The Celts - Celtic Religion
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Some Thoughts on
the Celts

Desmond Johnston

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Celtic Religion

On the religious aspect of Celtic culture there are problems in reaching a clear description. Caesar's assessment that in general the Celts worshipped the same gods as the Romans (under different names) would appear to be an over-simplification. Nevertheless there are elements of truth therein. Roman religious concepts went back a long way and had common ground with the origins of Celtic religion. People in the ancient world felt the need to attribute certain aspects of daily life to appropriate gods / spirits. In Rome as elsewhere there were controlling spirits for such important aspects of life as earth, water, fire, wind, fertility, etc.

It is when we when we try to separate out what might be the unique features of Celtic religion that we can run into difficulties. While part of Celtic religion would have been unique to the Upper Danube homeland, as Celtic influence spread the Celts themselves absorbed ideas and practices from the peoples with whom they came in contact. We are lacking in evidence of the basics of the concepts of the Celtic homeland - most accounts of Celtic religion are concerned with the areas with which they came in contact - Iberia, Gaul, Britain, etc. How many of these elements were "Celtic" in origin and how many were indigenous would be hard to determine. Caesar drops a strong hint in his comment on the Druidic doctrine having origins in the British Isles. The policy among the Celts of not committing such matters to writing does not help our investigation.

As in Bablylon, Egypt, and mediaeval Christian Europe education in the Celtic world was under the umbrella of the religious system - in this case Druidism. (As opposed to Classical Greece and Rome where education was secular in organization). Thus the study of "religious" matters was allied to that of the sciences, astronomy, law, medicine, etc.

Celtic religion does not seem to be as closely associated with religious buildings as other faiths but more with simple rural shrines associated with water sources, groves of trees, rocks and other natural features. In this however it would have been little different from the Neolithic period religion of the early farmers on the Western seaboard. It is the large urban cultures like Rome which produced the great temples (and later churches). Writers about Minoan Crete, for example, have commented on the presence of rural shrines rather than temples.

One aspect of Celtic life which may again have been general in the early agricultural world was the holding of great assemblies at central points at fixed times of the year. For these an area was marked out by a ditch or other form of marker to create a tememos and inside each was a simple wooden religious building. One can imagine a blend of religious, social, and political activities including elections and feasting. But again there are indications of such activities in the Neolithic era within henges etc.

The Celts held important ceremonies at key points in the farming year. These included Imbolc (Feb. 1st.), Beltaine (May 1st.), Lughnasad (August 1st.), Samhain (October 31st). These however would be in line with similar ceremonies based around the early megalithic structures. They also inherited the traditions of their megalithic forbears in their fascination with the moon and its relationship in its movements with those of the sun.

To the Celts the head was sacred. This feature appears often in Celtic art. Warriors collected heads of distinguished foes. (Other cultures throughout the world have done so until comparatively recent times). The number 3 was also sacred. High importance was attached to water sites - bogs, lakes, rivers, springs - and to trees and plants. Animals too were sacred - such as stags, bulls, etc. What this tells us is that we are looking at a culture which had not yet become "urbanised" and where the wonder inspired by Nature in the early farmers was still present.

There would also seem to have been a practice of making depositions of high quality weapons and other metalwork in specially excavated holes in the earth and in water sources as offerings to the gods. This would seem to be the only logical reason for the finds which keep turning up. Such items appear to have been ritually broken - "killed" - before deposition. In Central America the Maya for example deposited such objects in sacred wells (cenotes). Near early Christian churches in the British Isles - often in Ireland - such deposits of valuables are found. Ostensibly this was to protect them from the Vikings but the fact that so much was left unclaimed could give rise to the question of whether this was evidence of a dimly-remembered Celtic practice.

Arising from the Celtic interest in astronomy there arose a complex working calendar. There was a continuous chain of knowledge shared by the early farmers whether in megalithic Western Europe, Egypt, Mesopotamia etc. The Druids were heirs to this body of knowledge which crossed barriers of time and location. A part of Celtic religion was perhaps a preoccupation with the "dark side". Night preceded day. The "Otherworld" was very real to them - so much so that we have evidence of i.o.u.'s being issued for payment in the next world. To the Celts there was a next world. On the death of the physical body the soul passed on into another body.

Sacrifice played a big part in religious rites. All important activities were preceded by ceremonies and sacrifices. It was also essential to take the auspices before a planned event or activity. The appearance of the organs of a sacrifice, the flight of birds, were all regarded as omens. In this Celts, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans, Babylonians were little different. Caesar commented on the Celts being particularly superstitious - but perhaps he himself was, for a Roman, unusually lacking in "superstition" if the story of his disregard for the "Ides of March" is valid!

Classical writers give harrowing descriptions of "blood-drenched altars" in sacred groves. This would seem to be a fair comment on Greek and Roman altars also, one would imagine. The aspect of how much part was played by human sacrifice has been mentioned already. It could well have been a feature of very bad times such as famine.

