Running through the threads of known history there have been periods of great spiritual hunger and renewal. There have been times when individuals have sought for ways in which to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with the Divine by attempting to go back to roots of their faith. During the latter part of the second millennium and now, at the beginning of the third, that hunger appears to be manifesting itself as the search for a ‘something other’. A connection that the organised religions of the world seem unable to meet.
In the present era many people are looking to the ‘Celtic’ tradition, seeking for alternative ways of being in touch with the ‘Sacred Divine’, both in themselves and in the wider world. This raises a number of questions. Who were the Celts? Was there a specific ‘Celtic’ spiritual tradition, a distinctive ‘Celtic Church’,(1) and if so how can we make those beliefs and practices relevant to modern day lives? What does ‘Celtic Spirituality’ have to offer to what many theologians and social commentators are calling a Post-Christian culture? Is there a ‘Celtic’ strand to Christianity today? This introduction will attempt to explore some of these issues and, hopefully, provide a way in for those who wish to explore this living tradition more fully. A list of suggested further reading and bibliography is also included.
Over the years many books and papers have been written about ‘The Celts’. Weighty academic tomes that are scholarly and well researched, popular works that are romanticised and dubious, those that fall somewhere between these two extremes. Modern archaeology, anthropology and palaeontology, together with new studies of ancient manuscripts are slowly beginning to shed more light on the people to whom this generic term has come to be applied; however there are still many difficulties when it comes to interpreting the surviving archaeological and literary materials which can only be resolved by slow and painstaking comparisons. This is particularly true for pre-Christian Ireland where the earliest written sources come from a period when Christianity had – officially – replaced the earlier beliefs and practices. Today’s scholars must attempt to decode both what was stated as fact and what was left unstated. For this introduction therefore I will confine myself to giving a broad outline of what seems to be the generally accepted details of the origins of the Celts gleaned from modern archaeology, anthropology and the early writings available to us. It may be of some relevance at this point for us to remember that history is almost invariably written by the conquerors: military, cultural or religious.
Who were the Celts?
The Celts that we speak of were not one race as we would understand that term today, rather they were a diverse group of societies: many different tribes in many different localities, with a shared belief and value system and common linguistic and cultural roots. ‘The adjective Celtic means, in the strict and most pedantic form, ‘of or pertaining to the Celtic group of Indo-European languages’'(2); although it has long been used to include almost everything to do with those peoples, both past and present who live or have lived in lands where a Celtic languages is, was, or is thought to have been, spoken. By about 1000 BC a “hypothetical Common Celtic” had emerged from Indo-European and by the 6th century BC the various tribal peoples speaking it were known to the Greeks and then to the Romans as the dominant peoples in western and central Europe. Later on, but still in the prehistoric period this language divided into two branches. In most of Ireland the earliest identifiable form became what is known as Q-Celtic; in Britain it became P-Celtic, which was ‘closely related to its immediate European parent Gaulish, a language or group of dialects spoken over much of western Europe, including Spain and the North of Italy’. Here the earliest sources of information can only be dated to around 300 BC, coming from names recorded by Greek travellers and explorers. It is believed by some, though not all, scholars in this field, that Q-Celtic speakers reached Ireland before 500 BC and that the majority of P-Celtic speakers reached Britain at a somewhat later date. Others believe that the movement, particularly in regard to metal working and pottery, was from Britain to Ireland.
These Iron Age peoples, like those of the Bronze Age before them, were skilled and creative artisans as is evidenced by the finds discovered in archaeological diggings. Intricate metal workings, in gold, silver, and bronze jewellery would test many a goldsmith today and their wrought iron work and weaponry was second to none in its time. Their pottery was both functional and beautiful as were their textiles and wood-workings. The discoveries at La Tene in Switzerland; Duchcov in Bohemia; Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey; and elsewhere show a vibrancy of colour and decoration with an awareness of form and decoration that is breath-taking in its structure and complexity. This vibrancy has been carried down to us today through poetry, story and music. A tradition which survived for hundreds of years in its oral tradition and on which many of the early scholars drew for their understanding of this ancient culture when they came to write down the myths, legends and beliefs of the peoples amongst whom they found themselves living and working. Though it also fair to say that these scribes were also the ones who were attempting to eradicate the indigenous belief system and replace it with Christianity.
