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Making Meaning With the Past and Connecting Cultural Threads

“History’s lessons, if you’ll read ‘em, Will impart this truth to thee, Knowledge is the price of freedom; Know yourself, and you are free.” – Thomas Mooney, History of Ireland, 1845

We have established that the various nations that employed Druids were not one united people but rather simply shared much of their culture through trade and possibly a shared mutual understanding of one another. The first identifiable ‘Celtic’ culture from an archaeological and language perspective speculatively evolved out of the late Bronze Age in Europe, near France, Austria, Germany and the Atlantic seaboard. The artifacts available to us through the Hallstatt and La Tene burial sites in particular allow anthropologists and archaeologists to establish a makeshift beginning to the culture although the framework for these beliefs were undoubtedly older and continuously evolving slowly over many millennia and likely very unique and based on place and the landscape. It’s important here to highlight again this is a makeshift beginning, but not necessarily a true beginning in place or in time as it could arguably be entirely impossible to pinpoint in reality with culture being so fluid. For example, there were bell beaker pots found in Ireland near the same timeframe as there were bell beaker pots found in Europe which is arguably the precursor to a more identifiable Celtic culture. In the following sections we have included cross-cultural patterns and threads that we can recognize not only out of a genuine factual basis but also simply because we have a relatively small although meaningful amount of sources to draw from. Pulling from multiple places allows us greater confidence at which certain conclusions and a more full and accurate picture of the past can be somewhat pieced together. 

We know that the Druids existed in the entirety of the isles and Western Europe at one time and although surviving in Ireland the longest, quotes in other contexts are not without significance. To more fully understand the Druids or any sort of sacred belief practice, it’s critical to first understand the basic cultural framework that nourished these spiritual patterns to begin with. Based on much of the information already discussed, somewhat of a classical era cultural archetype subtly reveals itself. It’s important that we establish that an archetype shouldn’t be misunderstood for a stereotype. An archetype is a means of recognizing larger overarching patterns across related cultural groups and while very limited in the scope at which these patterns represent, are not without value. It’s important that archetypes aren’t overly romanticized, although when used with perspective, can serve as inspirational tools. More or less, we are focusing on the specific way that the classical Druid time period establishes itself amongst our collective understanding and consciousness. This gives us a more solid framework to work upon as well as allows us to make personal conjectures about how these beliefs may have been transmuted through time. 

Native Belief Impacts the Present Moment

Despite our modern world and our living in the moment here and now, the past is inextricably linked. It’s easy to cherry pick any specific time period and declare anything presented outside of that time period as false or add finite historical markers and lines to when Native belief ended and Christianity began but that view can be incredibly limiting. The truth is that often there are no hard lines when it comes to culture as ideas ebbed and flowed between various people and lands and remained alive in the hedges, in liminal places and with liminal people. What we’re referring to here is the benefit of looking at the full picture of a belief structure from the earliest references to the most recent beliefs that seem to coincide. Many scholars for example would completely cast out anything said during the Victorian, Romantic period or after and that’s not without fantastic reasoning. However, again, we can use discernment when we consider our sources and there becomes a sense that the hidden breadcrumbs of these ancient beliefs have been with us all along. 

County Kerry by Paul Weerasekera

Our reasoning for looking back to the past and pulling these beliefs forward and with us across time is multifaceted and nuanced. The most straightforward answer is survival. The goal of any belief system is arguably to make sacred meaning with our surroundings, to live on the land without spoiling it, and to proliferate spiritual, emotional and mental connection and abundance within our individual societies. There is deep and wondrous inspiration knowing what those that came before us practiced and during a time in the world where we were collectively living much closer to the earth and nature. Living in this way is arguably the way we were intended to. In our fast paced, capitalist, productivity centered world, we can quickly and often become absolutely lost, confused and isolated. We’re starving for connection and meaning and only very slowly awakening to what has been lost post modernity, and then reawakening to ourselves and to each other. 

