Sunday, January 17, 2010


This legendary forest in eastern Brittany is said to have been the site where the great magician MERLIN was imprisoned by his mistress, the fair but ambitious VIVIANE, in an attempt to trick his magical knowledge from him; legend claims that he lives forever within a great tree there. Also within the forest is a piercingly cold fountain that brews storms at the behest of its lady guardian. As the Celts were known to believe in the sacredness of TREES, this still-standing primeval forest near Rennes (now called the Forest of Paimpont) may be Europe’s last remaining NEMETON.

Nemeton Ritual site.
The Celts worshiped not indoors but outside, in groves of TREES and at other sacred sites. There are many evidences that trees played an important part in Celtic religious life, never more so than when rituals were held in forest clearings called nemetons, a name related to words in other Indo-European languages (Greek némos, “glade,” Latin nemus, “sacred”) and may connect with the ancient Irish root, nem-, which meant “heaven” but referred symbolically to anything sacred.

Ancient classical authors made much of the outdoor location of Celtic rituals; Strabo described the OAK groves in which the Galacians met, while Pliny the Elder and Tacitus both spoke of the same among continental Celts. Lucan, in a vivid passage, described groves “untouched by men’s hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade,” wherein “images of gods grim and rude were uncouth blocks formed of felled tree-trunks.” He reported a legend that the trees would sometimes appear on FIRE or stricken by earthquake but would in reality be untouched and unharmed. Lucan also offhandedly mentioned that this sacred grove was leveled by Caesar because it was too near some buildings the Romans were erecting.

After Romanization, the word nemeton was sometimes used of a stone TEMPLE, when such buildings replaced the sacred groves that gave way to Roman axes. The word became part of the names of many Celtic settlements; thus we have Drunemeton near Ankara, Turkey, where the Celtic Galacians lived; Nematacum and Nemeton in Gaul, Nemetobrigia in the Celtic region of Spain called Galacia, Vernemeton in England, and Medionemeton in Scotland.
Sources: Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 198; Lonigan,
Paul R. The Druids: Priests of the Ancient Celts. Contributions to the Study of Religion, No. 45. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 3.

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