Tag Archives: Medieval Ireland

Stranger Things: The Life of Saint Brigit and Her Astonishing Miracles

A Traditional Irish Upbringing
Growing up in Ireland, you tend to imbibe many tales about Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit, and the odd local favourite like Brendan or Columba. As a kid, I always found Saint Patrick more exciting – after all, he killed druids with magic. Yes, there is a miracle where Saint Patrick gets a druid’s brains dashed out all over the ground. The character of Saint Patrick, as one eminent historian once described, was basically a medieval Dirty Harry. Saint Brigit, well, she was a bit lacklustre by comparison. Her miracles involved taunting kings with tame foxes, making implausible amounts of cheese (which, unless you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls, is not the most enthralling thing), hanging a cloak on a beam of light, and making some ducks change their direction of flight. Hardly thrill a minute stuff. Oh sure, we used to kill a few hours in school on the first day of February making crosses from reeds, but even that lost its escaping-schoolwork glamour after a certain age. It wasn’t until years later, during the course of my PhD, that I discovered that the stories of Brigit are awesome.

The Many Lives of Brigit
This is where things get a bit complicated, dear Reader, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like complicated things. First off, there is some debate about whether or not Brigit was a real person. Some scholars have suggested that the figure we know as Saint Brigit was a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian Irish goddess of the same name, pointing out that Brigit performs many of the duties of a fertility goddess (remember the cheese?). The contrary argument points to situation of her stories in the real world, the numerous named and identifiable characters she meets, and the unlikely fact that a Christian cult could be founded on top of a pagan one and no rival church exploited such a scandalous origin. I fall broadly into the latter camp (as I think most modern scholars do), while accepting the possibility that some aspects of the goddess were indeed appropriated by later generations and merged with a Christian holy woman called Brigit who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century.

Secondly, the textual tradition is debated. The earliest writings about Brigit are recorded in three saints’ Lives or Vitae. A Life is a genre of medieval religious literature designed to record the miracles of a given saint and extol their virtue, often to suit the political aims of those who control the cult of the saint – this latter point is important, so keep it in mind. Saints often have many Lives written about them, but I shall be concentrating on the earliest Lives of Brigit, of which there are three: two in Latin and one in Old Irish. And here is where we try to avoid the rabbit hole of the great debate on the priority of the Brigitine Lives. In short, it seems that there were three Latin Lives of Brigit written in the mid- to late seventh century, a good century and a half after Brigit would have died. One of these is known as Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit because a chap called Cogitosus wrote it. Now, sometime in the eighth century, someone gathered together these three Latin texts; basically, they made a collected or omnibus edition of the miracles of Brigit. This is known as the Vita Prima, not because it is the first Life written, but because it is the first of the Brigitine Lives in a collection of books called the Acta Sanctorum ‘The Acts of the Saints’. Then, at some later point again, somebody made an Old Irish translation of one of the anonymous Latin texts, except it has stories not found the Vita Prima, which mean someone was leaving things out or adding things in. Sadly, the two anonymous Latin texts have been lost to time, so we have a situation where we have a old text, a newer text which seems to have older material, and a newer text which should have the same material as the second, but doesn’t. And I’ll leave it there, dear Reader, because much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between these texts and I want to get to the good stuff.

Brigit, Wonderworker.
So, Brigit has some amazing miracles. Once a man came to ask for her hand in marriage; she wasn’t keen. After asking God to aid her, one of her eyes burst and liquefied in the socket. Liquefied her eye. The young man was less keen, and God helpfully restored her eye. Or how about the time she met some men who had sworn to kill a guy but Brigit caused them to hallucinate hacking him to bits, proudly displaying the gore on their swords to their kinsmen (this type of miracle seems to have been a favourite, as there are three different versions of it recorded in the Lives). On another occasion, some thieves dared to steal Brigit’s cattle, but as they drove the herd across a stream, the river rose up against them, washing them away, because Nature itself wouldn’t allow such a misdeed.

