Tag Archives: Celtic Christianity

The Celts. For Real.

English: Vector version of a design from the B...

English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neo-Pagans are not Celts.

Since I’ve ranted about who the Celts weren’t, I thought I should say who they actually were. The term ‘Celt’ has been abused for quite a long time now; people buy Celtic music, wear Celtic designs, and imagine themselves as part of a great Celtic identity. This is twisted into odd forms of nationalism, neo-paganism, and Christianity. It might seem vaguely ironic that the term is used by both pagans and Christians, but the reality is that they are both wrong, so what’s the difference?

The Term is the Thing…

I must be quite clear on this point, and you must pay attention, as this is crucial; we are speaking here of terminology. Detach the word ‘Celt’ from any image or concept it might arouse in you mind; words are used to denote concepts, and sometimes those words are misused. This misuse might lead to one word being used to describe many individual and separate physical things and abstract concepts. It may be that no connection between these discrete and individual things exists, except for that word. While certain groups of people who specialise in the field of studying these things might grasp this fact, in popular culture the separate identities of these things are muddled and mixed because only one word is used. This mess is compounded by fashion, arbitrary notions of nationalism, and, sometimes, outright deceit. But just because something is popular does not mean that it is true (just look at that whole ‘god’ phenomenon; I mean, seriously, are we not over that yet?).

If you want a very basic example of this, look at Goths. A few hundred years ago the Goths were a migratory nation wandering around the Roman Empire generally taking things over. Nowadays ‘Goth’ refers to a non-violent post-punk subculture which is more likely to feel oppressed than go oppress other sub-cultures. ‘Gothic’ also denotes a type of architecture that has nothing to do with either the Goths (had swords) or the Goths (have ipods). The term is also applied to a type of literature, which may have influenced the Goths (tend to have piercings), but not the Goths (tended to pierce people), and may have itself drawn some inspiration from Gothic architecture. So, here we have a term that describes a certain style of writing, a certain style of building, and a certain style of fashion, none of which are really connected to the original meaning of the term which denoted a bunch of folk from northern Europe who moved to sunnier climates.

Now that we are clear on that…

There are, essentially, four things the term ‘Celt’ is attached to –

1. A historical ethnic group.

2. A family of languages.

3. Archaeological material (well, not really; I get to this in a moment).

4. A bunch of fanciful modern nonsense about faeries, druids, new-age Christian hokum, spirituality, and an economic bubble.

Let’s all agree to ignore 4. So, what are these three Celtic things, and how are they all ‘Celtic’  but not about the Celts? The problem lies with 17th and 18th century scholars (many of the world’s problems are the fault of these guys). These people were working in the dark, fumbling around with artifacts, languages, and cultures, attaching names that made sense at the time, but no longer do. All they had to work with were the histories handed down by propagandists, politicians, and priests (hardly the most trustworthy of folk), and the things they dug up, and had to make some sense out of it all. Certain elements of this process were easy; the ancient Romans and Greek were very helpful in leaving tons and tons of things in the ground and in books to be found by these scholars. Sadly, these scholars believed everything the Romans and Greeks wrote in these books. So when it was said that there were a people called the Celts, and that they were barbarians, it was believed. Almost everyone in Europe who was not Roman or Greek was labelled a Celt, because it was easier to think of great empires and cultures in opposition, civilisation in contrast to barbarity, bad guys versus good guys, us against them. Utter nonsense, of course, but that’s basically the way it was thought of for centuries.

