Celtic spirituality in Druidic Europe —A revival according to ancient European tradition—
The Celts have left an extremely deep imprint within the European collective imagination that even today stimulates the imagination of artists, inspires poets and writers, spurs on spiritual seekers thanks to the powerful dream which animated the ancient rulers of Europe and the people from the Iron Age to today.
Old school archaeologists and anthropologists refer to the Celtic phenomenon by placing it starting from 1,000 BC. (Hallstatt C period from the VIII to VI centuries BC), passing to its maximum expansion point between 500-250 BC. (La Tène period) and declaring its end around 500 AD. It would be better to consider Celts instead as a group of peoples present in Europe between 1300 BC. and 1300 A.D., even if with greater accuracy our attention should be drawn to an even more ancient period. As already mentioned, old school scholars call Celts only the tribes settled in Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, France, England, parts of Belgium and Germany, Ireland, northern Spain between 1000 BC. and 500 AD, forgetting that the formation of Celtic culture on the one hand and the Roman conquest and the subsequent Christianisation of the Celtic peoples on the other, did not mark the precise and rigid boundaries regarding the appearance and disappearance of the great Western European tradition. In fact, it would be useful to define as ‘Celtic’ those groups of Indo-Europeans who, moving from the central areas of Asia through the Middle East and the Caucasus, arrived in Europe in various waves between 3500 and 1300 BC, integrating the ancient cult of the Goddess Mother Earth and Femininity with the new Masculine and Solar characteristics of the divinity, completely transforming the culture of the time and creating a tradition that is still at the forefront of the relationship between people, society and spirituality.
The Celts had a culture which was inextricably linked to nature and the forms of their art expressed in an exemplary way the continuous interweaving of opposites which create the duality which gives life to our own reality today: day and night, good and evil, the season’s hot and cold, high and low, front and back, top and bottom, inside and outside. The undulating succession of lines and motifs, the sudden and somehow absurd metamorphoses present in ornamentations and objects, are nothing more than the visible manifestation of the invisible merging of thought, the subtle intuitions whispered by the spirit, those lines which sparked life into Celtic mythology, beliefs, religion, philosophy, poetry and music.
The wit and mnemonic training typical within the high-ranking class of Druidic culture (the Druids being religious leaders as well as legal authorities, adjudicators, keepers of the lore, medical professionals and political advisors of the Celtic nations, the ‘sacred men’) have for centuries enabled the knowledge acquired to be kept alive through the use of human consciousness forced on little-trodden paths of the Great Mystery of the Divine in substance. The knowledge was not codified and somehow crystallised with the use of writing (which often tends to reduce them with transition and the changes of generations, into empty meaningless words), yet remained active and animate, passed ‘by word of mouth to ear’ in an elucidation of continuity in consciousness which the modern seekers of spiritual enlightenment try to attain and which among the Celts gave life to their poems such as that of the Druid bard, and judge for the Milesians Amergin Glúingel (“white knees”):
“I am the wind on the sea;
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock
I am a flash from the sun;
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?”
(Cf. Lady Gregory (1910) Gods and fighting men: the story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, p. 69. [https://archive.org/details/godsfightingmens00greg/page/69/mode/1up])
The Druids, whose name means ‘oak-knower’ signifying that they were very wise, constituted the spiritual conscience of the Celts and had given impetus to the society of the time by organising it according to the great spiritual laws of which they had learned the expression thanks to their deep communion with Nature. They taught that there was a unique and unknowable, incomprehensible and immeasurable god who was discharged through three great forces: Nerz Force-Will-Power, Skiant Knowledge-Knowledge-Wisdom and Karantez Love-Creativity-Productivity.