There is a very interesting miracle where Brigit asks a favour of the King of Leinster, and he asks what he will get in return: she offers him eternal life (in heaven) and that his descendents would be kings forever. The king replies that he has no need of a life he can’t see and his sons should make their own way in life (how… pragmatic). No, he wants his current life to be a long one, and he wants to be ever-victorious against his hated enemy: the Uí Néill. She grants him this boon and the king becomes invincible, winning thirty battles and waging nine campaigns in Britain. The moment he dies, the Uí Néill try to take advantage and invade, the Leinstermen tie the body of the king to a chariot ride into battle, routing the attackers like El Cid, but a good few hundred years earlier.

Brigit also performed an abortion. Did that get your attention, dear Reader? Yes indeed, Cogitosus wrote that a pregnant woman came to Brigit and the saint ‘cured’ the woman, miraculously reversing the pregnancy (a version of this miracle is also found in the Vita Prima). I want to underline the significance of this: an Irish Catholic saint, in a text written by a devoutly religious man who was operating at the behest of his brethren and who belonged to one of the most important and influential Irish churches, terminates a pregnancy. The women is not interrogated or condemned, she is not degraded or denounced. She has a problem and it is resolved. One can’t help but wonder if this was an allusion to a service that Kildare offered; medieval handbooks of medicinal recipes suggest that monks were well aware of methods to terminate pregnancies. Or perhaps Cogitosus was, through this tale, extending compassion to women in difficult situations; there is no mention of forgiveness, no sin has occurred. What makes this more surprising is that several other Irish saints performed similar miracles, all of whom were men. We may never know what lies behind these stories, and, in all fairness, I should point out that the medieval religious mind had a very different understanding of when the soul supposedly entered the body, but it is remarkable how popular this miracle was.


I have wondered, ever since I learned of this greater corpus of Brigitine miracles, why we were never told them in school. Actually, no I haven’t, it is pretty obvious why. Tales of a saint who goes around the country making cheese, curing the sick, and feeding the poor is one thing, but a woman equal in status to a bishop giving men violent visions of gory murder, aiding kings to bloody victory, and performing miraculous terminations? Yeah, that is not going to make it into the weekly sermon. Even if none of it ever happened, these were stories that inspired and entertained, gave solace and hope. Who knows what a different world we would have lived in if we celebrated St Brigit the Humble Badass instead of the saint that is hidden in the shadow of Patrick?

Still, I get a kick out the idea that, every first of February, kids all around Ireland are making crosses to St Brigit of the Miraculous Termination.


An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.

Medieval Myths about Ireland

The fanciful Welshman

Gerald of Wales (sometimes referred to by his Latin name, Giraldus Cambrensis) was a very interesting chap for many reasons: his grandmother was a mistress of Henry I, his father is the ultimate ancestor of the Barrys of Cork (who are famous for their tea), he was a monk, and he lived in Paris for a time. Oh, and he wrote a book (Topographia Hibernica, “The Topography of Ireland”) which denigrated the Irish and provided centuries of imperialists with invented fodder to argue that the Irish could not take care of their own affairs, and so should be given a kindly hand in doing so… Yeah… Anyway… Gerald visited Ireland twice, in 1183 and 1185, but doesn’t seem to have strayed very far from the Norman strongholds of Cork, Waterford, and Dublin: at one point he says that the interior of Ireland has many high mountains, which it does, except for the one small detail that it doesn’t. But we’ll let that slide, because, as you will soon see, this is not the strangest notion Gerald had about Ireland, not by a long shot.

