The retrieval and revival of indigenous ceremonial traditions is a growing concern in this increasingly disconnected world, and one that has great promise for the restoration of methods of sustainable living, sound ecological practices and the preservation of ancient knowledge. Sound recordings of elders are being made around the world, as well as video recordings (where possible and appropriate) of aspects of traditional ritual. For some tribes, preservation and the training of the younger generation are key. For other native cultures, these efforts hinge around the retrieval of fragmentary and partially forgotten evidence. This is the situation with native Celtic ritual practices, some of which have died out, and others which survive in traditional Celtic-language speaking communities and which are not advertised or generally made public.
Every book, group and spiritual teacher who professes to practice ‘ancient Celtic or Druidic ritual’ has a completely different system on offer, which in and of itself is a red flag. The vast majority of these are based on modern occult and Neo-Pagan traditions, Neo-Shamanism of a non-Celtic provenance, and various New Age ideas, with a smattering of Celtic words or symbols. The reason for this is totally understandable: without living elders to pass along an intact tradition, or detailed written evidence that preserves such a system (provided by and approved by living descendants of native tradition bearers), there is enormous confusion and controversy over what Celtic ritual is or should be like.
Add to that the fact that the evidence we do have is incredibly fragmented, is found in numerous ancient and medieval Celtic languages (usually not English), and requires professional training – if not a college degree – to find, understand, and interpret, then the situation seems dire indeed! But it need not be so. It requires a few tools in one’s tool belt, though. These include: patience, hard work, lack of personal projection or fantasy, discernment, open mindedness, lack of ego, respect, and honesty. Just because we want something to be a certain way, or we strongly feel it was so, doesn’t make it true. It’s important to have truth in labeling – to be clear and honest with ourselves and with others about where the elements of modern personal or group ritual come from. If it comes from Wicca, or modern Goddess Worship, or Native American or Buddhist contexts, or is the creative brain-child of a certain person or organization, then say so. If you created it yourself, own it! Where it comes from a known Celtic source, state that too. Most if not all of the ‘Celtic’ ritual that is out there does not come from a Celtic source, so we need to start there.
Not too many people are ready to entirely scrap their current ritual framework and belief system, to ’empty the cauldron’ so to speak, and begin to recreate Celtic ritual piece by piece, and step by step. But some are, and many would be willing to adjust and learn, in order to best understand and honour the Ancestors and to interact with the Deities in a way that they are accustomed to. This is the only way to retrieve and preserve authentic Celtic knowledge and ritual. By changing it, we lose it. (The same goes for other traditional cultures). For those who do truly seek to walk in the footsteps of the Celtic-speaking ancestors, there are ways forward, and that is what the Eolas ar Senchas Research Project is all about. Eolas has many meanings, used here to denote ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Guidance,’ ar means ‘our’ and Senchas is Traditional Knowledge or Lore.
This is an on-going research project which utilizes Celtic Studies as a vehicle for learning about and ultimately recreating and reviving aspects of Celtic ritual practice, including ceremony, song and chant, as well as esoteric practices. Some of its work has received grant funding, with more hopefully in the works. As there are writings published and CD’s pressed, notices will be sent out here and on social media. For now, though, let’s start at the beginning and explore seven key aspects that we know were part of Celtic ritual practice.
Sun-Wise Worship: The Celts were part of the greater Indo-European family of cultures and languages, who all performed ceremony in a clock-wise or sun-wise direction. This is explicitly stated by a Classical author who, while commenting on a Gaulish feast, noted that the people sat in a circle and passed around a common cup, each person sipping a little from it, and passing it along. He noted that the cup was passed in a sun-wise direction, “the same direction in which they worship their Gods.”
Four Directions: There are some scattered references to the honouring of the four cardinal directions. We know that this often formed part of Indo-European ceremony, and that the sun-wise circle began in the East. There is an interesting passage in the medieval Irish text, ‘The Settling of the Manor of Tara,’ in which a supernatural being outlines for the people of Ireland the attributes of the four quarters of the land. The primary attributes are: East – Prosperity; South – Music; West – Learning, North – Battle, and Center – Sovereignty. Note that the use of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) does not form part of Celtic tradition. There are esoteric texts which speak about ‘fire in water’ as a form of inspiration but that is a more advanced concept and not necessarily part of tribal ceremony.
Sacred Center: Ritual movement processed in a sun-wise direction around the center, which was considered the most sacred point. It was likely perceived of as the abode of the World Tree; a similar concept in early Ireland was the Bile (pronounced BILL-uh): a mast, pillar or sacred and venerated tree. There were sometimes offering pits located in or near the center of a Celtic temple or sanctuary, and altars of wood or stone may have been placed there as well.
Three Worlds: There is also evidence for the early Celtic perception of three sacred realms, Upper, Middle and Lower, such as forms part of indigenous belief in many cultures that practice shamanism. In some cases, these seem to be referred to as ‘Skies, Earth and Sea’ (I’m avoiding the word ‘heavens’ because of monothesitic associations with that word). In other cases, Sky, Middle world of Earth, and lower world associated with Síd mounds are mentioned (denoting a lower world located under the earth).
Reciprocity between the Worlds: In many myths and texts we see the great importance placed on maintaining a balanced, respectful and reciprocal relationship between the worlds. Honouring the wisdom and power of the Gods is one way to do this. Remembering and honouring the Ancestors is another. Living by traditional codes of behavior, and preserving ancient wisdom were extremely important. People made offerings and also made pledges or oaths – to do or not do something – in order to foster these relationships.
Ritual Actions: We have some detailed information about ritual actions (including objects utilized) from ancient Celtic contexts, such as the gathering of mistletoe and other sacred herbs. There is also excellent information concerning offering ceremonies and objects from archaeological contexts. (See previous blogs for recommendations on books about Celtic art and archaeology). Many centuries later, we have detailed information about folk customs from the four Celtic holidays: Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugnasad and Samhain. Some of these may look quite different from ancient Celtic practices, though some aspects may be survivals.
(Note that the Celts did not celebrate the Equinoxes or Solstices, no matter what you read. They would have known when these occurred, of course, and likely served as astronomical markers for computing the date of the four Celtic feast days, which would all have taken place on the New Moon. There is a good discussion of this in ‘Queen of the Night’ – Red Wheel / Weiser and in Vol. 18 of Cosmos Journal, Univ of Edinburgh).
Liturgy: All cultures have traditional prayers, stories, songs, and chants that are sung and recited during ritual. Celtic cultures would have been no different. Indeed, given the enormous focus on music and poetry, and the recitation and preservation of traditional knowledge that exists throughout the tradition, we can assume that these would have formed a huge part of Celtic ceremony. This is one of the primary goals of the Eolas ar Senchas project, to retrieve, historically recreate, record and transmit authentic Celtic prayers (both ancient and early modern), sung songs and instrumental music, as well as chants and invocations.
We will keep you posted when the texts and CD’s are ready! For now, there is an example of a Gaelic blessing used at Imbolc in Scotland on The Moors CD, with simple harp accompaniment – it follows the recitation of recordings of Gaelic speaking tradition bearers of similar folk prayers. There is also a piece which provides a blending of two Gaelic prayers honouring the moon – with similar vocal intonation.
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.