolated. She was brought into the circle; a garland of oak leaves was bound around her neck; a chaplet of wild flowers places on her head, and a piece of mistletoe in her hand. Thus adorned she was led into the centre of the circle, and supported there by two aged priests, while the bards chanted the invocation to the sun….
The Arch Druid took two pieces of wood, and exposing them to the sun, rubbed them together… the friction of the two pieces of wood had the desired effect – they took fire. The sticks and leaves around the cabin which contained the ill-fated Ella were instantly in a blaze. As the flames arose the bards chanted, with loud voice, the following verses:- 9
Might Sovereign of the skies,
Accept this virgin sacrifice,
Let her spotless soul atone
For wicked actions not her own.
As to death her spirit stops,
As she faints and as she drops,
Lay aside they fiery crown
And spare, O spare, her native town!
She was good, and she was kind,
And she possess’d a heavenly mind;
Wicked man could ne’er atone
For his sins and crimes alone,
A purer victim must be found
To wash the stain away.
The bards stopped short, and raised their hands with astonishment – the crowd shrieked with fear – and all the rites were suspended; for at that moment a flood of water burst out from the fissures of the rock on every side, and came rolling down the dell8 like a river. The wicket hurdle in which Ella was confined was instantly surrounded by flood – the fire was quenched, and she came out unhurt. It is said that a voice was heard by the Arch Druid of solemn import, intimating that human victims were not acceptable to the Deity – that a greater sacrifice was about to be offered and that the reign of Druidism was at an end. The Arch Druid, turning his face to the sun for a moment, and then to the other priests, remarked that some mighty change was surely about to take place among them; for this was a miracle they could have no conception of.
The assembly dispersed in consternation; and the devoted Ella was happily restored to the arms of the overjoyed Mudor, with whom she lived to a good old age; and the rock has occasionally poured forth its stream ever since.’
© Diane McIlmoyle 21.05.13. Wilson Armistead quote out of copyright.
1. Castlerigg stone circle.
2. Druids. The earliest reference is c. 2200 years old, although there are theories they may extend back into the Iron Age (up to 2800 years ago). The difference in time between Druids and stone circles is greater than that between us and the Romans. Castlerigg is c. 5000 years old. And so is Long Meg, even though the rather magnificent old signpost still says, ‘Druid’s Circle’.
3. See above for magnificent signpost reference. I must take a photo.
4. Goodness me.
5. What, in Cumbria?
6. He… what?
7. To be fair, Druids did ‘do’ mistletoe, if we are to believe the account written by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century BC. But not here.
8. Enough with dell, please.
9. Never trust an historical account which bursts into verse, especially if it rhymes.
10. Julius Caesar said they had wicker thingies. The idea wasn’t invented for the 1973 film. But not here.
11. It is now apparent why so few modern people use commas and semi-colons. They were used up by Victorian historians.