Understanding Celtic Religion

Full Title: Understanding Celtic Religion – Revisiting The Pagan Past

Series: New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology

Editors: Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

Publishers: University of Wales Press

Published: 2015

ISBN: 978-1-78316-792-0

Pages: 181 including Index, Bibliography, and notes after each paper.

Synopsis: (From back of the book) Although it has long been acknowledged that the early Irish literary corpus preserves both pre-Christian and Christian elements, the challenges involved in the understanding of these different strata have not been subjected to critical examination. This volume. Draws attention to the importance of reconsidering the relationship between religion and mythology, as well as the concept of “Celtic Religion” itself. When scholars are attempting to construct the so called “Celtic” belief belief system, what counts as “religion”? Or, when labeling labeling something as a “religion” as opposed to “mythology”, what do these entities entail? This volume is the first interdisciplinary collection of articles which critically reevaluates the methodological challenges of the study of “Celtic religion”, the authors are eminent scholars in the field of Celtic Studies representing the disciplines of theology, literary studies, history, law and archaeology, and the book is a significant contribution to the present scholarly debate concerning the pre-Christian elements in early medieval source materials.



This book began as a two day colloquium in 2008. It is made up of an Introduction and seven essays, each one dealing with a different aspect of the Celtic religion.

Introduction: The editors in the Introduction try to put into perspective what this text is trying to present and that is the answer to the following questions: When scholars attempt to construct the belief system of the Celts, what counts as “religion”? Or, when something is labeled as “religion” as opposed to “mythology”, what do these entities entail? To what extent is it possible to attain the pre-Christian stratum through the extant textual sources which themselves present us with a mediated understanding of the religious traditions of the past? And what theoretical viewpoints or analytical tools could help towards a better understanding of the essence of the different strata usually labeled as “pre-Christian”, “Christian”, or “Celtic”? (p. 3) The Introduction then goes on to discuss the contents of the essays and what to expect from from the book.

There are seven essays in this book, each one is written by a scholar in the field they wrote about.

Celtic Spells and Counterspells by Jacqueline Borsje: The author of this essay begins by defining the term “Celtic Religion” from the point of view of Celtic Studies, and outside Celtic Studies. Then she gives her definition of the term and tells us that she will be focusing on the Irish forms of “Celtic Religion”. The author also explains how she is looking at the Celtic religion. Her field of study is religious phenomena in medieval Irish texts and the lens she is looking through is the methodologies and analytical tools she learned during her training as a theologian interpreting biblical texts.

I think the importance of this essay is not just with the uncovered content ( for example, Fír Fer, charms, and aspects of the Lorica) but how that content was uncovered and the methods used. The author gives us three methods and gives examples on each one. Another thing that is important about this essay is that it shows that you can’t just stop at one source to learn about the Celtic religion. You need to look not only to mythology for knowledge but also to Christian texts (like the lives of the Saints for example) as well as anthropology and other cultures that are relevant.

The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages by John Carey: The author of this essay talks about how the Irish Christians compromised to include pagan elements into their writings. He gives three example from three different texts as to how this happen. Carey discussed, using the three examples, the way Irish Christians dealt with the old Gods. The first was that they were humans with magical skills and that made them seem supernatural. The second was that people of the síde may have been “half-fallen Angels”. Those were the Angels that sided with Lucifer but didn’t fight God. And finally, they may have been an unfallen branch of humanity.

To me the importance of this essay is in the fact that the Irish Christians seem to want to include the old Gods into their traditions, and not just simply demonized them (though that also happened). It shows that the conversion from Pagan to Christian really did happen slowly and bloodlessly with elements of Paganism clinging till the Later Middle Ages at least.

Staging the Otherworld in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy: This essay is really about two things; the whole nativist/anti-nativist debate and performance in the Otherworld. Nagy used the first half of the essay to discuss the nativist and anti-nativist views of Irish and Welsh literary traditions. His idea is that we really can’t (and shouldn’t) dismiss either view, even thought he is obviously a nativist. He explained what each view can contribute to the study of the literature and how important it all is to the over all picture.

The second half was about music and poetry and how it was portrayed in the literature, and how it seems that the traditions seem to be saying that they come from the Otherworld.

I have to admit that the second half of this essay was just a tad confusing to me and I had to read it a couple of times to understand what exactly the author was getting at and I’m still not sure if I got it right entirely.

