Irish Druids And Old Irish
Who could write the history of the Cross? It is the most ancient, and the
most deeply reverenced of all religious symbols. To the men dwelling beside the
Nile or the Euphrates, to the inhabitants of India to the East and of Mexico to
the West, to those sojourners in Egypt before the Great Pyramid was built, not
less than to modern Christians, the Cross, whatever may have been the
meaning attached to it, in the ever-changing systems of faith, has been a source
of wonder, of mystery, and of comfort.
When the Christians assaulted the Osirian temple at Alexandria, and with
destructive force entered its sacred precincts, they saw a huge cross occupying
the marble pavement. Great, too, was the surprise of the Spaniards to find the
same emblem in the temples of aboriginal America. The Tau or Cross meets
one's view in the ornamental relics of many lands.
Ancient Ireland was no exception in the display of cruciform objects.
The Edinburgh Review of 1870 truly said, "It appears to have been
the possession of every people in antiquity; the elastic girdle, so to speak,
which embraced the most widely-separated heathen communities; the most
significant token of a universal brotherhood." It can, it adds, be traced
"to the remotest antiquity, and is still recognized as a military and
national badge of distinction."
The Rev. A. Hisrop, in his Two Babylons, boldly asserts
that "the cross was known to Adam." It is strange that the chosen
people should have preserved no tradition of it, and that the only mention of it
in the Old Testament (Ezek. ix.) should be a mark or tau on the forehead
of idolaters, as may be seen to this day in the bazaars of India. Baring-Gould
thinks "it is more than a coincidence that Osiris, by the Cross, should
give life eternal to the spirits of the just." Is he not here confounding
the archetypical emblem with the antitypical?
Oliver, the authority on Freemasonry, ventures this connection between Pagan
and Christian crosses--"The system of salvation through the atonement of a
crucified Mediator was the main pillar of Freemasonry ever since the Fall."
(!) Were this true, Popes need not have excommunicated the Brotherhood.
The Spaniards saw the Indians bowing to the cross in worship. It has been
found on the breasts of statuettes from the Indian cemetery of Jingalpa,
Nicaragua, of unknown antiquity. Tablets of gypsum, in Mexico, bore it in the
form of that cross adopted by the Knights in Malta. The Peruvians and
Babylonians had the Maltese cross. The Druids were said to have made their cross
of the stem and two branches of the oak.
The Buddhist tau or Swastika is a cross--having sometimes a Calvary,
with buds and leaves. The Tree of Immortality in the palace of Assyrian
Khorsabad forms a cross. Etruria and Pompeii exhibit the same symbol. The
Reviewer of 1870 says, "Our commonplace book contains nearly two
hundred distinct representations of the Pre-Christian Cross."
Only in recent days have British Protestants cared to use the cross. Now it
may be seen on and in Methodist and Nonconformist chapels. It was once thought
distinctly Papal in origin. But Tertullian, Jerome, and Origen, notify
its use in their day. Processions in its honour were known in the fifth
century. Cyprian records its use on the brow in baptism. The first Protestant
Prayer-book (Edward VI.) ordered its mark on the infant's breast and forehead.
The whole Christian world has either bowed to it, or raised but a feeble voice
against its use.
Ireland has been, and is, the very land of crosses. Long before St. Patrick
came to its shores, wise men from the East had brought it in Mediterranean
What did the Irish think of the Cross? What elevating ideas did it convey to
them? Was the Pre-Christian emblem anything to the mass of the natives, or
pertaining only to the foreign settlers encamped upon their coast? Did Irish
Druids, mixing more with the people, adore the Cross, as was the custom with
To the Christianized Irish, whether Culdees or not, it was the symbol of the
once suffering but now exalted One. In bowing to it they beheld the image of
their Saviour, and indulged the hope of a happier Home Beyond. If the heathen
cross came to them from the East, it was from the East it afterwards approached
them with a higher and nobler faith.
The pagan crosses being just the same in appearance as those subsequently
introduced by Christian missionaries, we may reasonably be puzzled to
distinguish one class from the other. Dr. Graves, Bishop of Limerick, compared
Irish and Coptic crosses. "These," said he," were brought into
both Egypt and Ireland from Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Byzantium." He
found oriental crosses with or without circles on Ogham Irish monuments.
