APPENDIX 1 Popular Misconceptions about the Celts and Celtic Religion

by Francine Nicholson and Kent Jewell

Most of these issues have already been addressed in the main body of the book, but are gathered here for the reader's convenience.

1. Pronunciation of 'Celtic.'

Celtic is pronounced 'Kehl-tik,' not 'Sehl-tik,' unless you're discussing the basketball team from Boston or the soccer football team from Glasgow.

2. The Celtic Race

There is no such thing as a Celtic 'race.' We identify the Celts by their societal structure, culture, language, and artwork. As the culture expanded from central Europe, other groups took on, and contributed to, the language, culture, and societal structure. These groups are all Celtic, but there is not necessarily an inherent or exclusive racial element to their affiliation. At the height of their expansion, Celts lived in communities reaching from modern-day Turkey to Spain. Gradually their influence decreased as they were subsumed by other groups, especially the Romans. Celtic culture is now chiefly identified with Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Nova Scotia, Scotland and Wales. Nevertheless, some late twentieth century scholars argue that because the Celts were not a racial group, attempts to associate Celtic peoples as a distinct group on the basis of similarity of language and culture are invalid.

3. Celtic language

There have been and continue to be several distinct Celtic languages and groups. While the various Celtic cultures have always had common features, they've also had distinct characteristics, reflecting the unique influences upon and developments within each.

Two dialects of Celtic languages are still spoken; Goidelic (Gaelic) and Brythonic. The Goidels (or Gaels) consist of the Irish and two groups descended from Irish settlers: the Highlanders of Scotland and the residents of the Isle of Man. Brythonic languages include those spoken in Britain (such as Welsh and Cornish) and Gaul. The Breton language spoken in the Celtic area of northwest France is descended from a Brythonic language of Britain.

4. 'British' = 'English'

The Britons were the Celtic inhabitants of the area now known as England and Wales. Named after the Brythonii, one of the Celtic tribes, they spoke the Brythonic dialect of the Celtic language. In the 4th or 5th century, some of the British Celts migrated to northern Gaul where they established a territory now known as Brittany. In order to distinguish between the two territories, early cartographers identified them as Greater and Lesser Britain. Greater Britain was gradually conquered by invading Germanic groups, the Saxons and Angles, and the territory they occupied became known as 'Angle-land' and, eventually, 'England.'

5. Equal rights

Equal rights were not characteristic of ancient Celtic society. People were divided into classes, and the men of the highest ranks had far more rights and privileges than men of the lowest. Women were also divided into classes, deriving their status from their nearest male relative. Within their class, women always had far fewer rights than men, although in some ways women of the highest class fared better than men of the lowest. However, a woman depended on her nearest male relatives to see that her rights were enforced since she had no standing in court.

6. Women as warriors and queens

Men ruled Celtic societies. During the upheaval following the Roman occupation of Britain, two women took over kingship from their husbands. These were exceptions. Aside from myths, there are no records of women serving as ruling queens in Ireland.

Goddess figures occasionally appear in the myths as warriors, but current archaeological evidence does not indicate that women regularly functioned as warriors. It's worth noting that in many cultures where women did not bear arms, goddesses who functioned as protectors of the tribe were depicted wearing armor or bearing weapons.

7. Druids and Druidry

"Druid" is the anglicized version of just one title used in ancient times for the religious leaders of the pre-Christian Celts. Various Celtic groups had different names for their religious leaders.

The druids were the religious leaders of the ancient Celts who originated in central Europe during the transition from the Bronze to Iron Age. They had nothing to do with the construction of, or worship in, monuments such as Stonehenge which were built thousands of years before the emergence of the Celts.

Some modern neo-pagan groups refer to their way as "druidry" but, generally, such "druidry" draws inspiration from the writings of creative 18th- and 19th-century antiquarians, 20th-century occultists, and the late 20th-century New Age movement. These groups generally operate within Anglo-centric linguistic and cultural milieus.

8. Celtic sacrifice

Classical writings and archaeological evidence indicate that the druids sacrificed animals on a regular basis and occasionally offered humans. However, one should keep in mind that execution for crimes was a religious ceremony of reparation to the deity offended by the crime, and many of those "sacrificed" may well have been criminals. Others were prisoners of war. These practices were typical of the times, and many, perhaps even most, ancient cultures practiced animal and/or human sacrifice occasionally. Even the Roman Senators ordered the sacrifice - burial alive - of a Gaulish couple and a Greek couple when a divination ceremony was interpreted as ordering such a sacrifice as necessary to ward off invasion.


9. Druids were shamans?

Celtic seers and healers used techniques that may have been similar in some ways to those used by shamans. However, in most cases, the details of their methods have been lost so it's difficult to be sure how close their practices were to classic shamanic practices. Some of the methods used by modern "fairy doctors" and "cunning folk" of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales seem quite similar to those of traditional healers in indigenous cultures.