The Biblical Dimension of Early Medieval Latin Texts by Thomas O’Loughlin: In this essay the author argues that the biblical texts of the Early Medieval period should not just be studied only by theologians and historians of biblical exegesis, instead they should be studied by different disciplines and details teased out of them.

I agree with O’Loughlin that these texts need to be studied not just by the theologians and biblical historians but also by people in other disciplines. However, I’m sorry to say that that was pretty much all I got out of this essay. Either I just was not ready to read about this yet (which can and has happened before) or the essay was a bit above my pay grade.

Ancient Irish Law Revisited: Rereading the Laws of Status and Franchise by Robin Chapman Stacey: Stacey in this essay studies three Irish status tracts, Críth Gablach, Uraicecht Becc, and Míadshlechtae. She examines issues of gender, political space and symbolic landscapes.

This is a good study of how things were perceived compared to how they really were.

A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion by Jane Webster: In this essay Webster looks at the study of the Celtic religion through the lens of archaeology, and Irish and Welsh literature. She discusses how this approach needs to be modified with all the new archaeological finds of today and the finds from the Romano-Celtic period.

I think this would have to be my favourite essay of the whole book. It looks at things like archaeology and literature and new methodologies that can be employed to the study of Celtic Religion.

Over all this book is really interesting, and gives a lot of food for thought. This was my first read through of the book and I see a few more in my future. It was also in parts not an easy read, but well worth soldiering through.

The Shaping of the Celtic World by Patrick Lavin

Author: Patrick Lavin

Publisher: iUniverse

Copyright: 2011

Synopsis: The Shaping of the Celtic World traces the rise and decline of the great Celtic peoples. Ranging from prehistoric to modern times, it undertakes an examination of Celtic civilization, revealing a proud and independent society with its unique history, mythology, pantheon of gods, literature, and artistry. The romance of Celtic mythology is unsurpassed. It introduces us to many intriguing legends, of which the battles between the gods and giants are most alluring.Emerging in the 6th century BC, the Celts conquered and settled the greater part of Europe, laying the foundation for westerncivilization. Their contribution in shaping the modern world cannot be underestimated. As Europe languished in the barbarism of the Dark Ages, the great heritage of Western Europe was endangered of being entirely lost but for the Celtic monks of Ireland and Britain who scribed and illuminated Europes treasury of literature.The book is written for the millions who proudly identify with their Celtic rootsknown today by their ethnic identities as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Mann, Breton, and Cornish. This concise yet user-friendly guide to ancient European history will be enjoyed by a variety of readers including students, travelers, history enthusiasts, and those interested in their Celtic origins.

Review: For the first time I am not sure how to write a review for a book I’ve read.  The material in the book is basically divided into three parts: history, religion and art.

The information in the historical part is basically correct but very much outdated.  The latest reference in the book is copyrighted to 2006 and that is a book that lists the classical writers’ quotes about the Celts.  His sources go all the way back to the early 1900s.  Good sources…just really OLD.  I do like that he went all the way to Christianity and beyond in terms of history since a lot of other books tend to stop just before Christianity comes to the Celts.

The part on the Celtic religion was very accurate considering he again was using old sources, but we really don’t have much of an update on that front even in new books, at least nothing that would change that information drastically.

In the arts part of the book the author talks about not just material art but also literature and it was actually very interesting in that he brings it all the way up to the 19th century, and not just to the Christian era.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it either.  So what is the problem?  I think what bothered me the most is that I didn’t see the author’s thoughts on the subject matter he was covering.  He isn’t a scholar but rather an enthusiast and I knew that so I was expecting to see that enthusiasm…which I didn’t. I felt like he had a bunch of points by other authors that he had to convey and he did…end of story.

The Celts: A Chronological History by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin

Author: Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
Publisher: The Collins Press
Copyright: 2002, reprinted 2006
ISBN: 9780851159232
Pages: 248


Synopsis: The Celts were one of the most important population groups to spread across the ancient European continent. From 800BC to 1050AD their story is one of expanding power and influence followed by contraction and near extinction. Drawing on all possible sources of evidence, from archaeological remains of ancient Greece and Rome to surviving cultural influences,Dáithí Ó hÓgáin outlines the history of the people known as Celts. He follows the evolution of their culture as it gained strength on its two-thousand-year passage through Europe, from its earliest origins in the east through the upheaval of the early middle ages to its ‘twilight’ and decline in the west. The influence of the Celts is far more widespread than its fragmented survival in the outer fringes of western Europe indicates; this once important culture is still a vital component of European civilization and heritage, from east to west. In tracing the course of the history of the Celts, Dáithí Ó hÓgáin shows how far-reaching their influence has been. Dáithí Ó hÓgáin is Associate Professor of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. A recognized authority on Celtic folklore and history, he has lectured widely and contributed to many radio and TV programs on Irish literature and cultural history. He is the author of The Sacred Isle#58; Pre-Christian Religion in Ireland.

