Celtic religion is part of Ireland's ancient past. The Irish are a Celtic people and prior to the arrival of Saint Patrick they practiced their Celtic religion.
Today I have the privilege of sharing a piece on Celtic Religion, written by guest contributor, Mary Lanni.
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The Irish - A Celtic People
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. Their's was a polytheistic religion.
The Celts lived at the time of the Iron Age in Western Europe, and were the predominant people of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.
Ireland - The Last Remaining Stronghold of Celtic Religion and Society
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. They lived in an area known as Gaul.
The independent travels of these tribes helped to spread their 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 in the British Isles.
Celtic Reverance for Nature
A homogeneous theme of Celtic society was their reverence for nature and the natural world. 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. In the religion of the ancient Celts, water had exceptional religious significance. The Celts believed that lakes were the resting place of the supernatural and that springs had healing powers. Lakes and bogs were also considered to be sacred places.
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 bull, boar, stag and horse were all sacred animals for the Celts.
Birds feature in many Celtic myths and Irish mythology, because in ancient Celtic religion they were considered sacred.
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. He was also buried with his weapons, including shields and spears.
Their Gods were often associated with nature. Cernunnos was the Celtic God of the sun, light, and craftsmanship, who was often depicted holding a torc and wearing stag antlers. Danu was the mother goddess, and Dagda the father God. Brigid was a favored goddess linked to poetry and healing. Her attributes were linked to Saint Brigid when the Celts eventually became Christians.
Offerings were made to the Gods at sacred sites, including votive offerings, food and possibly human sacrifices.
Our Gaelic ancestors held a deep seated belief in supernatural beings, fairies and magic. Celtic tribes revered their Celtic deities and the great unknown.
Spiritual Practices of the Celts
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 for Celtic warriors 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.
Celtic beliefs included faith in the existence of the Otherworld, a place similar to Christian heaven, where they believed souls go after death. We do not have written sources today to support our understanding of their belief in the afterlife. Instead, archaeological sources, such as jewelry, pottery and bones, found at ancient burial sites provide evidence for these beliefs. Written records of the Greeks and Romans also support this idea.
There were many important Celtic festivals celebrated at sacred sites throughout the year.
Imbolc was celebrated to mark the beginning of spring.
Bealtaine or beltaine was associated with the lighting of bonfires and was celebrated at the beginning of our month of May.
Lughnasadh was a celebration of the Celtic God or Celtic pantheon, Lugh and occurred in August.
Samhain marked the harvest and the end of one year and the beginning of the next year. It was celebrated around the end of our October or beginning of November, and is the forerunner to our Halloween celebrations.
The Druids of Ancient Celtic Society
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 Celtic 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 religious leaders, judges, councilors, oral historians and channels between the people, the spirits and the Celtic Gods.
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.
The Celts and Christianity
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.
Thank you to Mary for this most informative post.
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)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade