THE Gauls believed that the sun, moon, and stars, the thunder, wind and all the forces of nature were gods, and they worshiped them in the open air, under tall oaks or in the dim recesses of the great forest. Their priests, called Druids, often sacrificed horses on their big stone altars in time of peace; but in time of war, or whenever any danger threatened, human victims were offered up there instead. All the prisoners of war who did not become slaves were kept for this purpose, and when there were too many captives to sacrifice singly, the Druids crammed them all into huge wicker cages, shaped like men, in which they were burned alive.
The Gauls felt the deepest respect for their Druids, and thought that the men druids—who were their teachers and judges—knew all the magic arts, while the women Druids could tell exactly what would happen in the future. The Druids were chosen from among the cleverest men and women of the race, and were taught orally by older priests, who knew far more than the rest of the people, but who kept their knowledge secret. They did not, for instance, tell the people that they had found a way to lift heavy weights by means of levers and pulleys. On the contrary, they used such means to raise great stone altars and monuments in secret, and then made the people believe that they had moved the stones into place by magic words, or by a mere touch of their wands.
In many places in France one can still see strange remains of the early work of these Druids, or Gallic priests. There are huge pillars which stand upright, stones of great size arranged in rows or circles; and large rocks resting upon upright slabs, forming covered passageways or gigantic altars. The most wonderful remains of all can be seen at Carnac in Brittany, where more than a thousand stones, about sixteen feet high, are set up in the ground in long, straight rows. From agar they look like an army of stone giants. We are told that there were once more than four thousand of them, but some fell down, and many were cut up and carted away to build houses by people near by, who were too ignorant to respect one of the greatest curiosities of the Old World.
Another trace of the old Druid religion is our custom of decorating our houses at Christmas time with holly and mistletoe—plants loved by the Gauls of old.
The Druids were the most important men among the Gauls; next came the Bards, or singers, who made poems about the deeds of the chiefs, or riders,—the military leaders who formed the third class. Then came the warriors who fought afoot, the workmen, the farmers, and last of all serfs, or slaves, who were generally captives secured in time of war.
At first each tribe of Gauls held everything in common, and each man was given his share, all the booty being flung into a heap after a battle was over, to be publicly divided by the chiefs. Land, too, was at first held in common, and every spring, at a general meeting, it was portioned out anew among the families of the tribe. At these assemblies, which all the Gallic warriors attended, it was also decided in what direction war should be next carried. To force men to keep in good fighting trim and to be prompt, the fat warriors were severely punished, and the last to appear at the trysting spot was put to death.
After some time the Gauls saw that a yearly distribution of farms was as bad for the land as for the farmers, so they decided that each family should keep its own fields. The farmers, knowing they would not have to move as soon as spring came around again, were therefore encouraged to build better houses, to fell trees, drain marshes, and to plant and sow diligently. Thus they began the work which was to change that country from a tangled waste into one of the best cultivated regions in the world.
The Gauls were a friendly, hospitable, generous, and very quick-witted race, and soon after settling in the country they began to make many improvements there. They tilled the ground, worked the mines, and, being restless by nature, soon carried on some trade among themselves and with neighboring peoples. Still, as they had at first neither money nor good roads, their trade consisted mostly in barter, and was carried on under great difficulties.
Little by little the Gauls increased in wealth, civilization, and numbers, until in time they spread all over the countries now known as France, Belgium, and Switzerland. This stretch of land, once occupied by Gauls, was therefore known in ancient geography as Gal'lia, or Gaul, the land of the Gauls. Here many towns were founded, some of which still bear the names then given them, although they are now large and prosperous modern cities.