When our lamp is lit, we find the house of our being has many chambers, and creatures live there who come and go, and we must ask whether they have the right to be in our house; and there are corridors there leading into the hearts of others, and windows which open into eternity, and we hardly can tell where our own being ends and another begins, or if there is any end to our being.” – A.E. Russell, Irish writer, 1867 – 1935

The Importance of Evidence Based Practices

Naturally, the endeavor of this journal is not to recreate a system of Druidry as it exactly was in the past as that is largely impossible. The collective goal would be to simply use the past as a guiding framework to work with from a place of authenticity and mindfulness. There is a metric ton of misinformation and misrepresentation the world over in regards to Celtic and particularly Irish or Scottish culture that is at best completely false and at worse, outright culturally damaging. Knowing there is evidence behind certain practices and holding perspective allows us to create deeper meaning with what we’re doing and to truly connect into the past. Once we have a practice that is based on reality, we can then infuse it with our intuition and really begin to make meaning and daily rituals holding these traditions closer to our heart by way of knowing that it was something genuinely practiced or likely practiced.  

In the same way that for example, Buddhism is rooted in Indian and Tibetan culture, Celtic paganism, Irish paganism and modern Druidry are rooted in the Celtic language groups. Additionally, many find it important to mind each system for what it is and even when there are massive similarities between cultural systems of being, even when we cherish these shared or similar beliefs across the world, we can take each system as it was and currently is. More specifically, we don’t want to find ourselves in a place to claim that something we’re practicing ‘is’ another practice from another culture versus just being similar. It’s important in today’s world of our massive sharing capabilities to simply call a spade a spade and mind the truth of what it is we’re doing. Many people for various reasons walk multiple paths, some based in culture, some in science and others in mainstream religion or spirituality. This is inevitable considering the speed and ease at which ideas are transferred with the coming of the industrial and technological ages. Where this is damaging is when systems and ancient ways of being are diluted to unrecognizable or capitalist proportions, when people choose to blindly profit off a culture, only take the bits and pieces they want or worse, don’t take heed of the issues the countries and people of those cultures are still contending with. 

Using Buddhism again as an example, if we were a practicing Buddhist, we would hopefully want to first seek Native teachers and buy first from Native sources or support their charities to help genuinely continue or preserve the culture, that even if distant from the past, is still the closest reflection of it that we can logistically see. We would at minimum look to source material to glean meaning from the original creators of such a well designed system of spiritual being. Many people would be surprised to know that Buddhism has been variously under threat in many places by outright political and militant force. For example, the long and hard fought history of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism and the monks that have burned themselves alive and have continued to do so, in protest of historically brutal governmental occupation. From this lens, it’s hard to see modern practitioners of Buddhism at times ignore its actual history and people, but set a buddha up in their garden, quote a few quotes and call it a day as a ‘Buddhist’. The same could arguably be said of the Druid cultural groups. Additionally, it was and is part of the Druid function to learn, understand and memorize historical events that shaped the landscape and their people. In the spirit of taking perspective in this way, it would typically be ok to practice multiple paths when each path was simply given the individual attention, commitment, and again, mindfulness it garners. Many belief systems the world over are of course ‘open’ but open in a way that is culturally specific. Spirituality the world over, has ideally been about joining into a community and giving for the betterment of all, rather than taking and merely shaping something for our own gain. Often, the only things we truly keep are the things we give away. This is all said not in harsh judgement as we’re all doing our best but just stemming from witnessing the evolution of spiritualism the last decade and noticing a pattern of trivialness of meaningful folk belief and of cherry picking which inevitably spreads misinformation.

The Meaning of ‘Celtic’

It may surprise many people to know that celticists, archaeologists, anthropologists and historians alike have debated this topic and the Celtic term extensively. Many argue that a more appropriate term is simply Indo-European however, that is far too broad. Additionally, as our understanding of the ancient landscape has unfolded, we’ve collectively come to realize that an identifiable Celtic culture shaped Europe, the classical world, the Greeks and Romans as equally or more than we could have ever realized. It was only with Gaulish roads, minerals and natural resources that Rome was able to become as powerful as they were. Most scholars have settled upon Celtic to simply mean a language grouping as well as culturally shared patterns. In particular, it refers to art and social structure including the Druids themselves. 

