Fifth Chautauqua: Druids

You may smile -- I take no offense at it-- as you imagine Mr. Donnelly's ancestors with their belief in fairies and pots of gold appearing in the midst of magical snow showers in mountain passes. (Please note for future reference the presence of snow as a lucky omen!) Perhaps I will add to your amusement by recalling that it was long the custom among the wisest of those ancestors, the Druids, to hold whispered consultations with oak trees by which means they determined both the past and divined the future. Druids. Druidhen, in the tongue of my ancestors, the ancient Gaels: "knowers of oak trees"

It was Julius Caesar, as we all learned in high school, who befriended one of these Druids and told of their practices, their twenty years of schooling, their uncanny skill in natural philosophy and astronomy. Even in those days the practice of prophecy by that strong-limbed monarch of the forest was ancient; who can doubt that it was again these very same druidhen who taught the early Greeks to seek the oracle in the oaks of Dodona, the shrine of Apollo. Indeed are not the ancient wise people, the Merlins and the Gandalfs, (progenitors of many of you learned professors with us this evening!) are they not the Indo-European cousins to the Brahman of India? It is a truth which can be demonstrated quite readily by whistling the first few bars of an Irish or Scottish or Bretaigne air, in the elevator of a building or some such confined space, within which the passengers of the Indian or Pakistani nationality are confined; for you will see, as likely as not, that on suddenly cessation of your Celtic air, your companions will quite unconsciously take up and complete the tune at the point where you left off.

Ah yes, Talking oak trees! Fairy airs! What else indeed does Mister Donnelly have in store for you this evening! Namely this: I am now going to suggest that the practice of oak tree divination is alive today, and in fact comprises one of the most respectable branches of science. The proof of this is as follows.

There is a certain schoolmaster from Ireland, Professor Baillie by name, of the Queens University in Belfast, who undertook, in the 1950s, a quest of a curious sort but most pertinent to our inquiries.

No doubt you have heard tell of how from time to time the colder, more frigid latitudes of the earth yield up ancient corpses, miraculously preserved. Among the most fertile grounds for such discoveries have been the bogs of Ireland and other countries of the British Isles, and of the Scandinavian countries too, and altogether we can count some 1500 human specimens collectively known as the bog men who have been turned out of the earth and examined over the years. Many of those dating from the iron age or earlier, you may find it curious to hear, were determined by scientific tests to have been drowned in vats of beer and stabbed and garroted; a thrice enacted execution, it having been the custom in druidical sacrifice to kill the victim three times over. Others of these poor creatures seem to have died of causes apparently of an accidental nature, but these too have their messages to us, as we shall see in that most famous instance, the so-called ice man of the alps. I am told that the remains have even been presented on your television; and there may be many here tonight who have seen photographs of his implements, his fine bronze axe, his clever pouch of herbal remedies, and you may have heard too of certain mysteries that have persisted about the discovery of the body (not the least of which were the poor man's missing genitals, and certain other physiological oddities, that, being unconfirmed at the present, and of possible scandalous character, I shall not here discuss.) But I will note a matter of no little significance to us, that being that the blades of soft green grass found in the shoes of this mountain man, placed there to warm the feet, provided organic substances, the age of which could and was determined by atomic measurement --the carbon dating technique of Professor Libby-- showing indisputably that the death had occurred wtihin a few years of 3150 BC. I shall ask that you keep this remarkable date in mind.

Returning now to Professor Baillie, (whose new book is soon to be published); he had long been fascinated by these bog men. Would you not be similarly attracted to the idea of actually having a conversation with your ancient ancestors? He, as a man of science, accordingly devised a plan of studies to understand the circumstances of the times in which they had lived. Naturally these human bog specimens were rather rare, and their ownership jealously disputed by various museums and collectors; but the professor, lacking a sufficiency of these boggish companions, devised an ingenious alternative scheme in which he set out to accomplish the same divinatory ends; this accomplished by exhuming up pieces of oak wood, which could be found in considerable greater abundance in the bogs of Ireland wherein they had evidently toppled during some ancient storm, or in the Scottish lowlands, and even in gravels of the rivers of Germany, the Rhine and the Main.