So, history, archaeology, and culture were all muddled up by these scholars, creating a new version of the myth of the Celt (Caesar got there first in many respects, but more on that later). Then, in the 19th century, simply because academics love making things far more complicated than necessary, philologists decided to name a group of languages, which until then didn’t really have much in common with the ‘Celts’ of the historians or archaeologists, Celtic. To make matters worse, around this period racism was becoming tremendously popular, and nationalism was really taking off. Nations had to invent identities, foundation myths, reasons for why you are not one of us. Utter nonsense again, of course, but people are stupid. Certain peoples looked back and picked the bits of history they like; the anti-monarchical French liked to identify themselves as Gauls, ‘Celts’ who had resisted the imperial ambitions of a certain Roman; the English liked the idea of being made up of various peoples who had kicked the crap out of the Britons, ‘Celts’ who had been conquered by Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans; and the Irish, being not-English, began to identify themselves as ‘Celts’, something which the neighbours agreed with as they had a fondness for kicking the crap out of Celts. Did the Celts of France, Britain, and Ireland have anything in common? No. And yes… It’s complicated.

Language timothy, language.

Latin survives today as Portuguese, Romanian, French, Spanish, Occitan, Catalan, and the various Italian dialects mostly because the Romans were very, very good at killing some people, and educating those who were left. Sadly, a great number of these people spoke various forms of what is called ‘Celtic’. They didn’t call it Celtic, and they might not even have realised that their languages were related; a Portuguese person might have rather a hard time understanding a Romanian, though technically they are speaking very similar languages. The various peoples of Gaul who spoke Celtic languages might not have immediately understood one another, but they would have definitely had a hard time comprehending the Irish, or the Galatians (who lived in central modern Turkey), even though they were all speaking ‘Celtic’ languages. Not that Caesar cared when he was conquering Gaul; all that mattered to him was that they didn’t speak Latin and they had lots of gold, which he wanted. Keep an eye on this Caesar fella, a lot of the problem is in many ways his fault.

Scholars in the 19th century, when confronted with a bunch of languages, which were clearly related, found in a vast region stretching from Anatolia, central Europe, northern Italy, France, Iberia, and the British Isles looked in the works of ancient writers to see if they could find some great empire or culture to explain this phenomenon. They took a liking to the ‘Celts’ and the name stuck; these languages became known as Celtic, divided into Insular and Continental branches, the latter of which became extinct, though the former survives as Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

A family tree of languages. Click to blow your mind… (Image via Wikipedia)

Are these languages Celtic? Yes, in a very specific linguistic sense meaning that there is a language family which scholars use the term ‘Celtic’ to identify. Were the people who spoke these languages, and those who still do, Celts? No. They may, at best, be called Celtic-speakers, which would be like calling Americans German-speakers (see how often you can get away with saying that to an American before irk turns to anger). The Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Breton speak Celtic languages but are not Celts.

Celtic_sword_and_scabbard_circa_60_BCE.

Pointy stabby thing, also known as ‘sword’ (Image via Wikipedia).

Swords, Scabbards, and other Stuff.

As before, there was a time when anything non-Roman from the Stone Age on was synonymous with ‘Celtic’, but the limits of that term were eventually reduced to the Iron Age, an then into two specific periods, La Tène and Hallstatt. The folk of La Tène persuasion are customarily associated with the Celts of Caesar. The use of Celtic languages far exceeded the territories encompassed by these cultures, which may have included non-Celtic speaking populations. We might suppose that, as there was a certain unity of material culture and language in central Europe, these people were Celts, but ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Britain possess little in the way of this material culture, but are the only places where the language survives. Even the Celtic-speaking peoples of Iberia, the cleverly named Celtiberians (I bet it took months to come up with that), were hardly touched by the La Tène culture. And let’s not get into the difficulties thrown up by the Celtic-speaking Galatians of Anatolia. Can we tie artifacts and remains to languages, and make them both Celtic, essentially inventing a people with a shared ethnic, linguistic, and material identity? Well, yes, if you ignore the facts, which is what people generally seem to do.

There are more Roman archaeological artifacts found in Ireland than ‘Celtic’, which would, with seriously flawed logic, suggest that the Irish were in fact Romans. Which would be an impressive feat, since the Romans never invaded Ireland. So,  what is commonly referred to as ‘Celtic’ in an archaeological sense is really two separate material cultures, neither of which are in any serious way connected to ‘Celtic’ languages, or the modern ‘Celtic’ nations, aside from the use of fancy interlacing to entice shoppers to buy ‘authentic’ Celtic merchandise. We must then conclude that archaeology cannot tell us who the Celts were, only that there were a bunch of people hanging out in Central Europe who made things in a certain distinctive way before the Romans came along and ruined the party. But at least it gets us closer than language does.

