2. Reconstructing from the Evidence

by Alexei Kondratiev


The ancient Celts used writing sparingly, and never to make detailed records of their religious beliefs and practices. This means that the Celtic Iron Age has left us no legacy comparable to the Vedas in India, the Avesta in Persia, or even the Iguvine Tablets in Italy. Some writers have been led by this lack of specific written records to claim that nothing can be known of Celtic religion. However, such an assessment is premature. There is, in fact, a large body of evidence available that relates directly or indirectly to the religious traditions of the Celts. In the words of the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe: "It may fairly be said that there is more, varied, evidence for Celtic religion than for any other aspect of Celtic life. The only problem is to be able to assemble it in a systematic form which does not too greatly oversimplify the intricate texture of its detail."

The field of Celtic religion can be described as a vast, unassembled jigsaw puzzle made up of a huge number of pieces. The initial challenge is to identify which pieces really belong in the puzzle. This first stage has been one of the major preoccupations of Celtic scholars over the past century. At the next stage, an attempt is made to fit the pieces together. Eventually, as more and more of the evidence falls into place, broad patterns emerge, providing a glimpse of the entire picture. In order to proceed with the long and difficult work of reconstructing pre-Christian Celtic religion, we must first establish which sources we can consult to obtain evidence relevant to the subject. Broadly speaking, there are five types of sources that will be of use to us. Each of them offers particular advantages, but also presents certain difficulties in evaluating the evidence we find there. We will here examine the advantages and disadvantages inherent in each of these five bodies of evidence in turn.

Classical Writers

Beginning in the sixth century BCE, Greek writers made mention of people they called Keltoi or Galatai who lived to the north and west of them. At first these descriptions were sketchy and confused, but as the Greeks established colonies along the western Mediterranean they began to trade actively with the Celts, and their accounts became more abundant and more detailed. When, late in the fourth century BCE, large numbers of Gallic Celts, fleeing overpopulation and political instability in their homeland near the Rhine, invaded northern Italy and established settlements there, Celtic civilisation came into even sharper focus for the literate peoples of the Mediterranean. As the Celts began to engage in more and more political interaction with their southern neighbours, Greek and Roman writers included them in their histories.

Around the turn of the first century BCE, Posidonius of Apamaea, a Greek Stoic philosopher from Syria, wrote an extensive description of Celtic culture. It has not survived but it was quoted from liberally by later Greek Stoics like Diodorus Siculus, Athenaeus and Strabo, as well as by Latin writers like Pomponius Mela. Roman conflict with the Celts in Italy, as well as Roman expansion into Gaul, led other Latin writers to show interest in Celtic matters. The historian Titus Livy, who appears to have been of Celtic descent himself, writing in the first century BCE, gave much space in his writings to the early conflicts between the Romans and the Celts and may have included some items of genuine Gaulish tradition, available to him through his ethnic background. And, of course, his older contemporary, Julius Caesar, the main architect of the Roman takeover of Celtic lands, has left us a gripping account of his campaign, complete with detailed descriptions of the people he conquered. These are only some of the best-known sources. Tidbits of Celtic lore can show up almost anywhere in Greek and Latin literature.

The advantage of these sources is that they are contemporary with the civilisation they describe. Most of them are based, at some point or another, on eyewitness reports. They deal with a people living in close proximity to the Classical world, not a half-fabulous people from far away, so there is less likelihood that complete fantasy has seeped into the accounts. They do seem to represent a consistent picture of how the Celts appeared to the Greeks and Romans.

But this last fact points to one of the caveats we must bear in mind when we consult the Classical sources. The ancient writers who observed the Celts were themselves foreign to Celtic culture. They noted how the Celts behaved, but they didn't necessarily understand the motivations behind the behaviour, and the interpretations they provide could be very far from anything the Celts themselves would have conceived of. Since many of them saw the Celts primarily as a menace-a people with an alien mindset and highly developed military skills, ready to destroy peaceful towns-they tended to portray them in a somewhat sinister fashion. Those, like Caesar, who were directly involved in wars against the Celts would have had reason to exaggerate this threatening element, simply to justify their own campaigns. On the other hand, the aforementioned Stoic writers may have projected equally erroneous positive ideas onto the Celts. They saw them as "children of Nature," and depicted the druids as wise natural philosophers, enlightened not by civilised learning but by the direct influence of Nature, as Stoic theory would have it. This is not likely to reflect the real self-image and motivation of the druids.

