Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Fear of God.

Fear and Trembling.

Most historical events are often explained as being politically, economically, and even sexually motivated rather than resorting to divine intervention, as that is hard to prove, since it never happens. Sometimes though, the fear of god is a very real thing, even if god isn’t, and can lend an interesting twist on events. The fear of god, an anxiety in the minds of people over a belief of a delusion of everlasting punishment, can lead to very real consequences, one of which may have been a turning point in the history of the British Isles.

Pistols at Dawn.

Late 7th century Britain and Ireland were home to an interesting dispute, one which has been described as a more spiritual and all round groovy ‘Celtic’ Christianity in conflict with the evil and domineering Roman Christianity. To begin, there was no Celtic Church. The Insular practices were good and catholic, doctrinally speaking, but the organisational structure was somewhat different, and its adherents also had a different way of calculating Easter, but so did everyone in those days. There were several versions of calculating  Easter making the rounds since the 4th century, or earlier, due to the vague dating of the death of a certain carpenter. Sometimes the variance between the Insular calendar and the Victorian or Dionysian calendars was not unbearable, but every once in a while there was a considerable difference. This bubbling conflict was all brought to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The synod found in favour of Rome, which led to the decline of the Insular practices.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England.

Image via Wikipedia

The Breath of God. Only the penitent man will pass.

One of the major contributing factors to the final decision was the influence of Oswiu, king of Northumbria. Northumbria had been converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries, and so followed the Insular practices. One of the more fun reasons put forward for the king’s switching of sides is that he had completed his ritual penance and wanted to perform his manly duties with his lady wife, but could not as she followed the Roman way of doing things, and so was still being pure and chaste for Lent.  There may also have been more nefarious reasons behind the change; one of Oswiu’s sons, Alhfrith, had an eye on the crown, which, since Oswiu was still alive, he could only get his hands on by removing it from his father’s head, which would have probably necessitated the removal of his father’s head from his shoulders. Alhfrith may have been supported by the Roman faction, and he mysteriously disappeared after the synod. So, our first option is that  a randy king decided the fate of the synod, and ultimately the fate of the souls of all the inhabitants of the archipelago. Our second option is that royal backstabbing and familial murder resolved the conflict between the Churches…

Solar Eclipse 1 (26 jan 2009)

Image by a_seph via Flickr

The Word of God. Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.

There might be a Carlsberg option. Recent (which is a relative term in history) research suggests that the fear of god may have been a major contributing factor to the final decision. A celestial event occurred which may have convinced many that the Insular Church did not hold favour with god. By wonderful coincidence, there was a total solar eclipse around the time of the Insular celebration  that year, the track of which left all of Northumbria, southern Scotland, northern Ireland (the adherents to the Insular system), and most importantly, Iona, home of the  Insular faction, in darkness. The south of Ireland and England, and especially York, core of the Roman faction, enjoyed Easter on a nice sunny day (it may have been raining, but the point stands) . The light of god, the very word of god was hidden from the followers of the Insular Easter. This was clearly a sign from on high that the non-Roman system had displeased the powers that be, and that all the people of the islands should follow in the footsteps of Rome.

The Path of God. Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.

Consequently, the leap was made, and Oswiu told all his subjects to change accordingly. Most complied, and the Roman methods of practice spread throughout the north of Britain and Ireland. A certain number of English clerics refused to join the crowd, left England, and set up shop in the west of Ireland, in a place called ‘Maigh Eo’ (plain of the yew tree), or Mayo. But for the rest of the people of the islands, this event has been trumpeted as an  important leap of faith; for the first time they were focused on Rome and Europe, and, in turn, were the focus of Rome. It has been argued by modern spiritualists and ‘Celtic Christians’ that this was a decided shift away from local ‘organic’ faith to international organised religion, the first step to globalisation. Which is nonsense; the Irish Churches had always deferred to Rome on matters of doctrine, and agreed that, basically, the Pope was in charge. And the islands were already ‘globalised’; how else would lapis lazuli from Afghanistan , or red and yellow ochre from the Mediterranean, end up in Ireland, aside from the fact that the Anglo-Saxons themselves traded with the continent, as had the Romano-British before the invasion? The change from Insular to Roman Christianity was actually rather civilised, considering that conversion from one form of Christianity to another often required bloodshed, and a good deal of it. This lack of violence was probably due to the very fact that faith was not in question, simply practice, and while it may have been impossible for the Cathars to renounce their version of Christianity, it seems that it was relatively easy for the Irish, Scots, British, and English to change the date of Easter.

