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

  1. #11
    Member sionnach's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Thank you for your response, that is exactly what I am looking for. You are right I must be careful not to make statements as facts but rather as impressions I get from what I read. I must admit when I am talking about Celtic pre-Christian I am really referring mainly to Irish beliefs. This is because most of what I can find is from Ireland so I have become more familiar with Irish mythology and folklore. How similar it is to the rest of the Celtic world I do not know.

    But I still think Caesar's response is still telling of the difference between Roman and Celtic view of gods and goddesses. There was considerable use of Mercury to compare to the Celtic gods and he does not describe a family of gods and goddesses as seen in Roman mythology. From what I have read there is evidence that the gods and goddess were tribal meaning a god /goddess of a tribe thus the large number of gods and goddesses in which inscriptions have been found are because of all of the different tribes or clans each with a god/goddess associated. In Irish mythology there is a clear connection with the land and land features - rivers, lakes, mounds, hills. There is also a close association of the gods/goddesses and the natural world including the cycles of the world with the celebrations of Imbolc , Beltaine, Lughnasadh, and samhain. The concept of the salmon of knowledge and hazelnuts connecting knowledge to the natural world. These seem to be reasonable characteristics of at least Irish Celtic beliefs as I have found so far but I would like to know what others think.

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    sea witch thalassa's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Quote Originally Posted by sionnach View Post
    But I still think Caesar's response is still telling of the difference between Roman and Celtic view of gods and goddesses. There was considerable use of Mercury to compare to the Celtic gods and he does not describe a family of gods and goddesses as seen in Roman mythology. From what I have read there is evidence that the gods and goddess were tribal meaning a god /goddess of a tribe thus the large number of gods and goddesses in which inscriptions have been found are because of all of the different tribes or clans each with a god/goddess associated.
    The problem with your assumption here is that you are talking about a specific time period in Roman history. Religion does not exist in a vacuum. It evolves as a part of the culture of the people. Roman history goes back over a thousand years before Caesar. The Roman view of the gods at this, much earlier, time period (which are some of the gods I include in my worship) looks very different than the view of the gods in the time period you are talking about, where their views have been influenced by the Classical and Hellenic period views of Greek culture and religion. During these earlier periods (as with the Archaic period in Greek history) religion (and culture) looks more similar to that other Indo-European cultures (such as the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons) than it does to the later periods in their respective histories...which makes sense, because these cultures (and religions) have a common origin.

    Culture (including religion) behaves in similar ways that species do, over time. Cultures (and religions) adapt to changing times and new technologies, they react to changes in the environment (the hearts and minds of men, who is in turn influenced by their environment) by changing tenets and practices, they mutate with the introduction of impactful personalitites (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Joseph Smith, etc), they often hybridize in the margins where two overlap, and they tend to split when their populations split and encounter different experiences. Religion is fairly slow to change when the culture is stable, and cultures tend to be stable when they don't have serious conflict (whether that is conflict with other peoples or with the environment or within themselves), and conflict tends to be minimal where there isn't much ecological stress. You cannot reliably understand a religion without looking at the greater culture from which it comes and the history of the people where it originates, and even then, you have to remember that the culture (and religion) of a particular people is only the culture of that people for a slice of time--as you move forward and backward in time, the culture changes, sometimes so much that it is indisinguishable in degree of difference from an entirely different culture.

    With that having been said...I took Irish history at a local college, where it was taught by a guy that had come to the US from Ireland for his PhD (his area of specialty was Civil Rights movements) and met a local girl and decided to stay (Irish history taught in an Irish accent is just more fun). To paraphrase him, the theme of Irish history (maybe to a lesser extent Scotland, Wales and England; though Mrs P would be better equipped to answer that) is one of invasion and settlement, in which the newcomers become "more Irish than the Irish themselves"--the Celts were just one of many people that became part of that culture. I really recommend the book Britain Begins, for a more thourough understanding of the most up to date understanding of the early history of the British Isles, which (IMO) is essential to any understanding of the culture and history there (or for any Pagan religion, whether one is a reconstructionist or not). Among the first inhabitants that settled Ireland were a group of people that shared their ancestry with the Basque. I truly recommend reading (or perhaps rereading) the Leabhar Gabhla (The Book of Invasions), and looking at it as a history told as a metaphor, rather than as religious mythology.
    “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

