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Archaeology and Early History

RELIGION IN THE PREHISTORIC PERIOD

THE SPIRIT WORLD

Almost nothing is known about religious beliefs in early prehistoric times. It is probable that the people who lived and hunted in the Dartford area tens of thousands of years ago believed in a hidden spirit world dominated by the spirits of animals and birds, and of their ancestors.

Modern Stone Age societies studied by anthropologists have a complicated belief system where good and harmful spirits are believed to exist, and are placated through food offerings and sacrifices. Trees, rocks and other natural features take on a spiritual significance. This type of belief system is known as animism. The natural elements of wind, fire and water may also have had some place in the belief system.

 

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A VOTIVE OFFERING AT HAWLEY

The only hint of any kind of local prehistoric belief system stems from the discovery of a couple of small Bronze Age spearheads found in a gravel deposit at Hawley, near Dartford. The finder reported that these objects had been carefully placed in the gravel, perfectly aligned in relation to each other. Expert archaeologists report that bronze objects found at other riverside locations have also been carefully aligned. These bronze objects may represent a votive offering (gift) to the spirit of the nearby river.

 

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PAGAN BELIEFS IN THE DARTFORD AREA: SPIRITS, GODS AND GODDESSES

Before the Romans came to Britain, the native population worshipped nature spirits. One of the most important cults was that associated with the Celtic mother-goddess. Small outdoor shrines were common throughout the countryside, particularly near rivers, streams or ponds. Trees, foliage and groves were worshipped by the native population.

Archaeologists working in the Dartford area have found Iron Age bronze and tin coins decorated with the symbols of pagan belief and worship. The main British pagan idols and deities were Etharun, the stag-horned god Cernunnos, the bull-horned or ram-horned God of War, Sulis the healing deity, and at least three different mother goddesses concerned with the earth, fertility, sexual pleasures and the magical aspects of warfare.

Venerated animals which appear on local Iron Age coins include the boar, the stag, the horse, the bull and the dog. Birds also played an important role in religious imagery. Omens were seen in bird flight and bird call. Swans, ravens, ducks and the eagle were venerated by the native population. The whole of pagan religion was controlled by magic. The pagan Celts also believed in the Otherworld, the home of the gods. Their graves were equipped with the articles considered necessary for the Otherworld and the Great Feast.

 

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DRUID RITES AND RITUALS IN KENT

Religion and superstition played a major role in the everyday life of the native British tribes. Pagan priests, the Druids, often performed their rituals in natural places, sometimes next to sacred springs or wells. Sacrifices were used in religious ceremonies. Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote an interesting account of the sacred rites of the Druids, involving mistletoe and white bulls.

They (the Druids) call the mistletoe by a name meaning the all-healing. Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by others in a white cloak. They then kill the victims, praying the God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fertility to barren animals, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings that are entertained towards trifling things by so many people.

The Order of Druids was highly respected by the native British population in Kent. Caesar wrote

The Druids are concerned with the worship of the gods, look after the public and private sacrifice, and expound religious matters; a large number of men flock to them for training, and hold them in high honour.

The Druids may have continued to hold some kind of power over the native population until well into Roman times, even when Christianity was adopted as the state religion.

Next topic: Paganism in early Roman times

 

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