Druids of the Island
by Stanley Cotton
AFTER THE PEOPLES of the New Stone and Bronze Ages the first settlers in the Isle of Wight were in all probability the Cymri. Some Bible scholars hold the opinion that this race descended from Noah's son Japheth, through his son Gomer. Whether this is so or not it would seem that from the Cymri the Celtic family descended. Another race called the Galedin followed the Cymri to the Island, and after them a third, the Coranied, who were a race of giants, delighting in war and bloodshed. These came from the 'land of the pools', which would indicate the Netherlands.
The Cymri and the Galedin, who had lived together in peace, then became subject to the Coranied, and thus all the inhabitants of the Island merged into one people, adopting a common language. In this tongue the Wight was called 'Guitt', 'Gwict', or 'Guith', all signifying separation, that is, severance from the mainland at the time of high water.
The natives, like all Celtic peoples (for so we must now call the Islanders) were governed by the Druids, and this powerful and sinister priestly caste exercised undisputed sway over them. The Druids were astrologers, mystics, and the antiquarians of the time. They worshipped Hu Gudarn as a supreme deity, and they also offered allegiance to the Goddess Olwen, who was the Celtic counter-part of Venus. We are now dealing with the loosely-termed Iron Age, which began in Britain about the year 600 BC.
For the most part the Druids dwelt in gloomy groves of trees, and in particular they reverenced the oak. They also venerated the mistletoe. They are known to have sacrificed animals, very often a white bull. Human sacrifices may even have been practised. The Arch-druid wore about his neck a golden chain, which supported what he claimed to be a serpent's egg encased in gold. He it was who cut the mistletoe. A community of Druids was called a 'College', and besides the ordinary Druids there were the novitiates, or Owids, and after them the Bards.
The Druids of the Isle of Wight held three places to be exceptionally sacred. Chief of these was the oak-grove of Hexel, also called Gabhanodorum, which is now covered by the tranquil waters of Brading haven. Here dwelt the Arch-druid, and here it was that the principal enchantments were held. Another sacred place was the pinnacle of Ur, perhaps the original Needle Rock. The third was the Long Stone of Mottistone, which is an erect pillar of iron sandstone with a recumbent block near it. This is the oldest example of man's handiwork in the Island. If sacrifices were made here it is likely that the horizontal block was the altar stone.
Tradition tells us that long ages ago, in the vicinity of the Long Stone, was a Logan stone, consisting of one gigantic block resting upon another, and so delicately poised that even the hand of a child could sway it.
Ancient legend has it that in the dark and dank oak-grove of Hexel, at the mouth of the eastern Yar (the Isle of Wight boasts of two rivers Yar) a human sacrifice was offered once a year. The victim was confined in a cage of wickerwork, and then offered by fire. One day three strangers came to the grove. They were poorly dressed, and were obviously 'baptized ones' — that is to say, Christians. The Druids regarded them with lofty disdain, but at least they were allowed to look on at the mystic rites. It was on or about the sixth day of the December moon. The Druids seem to have had a preference for darkness in the belief that darkness is older than light.
Left: The Long Stone, Mottistone.
On the appointed morning the Arch-druid went forth to cut the mistletoe, attended by members of the inferior orders as well as a great concourse of the common people. The principal actors in the enchantments ranged themselves round the chosen oak, and two of them reared a ladder against it. Then the Arch-druid, a majestic figure in a flowing white beard, clad in his ceremonial robes of spotless white, and wearing a coronet of withered oak-leaves round his head, ascended the ladder with much dignity, to the melody of the harps ofthe bards. The worshipping people watched reve- rently as the patriarch cut the mistletoe with a golden knife, when it was safely caught by the priests holding snow-white cloths. If it was allowed to touch the ground it at once lost all its efficacy. After this all the participants in the strange ceremony walked solemnly to a clearing in the midst of the grove where there stood a large oak, denuded of all its branches, but with two of the upper limbs stretching outward in such a position as to suggest the extended arms of a man.
On the left of the bare oak sat a Druidess, wearing a diadem of plaited wheat-straw in full ear, and carrying in her right hand the horn of a bull, the outside of which was overlaid with gold, and the inside filled with grains of wheat. (Some antiquarians hold that this was the original cornu-copia, or horn of plenty). On the right side of the oak sat a Druid, white-bearded like the others of this rank, holding a knife. As the thrumming of the harps grew louder all the worshippers began to chant a hymn of praise to the supreme deity.
Presently there appeared two Owids dragging with them a terrified, light-coloured bull. The Arch-druid walked slowly to meet them, and after knife from the man, he uttered a strange prayer, and then poured the grains from the horn upon the head of the bull, after which he killed the animal with the knife. The blood was collected in an earthenware vessel, into which one of the priests dipped his hands and sprinkled the blood upon the heads of the worshippers. Another priest carried the mistletoe, and to those who were sick or feeble-minded he offered a crushed sprig of it. This was supposed to contain the balm of healing.
Next there was brought into the circle a goat, with a necklace of acorns. Three Druids met it. The first placed salt on the goat's head; the second poured water over him; and the third slew him. The killer chanted some verses, again to the sacred music of the harps. Following this the Arch-druid led another procession through the grove, the other Druids following. Three of them took up a stand beside separate oaks, each carrying a handful of wheat-straw in full-ear, and a hazel wand.
At the end of the grove was a deep well of stone, and near it three fires throwing their lurid flames into the now gathering darkness. In their midst a huge pyre of wood had been set up, with a great basket of wicker-work at the top. Into this area came three men, wearing robes of white, black and grey, and carrying vessels of gold, iron and brass. After them walked a naked man covered from head to foot with red paint, carrying in his right hand a bare sword, and in his left a blazing torch.
The sacred well was called 'the water of Annown', being, it is supposed, analogous to the waters of the Styx. The bearers of the three vessels each filled his vessel from the waters of the well and then, to a dead silence, they poured water on the three fires. When the fires were thus quenched the beholders lit torches from the one held by the red-painted man. It was then that one of the Christians came forth, and standing fearlessly before the Arch-Druid, he denounced them as impostors, and scoffed at their religion.
The Arch-druid was livid with fury. The three strangers must die. They were seized and dragged to the top of the wood-pile and thrust into the basket. The enormous bonfire was kindled, and the flames and smoke rose skyward. The Druids were shouting in exhultation when all at once there was a vivid flash of lightning and a peal of thunder rent the heavens. There was a rushing as of a mighty torrent, and a hissing column of water rose from the stone-cased well. The sea came pouring in in gigantic waves, the wicker basket was swept from the top of the pile and floated, and the three strangers stepped out in safety. The sea never receded and the once-sacred Gabhanodorum lies to this day beneath the waters still of Brading haven. Such is the essence of an ancient legend of the Isle of Wight. Curiously enough there is an old story that tells of the finding of a stone-cased well when an attempt was made to drain the haven in the reign of James I.