Interpreting the Classical sources will thus require being aware that they may contain skewed interpretations while accepting that, on a level of surface description, they are likely to be highly accurate. There is no reason to dismiss out of hand everything that has been written by the "enemies of the Celts". While many Classical writers, especially Roman, display a negative bias in their descriptions of Celtic customs, they would have gained little by lying outright, when so much of what they said could be easily verified. Their errors and false assumptions are subtler in nature, and should be evaluated with the aid of a good knowledge of the Greek and Roman cultures-how they saw virtue and vice, for instance, which would not necessarily have corresponded to a Celtic understanding of such things.

Archaeological Data

Although the Celts were not builders of great cities like their southern neighbours, ancient Celtic communities have left us a great deal in the way of material remains, and rich new sites are still coming to light. Early Iron Age burials like the ones at Hochdorf and Vix give us a sense of how far afield the Celts traded, and how much they loved beauty, opulence and spectacle. Later sites like the one at La Tène in Switzerland, where huge amounts of metal objects were thrown into the lake of Neuchatel apparently as votive offerings, give us many examples of the high quality of Celtic craftsmanship, while also affording a glimpse of what may have been religious practices.

Other sites, like Gournay-sur-Aronde and Hayling Island, were clearly intended for religious use, and can be compared to other ancient peoples' designs for temple structures and sacred space. Taken together and dated by modern methods, these data give us a picture of how art styles and forms of community organisation developed together and spread from one end of the Celtic world to the other, and how these developments relate to the chronology of historical events recorded by the literate Classical cultures. Contacts with neighbouring peoples and technological or artistic borrowings from them can also be documented this way.

The greatest advantage of relying on archaeological evidence is, of course, that it is concrete. We don't have to rely on reports that such-and-such a building, site or object existed: we can observe them with our own eyes. Carbon dating and stratigraphy can give us increasingly reliable information on the age of the finds. Excavations of settlements will tell us about the size of Celtic communities at various times and in various regions, as well as informing us on how they got their livelihood, and how much they traded with other peoples. By putting this evidence in chronological perspective we can get a good idea of the economic ups and downs Celtic areas went through. The distribution of Celtic coins also offers good material evidence for the geographical extent of the trading in which various tribes engaged, and of the cultural influences they may have come under.

The difficulty posed by archaeological data is that they are, for the most part, mute. They don't come with written explanations of their purpose or what they meant to those who produced them. The intended use of certain tools, household objects and vehicles may indeed be self-evident, but we will run into many ambiguous areas, especially where ritual use is concerned. How can we be absolutely certain that an object was designed for ritual and not mundane use? And even when we can be fairly confident of the answer--for instance, in the case of weapons and armour too ornate and delicate to be practical in battle--we still have no direct information on the precise intent and form of the ritual involved. Interpreting the data can often turn into more or less educated guesswork, with the near-certainty that any given scholar's individual tastes and prejudices will, at least on an unconscious level, colour the interpretation. Sometimes this projection of modern values onto the mute remains of the past defines the "consensus image" the scholars of a given period have of an ancient culture. A hundred years ago, when European nation-states had colonial empires, encouraged nationalist attitudes, and competed actively with each other to the point of war, scholars stressed the military aspects of Celtic culture, seeing the Celts primarily as warriors who conquered and colonised vast territories. Today, as industrialised Western nations are more interested in developing a peaceful global market, the Celts are being re-imagined as mostly peaceful traders, spreading their culture by example rather than by force. Of course, neither of these images contains the whole truth, though both are true to some extent. The silence of the material remains shouldn't tempt us to such oversimplified interpretations. Provided we interpret it cautiously in the light of the other forms of evidence we are discussing, archaeological data will indeed provide us with some of our strongest evidence for reconstructing the ancient Celtic world.

Mediaeval Irish and Welsh Literature

Although the ancient Celts themselves have left us with relatively few written texts, and none of a mythological or narrative nature, their descendants produced an extremely rich and colourful literature during the Middle Ages that continues to fascinate readers today. The bulk of it is in Old, Middle, and Early Modern Irish, but there is also a significant amount from Wales. Among the most striking elements in this body of literature are numerous stories about heroes from pre-Christian times, often with vivid supernatural elements that suggest ancient religious beliefs and practices. In one of the Irish literary cycles-the "Mythological Cycle" which has as its centerpiece the Lebor Gabála Érenn or "Book of the Conquests of Ireland"-a number of characters have names that seem to be Irish versions of ancient divinities known from earlier Celtic inscriptions. These similarities suggest that the stories in which the figures appear may be, in fact, re-tellings of pre-Christian myths. The same can be said of the Welsh stories that comprise "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi."