The curious may find the complete evidence for the solar eclipse theory in McCarthy and Breen, ‘Astronomical Observations in the Irish Annals and their Motivation’, Peritia vol.11 (1997).

The Atheist Blogroll.

This Frivolous Endeavour has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughtsfor more information.

This panoply of blogs should provide a wonderful resource to any and all who are interested in a wide range of topics, the defining element of which is, at least, skepticism, and at most, atheism.

Leave the Celts Alone.

Fictional Characters.

After a brief search on Google, or even here on the gamut of blogs and articles provided by WordPress, of the words ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’, the casual internet patron might be left with thoughts of a deeply mystical people, ancient and arcane spirituality and wisdom, or of gruesome barbarian warriors shrouding their mind. They would also most likely come across links to Irish, neo-pagan, or alternative Christian sites promoting the peculiar enlightenment of the Celts. One may find Celtic litanies, Celtic incantations, pagan prayers to be uttered at Celtic festivals (particularly popular at Halloween), Celtic jewelery, books on Celtic spiritualism, wistful Irish music, or even, if you are lucky, a bizarre reconstruction of a fight between a Celt and a Persian Immortal to discover who is ‘deadliest’. I admit, the immediate hits on Google for ‘the Celts’ provides the user with a list of useful and reasonable sources, but the myth of the Celt persists.

Who were the Celts?

Therein lies the rub, the task. It’s rather hard to say exactly, but one thing that should be taken for granted, but isn’t, is that the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots aren’t. Of the many populations which have inhabited Britain and Ireland in the last few millennia none of them were, to use a modern term, ethnic Celts. Consequently, anyone who tries to sell you anything with ‘Celtic’ and ‘Ireland’ in the title is inherently wrong, unless it’s an academic work, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

And that Moment is Now.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Image via Wikipedia

The confusion relating to the term ‘Celt’ is down to 17th/18th century linguists, helped by modern willful ignorance. There were a people whom the Greeks and Romans called the Celts inhabiting Spain, France, and Central Europe back in the days when Greek education was the envy of the world. Whether or not these people were Celts is even up for debate; it’s one thing when Herodotus in the 5th century BCE refers to Celts, it’s a whole other thing when Caesar talks about them four hundred and fifty odd years later. Of course Caesar tells us that the people he’s conquering for their own good call themselves Celts, but we really only have his word for that, and he had an agenda, but some of them at least were probably the same people Herodotus was also writing about. But did they call themselves Celts?

Hellene? It’s all Greek to me…

The Romans called the Greeks ‘Greek’, a mistake that we’ve inherited,  but that’s not what the Greeks called themselves; in their minds there were Hellenes. The first group of Hellenes the Romans met were a tribe called the Graecians, and so they baptised an entire people with the name of one small contingent. So the people who Herodotus and Caesar called ‘Celts’ may only have been a small tribe of people, they might not have thought of themselves as Celts, they may have had no ethnic unity or consciousness whatsoever, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, aside from knowing that they were not Greek or Roman. These ‘Celts’ did share a common culture and language group (the individual languages may not have been readily intelligible to one-another, just as a modern Irish speaker would not immediately grasp modern Welsh), but they were not a nation as we now understand the term. This culture and language was shared by the peoples in the archipelago just off the north coast of Gaul, but they were not Celts.

Confused yet?