I think Gerald was told a few Tall tales by an Irishman…

Gerald wrote that, not only do Irish badgers dig and scrape out holes in the earth for refuge and defence, some of them are born to serve (Bk. I, ch. 19). He informs us that one badger will hold a stick in its mouth and lie on its back while others pile dirt and stone on it. When fully loaded, the other badgers would then grasp the stick in their own mouths, as a handle, and drag the bizarre living bucket out of the sett. Apparently Welsh beavers did something similar…

The Welshman was also told that nothing poisonous lived in Ireland, and that any venomous creature that brought to the island immediately died, sometimes explosively (Bk. I, chs. 21-25). The appearance of a frog in Ossory (a kingdom which lay between Leinster and Munster) was taken as an evil portent of the coming of the English to Ireland… He also notes that this strange inability of poisonous animals to live in Ireland decided to whom the Isle of Man belonged: since poisonous reptiles live on it, Man must be British, not Irish (Bk. II, ch. 48).

The islands in the lakes, and around the coast, of Ireland appear to have had some unique properties (Bk. II, chs. 37-39). There was an island in a lake in north Munster where, if any female creature set foot upon it, they would instantaneously die. On another island, nobody could every die, but when they grew withered and worn and tired of life they sought help to transport them off the island (medieval precedence for assisted suicide?). On an island off the coast of Connacht innumerable corpses had been left out in the open air, where they remained without corruption or decay for centuries, such that men could recognise their ancestors by their faces. Oh, and for some strange reason, mice hated to be on this island, to the point that they would throw themselves into the sea once they realised where they are.

Apparently ravens could not alight upon the earth, or eat,  anywhere near Glendalough on the feastday of Saint Kevin (3 June), because, when the saint was living, a raven spilled his milk, and he cursed all ravens (Bk. II, ch. 61). Gerald also relates the interesting properties of a certain bell which was kept in the land of Mactalewus: if it wasn’t exorcised each night with a specially composed prayer, it would appear the next morning many miles away in the church at Clonard in Meath (Bk. II, ch. 66). Perhaps Irish monks were fond of pranking one another after a few too many sips of whiskey…

Gerald, after examining some of the miracles of Irish saints, concludes that:

“… just as the men of this country are, during this mortal life, more prone to anger and revenge than any other race, so in the eternal death of the saints of this land that have been elevated by their merits are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.” (Bk. II, ch. 83)

Yeah, he’s not wrong there; Irish saints seemed to have been more ‘Dirty Harry’ than ‘turn the other cheek’.

Some nice things that he said,

Gerald reckoned that the very air of Ireland promoted good health, such that there was little need for doctors (Bk. I, ch. 26), and that anyone who lived in Ireland never suffered from any sickness or ailment, other than death. Which is nice of him to say, but Irish Law made explicit provisions for doctors, hospices, and the care of the sick. He did note the rain (how could he not?), but that this was actually a good thing, since the overall climate was good for one’s health (he had some very nasty things to say about dry, sunny places!).

The Irish were, Gerald reckoned, incomparable when it came to music, and that the Welsh and Scots strive to emulate Irish music (Bk. III, ch. 94).

And some not-so-nice things…

Gerald did write that the Irish have

“… beautiful upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces… fully endowed with natural gifts…”

but also that

“their external characteristics of beard and dress, and internal cultivation of the mind, are so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture… They are a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living… this people despises work on the land, has little use for the money-making of towns, contemns the rights and privileges of citizenship, and desires neither to abandon, nor lose respect for, the life which it has been accustomed to lead in the woods and countryside” (Bk. III, ch. 93)

That’s a little harsh, Gerry; just because the Irish didn’t have the same settlement patterns as you were familiar with doesn’t mean they were beasts. And, by the time the Anglo-Normans invaded, there were a few cities dotted around the island. Maybe Gerald was a prescient Conservative who didn’t like all this hippy communal living, eco-friendly worldview of the Irish… Ah, probably not.

