(BEING CONTINUED FROM 3/10/13)
While the regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman empire, unconquered areas of Ireland and Scotland moved from Celtic polytheism to Christianity in the 5th century. Ireland was converted under missionaries from Britain, such as Patrick.
Later missionaries from Ireland were a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain, and central Europe (see Hiberno-Scottish mission). The term Celtic Christianity has been applied to the forms of Christianity that took hold in Britain and Ireland at this time, with especial reference to its traditions that were distinct from the rest of Western Christianity. The development of Christianity in Ireland and Britain brought an early medieval renaissance of Celtic art between 390 and 1200 AD.
Many of the styles now thought of as typically “Celtic” developed in this period, and are found throughout much of Ireland and Britain, including the northeast and far north of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland. Notable works produced during this period include the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice. Antiquarian interest from the 17th century led to the term Celt being extended, and rising nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century.
Celts Pushed west by Germanic Migration
Celts were pushed westwards by successive waves of Germanic invaders, perhaps themselves at times pressured by Huns and Scythians or simply population pressures in their homeland of Scandinavia and Northern Germany. With the fall of the Roman Empire the Celts of Gaul, Iberia and Britannia were “conquered” by tribes speaking Germanic languages.
Elsewhere, the Celtic populations were assimilated by others, leaving behind them only a legend and a number of place names such as Bohemia, after the Boii tribe which once lived there, or the Kingdom of Belgium, after the Belgae, a Celtic tribe of Northern Gaul and south-eastern England. Their mythology has been absorbed into the folklore of half a dozen other countries. For instance, the famous Medieval English Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is almost certainly partially derived from the medieval Irish text Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu).
Argument rages in the academic world as to whether the Celts in England were mostly wiped out/pushed west as the lack of evidence for influence of the Celts on Anglo-Saxon society suggests, or whether the Teuton migration consisted merely of the social elite and that the genocide was cultural rather than physical due to such relatively few numbers of Anglo-Saxons mixing with the far larger native population, enabled to do so due to the civil strife in Britain after the Roman withdrawal and the unity of the incoming invaders. Some recent DNA studies have suggested that the population of England maintains a predominately ancient British element, equal in most parts to Cornwall and Wales. The general indigenous population of Yorkshire, East Anglia and the Orkney and Shetland Islands are those populations with the least traces of ancient British continuation. Ironically, it may be Viking genetic influence and not Anglo-Saxon which has had a more profound impact on British bloodlines.
Celtic Religious Patterns
Although Celtic gods varied from region to region and tribe to tribe, the Celtic religion had some patterns.
Celtic polytheism or Celtic paganism, refers to the religious beliefs and practices adhered to by the Iron Age peoples of Western Europe now known as the Celts, roughly between 500 BCE and 500 CE, spanning the La Tene period and the Roman era, and in the case of the Insular Celts the British and Irish Iron Age.
Celtic polytheism was one of a larger group of Iron Age polytheistic religions of the Indo-European family. It comprised a large degree of variation both geographically and chronologically, although “behind this variety, broad structural similarities can be detected” allowing there to be “a basic religious homogeneity” amongst the Celtic peoples.
The Celtic pantheon consists of numerous recorded theonyms, both from Greco-Roman ethnography and from epigraphy. Among the most prominent ones are Teutatis, Taranis and Lugus. Figures from medieval Irish mythology have also been adduced by comparative mythology, interpreted as euhemerized versions of pre-Christian Insular deities. The most salient feature of Celtic religion as reflected in Roman historiography is their extensive practice of human sacrifice, According to Greek and Roman accounts, in Gaul, Britain and Ireland, there was a priestly caste of “magico-religious specialists” known as the druids, although very little is definitely known about them.
Following the Roman Empire’s conquest of Gaul (58-51 BCE) and southern Britannia (43 CE), Celtic religious practices began to display elements of Romanisation, resulting in a syncretic Gallo-Roman culture, with its own religious traditions with its own large set of deities, such as Cernunnos, Artio, Telesphorus, etc.
In the later 5th and the 6th centuries, Christianity became the dominant faith in the Celtic area, supplanting earlier religious traditions. However, it left a legacy in many of the Celtic nations, influencing later mythology, and served as the basis for a new religious movement, Celtic Neopaganism, in the 20th century.
For example like Mediterranean cultures most early Celts worshipped in sacred groves. This was once postulated to have occurred because of Celts trading with Mediterranean cultures; however, evidence from Hallstatt era finds show that the earliest Celts practiced this before such trade took place. More reasonably, it is a byproduct of most primitive religion to worship in such a way.
However, La Tene Celts also built temples of varying size and shape, though they still usually maintained sacred trees, or votive pools. Worship was, in this way, deferred to temples, when they were available. Numerous temples were converted by the Romans, and with little difficulty; the design was rather similar to Roman temples, as they were both highly influenced by the Greeks, architecturally speaking.
Their druid influences vary; a druid is not always a priest. Druids are any members of a Celtic society who had what we would view today as a college education. The most educated druids were usually doctors, priests, and heralds, as these occupations required the most memorization and skill for their practices.