By definition, a culture is “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” What a culture is not, is genetic or typically confined to one country, although many people from countries with a cultural heritage already in place may choose to practice those patterns, languages and traditions more readily, naturally and easily. In regards to the Druids specifically, while there are Druid type healers, artists, teachers and judges within every Native culture, a Druid is synonymous with Celtic nations specifically. These various nations of old at their largest expanse covered much of central Europe all the way to the far corners of Ireland and Scotland. It’s understood that when we say Celtic, it is an umbrella term for many individual nations and not in any way in reference to a homogeneous or united people. 

The term largely came into modern usage during the Celtic Revival or Twilight in Ireland when connections were made by various historians and writers between the Gauls and Iberians in mainland Europe to the remaining culturally similar nations of the isles. Quite timely, the burial ground of Hallstatt was discovered in Austria in 1846 and connected to the Celts of old due to the sheer number of Celtic language place names nearby as well as being mentioned by Greek historians as living there as well. It was a unifying term meant to instill a sense of national pride between the nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Isle of Mann and Cornwall with the aim to preserve the cultural heritage that remained and at least partially in protest of continued British imperialism. Why did revivalists make this connection to Celtic in the first place? As mentioned, there were new and exciting archaeological and historical understandings highlighting the similarities between art and customs of these various ancient people but also of course, a shared root language. They were most recently referred to as Gauls, or Galli by Caesar and other Roman writers just before and after the 1st century. However, they were referred to much earlier by Roman and Greek writers alike as Keltoi, Celtae, Celti, Celt and areas of multiple nations as Keltica, Celtica, Celtiberia, Celtiberi or Keltike. Some nations were recorded as even being called Celt-Iberian or Celto-Ligurian to insinuate these were groups made of separate allied groups or those of mixed descent.1 

The oldest mention of the Celts was through Rufus Festus Avienus (4th century CE) who recorded a purported text of a 6th century BCE Latin Massaliote Periplus or sailing manual. He called it his Ora Maritima and recorded in part that “If anybody has the courage to urge his boat into the waves away from the Oestrymnides under the pole of Lycaon where the air is freezing, he comes to the Ligurian land, deserted by its people: for it has been emptied by the power of the Celts a long time since in many battles. The Ligurians (from Italy), displaced, as fate often does to people, have come to these regions. Here they hold on in rough country with frequent thickets and harsh cliffs, where mountains threaten the sky. For a long time they lived a timid life in narrow confines, far from the sea; for they were frightened of the sea because of their previous danger. Afterwards, when safety renewed their confidence, quiet peace persuaded them to the Sacred Island (Ireland) – the ancient authorities call it this – rich in its land it lies amid the waves, and widely the race of Hiberni (classical name for the Irish) inhabit it. On the other hand is situated the island of the Albions already (classical name for the Scottish or British – Albion or Alba for the country itself)”2 The second oldest mention of Keltoi was by the Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus (550 – 476 BCE) in 517 BCE. He wrote (as quoted by Strabo from his work, Europe) about Ligurians and Celts living near one another near Massilia, today known as Marseille, France. He refers to Narbo and Nyrax being Celtic cities. It’s unknown where these would have precisely been but scholars suggest possibly in Austria or near the Hallstatt burials themselves.3 

Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Another famous Greek geographer, Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) wrote again about Keltoi saying “This latter river (Danube) has its source in the country of the Keltoi near the city Pyrene, and runs through the middle of Europe, dividing it into two portions. The Keltoi live beyond the pillars of Hercules and border on the Cynesians, who dwell at the extreme west of Europe. Thus the Ister flows through the whole of Europe before it finally empties itself into the Euxine at Istria, one of the colonies of the Milesians.”4 These titles were variously referred to again by Greek writer Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BCE) as well as Strabo (1st century BCE), Gaius Julius Caesar (1st century BCE) and many others. Interestingly, Caesar even went as far to say it was their native name saying that “All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third.”5 

Of course, one of the most famous stories relaying the origins of the Celts was told by the Greek poet Parthenius (1st century BCE). He said that “Herakles, it is told, after he had taken the cattle of Geryones from Erutheia, was wandering through the country of the Keltoi and came to the house of Bretannos, who had a daughter called Keltinē. Keltinē fell in love with Herakles and hid away the cattle, refusing to give them back to him unless he would first content her. Herakles was indeed very anxious to bring the cattle safe home, but he was far more struck by the girl’s exceeding beauty, and consented to her wishes; and then, when the time had come round, a son called Keltos was born to them, from whom the Keltoi derived their name.”6

