The dead were also fed at the grave…

October 2, 2016

temple

The cult of the dead culminated at the family hearth, around which the dead were even buried, as among the Aeduii; this latter custom may have been general. 3 In any case the belief in the presence of ancestral ghosts around the hearth was widespread, as existing superstitions show. In Brittany the dead seek warmth at the hearth by night, and a feast is spread for them on All Souls’ eve, or crumbs are left for them after a family gathering. But generally the family ghost has become a brownie, lutin, or pooka, haunting the hearth and doing the household work. Fairy corresponds in all respects to old ancestral ghost, and the one has succeeded to the place of the other, while the fairy is even said to be the ghost of a dead person. Certain archæological remains have also a connection with this ancient cult. Among Celtic remains in Gaul are found andirons of clay, ornamented with a ram’s head. M. Dechelette sees in this “the symbol of sacrifice offered to the souls of ancestors on the altar of the hearth.” The ram was already associated as a sacrificial animal with the cult of fire on the hearth, and by an easy transition it was connected with the cult of the dead there. It is found as an emblem on ancient tombs, and the domestic Lar was purified by the immolation of a ram. Figurines of a ram have been found in Gaulish tombs, and it is associated with the god of the underworld. The ram of the andirons was thus a permanent representative of the victim offered in the cult of the dead. A mutilated inscription on one of them may stand for Laribus augustis, and certain markings on others may represent the garlands twined round the victim. Serpents with rams’ heads occur on the monuments of the underworld god. The serpent was a chthonian god or the emblem of such a god, and it may have been thought appropriate to give it the head of an animal associated with the cult of the dead.

The dead were also fed at the grave or in the house. Thus cups were placed in the recess of a well in the churchyard of Kilranelagh by those interring a child under five, and the ghost of the child was supposed to supply the other spirits with water from these cups. In Ireland, after a death, food is placed out for the spirits, or, at a burial, nuts are placed in the coffin. In some parts of France, milk is poured out on the grave, and both in Brittany and in Scotland the dead are supposed to partake of the funeral feast. These are survivals from pagan times and correspond to the rites in use among those who still worship ancestors. In Celtic districts a cairn or a cross is placed over the spot where a violent or accidental death has occurred, the purpose being to appease the ghost, and a stone is often added to the cairn by all passers-by.

J. A. MacCulloch
THE RELIGION OF THE ANCIENT CELTS

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