In previous blogs, we’ve explored some of the basic aspects of Celtic cosmology – the existence of a sacred Otherworld (or worlds), probably conceived of as being connected with the Upper World and Lower World (as in many shamanic or traditional cultures). The inhabitants of those worlds – the Gods and Goddesses – known in Ireland as the Aes Síde or Tuatha Dé Danann – embodied a wide range of powers and attributes, depending upon location, era, and many other temporal and cultural factors.
What do we know, if anything, about how the ancient Celts constructed or performed ritual? This is quite a hot topic, of course – many will say ‘We don’t know anything at all, and to try and make any sort of theory or assumption is folly or wishful thinking.” This attitude can be found both in academic circles and amongst practitioners, oddly enough, and in some cases this negative (and unfounded) stance can be used to either assert power over others, or serve as an obstacle to tackling complicated issues (academic or otherwise).
There are, of course, numerous books, courses and websites professing to teach people how to perform Celtic ritual. If one has taken the time to look at more than a handful of these, the first thing one will notice is how completely different each of these ritual suggestions are from each other. And I mean radically different, from soup to nuts. Diversity is, of course, a wonderful thing, and one of the attractions of modern paganism is a diversity which has the potential to ensure that there is something that works for everyone.
Now, if these different ritual systems came with footnotes or explanations of where the system came from, this would be a great banquet to feast at. For example, if someone said, based on thus-and-such study and thus-and-such actual evidence, filling in with this and that from Celtic folklore, we constructed a ritual such as might have been practiced by pagan Celts in a particular location and era. And indeed, there are pockets of pagans working to do just that. It is a daunting task, filled with dark holes and obstacles.
However, the vast majority of Celtic ritual systems out there never provide the would-be-celebrant with any explanation of what the system is (or is intended to be), where it came from (overall, or item by item) since we don’t have any intact ritual system available that has been handed down over time. Which brings me to my next point – there is no intact ritual system available that has been handed down over time. So if someone is telling you that they have such a system, it’s time to start asking questions, all of which should be answered for you clearly, respectfully, and to your satisfaction.
For the most part, ritual systems described as ‘Celtic’ these days are in actuality derived either from Wicca (a non-Celtic modern occultist movement with origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) or modern Druidry (with similar roots, and differentiated from Druidism as practiced by early Celtic peoples). To be clear, I am not in any way denigrating either Wicca or Druidry – far from it! 🙂 I only endeavour to point out that many beliefs and practices that are being widely ascribed to the Celts, are in fact derived from other cultures, times and places (including beliefs and perceptions by cultural and colonial oppressors of the cults, which is the part I find most alarming).
There are a number of reasons why this situation is so, at this time. One reason has to do with the oppression of Celtic speaking cultures, particularly over the last number of centuries. With the loss of language, land and autonomy comes the loss of culture, tradition and empowerment. So we have major culture loss, to start with. Then, when attempts are made by people outside that culture to study and understand it, we enter into a weird rabbit-hole of outside perceptions and projections.
Early attempts to record and analyze Celtic culture and belief were beset by antiquarian notions of ‘noble savages,’ pre-conceived notions of ancient cultures based primarily on knowledge of Greek, Roman and Near East examples, and Victorian fantasies, to name just a few challenges. These writings had the advantage of being in English and being printed in books (as opposed to authentic Celtic cultural traditions which were in the Celtic languages – many of which were being marginalized – and passed along orally). So it’s easy to see how people might latch on to ‘whatever they could get ahold of’ – and how these same sources have come to form the basis of many modern Pagan paths.
So, if one is interested in what ancient / traditional Celts actually believed and practiced, what sorts of information is available to us? I think the first step is to read actual historical information about the ancient Celts, to make sure this is the culture whose beliefs you wish to follow and emulate. Make sure the book is written by a specialist in Celtic studies, like the following: The Celtic World by Barry Cunliffe, The Celts (edited by Venceslas Kruta), and The Celtic World (edited by Miranda Green). It is important to have some grounding and awareness of any society whose culture and religion you wish to learn about and participate in.