Review: The book is a pretty short one (238 actual reading pages) and it has ten chapters.

I decided against writing a chapter by chapter summary because of the nature of the book. It is a survey of the Celts from the origins until the waning of their power and almost disappearance except of course from the Atlantic fringes.

This is a book aimed at someone who wants an abridged history of the Celts, told in a very simple manner. However, I really would not recommend it to someone who has not read other books on the subject. While most of the information in the book is accurate I could not help but get the sense that in many places the author was a Celtophile (not necessarily a bad thing just something to be aware of), it was a word here and there that kind of gave the game away. Also, he tends to use explanations that are not main stream for some things. I understand that interpretation of archeology really depends on the archeologist but somethings are considered standard.

This is a book that I would recommend to people who have already read history books on the Celts by authors like Barry Cunliffe and John Haywood, so that they can know which parts of what is written is correct and which part of it was the author’s own interpretation. For those wondering I’d say 85% of the book is correct information, 5% is dated and 10% needs to be cross referenced carefully with other history books.

Celts and the Classical World by David Rankin

Author: David Rankin

Publisher: Routledge (an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group)

Publishing History: First published in 1987 by Croom Helm Ltd, first published in paperback in 1996 by Routledge, the edition I am using for this review was published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

ISBN: 0-203-75022-5 (Adobe eReader Format)

Synopsis: To observe the Celts through the eyes of the Greeks and Romans is the first aim of this book.

Review: The book is divided into fifteen chapters plus an appendix which covers the Romans and Ireland. It also has an extensive bibliography.

As a whole this book is pretty hard to rate and review. To me it was a mix of the book Heroic Age and a generic Celtic history book, but in an abridged form. It does however, look at a section of knowledge about the Celts that most people who study them tend to ignore OR not take into account for varies reasons and that is the Latin and Greek texts. The author takes the time to put the quotations from the Classical authors in the context of time and place and of the peoples around the Celts at the time and how these quotations could have been feasible in light of their contact with these peoples. He also looks at these texts in light of available archeological, and vernacular data where available.

But to tell you the truth I was a little bored at the beginning with all the repeated historical information. It seemed that the author was repeating the same data over and over but taking it from different perspectives or “eyes” each time. It was not until chapter ten that I started to wake up and then chapter twelve when I started to REALLY get interested. These final chapters talked about the Celtic Women, the druids and the Celtic religion and the different Celts (Galatians, Gauls and so on).

Of course the appendix was great and the bibliography is amazing.

The Celtic World Edited by Miranda J. Green

Synopsis: The ancient Celts, in their heyday, inhabited much of Europe north of the Alps. This new and exhaustive study examines this fascinating people from the first evidence of Celts in the archaeological and historical record to the early post Roman period. The Celtic World is one of the most comprehensive studies of the Celts in recent years, with new research material from leading Celtic scholars from Europe, Britain and America. The book includes chapters on archaeology, language, literature, warfare, rural life, towns, art, religion and myth, trade and industry, political organization, society and technology. It also looks at the Celts in Italy, Spain, France, Eastern Europe, the Rhineland, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and concludes with a survey of modern Celts and how they view their Celtic identity. The Celtic World will be invaluable for students and academics of Celtic studies, and of interest to anyone fascinated by the Celts.

Review: This book was a surprise for me.  It was recommended to my by a friend and based on this recommendation as soon as I found it I just snapped it up.  When it arrived I just couldn’t figure out why it was so heavy!  So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the package.  I also thought that Miranda J. Green wrote this book but the truth is Miranda J. Green EDITED it.

This book is based on a good historical and archaeological research and it makes for a good reference book for Celtic studies. It covers many different and important topics and is very well written and edited. The book is a collection of essays centered on different topics and written by such names as Daphne Nash Briggs, Jeffery L. Davis, D. Ellis Evans, Proinsias Mac Cana, Ruth and Vincent Megaw, Stuart Piggott, Barry Raftery, David Rankin, Ann Ross, Miranda Green and many others.