Wakeman, in his Irish Inscribed Crosses, believes they "were used
by the people of Erin as a symbol of some significance, at a period long
antecedent to the mission of St. Patrick." Rubbings from the stones on the
Island of Inismurray, of Sligo, overlooking the Atlantic, led him to: say--"We
have the elements of all, or nearly all, spirals, chevrons, lozenges, cups and
dots, crosslets, foliage, cable, wavy and other mouldings, upon cinerary urns,
golden or bronze ornaments and implements, and most notably upon megalithic
structures, associated with the practice of cremation, all of which are beyond
the range of Western history."
Pre-Christian crosses he identifies at Dowth and New Grange upon the Boyne,
Knockmany of Tyrone, Deer Park of Fermanagh, Cloverhill of Sligo,
Slieve-ha-Calliagh near Lough Crew of Meath. These are like the heathen
inscriptions in Scotia Minor or Lesser Ireland, which we know now as Scotland
Tuath-de-Danaan crosses are associated with Snakes and are not likely to be
Christian ones. The Tuath on resemble those of Buddhist countries. That at
Killcullen county Kildare, bears the figures of nine Buddhist priests in
oriental garb, and even with a sort of Egyptian beard. Keane, of Round Tower
story, writes--"Gobban-Saer means the sacred past, or the Freemason sage,
one of the Guabhres or Cabiri, such as you have seen him represent on the
Tuatha-de-Danaan Cross of Clonmacnoise." The latter was adorned with birds
and other animals.
Clonmacnoise was a sacred spot before Christianity came. It is ten miles from
Athlone, in King's Co. The North Cross, thirteen feet high, bears carvings of
priests Brehons. The South Cross, twelve feet, has some splendid, figures of
birds, deer, &c. There are staves, with bunches of leaves. A dog appears
among the animals. This would have no meaning with a Christian cross, but
sacredness of that friend of man in Zend books classes that cross among those of
The human figure has an eastern look, fully clothed
and crowned. It holds two sceptres crossed in the arms, with crosses at the
top. That Clonmacnoise was a sacred spot is evidenced by the two remaining Round
Towers there. Its sanctity was continued, though in a Christian channel. Besides
the cathedral, there are remains of nine churches. The author of the Round
Towers of Ireland is led to exclaim, "Within the narrow limits of two
Irish acres, we have condensed more religious ruins of antiquarian value, than
are to be found, perhaps, in a similar space in any other quarter of the
That writer is disposed to see proofs of some connection between the ancient
Irish faith and that of the Zendavesta of Cyrus. Referring to the dog on those
crosses, he says--"The personation of a dog--their invariable
accompaniment, as it is also found among the sculptures of Persepolis, and in
other places in the East--would in itself be sufficient to fix the heathen
appropriation of these crosses, as that animal can have no possible relation to
Christianity; whereas, by the Tuath de Danaans it was accounted sacred, and its
maintenance enjoined by the ordinances of the State."
Buddhist crosses are well known throughout the East. The Rev. Ernest Eitel,
of Hongkong, describing one on Amitabha Buddha, writes, "It is exactly the
same diagram which you may have seen engraved on ancient church bells in
England, and which learned antiquarians invariably declare to be the hammer of
Thor (the Scandinavian god of Thunder). Perhaps, also, you remember to have
heard that among the German peasantry, and in Ireland, this same figure is used
as a magical charm to dispel thunder. Well, you turn to your friend (Chinese).
'What is the meaning of this?' He informs you that it is the mystic Shibboleth
of the believers in the Western Paradise, an accumulation of lucky signs."
Anyhow it had a different significance to that we now recognize in the cross.
One need not be alarmed at the discovery, that not only the Cross, but the
Crucifixion, was a sacred symbol many hundreds of years before the birth of
Jesus. Yet, in Christianity, a different and more moral and elevated idea became
associated with the figure of a crucifix. Mithras, as the Sun, is represented as
crucified at the winter solstice. Vishnu, Buddha, and Indra were, also, said to
have been crucified on the cross. The Scandinavians had a crucifixion of the sun
ceremony on the shortest day.