The Celts had therefore organised their social groups accordingly (the Túath, the tribe, in turn formed by numerous clans [derived from old Irish clann meaning ‘children’ or ‘descendants’], the extended relations), according to the pattern of expression of divinity. The Druids represented Knowledge-Wisdom, allowing through their social role and their actions, the earthly expression of the divine energy of Skiant. The Latin author Pomponius Mela (De situ orbis (‘A Description of the World’), also known as De chorographia (‘Concerning Chorography’), III, 2, 18), taking up the information from Julius Caesar, testifies that they were ‘masters of wisdom’ and knew the greatness of the earth and the cosmos, the will of the gods, taught their knowledge in the sacred woods and caves and asserted the immortality of the soul and survival after death. The Warrior class was the physical manifestation of Nerz (Force-Will-Power), that divine energy that allows action in the world of spiritual reality. Within the class of Warriors, a leader was chosen each year by election and a leader in the event of war. Finally, the class of Artisans-Farmers gave way to the divine energy of Karantez (Love-Creativity-Productivity) to manifest itself, thanks to the action they performed on the material that was transformed into useful or simply beautiful objects. The Celts believed that all those who were able to change reality with their art, working the raw material to produce something new, belonged to the wave of Love. Art and artists today, are generally still held in high regard in countries, such as Ireland, which have a living recollection of their Celtic past.
Celtic spirituality, as mentioned, was intimately relate to Nature and with the material reality of which it constituted the crucible within which the latter was forged. The spirit being the root, the seed, the cause of what was manifested through matter and therefore much importance was given to ‘dreams’, to ‘visions’, to all those aspects; by using legends and imagination they created —in some way— the forms according to which the events of daily life would later be structured. Here in general the poet, the seer, the idealist, the Druid, the artist, the warrior in search of honour, were held in extremely high esteem and deference within Celtic society and they were acknowledged with that important role as mediators between the Spiritual Reality (the ‘Will of the Gods’) and the earthly world. Through the use of techniques to modify the ordinary state of consciousness, such as the intake of ritual drinks and foods or the invocation and the ritual, the declamation of verses composed at the moment or the accomplishment of particular physical feats, the human being could come into contact with the Hereafter, that non-place without space or time, present everywhere and nowhere whose entrances were closer than the palm of the hand but as inaccessible as the most impenetrable fortress, which lay behind the thin veil of the matter. The passages to the Celtic afterlife were the flames of fires, springs and lakes, caves and clearings, the wind and the subtle sound of the voice accompanied by the harp.
The invisible worlds, according to this approach to Life, became perceptible and showed their participation in the human experience thanks to signs, events, atmospheric phenomena, the encounter with animals while hunting in the forest, the blowing of the wind in particular. occasions, indissolubly binding the Divine to Matter. The Gods (the Forces of Life) thus showed themselves to men and any element, creature or event was the form through which the Great Mystery of the Spirit participated in the life of man.
The afterlife therefore did not frighten the Celts whatsoever, they imagined it as a state of continuation of earthly life, a state of consciousness more than a real place and as such reachable at any time from any place, where to move freely without constraints or suffering. if not a deep nostalgia for the places and loved ones met on Earth.
The best time to make the transition from the physical world to the Hereafter was November 1st, when the Doors of Spiritual Reality opened to allow the souls of the deceased to meet their relatives and the latter to glance into the future and see their descendants. The festival of Samhain, now known as Halloween, was also the New Year of the Celtic calendar, the time when the dark half of the year began, the Night of the Great Day, which would end with the Lá Bealtaine festival [halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice] celebrated on the first day of May, Also known as Cétshamhain (“first of summer”) it marked the beginning of summer and it was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people. It was considered to be a time of fertility. The other important dates of the calendar of the European Celtic Religion tied to the natural world were 1 February, the feast of Imbolc, named after the Celtic Goddess Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann and today called Saint Brigid’s Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Bríde), patroness of births, poets, doctors and craftsmen and 1 August, the feast of Lughnasadh [the festival which marks the beginning of the harvest season] during the which the fruits of the Earth were celebrated and thanks were given for the abundance that would allow the people to overcome the cold season. The solstices and equinoxes, marking other key moments of the year, were most likely held in high regard. It is not strange to note that the Church has kept Celtic celebrations as important dates: the period around 1 November as the day of dead and saints, the one around 1 February the baptism of the Virgin, the one around 1 May for the rogations to invoke the rain and that around 1 August to celebrate the Madonna of the Snow, Our Lady of abundance.