This book is copyrighted to 1995 and 1996 so it is a little out of date but not by much I would say.  The information in it was a delight to read, the essays are well thought out and easy to get into.  The information is very interesting and encompasses every aspect of the Celtic culture and life and it looks at all the Celts that lived in Europe. I consider this book a little Encyclopedia (not so little with 839 pages).

Druids: Preachers of Immortalityby Anne Ross

Synopsis: Druidism was the religion of the Celts and the Druids themselves were all-powerful, taking precedence over the Celtic kings. Over and above the evidence of classical texts and of archeology, the richest source of information about the Druids is the vernacular material from Ireland and Wales. It is the author’s unparalleled familiarity with the Gaelic texts, and her ability to see Druidism through Celtic eyes, that marks out this study from earlier books and strips away modern myths about the Druids.

Review: This is not about “preachers” of any kind, and the ideas of immortality is barely mentioned in this book. It is, however, a great study of the Druids, using folklore, archeology, and classical and vernacular sources. The author is clearly deeply fascinated with the topic and offers a wide range of original insights into various Celtic topics. Some of her insights are deeply fascinating.

I did feel though that the author was trying to write this book for the layman and because of her extensive scholarly background in the subject she failed miserably. It was a hard read mainly because I wanted her to go back to her old style of writing. I was, however, very impressed with Dr. Ross’ research into the subject which is quite evident as the reader moves through the chapters.

I have yet to find a book that discusses the Druids in this sort of detail so the book is very much worth the read, if only for the sources she sites and some of the gems she has uncovered. The book of course is outdated in some aspects of its research but that is to be expected since it was first written in 1999.

Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts by Anne Ross

Anne Ross is a well-respected writer on the Celts most of her books are on the Celtic Reconstructionist lists and that tells you a lot because as a rule they are very picky.  This book is a part of a series called Everyday Life Of…The other two books in the series are The Everyday Life of the Vikings, and The Everyday Life of the Anglo-Saxons.

The book is copy righted to 1970 so right off you know it is an old book, with outdated information, though not much of it is.  People who are not new to the Celtic history will probably not find anything new in this book.  What impressed me though is the fact that she not only talks about the history of the Celts but their culture, society, and religion too.  She starts her survey when the Celts first burst onto the scene, and ends it at 500 CE.  Up front she tells you the limitations of the book and the aim she hopes to achieve with it.  The limitations are as follows: limitations in the evidence available (this of course has changed from the 1970s to now), and limitations of space.  The aim of the book is to find out something about the pagan Celtic world; about its origin; about the people who lived in it, what they did and how they conducted their day-to-day affairs.

Like all other writers on the subject of the Celts she starts her book with how we know about the Celts.  She discusses the sources, which ones are good, which are bad, and which are acceptable and how to combine them all to get a good picture of the Celts.

Then comes the substance.  She starts out with the structure of the society, how they looked, what they wore, their weapons and the way they conducted warfare, their roads, fortifications, houses, the games they played, their music and entertainment, their food and drink, their laws, their religion, and their artistic styles.

I loved all the details she provided for things that most scholars would have over looked like what they wore, and what they might have ate or drank.  It is a well-rounded book.  And it has it all. You learn exactly what the Celts have done in their everyday life, in war, and what they did for entertainment or for their worship.  You learn about their art and music, and it provides a vivid picture that you can carry of the people you want to study.

I highly recommend it.

Celtic Religion and Celtic Reconstructionism Resources.

I was going to write an essay on Celtic Religion and then another one on Celtic Reconstructionism but then realized that I had so many resources from people who actually knew and researched more than I ever could.  Instead I decided that the best way to do this was to list these resources and as I come across more and more of them I’ll add it here.

Celtic Religion: What do we really know about it? – This article originally appeared as a multi-part message on CELTIC-L@Danann.hea.ie. **Highly Recommended

celtic_religion This is a report on the subject with good information.

Celtic Polytheism: This is an article on Wikipedia.  As with everything on there please check up on the sources and be sure to cross reference.

Celtic Reconstructionism (CR): This is an article on Wikipedia.  As with everything on there please check up on the sources and be sure to cross reference.