Celtic Social System
The pre-Christian Celts had a well-organized social structure, based on class and kinship, with the religion we call Celtic polytheism. Elected Kings led the tribes, and society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class including druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else.
Women participated both in warfare and in kingship, and all the offices of high and low kings were filled by election under the system of tanistry, both factors which would confuse Norman writers expecting the feudal principle of primogeniture where the succession goes to the first born son.
Little is known of family structure, but Athenaeus in his Deipnosophists, 13.603, claims that “the Celts, in spite of the fact that their women are very beautiful, prefer boys as sexual partners. There are some of them who will regularly go to bed – on those animal skins of theirs Ð with a pair of lovers,” implying with a woman and a boy.
To the extent that sources are available, they depict a pre-Christian Celtic social structure based formally on class and kingship. Patron-client relationships similar to those of Roman society are also described by Caesar and others in the Gaul of the 1st century BC.
In the main, the evidence is of tribes being led by kings, although some argue that there is also evidence of oligarchical republican forms of government eventually emerging in areas which had close contact with Rome. Most descriptions of Celtic societies portray them as being divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual class including professions such as druid, poet, and jurist; and everyone else. In historical times, the offices of high and low kings in Ireland and Scotland were filled by election under the system of tanistry, which eventually came into conflict with the feudal principle of primogeniture in which succession goes to the first born son.
Little is known of family structure among the Celts. Patterns of settlement varied from decentralized to urban. The popular stereotype of non-urbanised societies settled in hillforts and duns, drawn from Britain and Ireland (there are about 3,000 hill forts known in Britain) contrasts with the urban settlements present in the core Hallstatt and La Tene areas, with the many significant oppida of Gaul late in the first millennium BC, and with the towns of Gallia Cisalpina.
Slavery, as practiced by the Celts, was very likely similar to the better documented practice in ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were acquired from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude. Slavery was hereditary, though manumission was possible. The Old Irish word for slave, cacht, and the Welsh term caeth are likely derived from the Latin captus, captive, suggesting that slave trade was an early venue of contact between Latin and Celtic societies. In the Middle Ages, slavery was especially prevalent in the Celtic countries. Manumissions were discouraged by law and the word for “female slave”, cumal, was used as a general unit of value in Ireland.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia. Archaeologists have discovered large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany. Due to their substantial nature, these are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade. The territory held by the Celts contained tin, lead, iron, silver and gold. Celtic smiths and metalworkers created weapons and jewelery for international trade, particularly with the Romans.
The myth that the Celtic monetary system consisted of wholly barter is a common one, but is in part false. The monetary system was complex and is still not understood (much like the late Roman coinages), and due to the absence of large numbers of coin items, it is assumed that “proto-money” was used. This is the collective term used to describe bronze items made from the early La Tene period onwards, which were often in the shape of axeheads, rings, or bells.
Due to the large number of these present in some burials, it is thought they had a relatively high monetary value, and could be used for “day to day” purchases. Low-value coinages of potin, a bronze alloy with high tin content, were minted in most Celtic areas of the continent and in South-East Britain prior to the Roman conquest of these lands. Higher-value coinages, suitable for use in trade, were minted in gold, silver, and high-quality bronze.
Gold coinage was much more common than silver coinage, despite being worth substantially more, as while there were around 100 mines in Southern Britain and Central France, silver was more rarely mined.
This was due partly to the relative sparsity of mines and the amount of effort needed for extraction compared to the profit gained. As the Roman civilization grew in importance and expanded its trade with the Celtic world, silver and bronze coinage became more common. This coincided with a major increase in gold production in Celtic areas to meet the Roman demand, due to the high value Romans put on the metal. The large number of gold mines in France is thought to be a major reason why Caesar invaded.
There are only very limited records from pre-Christian times written in Celtic languages. These are mostly inscriptions in the Roman and sometimes Greek alphabets.
The Ogham script, an Early Medieval alphabet, was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland (but also in Wales and England), and was only used for ceremonial purposes such as inscriptions on gravestones. The available evidence is of a strong oral tradition, such as that preserved by bards in Ireland, and eventually recorded by monasteries.
The oldest recorded rhyming poetry in the world is of Irish origin and is a transcription of a much older epic poem, leading some scholars to claim that the Celts invented rhyme. Celtic art also produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork, examples of which have been preserved by their distinctive burial rites. In some regards the Atlantic Celts were conservative: for example, they still used chariots in combat long after they had been reduced to ceremonial roles by the Greeks and Romans. However, despite being outdated, Celtic chariot tactics were able to repel the invasion of Britain attempted by Julius Caesar.
Celtic mythology is the mythology of Celtic polytheism, the apparent religion of the Iron Age Celts. Like other Iron Age Europeans, the early Celts maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure. Among Celtic peoples in close contact with Rome, such as the Gauls and Celtiberians, their mythology did not survive the Roman empire, their subsequent conversion to Christianity, and the loss of their Celtic languages.