Finally, Greek geographer Pausanias (1st century CE) also went on to say, “These Galatai inhabit the most remote portion of Europe, near a great sea that is not navigable to its extremities, and possesses ebb and flow and creatures quite unlike those of other seas. Through their country flows the river Eridanus, on the bank of which the daughters of Helius [the Sun] are supposed to lament the fate that befell their brother Phaethon. It was a long time before the name “Galatai” came into use; for in ancient times they were called “Celts” both amongst themselves and by others.”7

Statue of Brennus

In reality, the term referred to one or possibly a few united nations at a time in Western Europe but ultimately, took on a life of its own. There are, quite possibly today, various facets of the word and it’s important to recognize one meaning from another and for exactly what it is although naturally, there are inextricable connections and countless overlapping threads. First and foremost, there are the living countries, people and cultures that may self identify as Celtic. Arguably, many would also include Iberia. Many people identify with the term while possibly equally as many, do not, and this could largely be because of the term’s overuse or misuse. This autonomy is incredibly important and to be Irish, Scottish, Welsh etc. generally means to have been born there or have immigrated there and actively playing a role in those place specific cultures.

Naturally, due to mass emigration from war, starvation and countless political and religious divisions, there is a massive diaspora from these places that have settled around the world. Many people feel a connection with their ancestry that draws them to find what their Native belief may have been by reaching back to the oldest time that we can logistically and somewhat accurately study and recover. This is usually not only due to simply feeling an innate somewhat unexplainable connection but also out of respect and wanting to participate in a culture their ancestors were involved in. This is also additionally going off of the advice of Indigenous and Native teachers the world over who almost always recommend anyone of any descent to look to their ancestors for their path when trying to conjure a belief system outside of Christianity as well as outside of colonization. With that said, ancestry as well as the Celtic word itself is both meaningful and meaningless at the same time depending on the context and because not having ancestry doesn’t exclude anyone. Ancestry as already mentioned has a singularly personal meaning and gatekeeping based on this is terribly problematic, cruel, as well as widely denounced.

Participation in a cultural and belief system has always been optional. The emphasis on cultural participation is one of ‘right relationship’ and what kind of relationship we have with it, which is going to vary person to person and the way in which we make meaning with it. That brings us to the second meaning for many people of the word which is one of referring to Celtic as Native cultural belief. This idealism of a Celtic or even Pre-Celtic and Indo-European culture for those interested in ancient sites in particular encompasses a wider breadth than any one specific place when we’re looking at ancient source material. Many feel a cultural identity in the term rather than being pulled towards any one country specifically. Where this becomes an issue is when certain topics, literature or characters are grouped together under the term that in reality need to be separated.

We can avoid these problems by simply looking at exactly what we’re referring to and ascribing things to the Celtic term only when there is genuine evidence for it and for example when referencing the art or language groups. For example, when referring to the Gods and Goddesses, we might specify whether they’re Gaulish, Irish or Welsh. The Druids on a whole could be referred as Celtic although if we’re referring to an individual Druid, we may again wish to specify where they were coming from and what their position was. If we are able, it’s always a good idea to be as specific as possible and give credit where credit is due. The final and third form of any reference to Celtic would be to the languages themselves, language studies and efforts geared towards Irish Gaeilge, Scots Gaelic and Welsh language preservation. 

Footnotes

  1. Koch, John. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC CLIO, 2006. Pg. 845. 
  2. Murphy, John P. [ed. and tr.], Rufus Festus Avienus. Ora maritima: or description of the seacoast (from Brittany round to Massilia), Chicago: Ares, 1977.
  3. H. D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World, Routledge, 1998. Pg. 6. 
  4. Herodotus, The Histories, Book 2, 430 BCE. 
  5. Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, 58 – 52 BCE, Book 1 ch. 1. 
  6. Longus, Daphnis and Chloe. Parthenius, Love Romances, trans. J. M. Edmonds and S. Gaselee. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.
  7. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod. Pausanias. Description of Greece, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918.
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