10. The Céli Dé (anglicized Culdees) were secret druids

The Céli Dé were a Christian reform movement among Irish monasteries in the ninth century, long after Christianity became dominant. The leader of the Céli Dé was Mael Ruain who promoted the ascetic values practiced by hermits such as St. Anthony of Egypt.

11. Bards were the most elite level of traditional poets and lorekeepers within ancient Celtic societies.

Originally, a bard (bardd in Welsh) was one of the lower (probably lowest) levels of traditional lore-keepers within ancient Celtic societies. Other grades of lore-keepers ranked higher and required more extensive training and accomplishments. The word 'bard' as currently understood and used in English owes much to its resurrected use by 18th-century poets and antiquarians writing in English.

12. Ogham is the Celtic system of occult runes used to do divination.

Ogham is the alphabet used by the early medieval Irish and some other groups to inscribe stones for use as markers on the landscape. Ogham may have been used to mark sticks for use as charms. If it was used for divination, the methods have not survived. Any ogham divination you read about was invented in the twentieth century.

13. The Celts had a system of astrology.

If they did, no trace of it has survived. Any systems billed as "Celtic" were invented in the twentieth century.

14. The Celts had a calendar based on trees.

This was the invention of Robert Graves, a twentieth-century poet, classical scholar, and novelist. It has been expanded upon by a number of popular writers. It has no basis in Celtic tradition.

15. The Celts celebrated an "Eightfold Year" with eight festivals, four at the quarter-days and four at the solstices and equinoxes.

The notion of the "Eightfold Year" is a modern one. The Celtic year focused on the four feasts that began the seasons: 1 November, 1 February, 1 May, and 1 August. It is not clear if the pre-Christian Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes. In the Christian era, saints' days were associated with the solstices and equinoxes; these Christian celebrations became part of Celtic tradition and apparently attracted customs from traditional Celtic feasts.

16. Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa are the names of the Celtic seasonal festivals.

In the historical period, the various Celtic peoples traditionally celebrated festivals at the beginning of the four seasons. The oldest Irish names are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasa. These are the oldest known Irish names, but each Celtic culture had its own names for the feasts, and the names changed over the years.

17. Samhain is the name of the Irish god of the dead.

Samhain is the Irish name for the Celtic new year feast. The pre-Christian Irish god of the dead was named Donn.

Known better now as Halloween, (All Hallows Evening), Samhain is the traditional Irish name for the festival beginning the new year on the eve of 1 November. Today's commercialized celebration of the festival - scary figures, costumed parties, collecting candy - draws little from the traditional celebrations of the Celtic new year. For Celts, new year celebration traditionally focused on customs recognizing the end of the growing season and the beginning of the "dark" period when the land rested in preparation for a new growing season. This festival also marked when rents were paid and when animals were moved to winter grazing (pigs to feed on fallen nuts in forests and cattle to feed on what remained in fields). The celebration also incorporated customs remembering the beloved dead. As a liminal time marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next, the festival was thought to be a time when magical power was especially strong. From this association with the dead and magical power comes the modern focus on horror.

19. The Irish carved pumpkins as jack o'lanterns.

Pumpkins are a New World fruit.

20. Maypoles are an ancient Celtic custom.

Maypoles come from English tradition. The custom has been used sporadically in Celtic areas under English influence, especially southern Wales. Other English customs that have nothing to do with Celtic tradition are Yule logs and wassail bowls.

21. The Celts venerated triple goddesses consisting of maiden, mother, and crone figures grouped under a single name.

Some - not all - Celtic goddesses were depicted as groups of two or three figures but they were of similar ages. The maiden-mother-crone paradigm is the work of novelist Robert Graves. This notion is not evident in records from any Celtic tradition.

22. All the Celts venerated the same gods and goddesses.

Among the ancient Celts, gods and goddesses were associated with landmarks that had special significance to the local kin-group. Only a few Celtic deities, such as Lugh, are pan-Celtic.

23. Bagpipes are a Celtic instrument.

The great highland bagpipes are only one of the various bagpipes used for centuries by cultures from India to Galicia and from the Balkans to northern Scandinavia. The stereotypical "Highland pipes and drums" march music played by military regiments and police bands reflects 19th-century English imperial military culture more than the much older and enduring Celtic piping traditions such as Gaelic piobearachd solo piping (see Chapter 11 for more information).

24. The practice of Celtic religion changed very little after the Romans occupied Gaul and Britain.

Although the Romans have a reputation for tolerating religious diversity among the people they conquered, they destroyed Celtic sanctuaries, outlawed the druids and their use of amulets, sacred objects and ceremonies, and massacred the priests in some places. Elsewhere, Celtic open-air sanctuaries were replaced by Roman enclosed temples dedicated to Roman deities. Assembly in open places (the way the Celts apparently celebrated their feasts) was outlawed. Essentially, Celts were allowed to go on venerating Celtic deities provided they did so in Roman buildings, led by Roman priests, using Roman objects, and addressed deities by Roman names.