“This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice… They do not avoid incest. They do not attend God’s church with due reverence. … men in many places in Ireland… debauch the wives of their dead brothers.” (Bk. III, ch. 98)

Ah well now, this is just a misunderstanding. Under Irish law it was not uncommon for a man to marry his dead brother’s widow: this was mostly to insure that property stayed within the family, and to ensure her, and her offspring’s, rights were protected. As for not attending the church with due reverence… Well… I’ll let that one lie…


Gerald has a very long list of the vices of the Irish, but he affirms that Ireland is a lovely place. Can you see what he is doing? He is basically offering an argument to his patron, Henry II, that the English should just move in; the Irish aren’t up to much, and sure they don’t hardly use the land at all, it’s a good thing to take it from them. Here we have one of the roots of the colonial myth that has been imposed across Africa, the New World, Asia, and Eastern Europe by Imperialists for centuries. The Topographia Hibernia was accepted as an accurate work on the history and culture of Ireland for hundreds of years, read and reread by successive generations, quoted endlessly to justify the subjugation of the Irish. This, among other reasons, is why history, as an academic discipline, is vital: lies and half-truths are entertaining, and engaging, but they are also misleading, and often cloud real issues. While Gerald’s work is valuable for many reasons (he records in great detail certain aspects of Irish and Hiberno-Norman life, music, and culture, and his attitudes are very indicative of the time), it is also a reflective device: the Topographia Hibernia is propaganda, pure and simple, and though we might laugh at his strange notions now, some still endure in various guises. We can see how he carefully laid his argument, how he planned the myth of a bountiful land left wasting by its native inhabitants. The discipline of history does not accept a written text as gospel, it interrogates it, it seeks out every contradiction and flaw, every accuracy and concordance. This is a very useful skill to have, to be able to analyse in detail the politically motivated writings of long dead authors, which may or may not have had tremendous historic repercussions, not only because it offers some insight into the past, but because we see the same propaganda alive and well in the modern world. You don’t see it? Can you think of any nation that, for ‘historic’ reasons, is subjugating or terrorising another? Can you think of a political party that demonises its opponents? How about a culture whose role in society is sidelined because it doesn’t fit in with the approved ‘norm’? Gerald was writing from a position of imperialistic vitriolic prejudice, a malady which continues to infect the human condition, which can only be shorn away by reason, and the acceptance of all humanity in its wonderous variety.

Bad History.

I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s very very wrong…

I was recently introduced to a woeful show, ‘Legend Quest’, which appears on a channel called ‘SyFy’, a series purporting to be based in such factual disciplines as history and archaeology. Let’s cut to the chase; it isn’t. This programme is little less than a shallow pool of supposition coupled with annoying camera-work; logic and reason take a back seat as history and archaeology are abused in some bizarre effort to capitalise on Dan Brown’s gimmick of dressing fact with fantasy. Part of the problem might be in that the channel is not what one would call a reputable source of documentary broadcasts, and aside from that, can’t spell ( the contraction derives from Science-Fiction, where have those ys come from? And since when do sci-fi and fantasy belong to the same genre? How can the incomparable Philip K. Dick be dragged on to the same spectrum as George R. R. Martin?). This programme, with its annoying premise blurring fact and fiction, wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t portrayed as a documentary, a factual presentation set in the real world, if we weren’t led to believe that it offers us history, the very meaning of which is not fiction, not fantasy, just facts interpreted logically and reasonably.

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia (Image via Wikipedia)

Identity Theft.

Let’s take a look at some of the mysteries this series claims to have resolved. In the first episode we are treated to a new twist on the legend of the Ark of the Covenant, and a Scotsman doing his best impersonation of Indiana Jones. He heads off with his crew to Ethiopia, which is a good start because the Ethiopian Church claims that they actually have the Ark under guard in Axum. Is this where the show takes us? No. We are instead brought to Lalibela, the second-most holy site in Ethiopia. Here, because the churches are carved out of rock, a feat which the presenter decides the people of the region incapable of, in the shape of crosses, we are told that the structures were cut out by the Templars (did I mention the presenter is a member of the modern Knights Templar?). Wow. I mean, what arrogance to suggest that the Ethiopians could not carve these churches, that they must have had help from more skillful Europeans. And what a leap it is to ‘confirm’ this theory with the moronic deduction that since the churches are in the shape on an equal-armed cross, the symbol of the Templars, they must have been built by that Crusading Order. It must be pointed out that this symbol was the accepted cross of the Orthodox Church for centuries before the Templars appeared on the scene. So, at best, this programme might have suggested that the Ark was in Lalibela for a while before being brought to Axum, and that is all that they could reasonably say. But no, that’s not conspiratorial enough for our intrepid host; the Templars took it from Ethiopia first to Tuscany, and then to the Cathedral of Chartres, which lies near Paris. Because that makes perfect sense.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

