The Druid’s Sacrifice, or History According to a Victorian Antiquarian

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.

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

‘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.


22 thoughts on “The Druid’s Sacrifice, or History According to a Victorian Antiquarian

  1. *stretches thumbs on silken couch*

    Sorry about the number references – they’re supposed to be in small text but WordPress is having one of its funny half hours.

  2. Thank you for a good laugh, Diane. I never cease to be amused at how other people’s beliefs are “superstitious”. Sometimes they are credited with the more dignified name of “mythology”. It’s interesting to hear people’s reactions when I suggest that all religion should come under the umbrella of mythology- many of them are quite upset!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Connie! This is one of the more fruitily-phrased examples. If only Wilson Armistead had realised that he would end up implying more about his own age than the one he purported to interpret.

      I’m not sure I’d let him have, ‘mythology’, though. He just made this up…

      Thanks for coming over 😀

  3. Well isn’t that some wonderfully creative history writing, I hope it at least brought in a few Victorian tourists to replenish the comma and semi-colon reserves! Modern day Druids to seem to burst into verse a lot though, especially around campfires, so I think that part may at least be historically accurate! ;p

    • Lol about the verse, Laura! I’m not sure a modern-day druid would claim to have recorded the actual verse from an aborted Iron-age wicker-virgin burning, though… 😀

      Thanks for coming over.

  4. How interesting that the Phoenicians got a look in! There is pretty fair evidence they got to the south-west peninsula area – though that would have been much earlier and like you I question the likelihood they got up into Cumbria. But in our own gentle amusement at the Victorian muddling of times and peoples, it’s probably worth remembering that they had not had the benefit of another century and a bit of textual and archaeological study! All credit to the idea that the Phoenicians were engaged in trade over such long distances.
    But the main thing that surprises me was your original sentence, “My observation in my previous post that interpretation of history has changed somewhat led to a few exclamation marks elsewhere in the halls of social media” – in my naivety I had assumed that everyone recognised the truth of what you were saying here?

    • Yes, I know about the Phoenicians in Cornwall (and Tintagel – hurrah!).

      It’s funny – this piece takes three bits of ‘evidence’ – none of it local – mistletoe, wicker sacrifices and Phoenicians – and bungs them all together at a stone circle. It makes me think of those creative writing wheezes where everyone writes a word on an index card, then the pack of cards is shuffled and three are handed out to each writer with firm instructions to write a short story thereupon.

      As for my statement – I get variations of this all the time. I first started this blog because someone who reckons they know Cumbrian history started to tell me a version straight out of some imaginative 1930s text books, in deadly earnest. A lot of local stories are Victorian rubbish about jilted lovers, headless riders and Reformation ghosts who mysteriously appeared in time to make tourism interesting. I don’t mind stories, but I do mind people saying this stuff *must* be true. Gah, boo and *blows raspberry* 😉

      I don’t want to take the fun out of history, I really don’t. But I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive: to quote the book I’m reading at the moment: ‘We could try to think about how to harness the power of the imagination and the power of feeling without abandoning the project of telling the truth’ (Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History). Human beings must have done a few genuinely interesting things in a couple of thousand years of history, without making stuff up.

      *gets off soap box*

    • Indeed, that’s the reference entirely! Julius Caesar first reported wicker man sacrifices in the 1st century BC. We don’t know if it was true though.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  5. Are you sure this isn’t excerpted from the collected works of Dan Brown or Kate Mosse?!

    Sadly, there are still plenty of speculative antiquarians these days coming up with similarly preposterous scenarios. We all know who they are…

    • Haha! I think Wilson Armistead is the Victorian equivalent, although to be fair I have some Victorian tomes where the history is told entirely in (bad, turgid) verse.

      My, there is plenty of speculative history out there. I’ve already used up my quote of the month in reply to Richard on this thread (the Diane Purkiss one) – I’m all for exciting, but rather hope we can find it in actual history and tradition, not Victorian flights of fancy. When I look at some of the scraps we have on, say, Urien, it makes me sad that people want to invent an Arthur to their specification when we have whisps of real adventure that we believe are based in fact. Not enough to write an academic tome, maybe, but something truthful.

  6. Fruitily phrased, indeed 🙂
    Somewhere there is a Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert assures the pointy-haired boss that he can solve the problem of their overflowing disk space by instructing everyone to use semi-colons instead of full colons. Perhaps Armistead had heard the Victorian equivalent….
    I suppose if the Phoenicians traded with Cornwall for tin they might have got further up the west coast on occasion. Although I should imagine that Iron Age (or Bronze Age, or whatever date the tale is supposed to be) Cumbrians were perfectly capable of making their own images of their gods if they wanted to and had no need to buy one from anywhere.

    • I’ve certainly never typed so many semi-colons on a couple of pages before!

      Tullie House museum in Carlisle has cabinets full of pre-Roman and native peri-Roman (I think I’ve invented a new term there) carvings that appear to be godly. We can whip up a genius cucullatus as well as anyone 😀

  7. Interesting …… but where our Victorian forebears say this is the case I’m,suspicious, they were very good at counterfeiting traditions to suit themselves. I give you the case of Iolo”Bard” Williams” Morganwg and the Gorsedd of the Bards,The 18th Cent it seems had a wave of “Druidmania”

    • Indeed, we were not alone! The sign to Long Meg stone circle really does still say, ‘Druid’s circle’ and I’m rather fond of it for its appalling inaccuracy and simmering excitement. I must take a pic 🙂

  8. Are you sure this isn’t an excellent parody of Victorian novelists?

    As history focuses on the winners, we tend to forget how bad/far from our values the rest of previous generations were. To put this piece in context contemporary historical writers include modern legends such as Maitland and Stenton, still regularly cited. Seems a world apart to us but wasn’t a shocking contrast to them…

    • If only! I have some Victorian Cumbrian histories which are entirely in verse. I do see some Victorian folklore collection which is clearly mocking the ‘rusticks’ in similarly florid language, but Armistead is just… bad.

      I suppose this whole Victorian thing is just an example of another of a related soap box – when people say that ‘people have always been the same’ throughout history, when they just haven’t. Values evolve. And the Pliny/Caesar examples are very clearly reports from ‘winners’ in history. It’s just such a shame that we’ll never know if it was true/how true or if it’s complete nonsense. Although I think we can be sure that Mudor and Ella didn’t get it together at Castlerigg 5,000 years ago 🙂

  9. Well yes indeed. But I’d still rather read Victorian historians than most modern ones. And then again I still use semi-colons; although I’m trying to give them up!

  10. I shall never look at Castlerigg, that sanctuary of Omnipotence, the same again. To come down to brass tacks, I wouldn’t have thought that Ella was a virgin after they had stained a blue sun on their breasts, but that was probably beyond Victorian ideals.
    Where are the deserts that she was led through? Presumably Cumbria didn’t have the same amount of rain it does now!
    A very interesting if somewhat whimsical story. I’m sure the Victorian maidens loved it.

    • I suspect the Victorians didn’t believe in immolating non-virgins… and I agree with you! 😀

      Harriet Martineau travelled though Cumbria in 1855, and she found the whole county horrifying in its deserty-ness, with a horror of mountains – something about savagery. I must look her up for another post!

      Thanks for coming over!

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