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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE DRUIDS

[1] LONG, long ago the land which we now call France was called Gaul.

Gaul was much larger than France is to-day, although north, south, and west France has the same boundaries now as Gaul had in the far-off days of which I am going to tell you.

What these boundaries are, many a geography lesson will have shown. But, lest you have forgotten, take a map of Europe, and you will see that on the north France has to protect her the English Channel, on the south she is guarded by the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, while on her west roll the waters of the Atlantic. These mountains and waters were also the bulwarks of ancient Gaul.

It was on the east that Gaul stretched far beyond the boundaries of France, reaching to the Alps and to the swift-flowing river Rhine.

And it is of Gaul, as it was in those far-off days many centuries B.C., that I wish first to tell you.

The large tract of land called Gaul was then little more than a dreary waste of moor and marsh, with great forests, larger and gloomier than any you have ever seen.

Through these forests and marshlands terrible beasts prowled—wolves, bears, wild oxen. Herds of swine, too, fierce as any wolves, roamed through the marshes. These [2] had been tamed enough to answer to their keepers horn.

As for the people who lived in Gaul in those days, they were almost as savage as the wild beasts. Half naked, they too, like the wolves and bears, wandered through the marshes and forests to seek for food.

They were tall and strong, these huntsmen, with blue eyes and yellow hair. If you had met a savage Gallic warrior, you would have thought he looked wild and fierce enough to frighten any foe. But, you know, people do not often see themselves as others see them. That is why the Scottish poet Burns sang—

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us."

These warriors with blue eyes and yellow hair thought that they did not look at all fierce, and so they would often stain their yellow locks red, to make themselves appear, as they thought, terrible to their foes.

Although they wore few clothes, the Gauls were fond of ornaments, and often they adorned themselves with heavy chains and collars of gold.

Stalwart warriors as well as huntsmen were these yellow-haired men. Different tribes or clans, led each by his own chief, would hunt one another and fight to the death.

In these far-off days the clans often fought to win a piece of land on which another clan had settled and built huts. It is true that the huts were rough and comfortless, yet they were the only shelter these wild folk knew from the storm and cold. Very often, too, it was bitterly cold. In winter the rivers were frozen for weeks at a time. They were frozen so hard that they were used as highways, and heavy wagons with great loads could be rolled or drawn across the solid ice without a fear that it would give way.

The Gauls built their huts of wood and clay, covering them with straw and with branches cut from the great [3] trees of the forests. They were huddled close together, and round them the Gauls threw up a rough wall of timber, earth stone. This wall was meant to protect the town or encampment, as it was called, from the attacks of an unfriendly tribe.

Yet when the war-cry was heard drawing nearer and nearer to the little settlement, the people, after all, did not always wait to defend their town.

It was so simple to build other huts, that sometimes, at the sound of the terrible war-whoop, the whole clan would flee for greater safety into the depths of the forests.

Here, to be ready for such a flight, they had already felled trees, which they now set to work, in grim earnest, to pile up into an enormous barricade between themselves and the foe that was all the while drawing near.

After the battle was over, the victorious clan held a great feast, to which they brought the prisoners whom they had taken in the fight. While their victors danced wild dances and shouted triumphant war-songs, the poor prisoners looked on with sullen faces and with heavy hearts, for well they knew what would now befall them.

They would be tied to trees and burned, or, if they escaped that cruel fate, it would perhaps be to be flogged to death. Their conquerors were pitiless, the prisoners knew it well. They might even be sacrificed to the gods. For the Gauls never doubted that their gods demanded human sacrifices.

But though the tribes which wandered now here, now there, throughout the land of Gaul were wild and warlike, yet already they had priests to whom they yielded obedience as well as reverence.

These priests were called Druids. You have read of Druids in the early history of your own land, and you may have seen some of the temples in which they worshipped long years ago. The temples were but simple circles of Stones, open to the blue sky and fresh winds of heaven. [4] These stones are still to be seen in England and in the west of France.

Usually the Druids were grave old men with long white beards, who were believed to be very wise. They were not often seen, for they dwelt in the depths of some sacred wood, where, silent and alone, they sought to learn the will of their gods.

But once every year the Druids, clad in their long white robes, with sickles in their hands, would summon the wandering tribes together, and go with them into the forest. There, under the oak trees, they would gather. The trees themselves were cold and bare, but they were sacred, and upon them grew the mistletoe with its green leaves and pure white berries.

The mistletoe as well as the oak was sacred to the gods, and with their sickles the priests cut it down and carried it in triumph to their temples.

The Druids were not only the teachers of the people, they were also their poets and priests. It was from them that the Gauls learned to sacrifice their prisoners to the gods.

From the Druids, also, the Gallic warriors heard that when they were slain in battle, they would live again in some other world the same life that they had lived on earth.

When they heard this, the warriors said, "In this other world we must have our slaves, our horses and our dogs, to wait upon us as they have done here. Our swords and our shields, also, we will not leave behind us."

Thus it was that when a great warrior was buried, his slave, his horse, his dog, each was buried alive with his master. His sword and shield also were not forgotten. And the white-robed Druids who ruled the Gauls in these olden days, though they had the power, did not forbid this cruel rite.


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