Early Religious Belief and Practice.
Because the early Celtic Culture was non-literate and was based upon an oral tradition handed on from generation to generation, it is difficult to say much about the religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Celts with any degree of certainty. As we have already noted, history tends to be written by the dominant and ruling culture with its own agenda and prejudices. This does not mean, however, that we are unable to draw some general conclusions from both the oral folk cultures, the written records of those who encountered them, and those later scribes and historians.
It would seem reasonable to assume that those Celtic peoples who moved into lands already occupied by indigenous peoples assimilated many of the practices and beliefs that were already present and made them a part of their own. Just as the Christian Church later overlaid many of the celebrations and practices of the various religions which they sought to replace, so too the Celtic peoples would have developed a faith system that was a blend of their own and others beliefs. What we can be reasonably certain of is that their religious beliefs and practices would never have been romantic or simplistic. It may seem to have been a simple faith to modern intellectual scholarship but it was also very rooted and grounded in the ‘here and now’ of those times. Like many indigenous religions it was simple in the sense that they recognised the interconnectedness of the people and the land; the inter-dependence of human and animal. They acknowledged and honoured the underlying unity of all of creation. It was primarily animistic and although the term shamanic does not appear to have been used by the Celts of that time there are many similarities, for example: shape-shifting, other-world journeying, healing, the memory of the ancestors, divination and prophecy. At the heart of religious life and practice were the Druids and Vision Poets, men and women of great learning and discernment, who fulfilled a wide range of functions within a distinctive class of people (3). They were also seen as the intermediaries between the people and the gods with the power to excommunicate individuals, barring them from attending sacrifices and putting them outside of normal society.
It was not romantic because physical life was hard and uncompromising Disease and death continually walked alongside everyone and demanded the attention of both individuals and the wider community; the realms of the dead and the living overlapped, the threshold was close by and the veil between them thin and permeable. It was therefore important to acknowledge and venerate the ancestors, not least because they held much knowledge and wisdom that could help the tribe. The Celts believed in spirits of place so certain sites and places: springs, wells, rivers, lakes and marshes; hills and high places; rocks and cave formations, were venerated and used as places of ritual where the spirit or god could be propitiated, asked for help or thanked; trees also held a very special place in Celtic belief, particularly the oak, they were believed to contain great power and were thus sacred. We see also this sacredness in certain times and occasions: the great festivals at the turning of the seasons; at midnight…’the time between times’; occasions of approaching death or birth; these were times when the veil was lifted and people, angelic beings, the dead and the little people could pass freely between the worlds. These threshold times and boundary places required rituals, prayers and invocations of great power if goodwill was to prevail and misfortunes were not to befall those present. Many of these were later adopted and adapted to include Christian saints and seasons. The soul was believed to reside in the head and even today we can see reminders of this in the practice of making turnip or pumpkin faces at Halloween…modern versions of the old ‘ghost fences’ of skulls that were erected to ward off evil.
It was not simplistic because the Celtic tribes were creative and close-knit people with a love of study and learning, music and art, along with a complex system of laws and codes of conduct. Rulers and those in authority, with the advice of the various Druidic Orders, gave judgement and dispensed justice upon a strict code of moral behaviour which was hung upon the twin hooks of repentance and reparation. This covered everything from the code of conduct in battle, (e.g. In Ireland, if there was full battle, as opposed to the contest of champions, and a chieftain was killed then the tribes would leave the battlefield – the fighting ended and both sides went home….it would have been considered to be dishonourable to continue), to the amount of payment to be made to the husband or wife whose partner had been unfaithful. The death penalty did exist, but in Ireland at least, seems to have been rarely used within the tribal context – banishment from their homeland was considered to be a kind of death – understandable when one takes into account the closeness of the tribal family. Added to this would have been the fact the ‘banished’ one would have lost the protection of the chieftain or king and would then be exposed to the mercy, or otherwise, of rival tribes. Care of the sick and the provision of hospitals were the responsibility of each local tribe (4).