The leap to Tuscany is drawn from an image of a double-headed eagle on the walls of the church in Lalibela; this is a common symbol in the Near East, used by, among others, the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks, the Armenians, and the Hitties. I should make it clear that list covers several millennia of use before the Templars ever dreamed of heading off to foreign deserts to kill people for believing in a different interpretation of the same deity. But, what the hell, the presenter decides it must be a Templar symbol. He even meets a Grand Master of the Order who tells him clearly that one must distinguish between the myth and the history of the Templar. A delightfully veiled “cop the hell on”. And then the subject of the conversation leaps to Chartres Cathedral, which makes me want to see the uncut version as the interview we are shown is cut in a curious fashion. At Chartres the presenter finds a carving of the Ark which he takes to be evidence of the Ark’s presence. Yeah, because medieval Christian Churches don’t often have religious imagery from the Bible plastered all over their walls, columns, floors, windows, or every available surface. A scarred slab is ‘discovered’ in the middle of the cathedral, which the team decide must hide the Ark, not even for a moment pausing to ask anyone for the history of the site or architectural details. This slab may have been an entrance to a crypt, the site of an old altar, or any number of things other than a hole in which the Ark was hidden. The line of reasoning is as convincing as a wet sheet of paper is strong. Or, in other terms, slightly more convincing that homeopathy, but only slightly.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland (Image via Wikipedia)

A Sword and a Stone.

In another episode the presenter somehow conflates the legends of the Stone of Destiny with the Stone of Scone. Leaving aside whether or not (just so you know, not) these are the same object, the line of reasoning is again deeply flawed. First we are introduced to a real historian who has studied the Stone of Scone at Edinburgh Castle, and who essentially scoffs at the presenter’s crazy theory. Then we are treated to the crew’s obvious surprise at not being allowed to go in and film in the museum, with the not so subtle hint that the ‘establishment’ is trying to hide something. Really? What kind of professional TV crew, documentary or not, thinks that they can just walk on into a museum without asking for permission in advance? The whole scenario is clearly staged. Later, at Iona (I really do not know how they got to Iona, it makes no sense at all) they wander around the grounds, and move furniture and rugs without ever consulting anyone. There’s even a point where one of the crew asks if it is okay if they move things and the presenter replies, yeah if you do it with respect. What on earth does that mean? I have the sneaking suspicion they didn’t ask for permission this time, and just went ahead and filmed, which would explain why they are always running about breathlessly… They ‘discover’ a stone under the floor of a small room; for a hiding-place it’s not very clever if it can be found after two minutes of searching. And even then, all they find is a fairly plain stone slab which could be a headstone, since it has a cross inscribed on it; they have no, I repeat, no evidence to even suggest, let alone prove, that this is the true Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny, which apparently sits atop Tara in any case. Also, at one point the presenter states that Iona was founded by Scottish colonists, when it was in fact founded by Colum Cille of the Ui Neill of Ireland, and became a missionary base for Irish monks.

As for the episode concerning Excalibur, well, that’s easy. There was no King Arthur to have a sword, he’s just a myth, so there is no physical sword to be discovered; problem solved. Yet somehow we are given a twenty-minute romp through this man’s personal delusional version of history. I have no idea why the presenter thinks King Richard had Excalibur, that is a truly baffling leap, and how he came to the conclusion that Richard had to buy an army from Tancred in Sicily, when he in fact invaded it to secure the release of his sister from Tancred, has me stumped. And, predictably, the Templars are involved.