Ireland, like other lands, had Pre-Christian crucifixions. The most
remarkable one seen by us was that at Glendalough. The Persian head-dress, and
the ancient kilt, were observed with the oriental crown. That character was
afterwards imitated in Christian times, as some suppose, down to the twelfth
Clonmacnoise has the figure fully clothed and crowned. The figures of
Knockmoy, Galway, and Cashel wear the kilt of the East As has been remarked,
"The Hindoo Puranas corroborate to an iota this our Knockmoy
crucifixion." That of India refers to the death of Sulioahana upon the
tree. The Knockmoy figure has the same sort philibeg, or kilt, as that worn by
the arms-extended Deity in Nubia.
Another peculiarity noticed in some of the Irish Pre-Christian illustrations
of the Crucifixion is the absence of nails; the legs being bound with cords at
the ankles. Cords, also, pass round the chest, and under the arms. The arms are
not fully outstretched, but rather hang downward. At Monasterboice the figure is
bound by cords. As Keane observed--"Such a mode of representing the
crucifixion never could have occurred to the early Irish Christian missionaries
and bishops, who are universally allowed to have made the Scriptures their chief
study." The crown resembles that worn by the goddess Diana. Keane is pleased to say of the
whole--"It represents the Cuthite crucifixions of primeval tradition."
The Irish shrine of St. Manchin led that same writer to add--"The
crucified figure in the sculptures from a Persian Rock Temple may assist in
explaining the mummy-like figures on the Irish shrine. The similarity of the
design would seem to confirm the idea that the figures were intended to signify
the inmates of the Ark, undergoing the process of mysterious death, which was
supposed to be exhibited in Arkite ceremonies."
O'Brien's Round Towers, which, with the exception of some
extravagances, has been largely approved by the learned, alludes to a bronze
crucifix, with arms extended, and with an oriental crown and kilt, in these
words--"could not have been intended for our Saviour, wanting besides the
INRI, and wearing the Iranian royal crown, instead of the Jewish crown of
thorns. Therefore we are justified in ascribing it to its owner Buddha, whom
again we find imprinted in the same crucified form." The supposed Virgin
and John figures on one of the Round Towers, he declares to be Rama and Buddha's
It is singular that the dress of one crucified figure, as worn about the
loins, corresponds with that of the fabled crucified Christna. That Christian
artists, who, as seen in the beautiful works of ancient Irish art, borrowed so
much from the East, should imitate oriental Pre-Christian crucifixions, ought
not to surprise us. Christian symbolism is generally borrowed, with new
adaptation, from heathen mythology.
Myfyr, the late Welsh Archdruid, has this explanation of the mystery,
viz.--"Hu, of light, died on the cross at the equinox, descending to the
southern hemisphere, and was re-born at Christmas, when rising toward the northern summer lands."
Scotland, peopled by the same race, on its western side, as Ireland, had the
like veneration for stone crosses. Donald Clark, a Gaelic scholar, derives
Inverary from the river Aray and Aoradh (worshipped). "This
place," says he, "is still called Crois-an-Sleuchdte (kneeling
cross), because the pilgrims on arriving there were wont to kneel in prayer
Before, however, they arrived here, they had to ford the river Aray at a point
where the cross came in sight, and in sight of the cross they aoradh
(worshipped), and the stream was from this association called uisgge aoradh
(water of worship), not simply aoradh (worship)"
One cross of Kintyre is made of four round bosses, with a fifth in the centre
At Keills, of Kintyre, the cross is highly sculptured. A winged figure appears
in the top compartment, and the centre is circular, with three bosses inside,
surrounded by four dogs Captain White finds "the conical or pyramidal
weather-cope on so many the Irish crosses is conspicuously absent in the
Scottish examples." He observed, however, that "the primitive kind of
four-holed cross, met with in Knapdale (Kintyre) is common to Wales, Cornwall,
Cumberland, and other western districts."
His remarks on serpent crosses are as follows--"The representations of
serpents, so prevalent in the one set sculptures (Irish), are almost
unknown to the other, though on the eastern pillar-shafts they so frequently
appear. I cannot recall a single instance of a serpent delineated a West
Highland ecclesiastical carving in the mainland districts I have traversed; it
appears, however, on a cross in Islay, and on one in Iona." The open wheel,
so prevalent in Ireland, occurs, according to Captain White, but thrice in
Eugene Hucher, in L'Art Gaulois, has some remarkable illustrations of
the cross among a kindred people to the Irish across the Channel. It is there
associated with the pig, lion, serpent, eagle, winged horse, bird, chariot, pig
under a horse, fleur-de-lis, &c. The Gaulish coins have the cross frequently
impressed on them.