Pre -Christian religious faith and practice of these regions “had at its vital centre a deep and constant sense of an invisible world continuous with the visible world – sometimes indeed showing through it – and a world of the dead which had its own quality of life. It was a consciousness, and invocation and a celebration of a hidden dimension that alone gives meaning to human longings and to that which is most specially and poignantly human, the tears of things, that great ocean of pathos which is the stuff of all our greatest poetry and music.”(5)
The cow was highly prized as a sign of wealth and was also a unit of currency, as were female slaves.
There is a degree of disagreement amongst scholars as to the status of women in Celtic society but most of the evidence seems to point to the fact that, in general, women were the property of their male relatives: fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, etc. There is archaeological evidence of them holding property, material wealth, and of being of great status and leadership, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule, at least in the times of which we have written evidence. They were held in high regard in relation to spiritual matters and by the time of the early Christian missionaries were being consulted as Soul Friends and spiritual guides of distinction by many of the monks and bishops.
Contemporary Celtic Spirituality.
The term Celtic Spirituality is used today to cover a diverse range of beliefs and practices including, amongst them: Modern Druidry, Wicca, Shamanism, and certain types of Christianity. All have their own distinctive traits and individual understanding of what these terms mean to them as well as a number of meeting and cross-over points. Some of these would be familiar to the men and women of those earlier times. Many would have seemed quite alien to them. As indeed would the term Celtic itself. I would like to suggest that in modern times the term Celtic spirituality can, maybe, (apart from inherited history and genes) be thought of as a mind-set, an attitude to humankind’s relationship to the Divine; to each other, and to the rest of creation; a sense of being at home in the world of nature. It is in a lowering of the barriers of separation and in a sense of openness to possibilities, to connections and relationships. It is a willingness to risk both personal security and the ‘self’ in the search for the Divine that lives within each individual and the spirit that is ever present in the whole of creation. It is also about memory, the spiritual memory that we all carry within us, and which links us to the memory of all that has been, since the beginning of time. It is a willingness to journey within and without time, and outside the structures of dogma that hold and restrict the imaginal world of possibilities, to find a deeper truth, no matter what the cost in terms of personal comfort and security. Celtic Spirituality can offer, to those who are willing to accept the challenges it offers, a spiritual guidance and a depth of meaning, to many who are struggling to come to terms with modern, secular lifestyles.
Aspects of the Feminine
There is a growing interest in the Celtic tradition amongst many women, as it is seen to offer an alternative to the rigid strictures of the established churches, as well as its affirmation of the feminine aspects of the Divine. This is particularly to be seen in the strong Marian tradition, where Brighid is seen as the Midwife at Christ’s birth, as well as in her earlier aspect of the Goddess. Women were not only the hearth-keepers, (the first altar) and responsible for every aspect of the home and daily life, they were also the keepers of the lore, custom and belief. They were the repository of the accumulated wisdom of the family and the community. Nowhere is this more beautifully expressed than in the collected works of Alexander Carmichael known as The Carmina Gadelica; painstakingly collected over many years from the highlands and islands of Scotland and first published as a five volume set in 1900. It contains, prayers, rituals, and blessings which show the inter-connection of the practical and the mystical. The juxtaposition of the sacred with mundane… Today it is being recovered as a treasury not only of an earlier and more holistic way of life, but as a handbook for those who seek to bring back the sacred connections and the power and wisdom of the feminine in the everyday tasks of living.
Who is it for?
There are many people, organisations and religious communities that are exploring ways in which people in the twenty-first century, can make relevant for their lives now, a way of being and living in the world that is healing and affirming. A way of recovering and renewing a faith that is rooted in the goodness of the whole of creation and in the One who is a living and vibrant presence within it.
As with all matters spiritual it behoves the seeker to find a wise and trusted companion or Soul Friend to walk alongside and to guide and support them in their journey. There are many pitfalls for the unwary and there will be times of both joy and deep darkness when such a companion is worth more than their weight in gold, for the soul is precious and should be treated with care, compassion and love.