From the Ireland to Germany, Spain to Turkey, lived a people who spoke languages with a common ancestor. When this common ancestor was proposed it made sense, to the 17th/18th century mind steeped in Classical learning, to call this ancient language ‘Celtic’. It was hardly the best term to choose, but we’re stuck with it. And that is how, very simply, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots became Celtic. It’s just a term, a very specific term in linguistics.  Latin and its descendants (French, Spanish, Romanian, etc.) are Italic languages, but that doesn’t mean that the people of Chile, Madagascar, Macau, or Vietnam are Italian. The term ‘Celtic’ is used in a very specific fashion in an academic context, there are books and articles on Celtic Theology, Celtic Sources, etc., on the bookshelves of many a university library, but in the shops on the high-street the term is almost ritually abused for the sake of money. You can buy Celtic Wisdom for £5, learn Celtic Secrets for less than a tenner, or get your own Celtic Spiritual Guide half price! There is nothing Celtic in these wastes of ink. Similarly there is very little about neo-paganism which is Celtic, mostly because the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe didn’t write much down, so these neo-druids and wiccans are literally making stuff up, which is no different from any other religion in all fairness. And there never was a Celtic Christianity, and the Celts did not save Britain.

Celtic Fluff.

The term ‘Celt’ has become a fluffy word that spiritualists, and cunning marketing, frequently slap on a product to make it sell, from trinkets to soap. This seems to be a consequence of the increasing lack of faith in established religions, and the belief that the older, ‘more spiritual’ ideas were somehow better, in tune with nature, or some other vague allusion. The Gauls dug massive mines all over France in search of precious metals, which made them vastly wealthy, and ultimately financed Caesar’s coup. The peoples of Ireland and Britain traded with anyone and everyone they could, such that, for example,  rare lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Ireland where it was made into ink for the illustration of religious texts. These people were just like us, consumers, but without the benefit of an alternative paradigm to faith. And, if the ancient Irish are anything to judge by, they were deeply practical, legalistic, and wonderfully secular for their time. This is not the ‘Celt’ that is promoted nowadays; we are confronted with a delusion invented by the 18th century Romantic Movement, an ephemeral fantasy cobbled together by misguided nationalism and often beautiful, but not necessarily true, literature and poetry.

Be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, and be suspicious of anyone who uses the term ‘Celt’, unless they offer the immediate qualification of ‘linguistically speaking’. And stop calling the Irish, Welsh, and Scots ‘Celts’, or start calling the English and Americans ‘Germans’. Either way, leave the Celts alone.

How did the Celts save Britain? Time travel?

A New Chronology.

A BBC documentary called “How the Celts saved Britain” has clearly made a bold and divisive claim in the title alone. One might not even need to watch the actual programme itself as the title by itself should shock one to their very core; it advances a radical revision of how we perceive history. It proposes that Britain was saved from a dark age, after the departure of the Roman legions in the 5th century AD, by the Celts. A group of people first identified by the Greeks asBack to the Future living in southern Germany in the 6th century BC somehow managed to build a time-machine with Iron-Age technology with the express purpose of traveling one thousand years into the future to save Britain, which for them did not yet exist. We might yet hear of Welsh-named Sarmatians defending Hadrian’s Wall, or of Huns saving the French Revolution from the Royalists if time-travel was so freely available in the ancient world.

Once the documentary begins, however, such radical notions are themselves shattered as it becomes clear that the presenter is in fact referring to the Irish, and how it was they who ‘saved’ Britain. Right. How many times must this be said? The Irish are not, nor were they ever, Celts. They never called themselves Celts, or thought of themselves as being Celts, and neither did anyone else until the 18th century. They spoke a Celtic language, but just because Brazilians and Senegalese speak a Latin language doesn’t make them Romans. To repeat, the Irish were not, and ardently continue not to be in face of overwhelming ignorance, Celts. (For a more detailed argument, see ‘Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense’).

Terms of Obscurity.

