The Celtic religion prior to the advent of Christianity

Celtic religion and the Christianity that later built upon and replaced it in Ireland was one of the most sublime religious traditions of ancient times. Traditionally it is only our day-to-day spiritual practices that have in some way remained faithful to these ancient ways while our theologies, and occasionally even our liturgical forms, have usually owed more than was either healthy or necessary to French. German or now, even South American Liberation sources. Many of the traditional religious practices in Ireland, such as respect for death and dying, fasting and other bodily penitential practices, the respect for and love of God and all within his creation, the use of images, and the central place of Mary within devotion, seem to be less popular than they once were. Often they seem to be dismissed as unworthy developments of more recent centuries which we are being persuaded we would be better without in the present day, not realising that they are developments of religious beliefs and practices that stretch back in the Celtic tradition beyond the bounds of recorded time. 

Celtic expansion in the 3rd century

Interest in Celtic origins has been noticeably on the increase in Europe over the last few years. There is no doubt that a lot of this interest comes from the urge to find roots that is such a strong feature of western society at present: it is an urge to resist the pressures of a new culture that tends to oppose individuality and humanity. But the recent discoveries of Celtic remains all across Europe, particularly the massive find at Hochdorf in the summer of 1978, have added immensely to what little knowledge we had of the Celts from written sources, and has correspondingly increased interest in the search for origins. Loosely knit Celtic tribal groups dominated central Europe for nearly seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. They left no written history, the Druids particularly favouring an oral transmission of their teaching, relying on the power of memory which they greatly prized. None of the Celtic laws or histories was committed to written form until the high period of Irish Monasticism. As a result the Celtic contribution to much of the structure of Western society has been obscured. Many of the beliefs surrounding Celtic religion in the Classical World derived from Posidonius who journeyed in Gaul in the Second Century BC, and the slander campaign of the later Greek and Roman commentators has continued in a variety of forms down to the present day. As Duncan North-Taylor put it recently, erroneous conceptions have spanned the whole of Celtic history; sinister Druids watching the writhing’s of human sacrifices, warriors rollicking in gore, charming but unreliable Irishmen, penurious and crusty Scots, hard and devious Welshmen: all clannish, compulsive and dedicated to outmoded and irrelevant tradition. [1]

Despite the absence of a written history and literature prior to the compilations of the Irish monks, we are beginning to realise the richness of Celtic civilisation and their lasting contribution in the formation and development of Europe. In most areas of continental Europe Celtic culture gradually mingled with Roman, in places losing its identity altogether. From the period of maximum Celtic influence all across Europe about 200 BC, their lands had shrunk by the first century after Christ mostly to the boundaries of present-day Ireland, and parts of Scotland and Wales. In England the successive invasions of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans brought the same fate to Celtic culture as had been accomplished on the Continent. Ireland was the only place in which it was to survive in a reasonably dominant way and it was Irish Catholicism that helped its survival, even re-exporting it later to its original European homeland. But Christianity was absorbed into Celtic culture with relative ease and very little opposition compared to what Christianity had encountered elsewhere around the world sometimes to the point of genocide. Due to this peaceful transition far more of the ancient religious beliefs and customs were absorbed into Irish Christianity than would otherwise have survived through the sharp differentiating process of persecution. 

A Warrior

After the false euphoria of the 1960s a very noticeable trend towards conservation is apparent over most of the Western World, but it is not in any fascist spirit of trying to recover a golden age that we ought look at our Celtic origins. For Celtic religion had its share of savagery and barbarity too. Xenophobia is a serious mistake both in the area of theology and spirituality. Of course it is highly doubtful if at this stage any of the pure Celtic strain remain but their ways of life and belief have formed the Irish mentality more than any other. At this time when there is such a revival of interest in the Celtic world it is very fitting to try to rescue some of their basic religious beliefs and customs especially in their later Christian form, so that they may serve as an aid in improving our response in faith, which should be all the more effective from inspiration by these habits of thought and action in which the character of our people has been enshrined. 