Julius Caesar, bane of Gauls and historians (image via Wikipedia)

A Tapestry of Lies.

As for historical Celts? Well. This is where the fun really begins. Celts appear first in the writings of the Ancient Greeks, who wrote that the ‘Keltoi’ lived up around the Danube, northern Italy, and also in southern France. Which seems to map onto the La Tène scheme of things. Caesar gives the most information on these Celts, which is not surprising as he had an excellent research opportunity,  getting up close and personal with the Gauls, what with his conquering, killing, and enslaving campaign. That kind of thing won votes back in Rome, and he was aiming for the big leagues. It’s a pity that he was a politician and a soldier, as his views of the Gauls are heavily laden with stereotypes which had been around for centuries. He is the only person to refer to certain ‘Celtic’ practices, such as the Wicker Man, and so we cannot know if they are true. Caesar was keen to point out, though, that the Gauls were  semi-civilised, unlike the utterly barbaric Germans, but at least Teutonic trains run on time. All references to Celtic culture and religion are based on Graeco-Roman stereotypes, and, as far as I know, no mention is made of Celtic art in their literature. So, in modern terms, Caesar was a racist, and only saw what he wanted to see. To be fair, he was a clever guy, so let’s give him the benefit of doubt, and say that he was telling the Romans back home what they wanted to hear. But, essentially, he was like an Englishman going to America, writing home about the barbarous customs and foods (creationism and cheese in a can) he found there, while ignoring their contribution to world culture and science (jazz and the moon landings).

I suppose we could say that at least Caesar confirms that the people of Gaul called themselves Celts, until we recall that the Romans didn’t care what any named themselves; they called the Greeks Greek! The Greeks called (and still call) themselves Hellenes, since the place where they come from is called Helles. See how that works? Amazing, simple, apt. Like the Romans gave a damn. Uncultured sheep-herders living on the tops of hills near a swamp, the Romans re-baptised the entire Hellenic people after the first ones they met, the Graeci. Imagine if on meeting an American for the first time you asked for their surname, and from that point onwards referred to all Americans by that name. One of the first Americans I ever met was a Mr. Hickey, which would make all Americans Hicks, or Hickeans. In any event, when Caesar says that the Gauls called themselves Celts, he may have just been quoting the Greeks, because nobody back in Rome really cared what the Gauls called themselves, so long as they made good slaves or stayed dead. So they may have been Celts, maybe. But they were not seen to be the same as the people of Aquitaine or northern France, or even Iberia, or Britain. Caesar only describes a small portion of the people we would expect to be called Celts as Celtic. It’s almost like he was making it up…

Interestingly, Caesar didn’t call the people of Britain Celts, but Belgians (of a sort). And throughout the Middle Ages none of the surviving ‘Celtic’ peoples of the British Isles called themselves Celts, or had any notion that they had a shared heritage, other than the fact that they were extremely fond of killing each other. Historically speaking, the ‘Celts’ of the British Isles weren’t labelled as Celts until much much more recently.

So. There you have it.

What have we learned? The ‘Celts’, as they are commonly understood, never existed, and while certain aspects of the linguistic, archaeological, and historical notions of a Celt overlap, they do not provide us with who or what a Celt really was. A person from a La Tène influenced region of central Gaul who spoke a Celtic language may tick all the boxes of what is needed to be a Celt, but this would exclude so many others, making the whole notion invalid.

So, in conclusion, I must apologise. I said at the beginning I was going to tell you who the Celts really were, and I haven’t. But it’s not my fault, nobody can. And anyone who says otherwise has either discovered something revolutionary, and should be published in a book, or is a nutter, and should be hit with one.

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Patrick, Destroyer of Worlds.

The Apostle of the Irish.

