Circa 2000BC – Druids and the altar of Baal
The flame from the fire could be seen from many miles away even though the weather was foul. Rain penetrated through to the flesh and the cold wind sucked out whatever warmth was left.
On the top of a sheer blackened cliff stood a hooded figure staring out into the darkness to a wild sea frothing and thrashing the rocks below. Only the movement of the flickering flames gave the impression that there was life here.
The fire had taken a long time to light, even though the driest of kindling had been used and the area covered with a large cow hide, but this fire was special and could only be lit with friction. Rubbing sticks chaffed the hands cruelly, but the honour of lighting the flame negated any pain. First there was the slightest puff of smoke and the others nodded in anticipation. The smoke increased gradually, and the hands rubbed faster to increase the intensity. Blisters were ignored, it was nearing the point. The faintest of sparks came off, and then another. The lighter took his time and blew gently on the kindle. More smoke and at last it burst into flame. The ceremony could now begin.
As the flames grew, so you could see the group of people moving slowly around the stone. It was not possible to be on all sides as this standing stone was near the edge of the cliff and one slip on the other side meant certain death. There was something different about this stone. It was almost as if it was one of the onlookers. There it stood with hood drawn down over an enigmatic face of hard grey schist and the falls of a heavy cloak reaching to the ground.
Younger men started leaping through the flames, at first silently, but then increasingly vocal, shouting and screaming as they passed through the fire. Their bodies glistening in the rain and mixed with cold sweat.
Baal would be pleased. The other Gods would not understand.
“All ye that kindles fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand – ye shall lie down in sorrow”
The elders would walk up to the flames, cup their hands and waft the burning smoke and embers across themselves. Murmuring incantations, they would return to the circle and watch the ceremony unfold.
A circle of fires was lit, and as the flames raised higher, they congregated in the centre eagerly anticipating who would be the threefold leaper and get the first piece of consecrated cake. First they had to pour a libation on the ground. As the young men leapt in and out of the flames the group murmured incantations and they would cry out to Baal.
The consecrated cake was brought out. The first piece was handed to the threefold leaper and then passed around the assembly. Whoever got the black bit that was hidden within the cake would become the “cailteach bealtine”, worthy of sacrifice.
“I have it, I have it.” In a high voice of pure excitement a young man danced and pranced around showing all that he had the black bit and was worthy. The rest of the young men were devastated and their disappointment showed clearly on their faces although none would admit it.
The Chief Druid huddled the older men together in a tight group, not just to keep out the cold, but to seek instructions from the Gods. They bent over murmuring and offering incantations. What would please Baal this time. The harvest had been particularly poor and they would have to offer something exceptional this year if they were going to survive the rest of the year and into next.
“Bring the cattle.” His voice was strong and clear and this Druid had many years of experience in conducting the ceremonies that the Gods required. This year had to be special and he knew it.
Further back in the field, they brought the cattle one by one and led them between the flames from the fires, and as they did so the Druid poured more libations on the ground sprinkled with consecrated cake. The large medallion in gold that hung on his chest flashed in the firelight as he moved around.
The herders swished the cattle with rowan sticks to make them go through the fire as they resisted at first but then followed one another in a continuous line as the fires died down.
“Great Baal, make their milk sweet and fulsome. Keep them safe from the pestilence and stop their meat from rotting” He scattered further cake crumbs and libations to ensure that his words were heard.
“Bring me the harvest.” and one by one they trouped through between the dying fires with samples from their farms of root crops and cereals. The mood was sombre, was the God listening. They needed a sign, anything to let them know, but only the wind and rain kept them company.
“The old lady will help us.” A voice came out from the group of elders who remained huddled together but were watching the proceedings for signs.
“You ́re right, we had better prepare.” And with that several of them started collecting tinder and wood from around the area.
“We need a lot more than that, go down to the shore and get driftwood.” The Chief Druid knew what had to be done. He had done it many times before and he knew that it was the only way to appease Baal. His long grey beard was dripping with rainwater as the strength of the wind increased. The God was waiting and getting impatient.