Unfortunately, history has left us orphans of a certain way of perceiving life and to allow Western man to develop the technology necessary to make daily life less burdensome and painful, it has left us to forget that the spirit does not know theories, rules and dogmas and that only the individual consciousness cultivated and nourished by the Fire of the Heart can make good use of Knowledge and Power.
The capitulation of Celtic society occurred through Rome’s invasion of Cisalpine Gaul, Caesar’s conquest of Transalpine Gaul and the occupation of Britain as far as the southern lands of Scotland. Ireland was protected from three storms that destroyed the as many Roman fleets, perhaps unleashed by those Druids capable of speaking to the wind and water. However, the spread of Christianity was the vehicle through which even the Celtic society of Ireland saw its spiritual and moral independence affected and with the important dogmas from the preachers the Church of Rome imposed its power at the last bastion of the ancient natural tradition.
Over the centuries, the Celtic orphaned populations of the Ancient Druidic Tradition were dominated thanks to the fear of an afterlife based on reward —punishment accompanied by a dominion that relied on the fear of an afterlife also governed by corporal rewards— punishments. Freedom of conscience reappeared on the European continent only after 1350 years of persecutions, murders, fires and terrible physical and psychological torture that had made the message of brotherhood and love of Jesus a hideous puppet behind which was hidden the thirst for power of men. The birth of experimental science had the merit of bringing Western society to an acceptable level the living conditions of European populations, but to pay an often too lighthearted homage to the fictitious technological benefits which, however, hid behind an appearance of splendour and well-being for all and at a low price, the high cost of human lives and systematic destruction of the only true heritage that we as humanity have: our planet Earth.
The Ancient Druidic Tradition placed man within the natural system, and recognised that he had a body, son of the Earth, and a soul, heir to the Principle of Heaven, reserving humanity a place of responsibility within of Creation. Man was the Guardian of the Garden, the wise Administrator of the Stones, the Curator of plant creatures, the Keeper of animals, the Brother of the Natural Forces of Wind, Water and Fire, the Companion of the Gods and not a weak being. and without resistance against the temptations of evil, crushed by the sense of that sin which forced him to feel distant from divinity and which led him to develop an inner anger towards the cause of this ‘sin’: Matter. Thus was born the mortification of the flesh of one’s body and the aggression to the Earth which represented everything from which to escape to reach the ‘bliss of Heaven’. Entire generations were lost for over a millennium in the hatred of the body, sexuality and the woman who represented the gateway to this world and dedicated themselves to the mad exploitation and destruction of the planet to ‘take revenge’ for having to suffer, far from a divinity who had proved distant and indifferent to the most elementary needs. Such actions hid the charge of resentment towards the very source of life behind a semblance of ‘asceticism’ for those who followed the spiritual and religious path, or that of ‘gain’ and ‘profit’ for those who had dedicated their existence to one way. economic.
Under the surface of these individual and social behaviours, however, a European thought survived that remained faithful to the Celtic vision of the world and of Life in general. The social, economic and spiritual heritage of the Celts began to give signs of new life at the end of the sixteenth century when the famous Bardic Triads were published, an organised series of phrases through which the Druids, the Celtic priests, were able to memorise all of their immense knowledge. Some faint cries were heard later in the sixteenth century, but it was above all the eighteenth century that gave a powerful impulse to the knowledge and diffusion of the Celtic tradition in Europe. There was then a sort of ‘pause for reflection’ during which knowledge was studied and deepened. The great social transformations that developed around 1970 with movements of various kinds and colours all stemmed from a thought that came from California more precisely from San Francisco. There, groups of young people perceived the urgency of a change, the importance of becoming aware that the world situation was reaching levels of danger from which it would be difficult to turn back.
The aspiration for a higher standard of human relationships was born, for a relationship with the Earth that is bursting with health, for a civilisation which becomes more harmonious and just both economically and in the social system of rules. History has taught us that young responded to this impulse by throwing themselves headlong into a revolution that used the tools available to them at the time, which included violence and abuse, modifying only the ‘outer layers’ of the society they had wanted to change.
