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Thread: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

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    Member sionnach's Avatar
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    What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    I found myself connecting the best with Celtic paganism and am interested in learning more about what we do know about the beliefs are associated with Celtic paganism especially in the British Isles. I now understand the Irish tales written by the monks has aspects of Pre-Christian beliefs but it was influenced heavily by the writers who were no longer pagan. Despite this there appears to be much from archeological , comparative anthropology, and careful evaluation of the writings and folklore that was preserved. I was interested in what other people have found to be true ( in the sense of being as close as we can to what was believed) about them. Their relationship to the gods/goddesses. The relationship of goddesses to the land. The difference when compared to the gods and goddesses of Rome. Any input would be appreciated.

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    Silver Member monsno_leedra's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    To be honest when I was studying about Celtic social and spiritual practices it got more confusing than solving. Mostly because so many tried to make a Celtic Pantheon of gods / goddesses and semi-divine beings yet Celtic is a language group not a people. As such what applied to one tribe did not specifically apply to any other's and the aspects that did were not always the same or even the same names.

    Even looking at the known Celtic tribes in Britain alone produced a lot of conflicting theories as to what their cultural, social and spiritual beliefs and practices actually were or looked like. When you expanded it to include Ireland, Wales, Scotland and even some of the French peoples you only discovered that the Irish were the main Celtic group that had an detailed stories that were well known and recorded. The Welsh had many tales of their own but those seemed to fall more into the Arthurian legends and such vice the Irish tales.

    It's like I found quit a bit of difference between the P variety of the language and the Q variety of the language. That in turn made quit a bit of difference in the stories and the surviving heroic tales. It's like Cernnunos as far as I know has only been identified on two pieces of crafted items and one of those is implied to be him not that it is actually known to be him. Yet he is a central figure it seems when people speak about the Celtic people.

    I truly do not believe you can do a true pantheon comparison to any well defined and established pantheon such as Hellene, Roman, Egyptian, Teutonic or Nordic. You might be able to do a compare and contrast of specific divinities but the social order and political / cultural influences are not to be found.

    Honestly I'd suggest trying to focus upon a certain known tribe or perhaps a certain known geographical area vice trying to focus upon an assumed Celtic Pantheon. Of course just my own opinion so others may disagree.
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    Silver Member Tylluan Penry's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Try reading books by Marion Green or Anne Ross. Both academics (nice writing styles though) and both very sound. It's a good start.
    Then remember that the Romans merrily syncretised most of the deities in the lands they conquered. So you will have quite a bit of unravelling to do. It really depends how far we want to go with it though.
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    Member sionnach's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    I appreciate your response very much. Growing up I learned much about Greek and Roman culture which presents an organized family of gods with specific attributes. I then learned of Norse gods and goddesses with some similar aspects yet not so organized. But I heard little about Celtic culture other than the Arthur Legends. When I started learning about Celtic culture I was first surprised that most of what we knew was from Ireland as you pointed out. Then I found it interesting that the island of Ireland (The only country I know that is named after a goddess) preserved Celtic pre-Christian culture and Iceland preserved what we know of Norse culture. What I am now trying to understand is the relationship of the Celtic goddesses to the land and that the gods and goddesses appear tribal or to a clan rather then the family of gods written down by the Irish monks. Do you have any ideas about this? And thank you again for responding because I am very interested in this subject.

    - - - Updated - - -

    I just finished Celtic Gods and Heroes by Sjoestedt and although it was not Celtic I also read 'Old Norse Religion in long-term perspectives" written by several authors after a conference in Lund Sweden in 2004. They were looking at how the religious practices and beliefs changed and were influenced both by Rome and then by Christianity. They looked at how archeology showed changes in rituals as the religion changed but I do not now a conference similar for the Celtic Religions. I am interested in looking deeper into the relationship of the Celtic people and their gods and goddesses beyond the way it is portrayed in the tales written by the Monks. I to appreciate the suggestions and will look into them.

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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    The answer is I want to go much farther and am interested in finding people interested in Celtic paganism on a more in depth level. Unlike the gods of the Greeks/Romans the Celtic gods and goddesses share the earth and are not in a separate location as in Mount Olympus. There is a greater interaction between the Celtic spirits and gods/goddesses with the Celtic people but it occurs in the wild places and locations under the ground out in the wilderness. There is a greater association between Celtic deities and Nature. There is a blur between animal and humans certainty not seen in Abrahamic religions. Oisin has a semi-animal nature who is born from a doe named Saar and would have been a deer if the mother were to clean him with her tongue but instead she just licks his forehead were a tuft of fur is. Knowledge is found in nature thus the salmon of wisdom which feeds on the hazel nuts lives in the rives of which a person who drinks from all five rivers have considerable knowledge. Salmon are known for their awareness of the cycles of the earth and return to the site where they were born and respond to the cycles of nature. Cycles themselves are so important and celebrated. There is even the separation of the hero's of the tribe from the heroes outside of the tribe. I find that there is a strong connection of the goddess in particular to the land itself with female spirits or goddesses connected with the land and natural features. Even the magic appears to be associated with nature. These are some of the impressions I have gotten but am interested in how others see the relationship.

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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Sorry don't have any books or such as I truly do not recall the titles it's been so long now. You might want to check into the early Celtic Christian church and such. Figure a lot of early Celtic and Druid material crossed into the Celtic Church and had a significant influence upon it. I think a lot of it's influence stayed in Ireland so didn't quite undergo as much change. Sort of similar to how Irish Celtic lore was not lost nor modified nearly as much as that of Britain or mainland Europe.
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Quote Originally Posted by sionnach View Post
    I just finished Celtic Gods and Heroes by Sjoestedt
    That's a good start! Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, by Hilda Ellis Davidson, is also useful. The problem is not just how much material we've lost but how very local the religion was. Even if you take my version of Paganism, behind the well known Gods found in Athenian religion are all sorts of local divinities. If you lived at Epidauros, then the Gods who really mattered were Mneia and Azesia.