The stories that follow the career of the great hero Cú Chulainn---"The Ulster Cycle"---agree in many respects with what both archaeology and the Classical writers tell us about Celtic warriors. The lore of the Fianna-fraternities of warriors who lived away from society, in the wilderness-seems to reflect ancient attitudes towards hunting and the Land.

The texts have an archaic feel to them, suggesting that studying these sources will turn up many survivals of pre-Christian Celtic belief and, of course, the sheer beauty and power of this material invites such study. Most people who feel drawn to the Celtic world can trace the origin of their attraction to the first time they were exposed to this literature. It is true that the great advantage of the mediaeval literature is that, unlike the Classical texts, the literature was produced by the Celtic peoples themselves. Here, finally, the Celts speak to us with their own voices. The spiritual, moral, aesthetic and social values expressed through these texts are clearly part of the deep heritage of Celtic-speaking communities. Whatever the age or origin of the stories themselves, they reflect a Celtic view of the world and life and how people should act. They are truly a window on the Celtic world.

Yet we must always remember that they are not necessarily a window on the pre-Christian Celtic world. All the Celtic literature we have was produced at a time when Celtic communities were thoroughly Christian. The British and Gauls were Christianised largely through a slow process of internalising the Christian beliefs and practices acquired while being part of the Roman world. In Ireland, the process did not involve conquest and colonisation by a foreign power, so there was no sharp break with native tradition. Nevertheless, adopting Christianity meant that many native institutions and practices had to be re-thought and re-designed in order to meet the requirements of a new religious world-view. The old lore couldn't be dispensed with altogether, because it permeated the entire culture. The legal system, for instance, was entirely based on precedents, and some of the most important precedents, through which some of the most basic social customs were justified, had been provided by ancestors and gods in the mythological "time of origins." What was needed was a "new lore" that preserved the most important patterns of the mythological precedents without contradicting sources of Christian authority like the Bible. Beginning in the late 7th century and becoming systematic and internally consistent in the 9th, a major effort to create an acceptably Christian version of the pre-Christian mythology mobilised scholars throughout the Celtic world, but especially in Ireland. The Lebor Gabála Érenn, composed between the 9th and 12th centuries, is one of the principal fruits of this endeavour. Beginning with the Genesis account of Creation and tracing all genealogies back to Adam, Lebor Gabála Érenn then presents us with a very ancient pattern of six invasions with parallels in other Indo-European traditions. Some of the story is probably carried over from pre-Christian lore. However, it is obvious that many of the details of the story have been imported from Christian lore or reconciled with Christian traditions. The characters that may have been gods and goddesses are never identified as divinities, but as humans with magical powers or even as demons. Some of the names may not be ancient; they may even have been invented by the writers.

 It is thus important not to think of these mythological stories as scripture. They were not written for a religious purpose, and every detail in them does not have a specific religious significance. It's also possible that the later the date of composition, the more likely it is that a story was intended primarily to entertain rather than to provide information on an ancient precedent. The writers may or may not have known the pre-Christian meaning of their material---their degree of knowledge probably varied a great deal according to time and place---but their primary aim was certainly not to convey this meaning to their readers.

 In most cases the scribes were not so much seeking to preserve the past as to influence the present. Certain families wanted to be associated with a particular hero, who then had to be fitted into their genealogies; certain districts wanted to be the site of an important mythological precedent, and so on. All this necessitated the composition of new stories, although probably based on old ones. So, if we wish to find the pre-Christian form of the stories, it isn't just a matter of removing "Christian interpolations" from old myths, as some have naively assumed. The stories we have were completely re-composed in a mediaeval Christian context. We cannot remove them from that context without destroying the essence of their meaning. Yet this shouldn't be taken to mean that no pre-Christian elements can be found in mediaeval Celtic literature. There is, in fact, a great deal to be found there. But generally one will find the evidence not in names of characters or incidental details but rather in the broad patterns of the stories: the types of characters, the consistent ways in which they interact, the way in which tribal divisions and whole countries are depicted, and the basic beliefs about the world and people that are inherent in the narratives. These patterns were deeply ingrained in Celtic thought, and they continued to be expressed in creative ways long after Christianisation.