    “We still carry this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a primal recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth. It is a felt reverence for all that exists. Once we bring this foundational quality into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to our present man-made crisis from a place of balance, in which our actions will be grounded in an attitude of respect for all of life. This is the nature of real sustainability.”
    ~~Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

    "We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes--one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way."
    ~~Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

    "Humans are not rational creatures. Now, logic and rationality are very helpful tools, but there’s also a place for embracing our subjectivity and thinking symbolically. Sometimes what our so-called higher thinking can’t or won’t see, our older, more primitive intuition will." John Beckett

    Pagan Devotionals, because the wind and the rain is our Bible

  3. #13
    Silver Member Tylluan Penry's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Yes, Thal, invasion is important, although we didn't have as many invasions as we feel we did! The thing about the Romans is that we have to view how they treated (and were treated by) the people they invaded from several angles:
    1. that the Romans swamped everything in their wake. They did sometimes, not often.
    2. That the invaded people resisted tooth and nail. (A bit like the Asterix stories.)
    3. That the two cultures borrowed from each other to a greater or lesser extent.
    4. That the two cultures (and of course there may even have been more) melded and produced something quite new.

    One of the most fascinating areas of study for me is place names. It's surprising what can turn up there! Often we get a better idea from this of how the land was used and shaped.
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    Member sionnach's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Quote Originally Posted by Tylluan Penry View Post
    Yes, Thal, invasion is important, although we didn't have as many invasions as we feel we did! The thing about the Romans is that we have to view how they treated (and were treated by) the people they invaded from several angles:
    1. that the Romans swamped everything in their wake. They did sometimes, not often.
    2. That the invaded people resisted tooth and nail. (A bit like the Asterix stories.)
    3. That the two cultures borrowed from each other to a greater or lesser extent.
    4. That the two cultures (and of course there may even have been more) melded and produced something quite new.

    One of the most fascinating areas of study for me is place names. It's surprising what can turn up there! Often we get a better idea from this of how the land was used and shaped.
    I like you analysis. There is information that the Germanic tribes that resisted Rome and finally invaded Rome evidently liked the hierarchical structure of Rome and respected its power. This is a personal opinion but it seems that the Celtic and Germanic cultures were more oriented to individualism and separate groups of power whereas Rome was the quintessential centralized power with much clearer hierarchy. This proved to me a more powerful force and harder to resist than the Tribal or clan organization of the northern people. I find it not surprising that the roman church designed itself after the roman military pattern. This clearly helped it to eliminate all other forms of christianitiy from the ebionites to the gnostics to the marcionites. It is also why I think it was so successful at eliminating any pagan opposition. I also think the Kings /leaders of the Invading tribes saw the potential for this power structure and the advantage of Christianity with its clear power structure that could secure their power better over the older Germanic and Celtic concepts of ruling. Sorry I got off the topic but I find one of the interesting aspects of English history is that the Barons kept some power to themselves (thus magna carta) whereas the Kings in France gave the king greater power over their nobles. I think that concept is some residual ideas of the original peoples concepts of individualism over complete acceptance of central structure. Ok I really got off subject but I have often wondered if anyone else thought this.

    - - - Updated - - -

    I do agree with your comments about how religion changes. This was studied for Scandinavian paganism in a conference in 2004 in Lund Sweden with a book printed 'Old Norse Religions in Long Term perspectives' multiple authors. They see the change in Norse religion as different cultures especially the Roman one influenced the religion over time. They show archeological evidence for change in places for votive deposits from natural areas to within the structures of the village. The entire works written near the year 1000 shows a much more complex organization of the Norse gods/goddessses far removed from the original tribal gods and goddesses in pre-roman times.

    This is probably similar to the Leabhar Gabhla written much later well after paganism had essentially died out as an organized religion. It to was probably influence by roman and other cultures which created a family of gods/goddesses which were more likely tribal/Clan linked to different regions than a true family of the Goddess Dana. I still think though within these tales are elements of the pre-Christian beliefs that can still be understood. That is why I want to know what other people think. I will try to get a copy Britain begins and would like your thoughts about what we can understand of pre-Christian Celtic beliefs.