Let me proceed directly to summarize one of the more remarkable findings of the Professor, as presented in the recent paper of Baillie and his associate M. A. Munro, in which it is described how they recovered in a certain bog in Ireland some time ago an ancient oak, which when it was exhumed, exhibited rings, 220 of them --not an unlikely age for an oak tree --which fell into a certain pattern that some might describe as a kind of music; and by laboriously comparing the melodic pattern of one such log with a multitude of others, the pattern of an entire oakish symphony could be eventually discerned, which melody could even, with sufficient juxtopositions of specimens, be carried through until the present day. And what was found was that of all of the rings on this particular tree, (which was determined by the carbon dating method method foregoing to have lived and perished during the middle of the second millenium BC.) there were a few rings that were narrow and cramped, showing that the tree had a hard time of it for a few years, in the manner of a bit of life that must weather a storm that never seems to end, years without summer.

Now you no doubt know that we Northern people hold such times of coldness in respect; for much as the peoples of the South fear the seven years of drought that follows times plenty, we of the north fear the years without summers, and this tree, sited next to a bog in the north of Ireland, told a tale of such a time, speaking in the language of its rings, telling of this time of extraordinary harsh winters. And what Professor Baillie was able to show by patiently counting those rings was that the year of this severe winter was none other than 1620 BC, and that it lasted in fact for several years. And what is of great interest here (as some of you of classical bent may know) is that this was the very time that a great eruption occurred on the volcano Thera, the isle of Santorini, in the faraway Meditteranean, a time when fright and darkness fell over that sunny part of the world, signalling the end of a great civilization, it being the era when the Exodus took place. And is it not a remarkable thing that these momentous events, passed down to us over a hundred generations in our stories and religious writings, were known and even now are retold by a humble oak tree in that distant corner of the world, Ireland!

No doubt this will set your mind to thinking of other dimly remembered events of ancient times, among them the story of Atlantis, or the diverse biblical wanderings of the Hebrews and their friends and enemies.. Then too there is the story of the terrible three winters without summer told by our neighbors to the North in Iceland in their famous legend of the deadly three winters of Ragnorak...

These events are attributed by some scientists to atmospheric dust veils of probable volcanic or extra-terrestrial origin. They will point out corresponding signals in the world wide record, showing that the such eruptions characteristically cause a great fog to envelope the world, lowering the temperature several degrees, leaving their marks on the North Africa and concluded that these oaks tell of the temperature of the sea in the most magical parts of Ireland, the Southwest.

What are we to make of this? That there were climatic abberrations of a severe sort in not only the Meditteranean but the world as a whole in the 1600's echoing an earlier episode of catastrophe in about 3200 BC. The first of these we may associate with the dimmest known biblical events -- migrations, Egyptian and Babylonian captivities, etc (the Bible having been put to writing about 700 BC) and the second, the disaster of 3200 BC, we shall return to later.


[1] Baillie, MG and Munro, M.A. "Irish Tree Rings, Santinori, and volcanic dust veils." Nature, 332,334 (1988).

[2] The illustration shows the width of tree rings in Irish oaks. Narrow rings indicative of adverse conditions can be seen at 1153 BC, 1628 BC, 3199 BC, and 4377 BC. The 3199 BC value is associated with an acidity peak in Camp Century ice cores dated at 3150 BC, demonstrating unquestionably that adverse weather conditions, probably due either to atmospheric aerosols occurred at this time. Other narrow years are associated with frost rings observed in California bristlecone pines and with eruptions of Icelandic (Hekla 3 in 1159 BC) and Aegean (Santorini in 1628 BC) volcanoes.

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