Saint Patrick is, at best, an enigmatic figure, mostly myth and very little fact. The apparition of this historical character which is held in the public mind is Saint Patrickvague at best, and there are many half- and mis-truths circulating on the Internet and the bookshelves about him. While several of the fantastical elements of his legend have been dismissed from popular consciousness, many more persist, and while there has been a substantial amount of investigation as to who the ‘real’ Patrick was, the myth is sustained. This is, to a certain degree, understandable; fantasy is sometimes more fun than reality, that’s why we made it up. I believe, however, that the history of Patrick, and the manner in which his myth has been used, is far more interesting than the myth itself.

A Guide for the Perplexed.

If you find any of the following ‘facts’ in a book, put it down and walk away; if someone informs you of them, please enlighten them;

1. Patrick was born in Scotland on a specific date (385 is the popular one), began his mission to Ireland on a specific date, and died on a specific date. Sorry, but no; there are no dates for Patrick or anything he did, except that his conversion efforts probably began after 431. He was born in Roman Britain, somewhere on its north-west coast, which includes bits of modern-day England and Wales. And the year of his death is recorded four times in the Annals, which is impressive, since even Jesus (supposedly) only rose from the dead once.

2. He studied at the monastery of Lérins in France, or was a student of St Germanus of Auxerre. No proof for this whatsoever. Not a shred. This little ‘fact’ was invented hundreds of years later to provide this rogue preacher with an honorable pedigree, and to ‘prove’ that he was a legally ordained bishop, and not just some random guy who heard voices.

3. Patrick’s mission covered the whole island of Ireland. Sure, but only if by ‘the whole island’ you mean ‘Connacht and Ulster’. There is no good reason to believe he ventured into Leinster or Munster. Again, this was inserted hundreds of years later by the writers of Armagh who were doing their level best to make themselves top dog over all the Irish churches.

4. He converted all of the Irish to Christianity. Nope. Wrong again. There were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that Pope Celestine dispatched a bishop from Rome to rule over this flock in 431, a man named Palladius, who is specifically referred to as ‘the first bishop of the Irish’ by the chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine. These Christians were in Leinster, and so the theory goes that the mission of Palladius was subsumed into the myth of Patrick over hundreds of years so that Armagh could claim the entire island as being under their authority.

Oxalis acetosella

Image via Wikipedia

5. The shamrock/trinity thing. Again, no evidence. Or for the snakes thing (but nobody ever really believed that one anyway, right?), or for his battling with druids, or converting High-Kings at Tara (there weren’t any High-Kings at the time, and they wouldn’t have lived at Tara, it was a ceremonial site). Some reckon that the banishing of snakes is symbolic of his getting rid of the native paganism (which he didn’t, it survived til at least the 7th century) because the druids painted snakes on their bodies. There is no evidence for that, and since there were no snakes in Ireland that image may have been unfamiliar to the native population anyway. He didn’t invent the Celtic Cross (I really don’t know where a certain channel that specialises in history got that one from), and he didn’t superimpose Easter over native traditions, but this would, in fairness, at least follow the well-established pattern of how Christianity co-opted local traditions, although the Paschal celebration had a habit of wandering, and no-one knows what calendar Patrick used.

6. He’s a saint. Oh no wait, he isn’t. Not officially anyway. He was never canonised, but that’s just the old-school way of doing things; many saints were never officially canonised, but given a blanket get-into-heaven-free card. And once he began appearing in stained-glass windows in churches, and people started having parades, and naming things after him, it would have been rather hard for the Vatican to say “ah, hang on, he’s not on our list”, so Patrick is, in a sense, a saint by popular consent, which is how sainthood was decided before the Church started taking the fun out of faith with rules, tithes, and sin.

7. Patrick cunningly converted the Irish with wordplay by replacing their worship of the sun with veneration of the Son. That is just stupid; neither he nor the Irish spoke English, no-one did, it hadn’t been invented yet. And you can’t change any combination of grian or sol into mac or filius (the Irish and Latin for sun and son respectively) by any stretch of the imagination. And besides, the worshiping of things would have been anathema to a Christian; the sun may have been a symbol of Christ or God, but to worship it as God would have been heretical.