Some Irish crosses are distinguished by the Buddhist symbol in all sorts of
positions. The Triple Tau of India is equally manifest. The Thor's-hammer
cross is very common among other Pre-Christian crosses. Fosbroke affirms that
there are twenty-two instances of the cross on Ogham stones, but none on the
fifty-three inscribed stones in Rath chambers. It is his opinion that
"stone crosses owe their origin to marking Druid stones with crosses, in
order to change the worship without breaking the prejudice."
The Irish cross within a circle has been seen not only in the far East, but
in the Indian Mounds of Ohio. The Druid's Cross is fully acknowledged in the Two
Babylons of the Rev. A. Hislop. The form of the Philistine Dagon is detected
in the sculptured mermaid on Meath's cross, and at Clontarf cathedral; where the
fish-woman has a forked tail. The Tau, mentioned in Ezek. ix. 4, is
declared by St. Jerome to have been a cross.
The base of the cross at Kells, Co. Meath, has the figure of a centaur with
the trident, another centaur behind armed with a bow and arrows, birds, fishes,
and a sacred hare. The sandstone cross of Arboe, by Lough Neagh, 20 feet high,
is covered with men and horses, trees and serpents. That of Monasterboice, 23
feet in height, has figures on the panels. Brash has interesting records of the
sculptured crosses of Ireland. He describes those of Kilkenny and Clonmel, of
sandstone, having in the centre of One, coiled around the boss, four serpents.
On the panel of the left arm is a hunting scene; on the right are chariots, horsemen, and
dogs. A human head had a forked, oriental-looking beard.
Lucan mentions that the Druids wrote over the cross, Pan Daran, Lord of
Thunder, bearing Hesus or Hu on the right arm, and Beli
on the left.
Mrs. Wilkes, in her Ireland the Ur of the Chaldees, has thus declared
her views--"The cross as a symbol is traceable to the crossed rods of the
Chaldæan Shepherd Kings,--as ancient as the fish and the serpent signs, and as
the, ring and cup cuttings to be seen on the stones of Scotland and
Ireland." Again, "The inhabitants of Erin, previous to the arrival of
St. Patrick, were well acquainted with the cross as a symbol" Further she
writes, "As we find the Christian emblem was general among the Druids, no
one need fear assigning to many of the crosses of Ireland and Scotland a period
far anterior to the introduction of Christianity."
The crann tau-ré, or crois-tau-ré, the Fiery Cross, which was
carried through the Highlands thirty miles in three hours, in the year 1745, at
the Stuart Rebellion, was known in very remote times among the western Celts, as
it still is in India. When dipped in the blood of goats, and bearing a flame, it
was the message of alarm among the wild tribes. A serpentine figure was often
twisted round the cross in heathen times.
It is curious to find that the pagan crosses of Central India resemble many
still existing in Cornwall and Ireland. A St Andrew's cross marked the ancient
Holy Cakes Egypt. A Buddhist god bore the cross and trident in his hand. The
Emperor Decius had the cross on coins. Some of the early Fathers were led to
call the old heathen cross an invention of the devil.
The cross of Finglas has a romantic history. It was
exhumed in 1816, after having been buried for ages. Its cross was represented
in a sun figure, as in Egypt. There were the marks of the snake about it, though
The so-called Druidical temple of New Grange, one of the most wonderful
monuments of old Ireland, is in the form of a Latin cross. There are four angled
crosses or fylfots within a circle. The emblem, seen also on cromlechs,
may be a reminiscence of Baal, or of the Scandinavian Thor, both being
associated with crosses. The pyramidal cross, observed at New Grange, was known
in countries as far apart as India and the Tonga Isles. Every one knows that the
several deities of ancient Egypt are recognized by the cross they hold in their
They who would study the subject further may consult O'Neal's Irish
Crosses, and Rolt Brash's Sculptured Crosses of Ireland. By comparing
the information therein with accounts of Egyptian, Persian, Phœnician,
Babylonian, Hindoo, and other ancient crosses, the conviction will be
strengthened that, from whatever sources derived, Ireland was acquainted with
the Cross, as a religious emblem of some sort, long before the Christian era.