Celtic religion never attained a highly developed form, and at times veered towards magic and animism. Belief in fairies for instance would be an example of the latter. The earth itself was regarded as sacred and the source of all fertility. The religious observances of the year were grouped to serve this purpose, being punctuated by the four great quarterly feasts of Imbolg (February 1), Beltaine (May 1), Lugnasad (August | or the end of July), and Samhain (November 1). A lot has been guessed, but little is known for certain, about the significance of these feasts, even though reflections of them still survive. Imbolg, the spring feast, was probably a time for ceremonies of purification. Beltaine, or May Day, was a very important feast and is still a widely celebrated Summer Festival in many parts of the world. In Ancient Ireland it signified the real beginning of summer and the re-appearance of dairy produce which was the main food of the people. Summer was welcomed by the carrying of fresh vegetation and flowers in to the house or decorating it with them. The very well-known song ‘Thugamar féin an Sambhradh linn’ was associated with this Summer festival. [2]

Lughnasa, according to Irish journalist, folklorist and translator Máire MacNeill, [3] was geared to celebrate the first fruits of harvest, particularly in the form of wild berries (and the first new potatoes in later times). Apparently it was associated with water worship also when rivers and lakes were placated by offerings; horses and cattle were made to swim in water, meetings at sacred wells took place, and in Christian Ireland many pilgrimages of both religious and social character were held, such as the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. The pivotal Celtic feast was Samhain, entering the darkest period of the year in these latitudes, and thoughts turned to death and mortality with the decline of the sun. It was a period when this world and the next were felt to be closest to each other. The gods were near, the fairy rath’s open, and candles were placed in windows to guide the spirits of departed relatives: it was a time of great risk for mortal men. 

Croagh Patrick (Image © Chris Hood on Flickr)

The traditional sane Irish attitude to death and dying is one we are now in danger of losing to the spirit of denial of death which pervades so much of the industrialised nations today. The Irish attitude stands in a long tradition that cherished the same values. The Celts apparently had little fear of death for it was believed that the spirit of man survived. Allied to this was a belief in rebirth, a belief that resurrected in Origen’s De Principiis, in the Gnostics and Manichees, and which was condemned at Constantinople in 553. It is thought that the Celtic re-birth belief, which ante-dated Christianity and was of central importance for the Druids, may have survived in some of the teaching of the early Celtic missionaries before it had been authoritatively labeled heterodox. Some theologians have felt that the Celtic re-birth belief may also have been influential in bringing the Church to a more fully developed awareness of the valuable Purgatory doctrine. One of the most remarkable features of the Celt’s amounted to their desire to explore the unknown, and of course the great unknown was the realm of death and the fate of the departed. As a result the Celts probably have more developed attitudes and ideas about death than any other primitive people. At the risk of some exaggeration it could be said that preoccupation with death is the hallmark of Celtic civilisation. The fascination with death which we still have should be seen in this light and not, as is often alleged, be construed as the product of any “other-worldly’ theology of modern times, Expiation of sins by bodily mortification was widely practised in Celtic Christianity, especially in locations such as the Lough Derg in Co. Donegal, but Lough Derg seems to have also been the location of pre-Christian purgatorial initiatory rites. These were practised in the sacred cave on Saint’s Island, destroyed on the order of Dublin Castle in the seventeenth century. [4] Afterwards the pilgrimage was transferred to the present island, the church taking the place of the cave. A distinguishing feature of Celtic religion was belief in a supernatural world of perpetual youth where there was no ageing, death, sickness, or trouble, which indicates that real life for them must have held plenty of these. In general Celtic mythology was characterised by beauty, peace and harmony, even monsters were more comical than terrifying. This was in contrast to the mythologies of Greece and Rome often characterised by ordeals and sufferings of various kinds. 

Saints Islands overlooking Lough Ree – photo by Colm Mulligan

So many elements in Celtic spirituality such as the reverence for nature. the place of fire, water, fasting, penitential practices, images, the sane attitude towards death and afterlife, the lack of materialism in outlook, the necessity of resurrection and transformation, and its sane social structure, so much of which was sensibly absorbed into Celtic Christianity, provide a most valuable foundation for our deeper appreciation and practice of the faith today. Much will depend on how our traditional religious practices and insights can be retained and deepened to serve usefully in the celebration of Word and Sacrament, particularly the latter, since Celtic religion was essentially sacramental, These customs and insights which mirror our nature surely offer a more hopeful vehicle in which to express our response to God than anything we may now hope to import, since they were carved by the character of our people down the centuries of tradition that disappear into the mists of the past. 