8. He was the first Protestant. Again, not invented yet. There have always been schismatics, heretics, dissenters, and reformers in the Christian Church, but Protestantism refers to a very specific movement which began when a man nailed his thoughts to a door over a thousand years after Patrick died. To call Patrick a Protestant is deeply historically inaccurate. He is venerated by the both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (to varying degrees), and several Protestant Churches, and was accepted as a saint long before all these Churches formally split up to pursue their own careers.

Patrick wanted Us All Dead.

What do we really know about Patrick? Very little, but enough to build a historical figure more interesting than the myth. His second appearance in Ireland seems to have been due to a personal call from God, rather than being dispatched on an official mission from Rome. So right from the start, Patrick is a free radical in the Christian Church. He did convert people, build churches, and all that, but may not have been a popular figure after his death as his cult largely vanishes until Armagh stoke the fires a few hundred years later for their own ends. The most fun possibility about Patrick, in my opinion, was that he was trying to kill everyone. Seriously. Apocalypticism was really popular in the 5th century; some missionaries hoped to accelerate the return of the Messiah by going to the extremes of the Earth to convert whoever they found. Patrick, considering that he wrote a letter defending his actions in Ireland against the disparaging remarks of bishops, might well have been one of these apocalyptic charismatics, not unlike certain elements of American TV evangelism. What may be a wonderful irony is that, because of this letter, Patrick was remembered while the bishops, who may have been the true founders of Christianity in Ireland, were forgotten. Patrick was probably an evangelical Christian who went rogue, a fact that Armagh airbrushed out in their great myth-building books about him, inventing a good and orthodox Christian hero who performed magic tricks. And he didn’t wear a pointy hat.

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).

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.

Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense.

There has been, in recent years, a growing trend in ‘Celtic’ themed products and beliefs in this nation perpetuated by streams of American tourists whose dollars we so desperately want. There are shops specialising in Celtic jewellery, candles and books, Celtic rituals, new-age Celtic pagans, books of Celtic names, and other such fanciful re-imaginings of fact to be found in every town, city, culture centre and airport in this little island. Most of this might be dismissed as harmless nonsense, a mildly irksome trend designed to capture tourist wealth, the source of a raised eyebrow, dismissive glance, or exasperated sigh by people who know better. There is, however, a particular undercurrent of ignorance and lies propagated by such popular ideologies. While I had been aware of such a thing, it had never angered me, until ‘Celtic Christianity’ received its fifteen minutes of fame early one morning on RTÉ Radio 1 on the Pat Kenny Show.[1] A certain individual[2] had written a new book arguing that Catholicism was essentially the first multinational corporate body. It wasn’t, simply because ‘nations’ did not exist until the 17th or 18th centuries, and corporate bodies were recognised in the pagan Roman Republic before Jesus was even born. Latin writers of Antiquity and the Middle Ages did often use the word natio to describe peoples and communities, but they did not mean ‘nation’ as we understand it today. He also stated that Ireland was home to a more pure and spiritual form of the faith called Celtic Christianity. The show received several texts and e-mails from people expressing surprise in this ‘fact’, and many were intrigued and appalled at the suppression of ‘our native faith’.

Let me be absolutely clear: Celtic Christianity never existed. It is an entirely modern invention. How can I be so sure? Well, firstly, and most importantly, the Celts, as they are commonly conceived, never existed, and they certainly never came to Ireland, therefore there could never have had a version of Christianity on these islands in any way associated with the Celts. Secondly, there was no exceptionally unique version of Christianity, such as that which the guest suggests, on these islands for any imaginary Celts to have.

