Today I have the privilege of sharing a piece on Celtic Religion, written by guest contributor, Mary Lanni. The Irish are a Celtic people and prior to the arrival of St. Patrick who converted them to Christianity, they embraced their own religion centering on a reverence for nature. Thank you to Mary for this most informative post.
Celtic history can be traced back three thousand years, back before the time of Christ and even Julius Caesar. Based out of Central Europe in what is now Germany, Hungary and Austria, the Celts were a people of autonomous clans that each had their own governmental authorities and gods. The independent travels of these tribes helped to spread the culture to such places as present-day France, Spain and the Balkan Peninsula, as well as integrate the beliefs and practices of other nations into their own. The Celts who came to Great Britain and Ireland were in flight from Roman rule, and they brought with them revolutionary agricultural and metal casting techniques that transformed the region. In return, the native art styles and religious beliefs permeated their culture to create a distinctive, unique identity. Invading Romans effortlessly wiped away all Celtic powers from Britain, but determined that the little island to the west was irrelevant and, ultimately, let it be. This allowed Ireland to become the last, remaining stronghold of Celtic society.
A homogeneous theme of Celtic society was their reverence of nature. They strongly believed that spirits prevailed in all aspects of the nature that they relied upon for sustenance and their very livelihood. They believed that they walked through a spiritual world and that they had to live in harmony with the earth’s divinity. Water had exceptional religious significance, as Celts believed that lakes were the resting place of the supernatural and that springs had healing powers. Each cave and cavern was regarded as a passageway between the world of the living and the afterlife, and it was common to place food within the grotto to nourish the dead. Dozens of gods were closely associated with animals; Artaius was the god of sheep and cattle, the goddess Epona was the protector of horses and Turrean was the goddess of dogs. The wild boar was the most venerated of the animals, as it was a symbol of the warrior and was believed to be the food of the gods. When the dead were buried, it was common that a carcass of a boar was included so the deceased would be well-fed in the afterlife.
Though Celtic civilization had gender assignments for their gods, the supernatural powers conceptualized as mystic forces, led the Celts to be originally insulted when introduced to the Greek and Roman practice of reducing Gods to human form, though they would later adapt similar representations and artwork. Like the Romans, the Celts valued bravery and battle, though they waged for glory and treasure instead of territory. Whatever plunder they obtained was considered as property of the gods and was often sacrificed. One common practice was to bring home skulls from the battlefield to hang above doorframes or display on pikes to honor the spirits. The head was considered the axis of a person’s essence and so to seize it was to seize the enemy’s strength and power.
There is little documentation about Celtic society or religion as they were, according to their enemy Romans, an illiterate people. They relied upon a class of priests called Druids to keep their culture and religion alive for generations. This sage, well-educated sect of the population were pivotal parts of the community, as they served as judges, councilors, oral historians and channels between the people and the spirits. Considered blessed with the ability to foresee the future, the Druids held significant sway over the entire clan’s direction. These men passed stories and mythology along from one generation to the next, keeping the legends alive to be eventually recorded Christian monks in the Sixth Century.
Though their religion fell to the wayside with the island’s introduction to Christianity, Celtic mythology and beliefs still resonate in Irish culture today. At some point or another, we have all thrown a coin into a wishing well and hoped for good fortune, a tradition that began when Celts would pay homage to the water’s spirits by offering treasure. Additionally, who among us haven’t admired the intricacy of the popular and distinct Celtic cross? The origins of many popular Irish baby names find their roots in folklore of heroes and Gods, like the mighty soldier Finn McCool and the goddess of poetry and healing, Brigid. Thousands from across the globe flock to marvel at the Dún Aonghasa, a Celtic fort estimated to be built in 200 BC. This imposing monument lines coastal cliffs that rise over 100 meters, a structure that has been speculated to have had both military and religious purposes. Without a doubt, the mystical and mysterious Celts of yesteryear continue to invigorate the imagination and shape the Irish identity of the present.
Mary Lanni’s Irish heritage has always played a significant role in her identity. As a child she studied Irish step dance and, as a university student, she had the pleasure of spending a semester abroad in Dublin. Though she may be thousands of miles away in Ohio, she will always feel at home among the beautiful hills of the picturesque Irish countryside.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)