The transition from paganism to Christianity in Ireland was accomplished in a relatively peaceful way when compared with the opposition and persecution that characterised the process elsewhere. The result was a balanced absorption of the best elements in Druid religion into Celtic Christianity. One of the most magnificent monuments to that fusion must be most of the beautifully ornamented pages of the Book of Kells: a harmonious blend of Druid and Christian motifs. An important symbol in such ancient Celtic manuscripts is the serpent, admittedly in a much more subdued and pasteurised form than it had in pagan days. For the serpent was worshipped as a god in the Ancient Near East for about seven thousand years before the Book of Genesis was written. The precise symbolism of the serpent image is not clear but it is known to be associated with moon worship. In ancient times the moon came to be regarded as the only heavenly body that showed some sympathy with human affairs with its cycles of growth, decline, death and rebirth. It is always a relatively short path from spotting similarities to ascribing causative relations and the moon soon was regarded as the governor of the rhythms of human life and those features of nature that are cyclic, such as growth, decline, seasons, rains and harvest. Certain animals in turn became regarded as moon symbols, since like the moon their lives seemed to be characterised by a cycle of growth, death and resurrection. Obvious examples were the snail going in and out of its shell and the bear in hibernation, but the central moon symbol was the serpent which grew, flourished, then shed its skin and appeared to die, only to be reborn again with the coming of spring. Probably the serpent when first worshipped as a pagan god was a god of life and hope, but usually degenerated quite rapidly into unworthy and degrading religious forms and styles of life. Obviously the serpent was a hated object to the authors of Genesis. Whether this decline had occurred to any significant extent among the snake-worshipping Druids of Ancient Ireland is debatable, but it is true that the serpent was one of their religious symbols and probably an important one, even though such worship was never as prevalent here as it was in the Ancient Near East. Father Aubrey Gwynn suggests that the link between Saint Patrick and the banishment of snakes may have originated only about the tenth century because of the connection the converted Norse heard between the sounds of the Scandinavian words for ‘toad-banisher’ (paud-regger) and the Irish name ‘Pádraig’. It must, however, remain a likely possibility that the connection between Patrick and the banishment of snakes may owe something to his abolition of the druidic cult of Nathair the snake god instead of an actual purge on snakes. I believe that snakes have served as an allegory for paganism, which St. Patrick “banished” when he brought the Catholic religion to Ireland’s shores, even though there is no such relation mentioned in the early lives of the Saint. 

St. Patrick casting out the serpents or did they mean the Cult of Nathair the snake god and paganism?

It is obvious that the serpent shape lends itself to being woven in complex patterns, many of them deriving from the spiral. The spiral is an exceptionally widespread symbol in ancient cultures. Here in Ireland it will be most familiar to us in its many forms that range from the Newgrange carvings in County Meath (made two thousand years before the Celts came). To the whorls of the Celtic crosses and the patterns in the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times. The spiral seems to have been a symbol of eternity because theoretically it can continue to be drawn for ever. Often it seems to have been used as a symbol of the soul’s passage to eternal life when used in burial places such as Newgrange. It can also act as a symbol of God’s power, or of the stillness at the centre of the whirl of life, where life’s secret is to be found. That these carvings survive mostly on stone is probably no mere accident of the durability of the material, for stone itself was regarded as a healing agent and source of life and power. 

Celtic religion was strongly animist in character and the branch of animism most associated with it was the worship of the elements of nature. In addition to those elements mentioned above, the sea, trees, rivers, springs and wells were also regarded as abodes of the divinity. The worship of trees and vegetation rites is a very common feature of ancient religions since the tree is an obvious symbol of death and resurrection in the cycles through which it passes in the seasons of each year. It is a symbol of the whole universe continually renewing itself, a symbol of the great desiderata in life (the sense conveyed also in the two trees of the early chapters of Genesis). It seems that the Celts preferred to worship in forest groves or by lakes and springs rather than in temples and a strong link has been suggested between tree worship and the Druids themselves. Some even suggest that the word druí ‘Druid’ may mean ‘tree man’. A central feature of all vegetative religions as we know them is a ritual display of the tree, or of a bird or bunch of flowers, all of these symbols being used to herald and bring about the coming of Spring and warmer weather. This custom began in the Ancient Near East and passed to Europe through the Balkans to survive today in such practices as the Lá an Dreoilín ‘Wrenboys’ (Day of the Wren) and the Maypole or May Tree ceremonies. 