Ironically it is through contemporary Roman and Christian sources that what we do know of their beliefs has come down to us. In contrast, those Celtic peoples who maintained either their political or linguistic identities (such as the Gaels and Brythonic tribes of the British Isles) did transmit at least vestigial remnants of the mythologies of their Iron Age forebears, which were often recorded in written form during the Middle Ages.
Because of the scarcity of surviving materials bearing written Gaulish, it is surmised that the pagan Celts were not widely literate – although a written form of Gaulish using the Greek, Latin and North Italic alphabets were used (as evidenced by votive items bearing inscriptions in Gaulish and the Coligny Calendar). Caesar attests to the literacy of the Gauls, but also wrote that their priests, the druids, were forbidden to use writing to record certain verses of religious significance (Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.14) while also noting that the Helvetii had a written census (Caesar, De Bello Gallico 1.29).
Rome introduced a more widespread habit of public inscriptions, and broke the power of the druids in the areas it conquered; in fact, most inscriptions to deities discovered in Gaul (modern France), Britain and other formerly (or presently) Celtic-speaking areas post-date the Roman conquest.
And although early Gaels in Ireland and parts of modern Wales used the Ogham script to record short inscriptions (largely personal names), more sophisticated literacy was not introduced to Celtic areas not conquered by Rome until the advent of Christianity; indeed, many Gaelic myths were first recorded by Christian monks, albeit without most of their original religious meanings.
The classic entry about the Celtic gods of Gaul is the section in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico (52Ð51 BC; The Gallic War). In this he names the five principal gods worshipped in Gaul (according to the practice of his time, he gives the names of the closest equivalent Roman gods) and describes their roles. Mercury was the most venerated of all the deities and numerous representations of him were to be discovered. Mercury was seen as the originator of all the arts (and is often taken to refer to Lugus for this reason), the supporter of adventurers and of traders, and the mightiest power concerning trade and profit. Next the Gauls revered Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Among these divinities the Celts are described as holding roughly equal views as did other populations: Apollo dispels sickness, Minerva encourages skills, Jupiter is in charge of the skies, and Mars influences warfare. In addition to these five, he mentions that the Gauls traced their ancestry to Dis Pater.
As typical of himself as a Roman of the day, though, Caesar does not write of these gods by their Celtic names but by the names of the Roman gods with which he equated them, a process that significantly confuses the chore of identifying these Gaulish gods with their native names in the insular mythologies. He also portrays a tidy schema which equates deity and role in a manner that is quite unfamiliar to the colloquial literature handed down. Still, despite the restrictions, his short list is a helpful and fundamentally precise observation. In balancing his description with the oral tradition, or even with the Gaulish iconography, one is apt to recollect the distinct milieus and roles of these gods.
Caesar’s remarks and the iconography allude to rather dissimilar phases in the history of Gaulish religion. The iconography of Roman times is part of a setting of great social and political developments, and the religion it depicts may actually have been less obviously ordered than that upheld by the druids (the priestly order) in the era of Gaulish autonomy from Rome. Conversely, the want of order is often more ostensible than factual. It has, for example, been noticed that out of the several hundred names including a Celtic aspect testified in Gaul the greater part crop up only once.
This has led some scholars to conclude that the Celtic deities and the related cults were local and tribal as opposed to Pan-Celtic. Proponents of this opinion quote Lucan’s reference to a divinity called Teutates, which they translate as ‘tribal spiri’t (*teuta is believed to have meant ‘tribe’ in Proto-Celtic). The apparent array of divine names may, nonetheless, be justified differently: many may be mere labels applied to key gods worshiped in extensive Pan-Celtic cults. The concept of the Celtic pantheon as a large number of local deities is gainsaid by the numerous well-testified gods whose cults seem to have been followed across the Celtic world.
Though the Celtic world at its greatest extent covered much of western and central Europe, it was not politically unified nor was there any substantial central source of cultural influence or homogeneity; as a result, there was a great deal of variation in local practices of Celtic religion (although certain motifs – for example, the god Lugh – appear to have diffused throughout the Celtic world). Inscriptions to more than three hundred deities, often equated with their Roman counterparts, have survived, but most appear to have been genii locorum, local or tribal gods, and few were widely worshipped.
The nature and functions of these ancient gods can be deduced from their names, the location of their inscriptions, their iconography, the Roman gods they are equated with, and similar figures from later bodies of Celtic mythology.
The oldest body of myths is found in early medieval manuscripts from Ireland. These were written by Christians, so the formerly divine nature of the characters is obscured. The basic myth appears to be a war between two apparently divine races, the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians, which forms the basis for the text Cath Maige Tuireadh (the Battle of Mag Tuireadh), as well as portions of the great pseudo-historical construct Lebor Gab‡la Erenn (the Book of Invasions). The Tuatha De represent the functions of human society such as kingship, crafts and war, while the Fomorians represent chaos and wild nature.
The gods of Britain, also obscured by centuries of Christianity, have come down to us in manuscripts from Wales. Here the two main groups of former gods are the children of Don and the Children of Llyr, although any distinction of function between the two groups is not apparent.
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