 Celtic Folk Tradition

 Although, at the end of the Middle Ages, Celtic communities were conquered by foreign powers, their leaders were killed or exiled, and native Celtic scholarship dwindled from lack of patronage, this was not the death of Celtic culture. The common people who lived off the land remained, under the rule of new overlords and, despite periods of harsh oppression, they survived. They maintained their language, their ideas about community organisation, their lore and their customs, many of them quite ancient. The need to relate to the Land in a sacred manner in order to ensure the safety of crops and herds had been their main concern for many centuries, and changes in religious authority did little to alter this. Christianity had nothing to say about fertility and the Land. It was accepted as a religion of personal salvation, but couldn't displace the old tradition about relating to the Land, since it didn't serve the same purpose. There was an intricate ritual pattern that had to be followed through the seasons to obtain a good harvest.

 Within the last two hundred years folklorists have discovered and recorded these rituals and myths attached to them still surviving in Celtic-speaking communities. These traditions are extremely rich and clearly have pre-Christian roots. The myths often have parallels in the literary texts, but they tend to be more archaic, more intimately related to specific rituals. A classic study like Máire Mac Néill's The Festival of Lughnasa provides us with a good example of how much material-varied but consistent-can be found surrounding just one seasonal festival in Ireland alone. There is an enormous wealth of resources there, and it has only just begun to be put to systematic use.

 The most precious thing the folk tradition brings to our reconstruction effort is that it is a living tradition. We can excavate ancient temples and ritual spaces, but we have no certain knowledge of the ceremonies conducted there. We can identify ancient religious symbols and the attributes of specific deities, but have no idea how they related to religious practice. In folk ritual, by contrast, all these elements appear in action. The context of the ritual is certain, and the ritual vocabulary is clearly defined. We know exactly which people are doing what, and in most cases we can also learn the purpose of the ritual and figure out the belief system that the ritual reflects. In many cases, there are still living informants we can ask about the rituals and their background.

 Yet this, again, is not a body of evidence we can accept uncritically. Despite the great amount of ancient lore it has preserved, the folk tradition has always been eclectic. It is conservative because it clings to the tried-and-true, but if it finds something new that works just as well or better, it snatches it up. The Roman occupation introduced some Roman ritual concepts to most of western Europe. Norse and English occupations exposed Celtic communities to Germanic rituals and beliefs, many of which were similar enough to elements in Celtic tradition that they could be assimilated easily. All of this has been integrated into the Celtic cultural consciousness and can be legitimately called a part of Celtic tradition, but it doesn't necessarily reflect what the practices of the ancient Celts were like.

 We must be similarly cautious when we deal with folk narrative. Some of it has a clear ritual purpose; some of it is intended as mere entertainment or personal fancy. As a general rule, the less a story is bound to a specific ritual context, the more likely it is to acquire extraneous elements that corrupt its earlier meaning. Not all such traditions are passed down orally for generations within the same community.

 Especially in more recent times, people have been getting ideas from books and other media, reinterpreting their traditions in the light of this new material, and passing the edited versions on. For instance, the Tory Islanders have a unique view of Balor, the grandfather of the god Lúgh, which contrasts with the very archaic stories about Lúgh and Balor found on the Donegal mainland. Whereas elsewhere Balor is a threatening figure who must be vanquished by Lúgh, the people of Tory Island have a story about Balor being their ancestor. Before we accept this as an alternative ancient folk tradition, we should take a closer look at its probable origin. Literary sources- which treat all these figures as ordinary human beings-name Tory Island as the stronghold of Balor. The ritual background to the story makes it clear that Balor was originally a mythological being and that Tory Island, like other islands in Celtic tradition, was associated with him because its isolation made it an Otherworldly place. In later centuries more stress was put, especially by literary elites, on the stories as historical rather than mythological documents, and there was more incentive to conceive of Balor as a human person historically connected with the island and its people, providing them with a new, prestigious lineage. Taking this into account, it becomes less likely that the tradition about the Tory Islanders' ancestry is ancient. It seems much more likely that it is a relatively recent graft from literary sources.