Of all the animist elements in Celtic religion the cult of water as a vehicle of the divine is probably the most notable and the one that retains its appeal best today. Water was regarded (quite accurately as science now shows) as the primal substance that comes before all other forms and produces them. It is the seat of life, fertility and rebirth, especially in the form of the ‘living water’ that bubbles fresh from the earth. This form of water was regarded as the supreme medicinal substance. The sufferings of the dead were normally regarded as centering on thirst, and the pouring of liquids, as in the form of libations, or the sprinkling of graves, were regarded as means of alleviating their sufferings and helping their re-absorption into the pre-formal state that water represents. Christianity adopted immersion in water as the efficacious symbol of the transformation to life in Christ accomplished in Baptism, The place blessed wells retained in this country all through the centuries since they were pagan shrines, together with the regard we have for sacred waters, testify to the central place this element holds in the religious imagination and how valid it remains for us as a religious sign of God’s creative activity. 

The Celtic mind seems to be mirrored best in its attitude to history, which, in common with the practice among most other Ancient Peoples, was treated in a way which seems to us now excessively personal and uncritical. Stories concerning origins were very dear to them to explain how tribal groups or individuals came to be what they were and why they had certain characteristics: a notable ancestry was what counted most of all. Even in the ostensibly historical saga material such as was used by Geoffrey Keating there is little or no attempt made to have chronological accuracy since the interest lay far more in the area of propaganda or of stirring up personal pride in ancestry than in the recording of history in some sense approximate to ours. In most of the sagas the essential ingredient seems to have been a dramatic hero admired mainly for his achievements in battle or sport, most of these encounters being preceded by boasts, threats and insults. Overriding all was a desperate desire not to lose ‘face’, and closely related to this was the function public opinion performed in acting as the basis of the structures of society and as the estimate of an individual’s reputation. Much of this was continued in the Irish law tracts which were probably written down about the seventh or eighth century but in contrast to the sagas mentioned above they do manage to preserve at least the outline of chronology and literal meaning. One feature of the ancient Irish law often quoted in this context in our own century was the provision  made for a wronged person to fast near the dwelling of his oppressor as a means of achieving justice. It has been alleged that modern fasting, as a form or protest, or as a testimony to dearly held convictions, has its origin in this ancient practice. 

A folio from Lebor Gabála Érenn

Continental scholarship came with Christianity itself and united with the native Irish tradition to give history that was more chronological in character. Large-scale attempts to fuse the two traditions of scholarship were made, the Lebor Gabála Érenn—literally ‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland’ or ‘Book of Invasions’ being a notable example of the channelling of Irish legend into the form of a chronological sequence of stories. In an odd way the Irish saint was viewed as a Christianised version of the ancient Celtic secular hero, In keeping with the taste for ‘origin stories’ already mentioned the noble ancestry of the saint was first established, and then his achievements as a heroic wonder worker and figure of influence with the mighty were stressed heavily. The Irish mentality seems to have been out of tune with the more restrained idea of Christian perfection to which we would pay homage today: ‘doing the ordinary thing extraordinarily well’. The saintly act had to be dramatic and unusual, a source of wonder. And there is no doubt that one of the most enduring characteristics of the Celtic temperament has been a thirst for wonder coupled with boredom in the presence of the tedious and humdrum. The inevitable consequence is a loss of perseverance and consistency in ordinary affairs which seems, especially at present, to be still our single greatest lack as a people. Religion attracts us most apparently when its practice is heroic under the threat of persecution: when it becomes more ‘respectable’ it seems to have lost some of its former lustre. 

Many of the ancient religious beliefs survive in disguised forms in the customs of a people. Most of these Celtic folk customs originated in the need to protect folk beliefs concerned with central issues in human life. A good example is the custom of funeral celebrations that survived down to our own time and caused so much trouble to clergy in the last century because of the abuses often associated with it. This custom originated in the pagan funeral feasts in honour of the dead person which were designed to placate his departed spirit by assuring him of the friendliness and good dispositions of those left behind. It was hoped in turn that he would not be jealous of those who had inherited his property. From these and many other beliefs and customs there developed in Ireland a traditional attitude of sanity concerning death and dying. When a folk custom is seen to have a relation to the folk belief which gave it birth then all is well. Danger arises when a custom becomes divorced from its forgotten roots in the past, for then we quickly diverge either into superstition or depravity. 