The Celtic Reconstructionism Frequently Asked Questions list: This list is also available in print now with 37 pages of additional material, including a glossary and pronunciation guide which provides readers with an introduction to the Celtic languages, as well as pronunciations for many Celtic terms and Deity names (in Irish, Gaelic, Old Irish, Welsh, Scots and Gaulish). It is indexed and thoroughly cross-referenced, making it very user-friendly for beginners as well as those with many years in the tradition.** Highly Recommended

Proto-Indo-European Religion: The Proto-Indo-European Religion is reconstructed on the basis of linguistic analysis of the languages used by Indo-European-speaking people. This website gives scholarly information on what is known about this religion, and the status of research in the field. Particular emphasis is placed on the oldest sources in each language group, but folklore, traditions and even Christianized versions of Proto-Indo-European goddesses, myths and rituals have been used as well. In India, the religion continues as it has for millenia, so information from recent or modern sources is relevant to the study.** Highly Recommended

Ceisiwr Serith’s Proto-Indo-European Religion: One of the best people to write on the subject.** Highly Recommended

There are many books on the subject:

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic War, tr. by H. J. Edwards (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)

Chadwick, Nora, The Celts (NY: Penguin, 1991)

*Cunliffe, Barry W., The Ancient Celts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Cunliffe, Barry W., The Celtic World (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1993)

*Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland (Irish Books & Media, 1994)

Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Celtic Empire (London: Constable, 1990)

Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Druids (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1995)

*Green, Miranda, The World of the Druids (NY: Thames & Hudson, 1997)

Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995)

*James, Simon, The World of the Celts (NY: Thames & Hudson, 1993)

Koch, John and John Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales (Malden MA: Celtic Studies Publications, 1995)

Merrifield, Ralph, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (NY: New Amsterdam Books, 1988)

Piggott, Stuart, The Druids (NY: Thames & Hudson, 1986)

Raftery, Barry, Pagan Celtic Ireland (NY: Thames & Hudson, 1994)

Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1996)

Ross, Anne, The Pagan Celts (Totowa NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986)

Ross, Anne and Don Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince (NY: Touchstone, 1991)

There is also a comprehensive list in the CR FAQ, and IMBAS list.

Keep an eye on this post as I might update it with even more stuff as I come across them.

The Celts by John Haywood

John Haywood in his introduction of the book tells us that in recent academic writing about the Celts the focus has been on whether or not the Celts really existed and on whether the modern Celts are real Celts.  His opinion on the matter (with some reservations which he will discuss in the book) is that both are real.  He feels that rather than focusing on Celtic history as a two-millennia-long decline, it should be seen as a real story of survival.  John Haywood in his book is trying to explain the reasons WHY the Celts have survived in one form or another until today.  He gives us two reasons.  The first is that the Celts were not united so in his opinion they were harder to conquer and even when defeated they were harder to subdue because there was always someone ready to rebel.  The other reason is the limitations of their enemies’ colonial systems, which could not easily assimilate the decentralized tribal societies even after they were defeated.  He uses for his resources the Classical writers, archeology, and vernacular records.  The book has a beautiful bibliography that could be used for references or further reading on a specific subject.

The first chapter of the books was a very brief history of the possible origins of the Celts.  The author talks about the Indo-Europeans, and their connection to the Celts both through possible blood and language.  The author also talks about the Hallstatt and the La Téne periods.  The chapter was very brief, but I think that has more to do with the fact that this was something that a lot of Celtic history books have hashed and re-hashed a thousand times.  A few ideas that the author presented in this chapter stuck with me though.  The first idea that came through loud and clear is that trying to define the Celts by their culture is not a viable option because there has been so many changes across time in culture, technology and social structure that the modern Celts would not be recognized by their ancient ancestors.  Also in some of the places that have been distinctly called Celtic the Celts had adopted so much of the cultures they lived in it was no longer considered Celtic culture.  The strongest way and the most widely accepted way to define Celts is through language.  Another idea is that the Celts never collectively called themselves that, this only came about in the 18th Century and because of that, modern historians and linguists argue that the idea of the Celts as a people is simply a modern fabrication.  We have no myths of origin by the Celts and yet that did not stop the Greeks and Romans from giving them myths of origins based on their gods and cultures, and the chapter lists a few of these myths, which was really interesting.  The author also believes that during the Hallstatt period when the Celtic World began to integrate itself with the Mediterranean economy and encourage the process of political centralization they made themselves more vulnerable to conquest and political as well as cultural assimilation by the Romans.  The author believes that the end of the Hallstatt period may have been due to changes in the trading routes and the rise of the new chieftains in the North (the La Téne Chieftains).  This new power was more militant than the Hallstatt chieftains and its appearance marked the beginning of a long period of instability in northern and central Europe.  This is very much in keeping with what other experts in these two periods had said, the most widely known of which is Barry Cunliffe who wrote “The Ancient Celts” and most recently “Europe Between the Oceans”.