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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Quote Originally Posted by sionnach View Post
    The answer is I want to go much farther and am interested in finding people interested in Celtic paganism on a more in depth level. Unlike the gods of the Greeks/Romans the Celtic gods and goddesses share the earth and are not in a separate location as in Mount Olympus.
    So...I think this is a huge misunderstanding of Greek and Roman mythology. First off, there are more than just a dozen big name gods in either pantheon...and these twelve only the gods for a portion of the history of either people. Secondly, these gods come after an earlier almost animistic primordial deities. The Greek gods are the earth--Gaia's body *is* the Earth (also the sea--Oceanos, the sky--Ouranos, etc.). The Olympic deities make their mythic home on Mt Olympus, certainly...but that is an actual place (specifically the Mytikas peak of the mountain). Rome is slightly different in that many of their gods are gods of the polis rather than nature gods--deities of Rome (Anna Perenna (the year), Concordia (agreement, marital harmony), Libertas (liberty), Abundantia (abundance), Aequitas (equity), etc)...but the Dii themselves are complicated, and very much related to their Etruscan counterparts as their Greek ones. And Roman deities do have deities of the land as well... And that is before taking into account both the various lares of the Romans or the naiads, dryads, and other nymphs of the Greeks (and Romans), and the daemons of the Greeks.





    Personally (re the OP), I could never get into the Celtic mythology enough to care about any of the exclusively Celtic gods (and I never cared too much about the whole language family arguement--there's as much similarity as difference between all of the Indo-European originating religions when you look at them from the big picture. I have some dealings with Epona and Sulis Minerva, from a bioregional standpoint, and with Manannan mac Lir, and with Maman Brigitte from time to time...but thats about it.

    (In my experience, the Celtic gods are fairly open to being part of a diaspora)

    And with that being said, we have a reading list you might enjoy somewhere around here.. (here it is)

    Last edited by thalassa; 28 Jul 2015 at 17:16.
    “You have never answered but you did not need to. If I stand at the ocean I can hear you with your thousand voices. Sometimes you shout, hilarious laughter that taunts all questions. Other nights you are silent as death, a mirror in which the stars show themselves. Then I think you want to tell me something, but you never do. Of course I know I have written letters to no-one. But what if I find a trident tomorrow?" ~~Letters to Poseidon, Cees Nooteboom

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    Member sionnach's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    I must admit I am not as familiar with the roman nor greek gods as I am with Celtic. I do not understand your usage of dispora in reference to the Celtic gods. The term does not fit from what I know. My comments are related to Caesars issues with understanding Celtic gods and goddesses. One of the issues as I understand Celtic gods and goddesses is that they were more tribal or clan related than a group of gods/goddesses with differentiation in their specialties. I do agree that there were earlier aspects of greek and roman beliefs of spirits of the lands and waters as you mention but again I am not as familiar. Celtic goddesses were in particular associated with the land and land features to a much greater extent that roman goddesses were. Celtic goddesses are mother-goddesses in single or triple forms, local divinities, river goddesses animal goddesses, teachers, mothers, and incarnations of natural forces of fertility and destruction. The male Celtic gods were the father aspect, Chief gods, protector of the tribe, warrior magician and craftsman. In the last we see for instance both Dagda (just one of his titles) and Lug being experts in all aspects of craftsmanship without the division of different crafts to different gods. In addition the Celtic Gods and Goddesses dwell on the earth or In the earth in what is the sidhe. And I think (correct me if I am wrong). Heroes and kings was well as others of the mortal society could enter the sidhe and there was significant interaction between the those of the sidhe and the mortals on the land. This seems different than the relationship of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses but as I have expressed I am not as familiar with their mythology and would appreciate being corrected if this is inaccurate. In fact that is why I joined the forum, to learn by expressing ideas and seeing how others see these subjects. I want to learn more and am not unwilling to correct what I think in view of better information. I did look at your list and have read some of the books included but look forward to learning more. I would love to have more interaction to challenge my understanding.

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    Silver Member Tylluan Penry's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Well, okay. The thing to remember is that you are looking at a period and at cultures (because you cannot lump 'British Celts' together in a single cell, they are very diverse over tiny areas) that did not write things down. Therefore just about everything we know about them will come from what others wrote about them, or from artefacts they made or used.

    It is extremely difficult to generalise so when you make a statement (and I am NOT being critical here) 'Heroes and kings as well as others of the mortal society could enter the sidhe...' you really don't have much evidence to back that up. This is not a failing on your part - just a fact. Do we know how Celts thought of the sidhe? Not really. We might get an idea what others thought they knew, but that's never going to be the same.

    If you are using myths and legends, then remember these are going to be like a palimpsest, layer upon layer, often the later ones being added by people whose beliefs were quite different from the original.

    If you are using anything written by Caesar, do remember that he had his own agenda here. The De Bello Gallico, for example, was put together mainly from annual dispatches sent back to Rome to show how well he was doing and how difficult his task was. he was not really interested in the people he was writing about... only about how he could show himself and his actions in the best possible light. So yes, use his work (it's fascinating) but we always need to keep looking over our shoulders to see what else is out there.

    And a final proviso - much of what people think of as Celtic is in fact Anglo-Saxon. Or an Anglo-Saxon version of Celtic which is even more baffling.
    But I do wish you all the best with your search!
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    Phantom Turnips never die.... they just get stewed occasionally....

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