In looking at religious practices one must take account of how humans tend to cling tenaciously to their well-tried practices when introduced to a new faith - as in the case of the observance of the old dates of Christmas and Easter in Christian practices and the continued use of Neolithic sacred sites for churches.

The gods and goddesses of the Celts were legion, since they included local traditional spirits in their areas of influence. One is tempted to wonder whether in their heartland the Celts' religion was based around Nature spirits which would need no 3-dimensional form. The gods who are portrayed by writers - like those of the Greeks, seem to be of the "hero god" category living a life akin to that of humans. Some, like the Dagda, Danu, Brigid, are of more ancient origin than the Celts themselves, dating from the Neolithic/Bronze Age cultures of Western Europe, and appear in surviving Irish mythology.

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Reference to Ireland brings us to the topic of "Celtic Mythology" in general. I feel that very often so-called "Celtic" mythology should really be called Irish Mythology. Much of it in origin predates the Celts and should be attributed to that country - taken up by the Celts no doubt but not originating with them. While Caesar tells us a lot about the Gauls and Tacitus about the Britons for example, that is not necessarily a 100% accurate description of the Celts. Celtic culture absorbed - and was absorbed by - the races with whom they came in contact. Truly a "hidden" people if we accept that definition of "Celtic."

Ireland plays a special role in all this. It is a unique area in Europe which was spared the culture-changing influence of the Romans and even to a large extent of the Dark Age barbarians. Who knows even how much it was ever influenced by the Celts? Being at the end of the known world it would not have felt the full force of Celtic expansion. But it did draw much on Celtic art, in particular that of the La Tène phase, to which Ireland made its own invaluable contribution. How much Irish culture, law, religious ideas, owe to the Celts and how much Celtic culture owes to Ireland could be a profitable if difficult field of study. Ireland can be seen as a repository of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age/Celtic culture.

The use of the word "Celtic" to describe Welsh and Scottish cultures can also in some cases be a simplification. "Scottish” means by definition "Irish". There is a blend therefore of the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic culture in Scotland. Wales is an undoubted example of the P-Celtic. But Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have their own separate racial identities. How much they were affected racially by Celtic "invaders" remains to be seen. But there is no doubt about their cultural debt to the Celts. Peaceful penetration, trade, some immigration, imitation, resulted in the absorption of Celtic culture. And we must remember that it was 2-way traffic - each learned from the other.

To sum up the Celts represent a great culture. They had a vast influence on the language, religion, art, thinking, education, and social structure of Western Europe in the pre-Roman era. In their earlier manifestation (Hallstatt) they influenced areas such as France, Spain, Portugal, the British Isles, through trade and settlement. Because their systems were admired they were adopted - and adapted. Later (La Tène) came a more aggressive military expansionist phase with incursions into Italy, Greece, and Turkey. This phase was much less successful than earlier more peaceful penetration. Is there a lesson to be learned there?

In talking about the Celts we are not referring to a nation. Ingrained tribal, "democratic", independent attitudes prevented any permanent union. Nor can we identify them today as a specific race. Even in their Danubian homeland they appear to be a mixture of tribal groups of varying characteristics. In this respect the problem of origins is not dissimilar to that posed by the Sumerians. In short it is a culture we are looking at.

The megalithic farming communities of the Atlantic seaboard likewise evolved a great culture, aspects of which would have spread Eastwards into Central Europe, meeting "Fertile Crescent" cultural features moving up the Danube Valley. Each learned from the other. As Celtic influence moved Westwards in the Later Bronze Age and the Iron Age to the Atlantic shores a further exchange took place. The ebb and flow of knowledge and custom is part of the ebb and flow of people.

Late Celtic culture personifies the Iron Age. Like all cultures there is a mixture of good and bad aspects. Iron made better tools and therefore increased agricultural prosperity. Prosperity and road systems (an aspect of the Celts not always given the importance it deserves) meant trade and the exchange of ideas. But iron also meant superior weaponry and more warfare. Strong as the Celtic system was militarily it lacked the political ability and motivation to create a nation - and as a nation to create an empire. This is where Rome scored. The emergence of hill-forts in the Iron Age is an indication of an aggressive phase in Western Europe with local wars created by competing factions wasting energy and resources. Can we "blame" the Celts for this? Perhaps not - put it down to human nature in certain given circumstances.

An Irish government minister, recently asked to explain the success of the "Celtic" Tiger, gave as his answer "Education". Perhaps that is the longest-lasting legacy of the Celts. Or was the Druidic system - as Caesar suggests - a survivor of an ancient system of the Atlantic seaboard surviving in Ireland and Western Britain? Never mind - the Celts were certainly good learners as well as good teachers.

Desmond Johnston
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Outposts of Celtica Outposts of Celtica: History and Heroes of the Celtic World by J.P. MacLean. The surviving Celtic world of today, though vibrant and engaging in itself, is only a remnant of the culture that once dominated most of Europe and parts of Asia. From the Anatolian plains in present day Turkey to the Highlands of Scotland, the tribal Celts reigned supreme across this vast expanse for over four hundred years.  More ...

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