Chapter two discussed the Celtic migrations that were known in recorded history and they were certainly widespread.  The author believes that most of the larger scale migrations were actually planned well in advance like the Helvetii migrations, which took two years to plan.  The reasons for these migrations were believed to be due to shortage of resources, and to social tensions caused by over-population.  This includes warriors who wanted to make a name for themselves and lead their own groups of people.  Looking at the people that the Celts succeeded against, they were believed to be at the same stage of development as the Celts and this made it easier for the Celts to assimilate them into Celtic culture and identity.

The third chapter of the book talks about the Celts of the La Téne World.  It begins by discussing its social structure and how it differs from the Atlantic fringe to Continental Europe, the economy, housing and living conditions, the Celtic religion and Celtic warfare and ends by telling us that the Continental Celts were open to conquest and assimilation not because they were barbarians but because they were actually civilized enough to be included into the Roman world.  The chapter also tells us how the Celts were viewed through the ages.  For example, in the classical times they were inferior barbarians, while in the 18th century they were seen as Noble Savages.  In the age of environmentalism and New Age beliefs the Celts became a symbol for spirituality and respect for nature.  The author also goes into greater detail about the social structure of the La Téne Celts.  He tells us that it depended on the environment and the resources available to them, which in my opinion makes great sense.  The main form of social structure was chiefdom and it depended on lineage and inheritance and it was mostly tribal based.  Chiefdoms survived in Ireland until the 16th century CE and in the Scottish Highlands until the 18th century CE, which is the reason they were hard to conquer and keep by the Romans.  In Celtic Europe however, they were already developing kingdoms and tribal republics by the last centuries BCE.  This the author attributes to the trade with the Mediterranean World, a rising population and increasing prosperity based on efficient agriculture.  Celtic Europe’s adoption of state formations led to the arrival of literacy using different borrowed scripts by the 6th century BCE.  Around the 2nd century BCE they also began to use and issue coinage.  The chapter includes great explanations of the economy and what it was based on, how the houses were built and the living conditions of people, the Celtic religion and how it was similar and yet different to the Roman and Greek ones, and the methods and instruments used in warfare by the Celts of the La Téne World.

The Celts and the Roman Republic is the next chapter in the book.  The author begins by telling us that the Romans wrote this part of the Celtic story and so it is offered with all the limitations that that entails (i.e. this is a one sided story and we don’t get to hear what the Celts had to say about the same events).  The Roman version of events is colored by their memories of the 390 BCE sack of Rome by the Gauls. The author makes good points in this chapter about the Romans and the Celts.  The Roman expansion in his opinion was no more planned than the Celtic expansion previously was.  It was driven by internal politics and the search for secure frontiers.  The Romans were not averse to the Celts even though they tended to see them as inferior.  They formed alliances with some of the Celtic tribes just like they did with other peoples.  The Celts saw this as an advantage against their enemies of other Celtic tribes or non-Celtic tribes.  Of course these alliances tended to make the Celts easier to assimilate by the Romans but that was not necessarily unwelcome by the Celts whose main concern was whether the Elites’ wealth and status was preserved and if it was then so be it.  Most modern and classical Roman historians (like Tacitus for example) saw the Celtic disunity as a weakness that led to their defeat, but if it was so, the author asks, would it have taken the Romans 400 years to conquer the Celts??  The author gives as an example the Roman conquest of the Celtic Iberians.  He says that in the time it took to subdue and conquer these Celts the Romans were able to conquer the entire eastern Mediterranean with its ancient and sophisticated civilizations like Greece and Egypt.  Could it be that the disunity or more precisely the decentralization of the Celts be the reason that the Celts held on so long?  After all, it took only one year for the Romans to put down the rebellion of Vercingetorix after he united all the Gauls under him…I think this is an interesting concept and idea.  The author goes on to describe how the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul, Spain, and Galatia took place.  He describes how these conquests started and why and the strategies used by both parties in the wars.  The chapter ends with the threat from the north or the German tribes and their alliance with Gaulish tribes and how the Romans dealt with them after they (the German and Gaulish tribes) gave them quite the scare.