The soundtrack of that often chaotic movement could only be rock in all its manifestations. However, in the midst of so much confusion, another musical form also took shape and grew in intensity, with the very specific task of awakening in the European peoples the ancient sleeping Celtic consciousness, buried in the depths of the collective unconscious waiting for the right moment rise again. It was the Bard Alan Stivell, chosen by the Fraternity of the Druids, Bards and Ovates of Brittany, which brought to relive the ancient sounds in parks and in the homes of millions of people thanks to its melodious harp and the ancient memories of the Tuath(a) Dé Danann, the scintillating “tribe of the gods” of Éire, once again showed Western man a way.
Music was used to bring the attention of each person within —interior to— themselves, in an impalpable but real place (the Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young or the Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise of the Ancient Celts), where one was able to perceive a world rich in meanings that are millennia old and yet current at the same time. There, in that Inner Kingdom, the bands of the Irish Fianna (semi-independent warrior bands) were still mobile, captained by Fionn mac Cumhaill who guided them in the defence of the weak and the oppressed, in the care of young people and widows, in the destruction of the wicked and in the tests of courage that exalted the value of the individual as a celestial being worthy of living on this earth. Who among us does not remember having dreamed of riding at least once along green plains at the head of knights with colourful insignia and blazing swords to carry a message of courage, freedom and beauty?
Strong Celtic connotations were retained by Brittany, Scotland and Ireland for centuries, keeping that torch of Ancient Tradition ablaze and Celtic music being the conveyer by which the most sensitive individuals and those less conditioned by political and religious ideas were brought back into the collective conscience, a new stimulus and the driving force to action according to the Ancient Code of the Western world. In fact, it was from Brittany that the minstrels, heirs of the Celtic Bards, returned to travel the European roads and brought the stories of the Fianna and the exploits of the Knights of Arthur to the castles of the medieval lords; the memories of the metamorphosis experienced during the Quest for the Holy Grail (or the enchantress Cyrridven’s cauldron (Awen) of poetic inspiration; and the the Irish god Dagda’s cauldron (coire ansic) which never runs empty). And the concepts of ‘warrior’ and ‘knight’ as ‘man of arms’, courage, honour and poetry which were all too often precipitated by the violent manifestations that both force and power generate.
The ancient Celtic poetry unfolded on the notes of the troubadour songs and following a thin thread of awareness, recalled from the abysses of time and memory those lines of behaviour on which new ideas about spirituality and the relationship of the individual with the Invisible Worlds; in the economy as an exchange of goods in which all participants derive benefits (Hallesism); in politics as a union of those states that already recognised that they had a common culture at the time of the Celts; in social relationships as new forms of marriage (coexistence that corresponds to Celtic temporary marriage), of educating children and youth, of respect for the feminine and its expression in every sphere; in the relationship with the Earth in recognising the importance of safeguarding our planet for the very survival of the humanity.
However, it is primarily through music and dance, food and beer, that the ancient Celtic tradition is reborn in these times, perplexing all those people who attempt to understand why ‘paganism’ still has a hold on individuals in this day and age, not realising that their observations are only superficial and is based more on the goliardic aspects of the question. Celtic culture is reborn because the dream that had been sown by the Druids of Europe is written in the rocks and lakes, in the forests and on the banks of rivers and sea shores, also within the human soul, particularly that of young people, which is now ready to receive that call to pay greater attention to oneself, one’s neighbour and Nature of which we are all part.
A short time ago, a film called ‘Dragonheart‘ brought back that ancient concepts of honour, loyalty, fidelity to dreams and the goodness of life. The Knights of the Ancient Code are represented as valiant men who, despite living in times of great inner poverty, prevarication, violence, exploitation and abuse of power, kept the epitome of Honour, Courage and Benevolence typical of the Knights of the Round Table, established by Arthur and commissioned by Merlin. Knights were warriors —adepts in the arts of war— (and not soldiers), a warriors dedicates his life to improve himself and to defend those who were unable to do so. He was a man who had predispositioned his personal nature which had been accustomed to considering himself fearful and frightened by the events of life, and transforming themselves into one who felt worthy of being in the world, able to act using his personal power to benefit all those with whom he came into contact with and destroying oppressors and the wicked.