Celtic Virgin Mary and Child

A central place in Celtic Christianity was always reserved for the Virgin Mother Mary. Perennially fascinated by wonder, paradox and mystery, it is no surprise that the Celts were fascinated with the puzzle of the virginal conception of Jesus as one of the chief glories of Mary. It was often couched in mystical form in some of the ancient Irish texts: ‘the son to whom she gave birth was her father’. However, there is little doubt that devotion to Mary in ancient Ireland centred on her Divine Motherhood and consequent ability and willingness to intercede for us. She was felt to be uniquely aware of the trials and situations that characterise human life in all its aspects. Undoubtedly the Council of Ephesus, held about the same time as the beginning of organised missionary effort in Ireland, promoted this devotion. Against the heresy of Nestorius it was directed that Mary be depicted only with the child Jesus in her arms. A point of interest here is that the image of the Virgin and Child in the Book of Kells is the earliest such Celtic representation to come down to us. 

The relation of Christ to Mary in Irish devotion was theologically correct. Mary was regarded as a true and real human person, even though of noble ancestry, in keeping with the Celtic requirement for the heroic figure. There was no startling divergence between Irish Marian devotion and the general characteristics of European Marian devotion of the same period. Yet there did tend to be one difference in that while Mary tended to be treated elsewhere as the greatest of the saints, in the Celtic church, as the bearer of the Word Incarnate, she occupied a position to be shared with no other creature. This is probably a more true and balanced form of devotion to Mary than that to which we have become accustomed in recent years due to a reaction to the high period of Marian devotion in the nineteen forties and fifties. If Mary is bearer of the Word Incarnate then she occupies without doubt a totally unique place in the saving plan of God for man. All in all the traditional Irish view of the place of the Blessed Virgin in the scheme of salvation seems accurate and true. Mary is the most human, yet the most exalted of all creatures. There is no practice of reference to Mary without reference to her son: in fact ‘Mary’s son’ is probably the most common designation of Christ in these sources. 

Amphibalus baptizing converts in The Life of St Alban written and illustrated by Matthew Paris († 1259).

An historian once said of the Celts that they shook many kingdoms but established none. This is in fact at once the glory and the mortal danger in the Celtic mentality for creativity and imagination nearly always flourish at the expense of constancy and reliability. Celtic Christianity seemed to have successfully stabilised the dreams, longings and rituals of the pagan Celtic world in a very reasonable way. The same closeness to nature, the same fascination with heroism, the same preoccupation with ‘in-between’ states as a means of heightening consciousness are to be found in both Druid religion and Celtic Christianity, but Christianity had grappled with the fatal weakness in the Celtic mentality in a marvellously fruitful way by turning the challenge of practice to these longings and dreams. The Christian Celtic test of commitment to Christ was leaving home and kindred for the sake of spreading the Gospel; the test of the state of a man’s heart before God, was inward renewal before pilgrimage and works. How hard it must have been for the Celt accustomed to talk and boasting as an indication of heroic achievement, to have followed the shrewd advice: ‘better it is to bestow a thing and keep one’s mouth shut!’ Another test of the truth of religious commitment was ascetical practice, not empty words. 

Vices are overcome in a calculated way by the practice of their opposite virtues. The harnessing of the soaring Celtic spirit was probably most evident in the emphasis on a faith built not on emotion, enthusiasm or superstition, but on the solid intellectual basis of understanding. Nowadays, when an anti-intellectual and emotional stress in religion seems to appeal to so many at least for a time, and when so much theology smothers in waves of jargon, the struggle of the believer to bring the faith to understanding and action in so far as mystery will allow is one of the best and most enduring lessons we can take from our Celtic past. It is the same basic task of the Christian enshrined in that marvel of brevity, the closing line of “An Pangur Bán’ [White Pangur]: ‘to bring difficulty to clearness’. [6]

[1] Gerhart Herm The Celts: The People who Came out of the Darkness, St Martins Press 1976. 

[2] O’Suilleabhain, Sean: Nesanna agus Pisedga na nGael: Irish Folk Custom and Belief, p. 69,
[3] In The Feast af Lughnasa. 

[4] W. Y. Evans Wentz: The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, pp. 441-452. 

[5] W. P. Boswell: Irish Wizards in the Woods of Ethopia

[6] Translation of Kuno Meyer in Ancient Irish Poetry.