A web of lies.

Whoever wrote and researched this series would seem to have a similar obscene relationship with the truth as the Vatican, flirting with it, and touching it in a way that can only be described as uncomfortable. Leaps of ill-conceived logic are made frequently, religious art and icons are misinterpreted, and the process of historical and archaeological research, deduction, and reasoning are grossly misunderstood. I cannot believe that this claims to be reality, though it does belong on the SyFy channel, but only as a compliment to Warehouse 13, and with a clear indication that it is fictional.

This programme is painfully misleading, and its website is confusing. At the very beginning of the programme the presenter states:

“My name is Ashley Cowie. I’m an author and archaeologist explorer specializing in ancient symbols and mysterious legends. I’ve spent years studying some of the world’s most fascinating relics. Now I’m on the hunt to find where they are. Some would hope that these secrets remain hidden but I’ll leave no stone unturned to uncover the truth in my…”Legend Quest”.”

Firstly, what kind of archaeologist would put “author” first? Secondly, as a proclaimed archaeologist, it is suspicious that he has studied relics (a word I am reliably told a real archaeologist would never use) that he has never seen, or that nobody else has; that’s just not how archaeology works. Archaeologists go out and find things, and then study them, that’s the bloody point. Also, he never mentions what qualifies him as an archaeologist.

The associated website has some curious fictions of its own. We are informed that “In 2002, Ashley was elected into the “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” the oldest and most exclusive historical society in Europe.  Founded by Royal appointment in 1732, this society currently holds only 3000 fellows.” (http://www.syfy.com/legendquest/team/ashley_cowie). This is really weird, and I mean really. Firstly, why is “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland” surrounded by quotation marks? Is it not a reference to the real society, just one made up to make this guy look good? “Madness”, I hear you say, “You, dear author, have been infected by the conspiracy nonsense of this prattling man!” And you might be right, dear reader. But let me take you to secondly, which is that  “The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783.” (http://www.socantscot.org/content.asp?Page=251&Menu=237). The date on the SyFy website contradicts what the Society’s own website says, and the SyFy site is completely wrong in stating that the presenter is a member if the oldest historical society in Europe, it’s not even the oldest in Britain. His books don’t appear in their list of publications, but they do have a book on the Stone of Scone which contradicts what he argues. Something is very very wrong. On top of this the website biography states that the presenter is a historian, not an archaeologist as he claims in his introduction on the show. Furthermore, no reference is made to where, or to what degree, he was educated in either field. Is anyone else thinking that the fiction isn’t just contained to the programme itself?

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

If it’s supposed to be fantasy fair enough, but “Legend Quest” should be clearly labelled as such; lies like these can be dangerous, I might smack someone if I heard them rattle this nonsense off to a group of friends at a party. But seriously, if people are led to believe that what this man is doing is real history and archaeology it devalues those fields and builds a deeply misleading image of them in the minds of the viewers. His crazy conspiracies are given an element of credence by the documentary style of the programme, which might lead people to believe that what he says is true, when it is categorically not. He’s not within an ass’s roar of the truth.

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is what gives madmen power, it erodes the confidence people have in critical analysis and academic research, it allows the implausible to be dressed as the probable. A lie repeated confidently is believed true, and facts which offer truth are ignored. This is a seemingly more frequent occurrence in our TV shows, and the words of our elected officials; it’s all part of the same problem. Nobody takes the time to really think and reason things out, possibly because we are not taught this skill at school, but also due to the very fact that the people and programmes we have been inculcated to trust are using this trust against us to achieve their own ends.

Or maybe I’m just a cynic…

It seems I am not alone in doubt the legitimacy of this programme – http://tv.yahoo.com/news/syfy-channel-fabricates-footage-area-51-legend-quest-212600449.html .

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.


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.