‘Celtic’ is a linguistic term, like ‘Latin’ or ‘Germanic’. ‘Celtic’ refers to a family of languages which a certain group of people spoke. The remains of these languages are found in Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Manx. ‘Celtic’ was attached to this linguistic group by 18th century scholars. This does not mean that the Irish, Welsh, etc., were Celtic people in a racial sense, or even in a cultural sense, but only in a linguistic sense. The English speak a Germanic language, yet they are not called German. France, Spain, Italy, Romania, parts of Africa, and all of South America speak languages descended from Latin. This does not make them ‘Roman’ or ‘Latin’ peoples. There were La Tène and Halstatt cultures in Central Europe, which may have been comprised of Celtic-speaking peoples, but they too were not ‘Celts’. Someone who knows their Caesar might then cry out that he refers to the Celts of Gaul, and that even the Ancient Greeks wrote of contact with a Celtic people. These ancient authorities were not even remotely concerned with historical, factual accuracy when writing about peoples outside their ‘civilisations’. They would have met a community and then named whole peoples or regions, and their culture, after that one community. The whole island of Britannia is named after one tribe which inhabited the south of the island, simply because they were Rome’s first contacts with the native population. ‘Africa’ referred roughly the lands encompassing Tunisia to Libya, and was named after the Afri tribe. Now it is the name given to an entire continent and people.[3] Demonstrably, names are not always accurate descriptions of reality. There was probably a tribe who may have called themselves something close to ‘Celts’ somewhere in Central Europe (their word was rendered into Greek, then Latin, so we don’t know exactly what they called themselves), and their name was applied to a whole culture which spread across continental Europe, but there were certainly no ethnic Celts in Ireland. What were the Irish then, if not Celtic? They called themselves ‘Gael’, or ‘Féne’, while in Latin they were called the ‘Scotti’.[4] They did not call themselves, or think of themselves belonging to a race of people called, ‘the Celts’. The native inhabitants of Ireland absorbed a Celtic language, and elements of the material culture most closely resembling that of La Tène, which possibly derived from Celtic-speaking peoples, but none of whom were necessarily ‘Celts’ themselves.

It might be argued then that I am simply being pedantic. While there were no Celts in Ireland that does not mean that there was no ‘Celtic Church’. The term ‘Celtic’ might be applied to distinguish the native Church from that of Roman Catholicism. It is true that the Irish Church had developed some interesting innovations which distinguished it from the continental Church, and in this sense could be referred to as ‘Celtic’ in the same fashion as the ‘British’, ‘Merovingian’ or ‘Visigothic’ Churches, which all fell under the umbrella of Rome. The problem is that ‘Celtic’ has become a loaded term. Scholars will refer to an Insular Church, but not to a Celtic one simply because ‘Celtic’ is not an accurate term when discussing the history of Ireland, outside of literature. Even if we were to be kind an accept that the terms ‘Celtic’ and ‘Insular’ might be synonymous, the Celtic Christianity espoused by Pat Kenny’s guest on the nation’s airwaves is a complete and utter fallacy which obscures historical truth.

Here follows several samples of his misrepresentation of fact:

Pat Kenny: “Would they [Celtic monks or priests] have been married?”

Guest: “I think they would certainly have had partners. They practiced concubinage…”

The Insular Church condemned concubinage among the laity in the De concubines non habendis cum legtima uxore (“On not have concubines as well as a legitimate wife”), found in the Collectio canonum Hibernensis. Celibate bishops had the highest honour-price of all clerics in Irish law.[5] On the other hand British bishops often took wives.[6] This simply due to the fact that the vow of celibacy was only made a mandatory feature of clerical orders at the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century, and re-affirmed at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, long after the more curious habits of the Insular Church ceased to be practiced, some time in the ninth century. Irish monks tended to take vows of celibacy, but priests often did not. This was an aspect of religious life common to all of Western Europe, yet the author portrays this as being a unique feature of the ‘Celtic Church’, a blatant misrepresentation of historical fact.

