1. Land, Sea, and Sky: Introduction to Pre-Christian Heritage


By Francine Nicholson


Neart mara dhuit, Neart talamh dhuit, Neart nèimhe.   Mathas mara dhuit, Mathas talamh dhuit, Mathas nèimhe.   [Power of sea be with you, Power of land be with you, Power of sky.   Goodness of sea be with you, Goodness of land be with you, Goodness of sky.]


This blessing was recorded by a tax collector named Alexander Carmichael who worked in the Scottish Highlands during the nineteenth century when Celtic tradition was still very much part of daily life in the rural community. Carmichael became fascinated by the beliefs and practices of the people he met in the course of his work and, despite his job, he gained their confidence and trust. Over the years, he listened and observed. He recorded stories, customs and prayers, and eventually published them in a series of volumes called the Carmina Gadelica.


Although the people of all the Celtic-speaking regions have been predominantly Christian for over a thousand years, these lines incorporate remnants of a pre-Christian tradition first articulated when the Gaels and other Celts before them thought of the world as a balance of three parts: land, sea, and sky.


Today there is a great deal of interest in things "Celtic" but much less understanding of what the term means. Often, people think it is a mishmash of shamrocks, plaid kilts, sacred oak trees, stone circles, bagpipes and white-robed druids, all wrapped in mist and mysticism. Few of these images have much basis in fact. In this book, we explore the Celtic worldview, social structure, mythology, language, poetry, and musical heritage with emphasis on the pre-Christian period and, within that context, we use available evidence to look at pre-Christian Celtic religious beliefs, rituals, and ritual leaders in an attempt to differentiate between known facts and popular fiction.


Although scholars debate when and where the term "Celtic" should be used, this book uses it to refer to the people who historically have spoken Celtic languages and to the cultures associated with them. At one point, Celtic-speaking groups inhabited most of Europe but they had little, if any, political unity. They shared a common culture - language, art, customs - that combined essential similarity with local diversity, but the groups themselves developed independently of each other because they lived in different geographic areas and encountered different influences. One unifying factor may have been their religious leaders, some of whom met periodically at places considered especially sacred.


Cultures don't spring into being fully formed with no ancestry. The origins of Celtic culture can be traced to a group of people who lived about three thousand years ago in the area corresponding to the modern Euro-Asian borderland. Scholars refer to them as Indo-Europeans because of linguistic and cultural similarities common to the inhabitants of both areas. Over the centuries, Indo-European culture migrated from its birth-place and absorbed elements of other cultures it met on the way. In the process, the descendants of the original Indo-Europeans diversified into, among others, Germans, Slavs, Indo-Iranians, Greeks and Celts.


Solid evidence of Celic culture first appeared in mainland Europe about 600 BC, but there are archaeological hints of an earlier emergence. Beliefs and customs in Celtic regions evolved slowly after that, but two developments radically affected their fate. The first was the rise of the Roman Empire and the second was Christianity.


Except for those in Ireland and the northernmost part of Britain, the Roman Empire had an enormous effect on Celtic culture. Religious sanctuaries in Gaul, England and Wales were destroyed, the priesthood and 'pagan' religious ceremonies were outlawed, and tribal gatherings were banned. The conquered Celts were permitted to continue venerating their deities, but only under assumed Roman names.


The second force of change came with the dominance of Christianity. The remaining religious leaders of the Celts were replaced by Christian monks, and the ancient tradition of transmitting lore orally was replaced by the written word. However, the old beliefs and traditions did not simply vanish. As Charmichael shows in his Carmina Gadelica, they were retained in an adapted form that made them acceptable to the new belief system. Thus, much of pre-Christian Celtic heritage remains with us still.


The purpose of this book is to provide solid, accurate information to those who want to learn about the pre-Christian Celts and their worldview. We hope it will be of use to students, scholars and enthusiasts of Celtica, and also to those who wish to gain a reliable understanding of what is known and, perhaps more importantly, what is not known, about religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Celts.