  5. #15
    Supporter Jembru's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Sorry to join this a little late. I had to wait for a quiet shift at work to find time to reply properly. I work with local Celtic deities. I am not attempting to reconstruct the original religion, but I am definitely attempting to reinvent it! There wasn't a big pull towards the Celtic cultures of my ancestors that others have felt. It happened almost by accident for me. I was inspired to look to a more land-based path, and this led me to research local deities. I discovered there are many Roman shrines and inscriptions throughout the North East of England, that honoured local Celtic deities. I simply started there. My relationship and connection to these deities started to grow from there.

    Finding much more than names and the parallels the Romans made to their own deities, isn't easy for deities in this area. Northumberland was one of the first areas to convert to Christianity, and much detail about how these people perceived and honoured their gods, was lost in the process. You'll most likely find that in the bulk of the titles recommended in this thread, the authors will point mainly to existing Celtic regions such as Ireland and Wales, with much less said of the Brythonic Celts.

    As Tylluan points out, we know from archaeology that societies as close as Northumberland and Yorkshire likely had differences in their cultures, and so it can be argued that their precise methods of venerating the gods will have differed. However, one thing I have discovered, is that the gods themselves went on quite a journey, with inscriptions in Sunderland matching those found in France of Belgium. To assume that these deities travelled from Gaul in name alone, seems a bit strange to me. Certain rites and cultures must have surved intact too, with regional variations arising as a kind of Chinese whispers. Or, to put it another way;

    Quote Originally Posted by thalassa View Post
    there's as much similarity as difference between all of the Indo-European originating religions when you look at them from the big picture.
    Not only throughout England, but also the British isles and mainland Europe, it's quite possible that the vast array of pagan faiths actually did share common characteristics. So I am perfectly comfortable to look to a variety of pagan traditions for inspiration. From that, I simply take what feels the most logical to me, and go with that, refining my practices as I learn more.

    It would be nice to be able to point to specific historical evidence for my practices, but it doesn't particularly bother me that I can't. My experiences with the spirits I work with continuously validate my path for me, and that's all I need.
    Last edited by Jembru; 31 Jul 2015 at 15:54.
    夕方に急なにわか雨は「夕立」と呼ばれるなら、なぜ朝ににわか雨は「朝立ち」と呼ばれないの? ^^If a sudden rain shower in the evening is referred to as an 'evening stand', then why isn't a shower in the morning called 'morning stand'?

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

    I do agree with you about the problems understanding the pre-Christian religion of the Celts. I think one of the first issue for me was to first unlearn what I had been taught about pagan religions. In the US the is an emphasis on Greek/Roman mythology. There is a slight introduction of late Norse mythology and nothing that I can remember about Celtic mythology. The world of the Romans was a very ordered society with clear social rank and division of duties/crafts. Their mythology reflects this along with residual older beliefs mixed in. The world of the Celts was completely different and thus the view of their gods/goddesses also different. There are I believe over 370 different inscriptions of celtic gods matched to a few Roman gods. We also know there were many clans and I do agree they had their own deities for their tribe or clan. In addition the title of Dagda is the good god and he had other titles Eochaid Ollathair, father of all, Ruad Rofhessa, lord of great knowledge and other titles. These titles may have been applied to different gods of different tribes. In the writing of the irish Celtic tales these distinctions may have been lost.
    Despite this there is information available for us to at least get a working impression of their beliefs. There are some things that give us some direction. The supernatural and the natural seem to be interwoven and the ability to shape shift shows a close connection to the natural world. The gods/goddesses live within the same world with times during the year that the separation thins and the two worlds are even more connected.

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

    There is a lot of misunderstanding and conjecture when it comes to the Pre-Christian faiths. First you need to understand that the Celts or Gaelic people stretch from Ireland to India at one point. There is even some language evidence to show that they may have had a lot of influence on the original stores of the Hindu. Many of the deities can actual draw comparisons to the Hindu deities. Minus the multiple limbs anyways.