Chapter five deals with Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and how that came about.  The last chapter ended with the northern threat to the Romans and even after putting that threat down Roman attitudes towards Gaul changed.  The Romans saw Transalpine Gaul as a safe land route to Spain and a necessary buffer zone against invasions from the Germanic tribes in the north.  This is why when it was threatened by the Helvetii in 58 BCE and the Aedui, who were Roman allies, asked for help against the Arverni and the Sequani it was easy for Caesar to get the Senate to agree to war to protect Transalpine Gaul and the trade the Romans had there.  After dealing with these threats Caesar decided to go further.  He defeated the Belgae in September 57 BCE.  He then went after the Armorican tribes because they controlled the most important trade routes between Gaul and Britain.  The author then goes on to expound on Caesar’s incursions into Britain.  In the end of these raids Romans had increased trade and diplomatic contact with southern Britain and nothing more, it was up to the next leaders of Rome to conquer Britain.  The chapter also discusses the troubles that Caesar had with rebellions in Gaul like the ones led by Ambiorix and Vercingetorix.  Even though some Celtic areas remained Roman free in Transalpine Gaul in the end they too decided to get under Roman rule, which they preferred to the German tribes.

Chapter six is dedicated to the Roman conquest of Britain.  The chapter contains a lot of details that are not really given in other history books on the Celts.  It describes the troubles that the Roman had to endure while trying to conquer Britain and all the rebellions they had to deal with from people like Caratacus, Togodumnus, Boudica, Venutius, and the people of the Highlands.  It is interesting that when the Britons used guerrilla tactics they could win but when they united they lost.  In the end the Romans could not go beyond Hadrian’s Wall nor could they conquer Ireland.

In chapter seven the author discusses the Celts in the Roman world.  The Romans were good at assimilating other cultures because they tolerated other religions, which made it easier for the people to accept them.  The Celts appeared to have controlled the pace at which they became Romanized as evidenced by their burial practices.  The chapter was interesting because it told you of how the assimilation happened and how it differed from one Celtic region to another.

The making of Wales is the subject of chapter eight.  The author begins by giving you the version of events that Gildas the monk made famous and then he tells you what really happened.  Chapter eight is a very interesting starting point for anyone interested in the history of Wales and how it came about.

Scotland or Alba is the subject matter of chapter nine.  Again the author gives a great introduction to the history of the people who live there, where they came from, their struggles and what led them to the union with England.

Chapter ten is about my favorite subject, the history of Ireland.  Like the previous two chapters it makes an interesting read, whether you just want an introduction to Irish history or if you want a refresher to Irish history.  The history starts with early Christian Ireland and extends to the end of the fifteenth century CE.

Brittany in north-western France is a Celtic speaking region that I don’t know much about so I was very interested in reading about it in chapter eleven.  The history starts from when the Bretons went over as immigrants and ends around the fourteenth century CE.

England’s Celtic ulcer is the title of chapter twelve.  I automatically thought it would be about Ireland and I was right.  The Chapter dealt with the English attempts to control Ireland up until the time of Cromwell.

Chapter thirteen discusses the end of the clan system and how it affected Scotland politically.  The author discusses how these clans worked in the Highlands and how they came to be, in a very simplistic manner.

The last three chapters of the book discuss the Celtic revival (how, why and where it took place), the Celtic Diaspora and the causes and effects of it and the modern Celts.  The last chapter especially discusses (though very briefly) the future of the Celts.

I really enjoyed the book because it filled in gaps in my knowledge in certain areas like Brittany and Wales and complemented what I already knew about Ireland and Scotland.  It presented the latest of the known facts on the Celts and that is what a lot of older books lack.  It is a great book for beginners or for people who want an up to date discussion of the history of the Celts.

Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross

Everyone who studies Celtic beliefs knows that many aspects of pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs remain shrouded in mystery.  Ann Ross in this comprehensive book is trying to convince us, the readers, that neither the Roman invasion of Britain nor the coming of Christianity eliminated pagan religious practice.

Dr. Anne Ross speaks Gaelic and Welsh and writes from wide experience of living in Celtic-speaking communities.  She has studied and traced vernacular tradition, and she was formerly Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Southampton.  She is still researching different aspects of Celtic culture.  As can be seen from her credentials she is very capable of writing this book, however, this book was first written in 1967 and then re-published after review in 1996, so some information might be out of date.