In both the Pagan and the Christian aspects of Celtic spirituality rhythm and seasons are considered to be of great importance in the way one lives ones life, and this can be summed up very well in that wonderful text from Ecclesiastes:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heaven:
a time to be born, and time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and time to dance;
a time to scatter stones, and time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and time to speak;
a time to love; and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.(6)
When we learn to live with and not against the seasons of life we can find an inner peace that overrides the frustrations and anxieties of life that can lead to alienation and breakdown: of health, communication and relationships. The Celts knew and honoured this in all aspects of faith and belief. They did not make distinctions between the secular and sacred as we are apt to do, so the life of the individual was integrated in the life of the tribe and tribes life was integrated with the earth and the whole of creation, and all three were celebrated in the rituals, poetry, story, music and law.
1. One of the critiques made is that the term itself is anachronistic for the periods in question….there is no evidence to suggest that the Irish/Welsh writers of the early texts considered themselves to be Celts at all. The origins of the term lie in Greek & Roman geographical and ethnographical writings and it refers primarily to the ancient inhabitants of Gaul, though not of Britain (J. Rhys.’Celtae & Galli’. PBA (1905-1906) pp.71-134.
2. Charles Thomas – Celtic Britain, p.16-17.
3. For well-informed and researched information on both early and modern Druidic and Western Shamanic practices see the works of Caitlin and John Mathews, in particular ‘Druids and Vision Poets’ – Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom. ch.7. and The Celtic Shaman both published by Element.
4. Information regarding early Irish law. Details taken from ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’ by Fergus Kelly. ISBN 0 901282 95 2. Part of the Early Irish Law Series. vol. III..© Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Reprinted by Dundalgan Press Ltd.
The main aims of Old Irish law appear to be: restitution, retribution and rehabilitation. The death penalty was available but appears to have been used only in those instances where the above did not, or could not, take place. It was the exception rather than the rule. Payment: The authors of the Old Irish law-texts seem to envisage that payment can atone for almost any crime.(There are particular difficulties in paying for the crime of kin-slaying). In this respect Irish law contrasts with many other early law-codes, where death or mutilation is the normal punishment for a wide range of offences. (For example in the Indian Laws of Manu, crimes punishable by death include treason, murder, arson, adultery, theft and harbouring a criminal. The form of death is often based on the crime: thus the adulterer is roasted on an iron bed (LM viii 372) and the breaker of a dam is drowned (ibid ix 277). For his first offence, a thief loses two fingers; for his second offence, a hand and a foot; and for his third offence he is put to death (ibid. ix277). In the law-code of King Hammurabi of Assyria, the death penalty is prescribed even more widely, being the punishment for sorcery, rape, kidnapping, receiving stolen goods, threatening a witness, falsely claiming ownership of lost property, etc. (C.H.W. Johns, The Oldest Code of Laws in the World, (Edinburgh1903); Driver and Miles, Assyrian Laws( Oxford 1935).)
5. See The Mountain behind the Mountain .p8.-Noel Dermot O’Donoghue (T.&T. Clarke, Edinburgh 1993)
6. Ecclesiastes 3.1-8.NRSV Bible.
Bibliography — A few key texts.
Christopher Bamford & William Marsh. Celtic Christianity – Ecology and Holiness (Floris Classics, 1986).
Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica (Floris Books, 2001). Also available online.
Noel Dermot O’Donoghue. The Mountain behind the Mountain (T. & T. Clarke, 1993).
Daithi O’hOgain. The Sacred Isle: Belief & Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland. (Boydell Press, 1999).
Miranda Green. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend (Thames and Hudson, 1997)
Henri Hubert. The History of the Celtic People (Bracken Books, 1993).
Ross Nichols. The Book of Druidry (Aquarian, 1992).
James P. Mackey. An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (T. & T. Clarke,1993).
John & Caitlin Matthews. Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom (Element).
John Matthews. The Celtic Shaman (Rider, 2001).
Charles Thomas. Celtic Britain (Thames and Hudson, 1997).
See also: Celebrating the Celtic Year (in the ‘Rituals’ section)
Link to a large collection of images of Celtic crosses and other artefacts.