    Knowing this you also need to understand that while the Celts didn't have gods in the traditional since other then a very small handful. There is a lot of conjuncture here as far as who those small handful are but for your area the main deity would be Brigid who was the first born of Danu (One of the original Gods of creation, some minor conjuncture on if it was 7 or 9. I still haven't been able to find all their names, I have only been able to 100% confirm Danu and Donma). What makes it more confusing is the concept of land deities though land deities weren't really deities (this was a Christian monk concept) they were spirits of great heroes of that area. A great concept of this is the story of Macha.

    You can not really compare Roman deities to Celtic ones because of the concept of land deities. I am hoping the recent discovery of the 4 wooden statues that were full of Ogham will give more insight on the issue, unfortunately my connections are not as they use to be so I will have to wait like the rest.

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

    It is my conjecture that Bridget is a more modern conceptualization of a female deity and may have had more influence from a later period just as Dagda seems a more ancient deity that Lug. To me the female is most associated with the land and natural features while male gods more with the tribe. It is the union of the Male God of the tribe with the Female Goddess of the land or water whose union ensures the fertility of the land with the protection of the tribe. Therefore I see the female deities representing the natural elements of the land do be goddesses. Each tribe would have a god of the tribe and goddesses of the land where they lived. Thus for the Sons of Mil to enter and live in Ireland they must promise to honor by name the goddess representing the land. Thus they left the gods/goddesses of the land the left and accepted Eire in exchange to enter and live in Ireland. In their attempt to come ashore Amergin (Amorgen) call on the land if Ireland and it power to allow the Sons of Mil to enter. This I think shows the importance of nature and the source of power in nature which is were the natural and supernatural coexist. The Gods and Goddesses are not in some far of location but in close association with the natural world and one certain days the barriers between the natural and supernatural come the closest in contact.

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

    Quote Originally Posted by sionnach View Post
    It is my conjecture that Bridget is a more modern conceptualization of a female deity and may have had more influence from a later period just as Dagda seems a more ancient deity that Lug. To me the female is most associated with the land and natural features while male gods more with the tribe. It is the union of the Male God of the tribe with the Female Goddess of the land or water whose union ensures the fertility of the land with the protection of the tribe. Therefore I see the female deities representing the natural elements of the land do be goddesses. Each tribe would have a god of the tribe and goddesses of the land where they lived. Thus for the Sons of Mil to enter and live in Ireland they must promise to honor by name the goddess representing the land. Thus they left the gods/goddesses of the land the left and accepted Eire in exchange to enter and live in Ireland. In their attempt to come ashore Amergin (Amorgen) call on the land if Ireland and it power to allow the Sons of Mil to enter. This I think shows the importance of nature and the source of power in nature which is were the natural and supernatural coexist. The Gods and Goddesses are not in some far of location but in close association with the natural world and one certain days the barriers between the natural and supernatural come the closest in contact.
    Debating Brigid as an later adaptation would be a hard press debate. Though I can agree with the idea that the god represented the tribe and the goddess the land. As for Dagda being one of the oldest and older the Lugh, I would agree 100%, Dagda was the first male child of Danu and Bile. Also an interesting take on the Son of Mil, it was the three queens that gave them the keys to land.

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    sea witch thalassa's Avatar
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    Re: What do we know about Celtic pre-Christian religion?

    Quote Originally Posted by SonoftheWaters View Post
    What makes it more confusing is the concept of land deities though land deities weren't really deities (this was a Christian monk concept) they were spirits of great heroes of that area. A great concept of this is the story of Macha.

    You can not really compare Roman deities to Celtic ones because of the concept of land deities.

    Are you trying to say that the Romans didn't have deities of the land? Because that isn't true for the whole history of Roman religion.
    “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

    “We still carry this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a primal recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth. It is a felt reverence for all that exists. Once we bring this foundational quality into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to our present man-made crisis from a place of balance, in which our actions will be grounded in an attitude of respect for all of life. This is the nature of real sustainability.”
    ~~Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

    "We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes--one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way."
    ~~Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

    "Humans are not rational creatures. Now, logic and rationality are very helpful tools, but there’s also a place for embracing our subjectivity and thinking symbolically. Sometimes what our so-called higher thinking can’t or won’t see, our older, more primitive intuition will." John Beckett

    Pagan Devotionals, because the wind and the rain is our Bible

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