Guest: “… the Irish developed a form of Christianity quite independently of Rome…”

The first bishop of the Irish was Palladius, personally appointed and dispatched by Pope Celestine in AD429.[7] This is the first reliable date connected to Ireland, and is accepted as being the beginning of the history of Ireland. The first date in Irish history is a direct contact to Rome. Around AD633 the Irish cleric Cummian convened a synod to discuss the Easter Question. The synod could not come to agreement, so a delegation was sent to Rome to ask for the judgement of the papacy. This Irish bishop was following canon law to the letter, and shows that the Irish Church did see Rome as its superior and the ultimate court of arbitration, and that it was in contact with the See of Peter. In fact there are several letters of communication back and forth, from Rome to Ireland, which survive from the pre-Norman period, illustrating that the Irish Church was in sustained and frequent contact with its patriarch on issues of doctrine and canon law. This is hardly evidence of the type of ‘independence’ which the guest suggests.

Guest: “… [the Irish form of Christianity was] what we now call, in terms of heresy, (in inverted commas) Pelagian.”

The guest also informs listeners, at a later point, that Palladius had been sent to Ireland to confront the Pelagian heresy, which is true. However, Palladius seems to have been successful as the Pelagian heresy was suppressed by the late 5th century, before the growth of the Insular monasticism in the 7th and 8th centuries, which is evidently what the guest claims to be the shining example of the ‘Celtic Church’. He may be referring to a 7th century letter from Pope-elect John IV in which Rome mistakenly confuses the Eater controversy in Ireland with Pelagianism. The Irish were not Pelagian, at least not after AD500, long before the Golden Age of Irish monasticism, which is obviously the period which inspired the guest.

Guest: “The God we believe in is one of our own creation… …spirituality is what the spirit within you that makes you free”

Is he a closet atheist? He also states at various points that he does not submit to the judgment of the Church but instead relies on his own. This is a laudable principle, yet he fuses it, somehow, with spirituality, and with what he believes to be the true form Christianity. The ‘spirit within’ that makes individuals free is Reason. The guest has freed himself from the institutions of faith, but remains bound to their ideologies. He has questioned his faith, but only to a point. He has realised that the Catholic Church is not the vessel of God’s truth, but he still clings to the same ultimate fantasy as they do. It is almost as if he has seen through the illusion, but has decided, rather than turn from it entirely, to refashion it to suit his own purposes.

Also, contrary to what the guest and Pat Kenny say, modern scholars hold that the Jews were not slaves in Egypt but were employed as highly skilled labourers and courtiers.

In fairness to the guest he is correct on many of his views concerning the expansion of the Church of Rome, and its partnership with the Roman Empire, and I agree with many of his more philosophical views of how faith evolved, its perverse view of sexuality, and that Jesus would be horribly disappointed in how his teachings have been corrupted by institutionalised faith. The Insular Church did disagree with Rome on several issues of practice but never doctrine. They held the exact same religious views as Rome, but granted greater powers of administration to abbots, cut their hair a different way, and had a different day for Easter. The guest makes specific reference to the last point, as if it were something special. The great Christian cities, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, all had slightly different ways of calculating Easter, and so often celebrated it at different times. So did the Irish, but it happened that the Merovingian Church was attempting to standardise Easter in its lands at the same time that it was receiving an influx of Irish missionaries who celebrated the movable feast on a different day, causing some upset. Vast swathes of Christendom, and many of its most important cities, were conquered by Islam leaving Rome in the west and Constantinople in the east as the patriarchs of the Church. Merovingian France was the most powerful kingdom in the west, so Rome agreed with it. This is not evidence of a different, more spiritual religion, only of widespread differing religious practices.

