Magik of the Bards

It’s time again for me to start posting my graduate papers! And all the people say, ‘yay!’. This time it’s more of an historic paper, but if you like Celtic myths, lore, and history, you should like this, too. Because I said so. So there! Anyway, I enjoyed writing it greatly (there’s TONS I couldn’t fit into the five-page limit my prof gave me… pfft), and I hope you enjoy reading it, too! ~ MM

Magik of the Bards

An Overview of Ancient Celtic Culture and Faith

 

The Celtic people have always had a prehistory shrouded in mystery. This has not changed much, even with the use of modern archeological technology. In fact, it wasn’t until the 5th century AD that Christian monks began to record with paper and ink the history and myths of the Celts. Before this, with the exception of very few Welsh sagas, all Celtic lore was strictly oral, passed down through generations. (Cortrell and Storm 94) Perhaps this is why the early Celtic peoples have been considered by many to be especially mystifying, and their lore even more so. In this paper I will present an overall picture of that mystifying culture and history, starting with archeological and documentary evidence and moving on to fictional myths and lore from the period. As it is mainly concerned with Celtic mythological lore, the historic portion if this paper will parallel that theme in discussing the history of Celtic faith specifically, and the culture that faith carved out. For the sake of this paper, the terms “Celt” and “Celtic” will be used to identify the Indo-European people of modern-day Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Britain and their ancestors.

The vast majority of what little we know of ancient Celtic history comes from excavations of West Hallstatt cultural grave sites found in modern-day southern France, across Switzerland and into south-western Germany. Like many ancient cultures, Hallstatt society was situated in small, open villages, and mostly dominated by animal husbandry and agriculture, though metalwork was also highly prized. Bronze, iron and gold were used in the making of everything from jewelry to weapons. (Maier 13)  Due to the lack of early recorded evidence, it has been extremely difficult to piece together any solid image of Hallstatt religious rites: “Of the rites which may have accompanied burial, archeological remains… provide only a hazy picture.” (33) However, religious items such as stone effigies, scarlet burial cloaks, amulets and ceremonial chariots, among others found in early Celtic grave sites, all lead historians to conclude that the early Celts did believe in an afterlife, and that their chieftains and kings played a religious as well as a civic leadership role. (21)

It is not until the mid-first century AD that historians find any written evidence of the Celtic people whose prehistoric gravesites offer so much physical evidence — yet no recorded descriptions — of their culture and faith. However, even these recordings leave much to the imagination when it comes to culture and faith, as they only discuss the migration into the Mediterranean of a people who could have come from many different backgrounds, all listed under the description of ‘Celt’, and treated as more of a scourge on the population than a culture in and of themselves. (38-39) Later written details give accounts, both flattering and discourteous, of the Celts only as adversaries of war. (43) While they are often greatly detailed in armory, weaponry and battle tactics, these recordings, too, offer very little in the way of understanding the Celts as a cultural and religious people. Finally, certain classical writers and historians such as Diogenes Laertius and Posidinius did write about pre-Christian pagan/Celtic religious rites, and many of these observations are highly detailed and descriptive. In fact, these classical writings make up the bulk of what we know about Pagan religious practices today. However, the sources for these writings, which are generally believed to be far older still, are unknown, and the writers themselves are not Celts. Therefore these writings cannot be entirely relied upon as accurate or unbiased views into Celtic culture. (59-61)

Though it originated all over Europe and even as far east as Asia Minor, (Cortrell and Storm 94) Celtic culture as we know it today is centered around Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain, with Ireland and Britain having the most well-known histories of the four. Yet here, too, there are issues with archeological and documentary evidence of Celtic culture and religion. Like the earliest gravesites in France, Switzerland and Germany, most archeological excavations of Irish and British gravesites offer little in the way of descriptive documentation. However, archeological explorations of hill forts from the first millennium BC in south and west Britain have painted at least a partial picture of how some of the earliest Celts lived and what they believed: “On occasion the excavations [of hill forts] have… produced evidence of cult sites, which may have been a feature of all these settlements.” (Maier 117) Unlike British sites, however, early Irish sites have given little to no evidence of everyday Celtic life and beliefs, as most were abandoned, leaving behind no substantial traces of human habitation. (118) Grave sites, too, are far less yielding in Ireland, as cremation was a dominant practice in Ireland for a long while. (117)

And so there is little to be found of solid historic Celtic society and religion by the way of traditional archeological and documented/historic means. Still, as a people far more oral than systematic, the Celts did leave us with one very important source of their culture: their fictional stories and sagas, once recited generation-to-generation only by great bards and Druid priests/priestesses, and far more real to the Celts than pen-and-paper ever could be. (138) According to the classic geographer Strabo, who wrote about the Celts around the third century AD, among the religious elite in ancient Celtic society were a group of storytellers and poets called bards: “As a rule, among the Gallic peoples, three sets of men are honoured above all others: The Bards, the Vates, and the Druids…  The Bards are singers and poets…” (62) Considering that the Vates are then described as “overseers of sacred rites” and the Druids as “… natural philosophers… [who] practice moral philosophy…”, it can be deduced that singers and poets – those who recited and sang stories – were considered highly important to the Celts, and in relation, those stories themselves were also very important to their cultural and social identity.

Today, we see most Celtic stories in the form of fairy tales, and, of course, King Arthur’s quests. But these are only the tip of a very vast and deep iceberg. Generally, Celtic stories are classified into one of four categories: the Ulster Cycle, the Historical Cycle, the Finn Cycle, and the Mythological cycle, based on criterion such as characters featured, historical significance, and fictional probability. It should be noted that there are some which fall into more than one category, and some which do not fall into any, as well. (138) Some examples of these stories are, the tales of King Conchobor mac Nessa and his legendary nephew, the hero Cu Chulainn (Cortrell and Storm 118, 120), from the Ulster Cycle, the legends of Oisin and his son Oscar (156, 161), from the Finn Cycle, the stories of Conn Cetchathach and his grandson Cormac mac Airt (Maier 140), from the Historical Cycle, and The Battle of MagTuried (Cortrell and Storm 133, 172), from the Mythological Cycle. Of the four Cycles, perhaps the best-known is the Mytholgical Cycle, which stories deal with faeries rather than mortals as their central characters. These stories, too, are of great interest in Celtic Pagan religious study, as faeries, also known as the Tuatha De’ Dannann or “the people of the goddess Dana”, are often portrayed as god-like creatures, and were sometimes worshipped in Pagan rites and rituals. (172)

It should be noted here that even these stories can no longer be entirely relied upon as accurate representations of pagan Celtic beliefs and culture, as the modern stories we now know were written down by Christian monks after Christianity had already been instilled in the Celtic lands for several centuries: “Whether an accurate picture of the old pagan culture still survived at this time must, in view of the numerous anachronisms and projections of Christian notions and institutions in the past, seem questionable to the extreme.” (Maier 137) That said, these legends and others like them are still arguably the very best lens we now have through which to view pre-Christian Celtic culture and religion, from the point of view of the Celts themselves.

Works Cited

Cotterell, Arthur and Storm, Rachel. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Wigston: Anness Publishing Limited, 1999. Print

Maier, Bernhard. The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. Trans. Kevin Windle. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Print.

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