Now, with that as your foundation, you would want to begin reading about early Celtic religious practices from several standpoints. The first would be from an archaeological viewpoint – to see where they practiced, and what sorts of objects have been associated with religious sites. There is an excellent chapter on Celtic religion in The Celts by T.G.E. Powell, and interesting information in the above books too – as well as: Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery, Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross (with excellent information about Ireland and the Continent as well), Celtic Art by Megaw, andThe Druids by Stuart Piggott (This is still, to my mind, the best and most reliable book popularly available on the topic. Start here and use it as your guide).
You would then want to supplement an archaeological approach with reading about what other early cultures had to say about the Celts, and about their religion. Celts and the Classical World by David Rankin is wonderful, as well as Women, War and Druids by Phil Freeman and Caesar’s Gallic War. Not all of the classical accounts can be taken at face value, but many are quite informative for a modern practitioner.
At this point, you would experience a significant gap in time when looking to the actual mythology, of which that from early medieval Ireland is the earliest we have. Not all tales and texts are in their original form of course, and many require serious study and guidance by a Celticist in order to understand them! This is very frustrating for people, and leads to confusion in modern practice. However, there are some good collections which do contain a bit of useful information about how to understand medieval Irish literature that contains elements of Irish mythology and belief. The best are Ancient Irish Tales by Cross and Slover, Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz, and The Tain by Thomas Kinsella. There are great translations of texts in The Celtic Heroic Age by John Koch and John Carey, and useful guidance in understanding the symbolism and ideology can be found in Proinsias MacCana’s Celtic Mythology and S.P. MacLeod’s Celtic Myth and Religion.
There are loads of academic articles published concerning how one can best understand and interpret these texts, but these are not found at bookstores or on Amazon or B&N, unless you know where to look. Many collections of scholarly articles are very pricey, as well. So, if you want to take it to the next level, start reading bibliographies and ask your local librarian to help you access these articles. There are also some wonderful materials available through E-Keltoi and CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts).
The next layer of evidence comes from medieval Wales, and is quite a bit later than the Irish materials. These include The Mabinogi, a set of four medieval Welsh tales that include interesting episodes that seem to reflect names of earlier Brythonic deities and pan-Celtic religious symbolism, albeit set in a medieval narrative context that can be difficult to parse. This has resulted in a great deal of speculation about what the stories represent. If you read the Introduction to Patrick K. Ford’s Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales, and the footnotes to Sioned Davies’ The Mabinogion, you can use those as a foothold. Again, there are numerous academic articles available which can help you authentically interpret these and other medieval Welsh tales. Read the bibliographies of the above books, as well as the Suggested Reading list and Bibliography provided in Celtic Myth and Religion (S.P. MacLeod), which were compiled for this very purpose.
Then, many centuries later, we begin to have records of folklore traditions from the Celtic countries. You can see how we are already more than a millennium and a half away from the pagan Celts by this point, in terms of time. However, there were clearly many pre-Christian traditions which continued on after the introduction of Christianity, and these are also of interest to modern practitioners. Remember that while we can’t say that these customs were also practiced by the ancient Celts, at least they were authentic traditions of Celtic speaking peoples in traditional communities, at some point in time. Good folklore resources are listed in the Suggested Reading and Footnotes and Bibliography of Celtic Myth and Religion.
Now, this may seem a daunting task to many people, busy as they are with work, family, and so forth. I think the trick is to clear your mental palate of what you may have read before, set aside a few reading periods each week, and start with the books above (which can be obtained for a reasonable cost used online or via local bookshops, or on interlibrary loan from your local library). Read for 20-30 minutes at lunch time or while commuting on the bus or at bedtime, and let the information sink in, percolate and integrate. Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t understand something – just keep reading and over time it will make sense. If you read even one or two books from each category / time period listed above, in a year you would have made significant progress in establishing a solid foundation of knowledge from which to work and practice.
If this much reading is not possible at first, then I would recommend reading Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief (McFarland Publishing, available in print and as an e-book). It was written to assist people inside and outside of academia – including modern spiritual practitioners – to gain a solid foundation in just the sorts of things people are interested in these days with regards to the Celts and their religious beliefs. Hundreds of books and articles went into its creation, all solid and authentic, and I hope it serves its purpose well!
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’.