It is a well-known fact that, in ancient times, intoxication could be attained by ingestion of the plants, either eaten raw or dried. For instance, in Mexican ethnic groups, the peyolt, a cactus, has been eaten raw or dried by the Shamans from immemorial times to allow the soul to travel to the supernatural world.2260
It seems that the Celts had similar ritual practices, for the Scholiast of Lucan relates that the “[the druids] were used to practicing divination under the effects of an ingestion of acorns”.2261 It is yet difficult to understand how this natural product could have procured such an effect, for the hallucinatory virtues of the acorns remain mysterious to modern scholars. There are for instance no alkaloids in its composition, which could have produced evidence of some visionary properties. The alkaloid is indeed an organic compound which directly affects the nervous system and possesses stimulating, hypnotic, medicinal or toxic nay lethal properties when absorbed in large amounts.2262 There are several thousand types of alkaloids, the most famous ones being mescaline, found in peyolt, or caffeine, found in coffee or tea. Alkaloids are found in some plants, such as belladonna, yew, poppy or peyolt, which, as we saw, all procure visionary effects on account of the presence of this compound in their composition.
Even if there is every indication that, on account of the absence of alkaloids in the acorn, this fruit does not possess any possible hypnotic properties, it is interesting to note that it is yet attested as either having fortifying effects on stags or as being lethal to pigs when they ingest them in large amounts.2263 This must indicate that there is a toxic substance in the acorn, similar to the alkaloid - but which one? -, which might also generate some visionary virtues if taken in small amounts and prepared in a specific way. Because of their apparent indigestible nature, it can be assumed that the acorns might have either been grinded or mashed up and mixed with other ingredients so as to obtain a powder, a paste or a mash, which could be chewed and swallowed. It might also have been that the acorns were crushed and squeezed in order to obtain very small amount of juice. As for Brunaux, he suggests, with regard to the ancient technique of the Scythians, that the hypnotic virtues of the acorn might have been released by roasting, i.e. released in the smoke.2264 It is also worth mentioning that, in Ireland, there was a practice of eating much indigestible food so as to reach a state of semi-unconsciousness and meet the deities in a dream.2265
It may also be that the acorn does not possess any particular hallucinatory properties. The ingestion of acorns by the druids before a divinatory session may have been purely and simply symbolical, for the oak was one of the most sacred trees of the Celts, probably representing strength and the mightiness of knowledge.2266 There are indeed ‘Mother Goddesses of the Oak’, known from a dedication discovered in Milan (Cisalpine Gaul), who must have embodied the sacredness of this tree and of its fruit: Dervonnae Matronis Dervonnis C(aius) Rufinus Apronius vslm, ‘To the Dervonnae Matronae, C(aius) Rufinus Apronius paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2267 Their name is Celtic, for it is based on the Gaulish root dervo-, ‘oak’, which is similar to Old Irish daur, genitive daro/dara, Welsh dâr and Old Breton dar ‘oak’, derived from a common Celtic word *daru designating oak.2268 These Celtic mother goddesses are also venerated in an inscription from Brescia (Italy) which gives them the Roman divine title of Fatae: Fatis Dervonibus vslm M(arcus) Rufinius Severus, ‘To the Fatae Dervonnae Marcus Rufinus Severus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2269 In other words, the ingestion of acorns must have been part of a whole ritual aiming at going into a trance, which was certainly reached thanks to other ingredients possessing ‘intoxicating’ virtues.
Irish mythology is likely to be reminiscent of this ancient Gaulish custom of ingesting acorns to foretell the future, for it pertains to ‘the nuts of wisdom’, which are hazel nuts conveying wisdom, poetry, and esoteric knowledge. This idea is clearly evocated in the story of the river goddess Sionann. The legend, the two versions of which are contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas, recounts that nine hazel trees, the crimson nuts of which were teemed with mystical knowledge, grew over the Well of Connla (see Chapter 4).2270 Later, the nuts fell into the waters of the fountain, producing red bubbles of mystic inspiration, which were fatal to Sionann who, mesmerized by them, tried to catch them and drowned. No sooner had the nuts dropped into the well than the salmon ate them, causing crimson spots to appear on their bellies. These spotted salmons, known as ‘salmons of knowledge’, were thought to have been filled with the wisdom contained in the mystic nuts they had eaten. The one who could catch such a salmon and eat it was believed to inherit the salmon’s enlightment. The most famous instance in Irish mythology is the legend of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who gained the otherwordly wisdom by thrusting his thumb he had burnt on the salmon of knowledge - caught and cooked by the bard Finnéigeas - into his mouth.2271 Therefore, one could suggest that these nuts transmitting wisdom to the one who eats them are somehow a survival of the ancient belief that acorns could grant divination and mystic inspiration to its consumer. In addition to being the personification of the mighty tree dear to the Celts, could the Dervonnae Matronae ‘Mother-Godesses of the Oak’ have been, to a certain extent, the embodiment of such a belief and custom, which consisted in acquiring divinatory and preternatural powers through intoxication by acorns?
Weil & Rosen, 2000, pp. 138-141 ; Retaillaud-Bajac, 2002, p. 23 ; Bilimoff, 2003, p. 53.
Scholia known as Bernoises to The Pharsalia of Lucan, commentum ad versum I 451.
Le Grand Larousse Encyclopédique, t. 1, Paris, Larousse, 2007, p. 59.
Interview in June 2007 with Madame Isabelle De Ridder, member of the equipage which hunts with hounds in the Forest of Fontainebleau: “Forests wardens and the venery know that stags are keen on eating acorns. The years when the oaks produce large amounts of acorns, it is difficult to hunt stags, for they run faster than ever, which proves that the acorn is a very energetic fruit.”
Brunaux, 2000, p. 179.
Vries, 1963, p. 239 ; Ryan, J., ‘Die Religion der Kelten’, in König, F. (ed.), Christus und die Religionen der Erde, Wien, Herder, vol. 2, 1951, p. 259.
Mackillop, 2004, p. 350 ; Green, 1992a, p. 164 ; Ross, 1996, pp. 59-64 ; Guyonvarc’h & Le Roux, 1995, p. 15.
CIL V, 5791. See the section on the Matronae Dervonnae in Chapter 2 for more information.
Delamarre, 2007, pp. 84, 219 ; Delamarre, 2003, p. 141 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 423. See the cognomen* Dervorix (‘King of the Oak’).
CIL V, 4208.
Gwynn, 1913, pp. 286-297, 529-530 ; Ford, 1974, pp. 67-74 ; Ó hÓgáin, 1999, p. 111 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 265 ; O’Curry, 1873, pp. 142-144.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 243, 254 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 376.