As we have been able to glimpse and discern before, medieval cavalry had inherited the values of the ancient Celtic warriors, the Fianna, transferring them almost inviolate into our world. The West has Deeds as its core, while the East is more Contemplative. There is no question of value between these forms of conviction and conduct, but their complementarity. However, it must be borne in mind that as Western men (and women) we possess a psychological constitution suitable for receiving and using the symbols of our tradition internally rather than those of another. The symbolism of the Sword, the Cup, the Spear, etc., are able to arouse within us the powerful inner energies capable of completely transforming our lives and our vision of the world, and therefore goading us to improve it.
Much has been lost, much more will never be recovered, but a considerable amount still remains. In fact, even today we can rely on parts of legends and tales capable of stimulating in us the fragment of an indistinct memory of a sensation which used to enliven the ancient warriors to return to a life of dignity. However, it is important to keep in mind that any reference to fights, enemies, battles, weapons, diabolical beings, particular places should not be accepted in the physical and superficial sense, but must be brought back within an interior dimension, to that intimate world that lies within each human being where each seeker has a sacred duty to undertake, to explore, question, understand and to make it flourish once again. The Warrior who departs for the quest of the Holy Grail is in fact about to set out on a road filled with dangers, pitfalls, ambushes, tribulations, discomfort and hunger; he lends himself to meeting strange new creatures and enigmatic women, he avails himself to the hidden Life Force which will lay hold of him and remould him into a Knight of the Holy Grail, Heir to the Fisher King (Rí iascaire) and Keeper of the Holy Cup (Coimeádaithe an Soitheach Naofa).
The first written versions of the legends of Arthur, the Grail and the Knights of the Round Table appear in Europe starting from the 12th century, when Chrètien de Troyes in his Le conte du Graal or Perceval mentions the Grail. However, it is now certain that they are only re-elaborations of tales handed down in oral form of which there are already fragments written in the Gaelic language such as the Y Gododdin (Book of Aneirin), a Welsh text of the seventh or the Annales Cambriæ, the Welsh chronicles written around the middle of the X century which tells of the tragedy between Arthur and his son. In 1132 Godfrey of Monmouth († ca. 1155) wrote the Historia Regum Britanniæ (History of the Kings of Britain) in Latin translated into French in 1155 by Robert Wace († ca. 1174) in his Roman de Brut which will influence many subsequent continental writers. At the end of the 12th century Robert de Boron, wrote the Roman de l’Estoire dou Graal or Joseph d’Arimathe, shortly after the alleged discovery of Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury Abbey by Abbot Henry de Sully ca. 1191 —legend claimed that the abbey was founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st century— an inscription found at the site states ‘Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia’ (Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon). Other important references are the famous Welsh Mabinogion texts (created c. 1350–1410), which contain several episodes of Celtic mythology and find a strong correlation with several Irish legends including the works of William of Malmesbury, Wolfram von Eschembach, .
One of the most noteworthy characters would unquestionably be that of Merlin the magician as legend has it next to King Arthur at the court of Caerlon, tutor of the king. Merlin and Arthur embody the classic Druid-King dyad of the unrivalled Celtic tradition and their description in texts ranging from the twelfth to the fifteenth century testifies to how much of the Ancient Tradition had survived and still vibrant in the middle of the Christian era.
The cup called Graal, owes its name to the Occitan term gradalis (a particular type of vase), derived from the Latin cratalis, which became grazal in the Provencal language, grezal in Catalan and in ancient Spanish grial. The word was used to indicate a hollow dish, a cup or a kind of cauldron. In Celtic legends a cauldron is repeatedly mentioned, a symbol of abundance (the cauldron of the enchantress Cyrridven or that of father-figure, king, and druid The Dagda) or of sacrifice, a divine container capable of healing the wounded and restoring life to the dead. The Holy Grail is therefore an object that must be sought in the inner regions of one’s soul rather than in the churches, museums or collections of some babbling personage. The true Grail Search is an inner fact of courage. Corbenic
The Christianised legend of the Grail tells that it was made from the emerald that Lucifer (lucis fero, the ‘Light-Bringer’) wore at the center of his forehead and which he had lost during his fall after the battle with the angels faithful to God. collected by Adam and transmitted from generation to generation until Joseph of Arimathea who had it carved in the shape of a cup, the same one that Jesus held in his hands on the evening of the Last Supper. In the Grail Joseph of Arimathea collected some drops of blood (and water) gushed from the wounds to the hands, feet and side of Jesus and after spending some time in prison, once free, he took the Chalice and together with twelve companions he went to Gaul and then to Great Britain where he settled near Glastonbury. On the death of Joseph of Arimathea and his son, the descendants built the castle of Corbenic to contain the holy relic, but the disagreements between them caused nefarious spells to fall on the country, making it sterile and desolate, the famous Badlands. Only the ‘Good Knight’ could have restored life and prosperity to the sick earth. From that moment on, the Grail disappeared without a trace.