In Pagan Celtic Britain, Anne Ross begins by telling us the scope of her study, her sources and the limitations of her study.  The major limitation of the study is the fact that the Celts did not leave any written records for us to find.  The sources that the author uses are archaeology, iconography, classical records and vernacular records.  From the onset she tells us the limitations of each of these sources.  Archaeology is limited by the way it is interpreted, one artifact cane mean one thing to one archaeologist and something totally different to another.  Iconography is limited in Britain by not being as comprehensive as the ones on the continent.  Two things limit classical records, the first is that enemies of the Celts write these records and the second limitation is that they did not REALLY discuss the religion and beliefs of the Celts in detail.  Finally, the vernacular records of the Welsh and the Irish are written hundreds of years after the fact AND they were written in Christian times so they have an agenda of their own.  The scope of the study is Pagan, pre-Roman, pre-Christian Britain.  The author tells us that she will combine all these sources to help give us a picture of what that time was like when it comes to the beliefs of the Celts.

In the introduction the author also gives us a definition of Celt and Celtic by explaining that it could mean different things to different people.  Then she gives us an outline of the history of the Celts on the continent, in Britain and in Ireland.  She also briefly discusses what she means when she says vernacular records of the Irish and the Welsh.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the study of sanctuaries, temples and cult sites.  The author talks about all the different places that seem to be dedicated to goddesses and gods, from wells, springs, rivers, to groves, trees and even grave sites.  No discussion of these things is complete without a look at the people who officiated these sites and the rituals associated with them.  The druids or Celtic priests were mentioned in the classic writings and in the vernacular records of the Celtic nations but little is really known about them.  Most of what we have today come from the romantic writings of the 17th and 18th century.  Most is based on Masonic like and ceremonial magic groups.

The Celts venerated the head as a symbol of divinity and the powers of the otherworld, and regarded it as the most important body part, and the place where the soul resides.  The cult of the head is the subject of chapter two of the book.  The author tells us about the cult in both continental Europe and in the insular Celtic lands.  She talks about the different materials used to depict the head as well as the many different ways it was depicted.

Next in chapter three, the author talks about the Horned God in Britain.  It is said to be second in importance to the head cult in both the Continental Celts and the insular Celts.  Again the author tells us about the different depiction of the horned god and also other symbols of it like serpents and horned animals for example.

The tribal god of the Celts must at one time or another take up his weapons and adopt the role of the warrior and the warrior god is the subject of chapter four.  Through looking at iconography and epigraphy the author gives us different examples of tribal warrior gods in Britain and in which areas they can be found.

The next chapter deals with the goddesses of Britain.  It deals with them as a whole category, which inevitably will reflect to some extent the functions of the Celtic women in the society.  She deals with goddesses that have consorts and others with out.  The goddesses also reflect the economic situation of the people that worship them.

Chapter six deals with sacred and magic birds.  The author talks about the swan, the raven, prognostic birds, malevolent otherworldly birds, magic otherworld birds, the goose, the owl, the eagle, the crane and other long legged marsh birds.  She gives examples of gods associated with them, and she tells you where they are mentioned in the mythology and vernacular records.  A very interesting chapter to read.

Continuing along the same lines, chapter seven is about divine animals.  She begins by talking about gods that have animal parts, the cat, the divine bull, cows, boars, pigs, horses, stags, dogs, wolves, rams, snakes, dragons, bears, hares, and fish.  Again she deals with iconography, and mythology.  The aspects of all these animals and what they represent is very important.

The final chapter of the book discusses aspects of the cults native to north Britain.  In this chapter the author discusses the cults in Northern Britain before and after the Romans came.  She takes a specific look at certain deities like, Maponus, Belatucadros, Cocidius, and Vitiris.  It is a very interesting look for people interested in cults from that part of the country.

I suppose it was inevitable for the author to discuss the Roman counter-parts for the deities in Britain.  It did grate on my nerves a little though.  I do understand why she was doing it, I mean for people not familiar with the “Celtic Pantheon” it is probably easier to associate them with similar functioning gods in the Roman pantheon, not to mention the importing of Roman deities in to Britain after the Roman invasion.

The book is a great reference when it comes to what evidence we have of the Celtic religion, and a good starting point for more research.  The kind of book that you can refer to from time to time to find evidence of sacred animals and what kind of cults can be found in Britain.  A good reference book to have.