The BBC describes the programme as  a “Provocative two-part documentary in which Dan Snow blows the lid on the traditional Anglo-centric view of history and reveals how the Irish saved Britain from cultural oblivion during the Dark Ages.” Which is fair enough, and, even though most academics have known this for decades, the general public is in need of enlightenment. So why the subtle switching of words? Why does the programme not announce itself as ‘How the Irish saved Britain’? Why are the Irish pasted over as Celts? Might it be that the documentary was too provocative, that the English people couldn’t handle the idea that their neighbour, former colony, source of cheap labour, people whose culture they tried to annihilate,  could actually have been better than them at some stage? From where does this fear of the Irish appear? More realistically, none of these notions are probably correct. ‘Celt’ is a sexy term these days; in a world which has grown drunk on spiritualism, pseudo-druidism, and other such puzzling ideologies which proclaim Celtic provenance, one might imagine that slapping ‘Celt’ into the title of a programme virtually guarantees high ratings. So the Irish are rebranded as Celts, a shtick which has earned the nation quiet a few tourist dollars in recent years.

Even the Britons suffer in this tale of woe, a tale which muddles history somewhat. It might be thought that the ‘Celts’ saved all the inhabitants from Land’s End to the Shetland Islands, but Britain in the 7th century consisted only of what would become England and Wales, so in ‘saving Britain’ the Irish contribution to the conversion of the Picts and the foundation of Scotland is completely ignored. And even then, the Welsh, who called themselves British, didn’t need saving, they were already well versed in Latin learning, having been part of the Roman Empire. So the people of whom the programme is really talking about were the inhabitants of what we know as England, who were pagan invaders from mainland Europe. It might then be argued that a more accurate title for the documentary might be ‘How the Ancient Irish preserved Latin learning and re-introduced it to England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and from there, into Europe’. Admittedly it is less catchy, but more accurate.

How stupid are you?

Aside from various historical and conceptual inaccuracies in the documentary, which may be tolerably forgiven due to the vast time-periods under discussiSaint Patrickon, and the desire to simplify complex ideas (an arrogance of TV documentaries believing the public to be incapable of elaborate musings), there are several grossly fallacious statements made about Saint Patrick and the conversion of the Irish. Firstly, contrary to what is espoused in the programme, there were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that the Pope dispatched a bishop to administer to them long before Patrick appeared on the scene. Secondly, there was no High-King of Tara in this period, so Patrick could not have converted him. Thirdly, the use of hagiography as historical fact is blindingly deficient.

But the one that wins the prize for “most stupid ‘fact’ ever proclaimed in a documentary” is that Patrick was so successful in converting the Irish due to the fact that they were a spiritual people who venerated the sun, and Patrick simply convinced them to worship the Son. … And the presenter agrees with this revelation as offered by a Catholic priest. … This is utterly ridiculous. Not only is it grotesque to suggest that the Irish were swayed from a sophisticated polytheism layered with revenge and sex to a Jewish death cult by the simple replacing of a ‘u’ with an ‘o’, but it beggars belief to imply that they would comprehend such wordplay. They didn’t speak English. No one did. It hadn’t been invented yet. The ignorance embedded in such a thought is mind-numbing. Slapping a cat in an effort to assuage your fears of an impending financial apocalypse makes more sense. The Irish spoke Irish, and Patrick spoke Latin and probably learned Irish during his enslavement, and you can’t turn grian (‘sun’ in Irish) into filius (‘son’ in Latin) by any stretch of the imagination. How was such a comment allowed to air; did the presenter not see through the fallacy, or the researchers, editor, or numerous other people involved in the production? That such a statement was uttered is bad enough, but that nobody bothered to say “hang on, that’s just daft” is astonishing…

Yes there should be more documentaries professing the tremendous contribution the Irish made to Great Britain and the Continent, and, equally, vice versa. The ancient and medieval Irish did not exist in a vacuum, and neither did anyone else. The quality of the research, and of the contributors, must be improved, otherwise the popular perception of the history of these islands will be distorted beyond all reason, and the factual history will be lost. And someone should be employed to slap cretins who make profoundly ignorant comments, and those who nod along acceptingly, believing themselves to be great impartors of knowledge, should be reminded that they are there to question the veracity of such statements, possibly also with a slap.