 Such caveats should not discourage us from studying Celtic folk tradition for the genuinely ancient material it has preserved. As with all the other sources of evidence we have been considering, the best approach is to look for broad patterns rather than fixating on details. Once the broad patterns of ritual and belief have been well established, we can begin weighing the authenticity of the details from the way they fit into the pattern.

 Comparative Religion

 The Celts, of course, were not an isolated people. On the contrary, they were at the crossroads of Europe, and must have exchanged ideas as well as trade goods with their neighbours. Theories about the universe, the nature of the gods, and the best ways to propitiate them circulated widely in the ancient world, certainly not excepting the Celtic realms. Moreover, through their language the Celts shared a cultural ancestry with other Indo-European peoples such as the Romans, the Greeks, the Germans, the Slavs, the Scythians, the Persians and the Indo-Aryans. All these peoples, although each later developed in its own distinctive way, inherited a common set of ideas about the cosmos, the gods, society and ritual.

 For the last hundred years the field of Indo-European studies has been devoted to exploring this rich and many-faceted heritage. Earlier scholars in this field have included Georges Dumézil, who first drew attention to the trifunctional model of society in Indo-European traditions, and Émile Benveniste, who catalogued the legal and religious terminology used by the Indo-Europeans. More recent scholars like Calvert Watkins, Jan Puhvel, Bruce Lincoln, Jarich Oosten, Wendy Doniger Flaherty and many others have continued to explore the various aspects of these traditions. Through their work we have been getting an ever-clearer sense of the Indo-European world-view, and much of it is directly relevant to our purpose of Celtic Reconstruction.

 Comparing the religious traditions of many ancient peoples will reveal broad common patterns that genuinely explain many of the details within them. To return to our image of the jigsaw puzzle, these patterns can serve as templates, guiding us as to where the scattered pieces should go. For instance, in the ritual formats of many Indo-European cultures we find a consistent body of ideas about the meaning of fire and water, the two primal elements that make up the universe and affect it in opposite ways. These ideas are spelled out in the religious texts of India and Persia, but are also illustrated by other rituals throughout the Indo-European world. The scraps of information we have about Celtic ritual and mythology conform to this pattern, so we can be sure that the ancient Celts thought about these elements in the same way. Similarly, common Indo-European theories of sacrifice adequately explain the little we know about sacrifice in the Celtic world, suggesting that the Celts did not greatly differ from their neighbours in this regard.

 The same can be said about many other ideas and practices common throughout the ancient world. However, while comparative religion is very good at placing details within general patterns, it is much less good at helping us reconstruct details that have been lost. While basic ideas may have been passed down relatively unchanged throughout the Indo-European world, their implementation could vary a great deal from culture to culture. Rituals from different cultures are thus not interchangeable, even when they are based on similar premises.

 Because there are so many resemblances between Celtic and Indian traditions, and because the Vedas, the ritual manuals of ancient India, give us such a superabundance of information, we can be tempted to use them to "fill in the gaps" in our knowledge of Celtic ritual. This, however, should be done very cautiously, since there are instances where we know for a fact that the Vedic material would lead us astray. For example, we know that in both ancient India and ancient Ireland a horse sacrifice was used to affirm a ruler's sovereignty over a territory. In India the ashvamedha (a lengthy and complex ritual) involves a stallion that the ruler's consort pretends to mate with after the animal has been sacrificed. If, lacking any other evidence, we assumed that the ceremony would be exactly the same in the Celtic world, we would be wrong, because Gerald of Wales wrote an account of the Irish version in the 11th century, specifying that the ruler himself mimed copulation with a mare, before the sacrifice. So, although the two ceremonies are obviously based on the same ideas and use the same ritual vocabulary, they are in fact implemented in almost opposite ways. Celtic thought wasn't merely Indo-European: it had its own originality.

 Nevertheless, comparative religion and Indo-European studies are necessary to bring the deepest layers of Celtic thought into perspective. Once we are well acquainted with those basics, the maze of details we pick up from other sources will be a little less confusing.


 We have seen that many different reliable sources are available to help us build an accurate picture of the ancient Celts and their worldview. Although we cannot be sure that we will be able to fit all the pieces into the puzzle, we have good reason to believe that we will at least find out what the picture is supposed to look like and, thereby, dispel the stereotypes and fallacies rampant in many popular writings about the Celts