What does the Grail represent? Who is the Wounded King? What is the duty of the Good Knight? Who will give indication on the Cup? What will be the tests to be faced even just to get closer to it? How will he be able to heal the Badlands? These are the questions that must be asked to start the Search within his own Kingdom and think of reaching a successful end. Our soul suffering from our indifference and cowardice is that sick land that finds it hard to bear fruit as thoughts and actions aimed at improving our life and that of the people and situations with which we come into contact. The Wounded King is our lack of willpower, our sadness, the helplessness that assails us when we think of all our sadness, the failures, the ugliness of this world that yes they are a reality, but that if you look too closely they can make us lose the breadth and beauty of the general plan in which fate has reserved a part for us to play with dignity.
But, in summing-up, what is the Warrior’s Way which is mentioned so often, what benefits can an individual derive from walking the Way of Courage? These are the questions that we pose to ourselves, which provides us with a perception of being on the threshold of our inner world (to use a symbolic language, which find us on the edge of a forest that opened up in front of Parsifal at the gateway of an abandoned castle). At the start of our Warrior journey of Initiation we are deluded, poor fools, fearful of living and therefore fearful of death, both in an initiatory sense (the death of old ways, of old personality) and in a physical sense. The terror and pointlessness of our way of thinking and acting has led us not to be able to recognise the importance of what is being offered to us by the simple fact of being born (the richness and beauty of Life, the Grail procession to the castle, but also his suffering represented by the Rí iascaire or Fisher King) and now we have to start all over again.
The first adventure that happens to Parsifal is the meeting with a lady whom he treats in an irreverent way, showing off all his narrow-minded manners. He must learn to approach the feminine part of himself with kindness and sensitivity so as not to hurt the higher feelings that dwell in him. The tradition we know well has denied the validity of women and the feminine characteristics of listening, humility, attention, gentleness and the use of the heart even in the difficulties of everyday life. The Way of the Warrior is the rediscovery of these values in themselves and the stimulus of respect for them. It is not a simple practice of exercises of strength or power, but the intelligent use of one’s inner resources, of all!
The Warrior walks the Path of Courage, that Path that leads him to see without fear his own meanness, his fears and sadness, his own selfishness, in short, his own hypocrisies that at first glance make him look beautiful and dressed in a shining armour (the armour of the personality, the defences that we raise to defend ourselves from everything, even from Life itself!), but which in reality weigh down its true being. The Path of Courage is to breathe deeply the energy of Life without fear whatever the experience (the Path of Will-Power); it is running to meet one’s weaknesses and embracing them in a gesture of profound compassion (the Way of Love-Creativity), modifying oneself to improve intelligently; it is knowing oneself fully by developing the Wisdom to live each event with dignity (the Way of Knowledge-Wisdom). The Ancient Code then imposes fealty (loyalty) on the Knight to the ideal of the Search, to protect the weak and to destroy the wicked —of that evil that dwells in each of us and that is capable of modifying our vision of a world— so full of cynicism and hopelessness, only to make us see all others as harmful and immoral.
The Sacred Cup still lingers inside the Castle of the Grail, within the Throne Room of our hearts. It is up to us to extract the Sword from the Rock of our soul and finally become the King of that Kingdom which belongs to us as a birthright! The Search has begun once again, become a new addition to the Search!