At the end of the program a contribution from a listener was read out. In brief, it is said that the illustrious Columbanus did not accept the primacy of Rome, and specific mention is made of a letter he sent to Rome telling them to ‘look after their own business,’ and leave him alone. This is not exactly what happened. Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory the Great, an educated reformer whom the Irish monk saw as a like-minded individual, hoping to convince him that the Insular method of calculating Easter was far superior to the Gaulish method, and that the Merovingian bishops were exploiting the laity through practicing such contemptible acts as simony.[8] What also comes across in Columbanus’ letters is his acceptance of papal authority in such controversial matters, but with a certain caveat. The popes were, for Columbanus, the leaders of the Church as the rightful heirs of Peter, but they could only enforce the laws of the organisation, not change them; such a power could only rest in the hands of the Church as a whole, as decided upon by synods.[9]

There was no Celtic Church as defined by Pat Kenny’s guest. While older scholars have referred to a ‘Celtic Church’ modern scholars have replaced it with the more accurate term ‘Insular Church’. Neither of these names, which refer to one organisation, agree with the Celtic Christianity as espoused by the guest. This Celtic faith is based on assumption, and a misleading interpretation of the evidence. He also projects modern terms and concepts back on the past, which is anachronistic, and academically and intellectually reprehensible, if not irresponsible. There are many examples of the popular history of Ireland to be found on the bookshelves which are worthwhile to read, but this work is absurd in its portrayal of religion in Medieval Ireland. It would be laughable had it not been conferred a worrying level of legitimacy by appearing on the programme of a respected broadcaster such as Pat Kenny. Due to this, many of the opinions stated, however true or false they may be, and which were dressed up as historic fact, have passed into the popular domain. Misinformation and obfuscation have been granted a seal of approval. Lies and half-truths have been planted in the minds of listeners.

I would welcome the disintegration of organised religion, as would Pat Kenny’s guest, but not if it were to be replaced by local “bioregional spiritualities that go beyond both monotheism and polytheism.”[10] This is pure nonsense. ‘Bioregional’ has nothing to do with faith, it is an ecological term invented in the 1980’s. ‘Spirituality’ is a vague tapestry of lies. The only thing that goes beyond mono- and polytheism is atheism. Pat Kenny’s guest is using vague and pseudo-scientific language to grant himself an air of authority, and perverting history to ‘prove’ his theses. This acceptance of abject deceit, whether intentional or inadvertent, which has become pervasive in today’s society, has been long recognised as a threat to Science. It is also a menace to other forms of investigation. An attack on real History,[11] and the acceptance of pseudo-history, allows fanciful notions of ersatz nationalism to take root, and for the recognition of quasi-historical works, such as the Bible, as unadulterated fact. This must not be tolerated.


[1] Today with Pat Kenny, 07-01-2010, available for download from the RTÉ website, 1:39:10. The website promoting the book in question can be found at http://www.aislingmagazine.com/index.html.

 

[2] I am not entirely aware of the legalities of naming private individuals in an essay such as this, but he is named in the radio programme, and his website http://www.daramolloy.com/.

[3] Think this is crazy? That this could only happen in ancient times and would never happen in the modern era? When explorers first arrived in what would be Canada they asked the Iroquois natives of a village what was the name of the place they were in. The Iroquois replied ‘Kanada’, and so the country was named. Later it was learned that ‘Kanada’ means ‘village’ in the Iroquois language.

[4] The Scots are descended from Irish populations which established themselves in the west of the county and intermarried with the native Picts. Both the inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland were recognised as having a common origin for most of the Middle Ages.

[5] Corpus iuris Hibernici, Miadsleachta.

[6] Gildas, De excidio Britanniae.

[7] Prosper of Aquitaine, Chronicle.

[8] Hughes, K., “The Celtic Church and the Papacy”, in Lawrence, C.H. (ed.), The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages, (Burns and Oates; London, 1965), p13. (Please note that ‘Celtic’ here refers to ‘Insular’; this article was written before the scholarly shift in terminology.)

[9] ibid¸ p16

[10] From his website http://www.aislingmagazine.com/globalisation/theses.html.

[11] Acceptable, and accessible, works on the history of Early and Medieval Ireland are available in bookstores, such as Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. There is also A New History of Ireland, Vol.1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, which contains various works by many eminent scholars in the field. This essay was written specifically with these works in mind (except for two explicit references to an article by Kathleen Hughes which will only be available to certain libraries) so that anyone who was curious could easily investigate my sources.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.