Celtic Religion: History of Study

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The terms Celt and Celtic were originally used by ancient Greek and Roman writers to refer to an extensive network of tribes located primarily in Gaul (roughly modern-day France, Belgium, and northern Italy) who claimed, or were thought by their neighbors, to share a common descent. These terms, however, were never used in reference to the peoples of Britain and Ireland, even though it is now known that they did (and some still do) speak Celtic languages. Some classical writers did note traits common to both the Celts and the Britons, such as the institution of druids and druidism, which, according to Caesar, originated in Britain. The use of the ethnonym Celtic to refer to related languages both modern and ancient (that in turn constitute a subset of the Indo-European family of languages) dates back to the eighteenth century, arising in the wake of the scholarly discovery of the family resemblance among the still-living Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton languages and the long-dead languages of the continental Celts.

Early Development of Celtic Religion Studies

Soon after the discovery of the common descent of ancient and living Celtic languages circa 1700, ambitious attempts were launched to expand the "Celtic connection" beyond the realm of linguistics and specifically to establish Celtic common denominators in the areas of religion, worldview, and myth. Central to these attempts to understand what the pagan Celts believed, who their gods were, and how they worshiped them was the figure of the druid, famously described in classical sources as a barbarian philosopher and also as a presider over sometimes grisly sacrifices, pointedly conducted in the realm of nature as opposed to the cultural confines of temples. John Toland (16701722), the English pantheist and biographer of John Milton, wrote admiringly of the druids of ancient Britain and of the enlightened religion they promulgated. Later on in the mysticism of the poet William Blake (17571827) the not-really-pagan British priests played an important role in Blake's vision of the salvific link between "Albion" and Jerusalem.

In time druids (including those who occasionally appeared in medieval Irish literature) merged in the scholarly and popular imagination with the figure of the Celtic bard, the practitioner of the verbal and musical arts toward which, according to popular notions that linger into the early twenty-first century, the Celts are naturally inclined. The impression of an artistic as well as a "druidic" (philosophical, mystical, and perhaps even savage) bent to pre-Christian Celtic religion, and even to Christianity as it developed among the Celts, gained strength from the popularity of the works of the Scottish writer James Macpherson (17361796), who fabricated an ancient Celtic poet "Ossian" to evoke a dramatic world of ancient Highland heroes and heroines prone to romantic melancholy and pronouncements worthy of the Enlightenment's noble savage.

Even in the early twenty-first century most of the popular, Neopagan, and some academic treatments of the topic of Celtic religion are fueled by a druidocentric desire to recapture a mystical wisdom that supposedly informs Celtic culture and art. This popular tendency to view the religion along with the art of the Celts as sources of atavistic truth for modern seekers to rediscover can also be traced to the widely influential literary characterizations of Celts and their worldview developed by the Breton scholar of religion Ernest Renan (18231892), the English critic Matthew Arnold (18221888), and the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (18651939). The romantic image of the Celts and their religious traditions has now been compounded by the widespread impression (based on ambiguous evidence) that the Celts privileged women and honored their goddesses to an extent that set them apart from other ancient peoples.

It is important to note that most of the serious Celtic scholarship from the midnineteenth century on has been devoted to locating and organizing the available data on the Celtstheir languages, histories, cultures, literatures, and the physical record they left behindand not to tackling broad, harder-to-define, and controversial concepts such as "Celtic religion" and "mythology." Larger questions such as these have in fact been ignored or even treated with scorn by many if not most scholars in the field. Undeniably this neglect in part reflects the difficulty of accurately describing Celtic religious beliefs, practices, and myths, given that the pre-Christian Celts left relatively little in the way of a written record and the agenda of medieval Christian Celts often overruled the ethnographic impulse in what they wrote about their pre-Christian past. And yet the relative dearth of serious study of Celtic religion, by definition an interdisciplinary venture, also points to the rather sparse communication among Celticists working in different languages and literary traditions (such as Irish and Welsh) and between those who work on Celtic languages, literatures, and history and those who work on Celtic archaeology and prehistory.

The earliest attempts to discover what the pagan Celts believed, who their gods were, and how they worshiped them that are still worth consulting in the early twenty-first century, though cautiously, were authored by the first Oxford professor of Celtic, Sir John Rhŷs (18401915), and the enterprising Englishman Alfred Nutt (18561910). The attention of these scholars was directed primarily toward the texts produced by the medieval Welsh and Irish, and their primary working assumption was that the "waifs and strays" of pre-Christian beliefs, myths, and rituals were embedded in this literature and to some extent were reconstructible. There was also considerable interest (especially on the part of Rhŷs) in the folklore of contemporary Celtstheir superstitions, stories, and customsas reflecting many of these same vestiges. Rhŷs and Nutt, like their scholarly coevals, were profoundly affected by a nineteenth-century view of premodern religion (particularly of the polytheistic Indo-European kind) as a prescientific system for explaining natural phenomenaa system that, the theory went, was prone to misinterpretation and breakdown as it was passed down through the generations. These early pioneers of the study of Celtic religion freely compared their data with the pre-Christian religious traditions of other Indo-European peoples and employed many of the terms and concepts developed in the nineteenth century by Jacob Grimm (17851863) and Wilhelm Grimm (17861859), Johann Georg von Hahn (18111869), and Friedrich Max Müller (18231900).

These nineteenth-century tendencies, both stimulating and confining, were still in evidence in early twentieth-century scholarship on Celtic religion. Also influencing these worksincluding Georges Dottin's La religion des Celtes (1904), John Arnott MacCulloch's The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911), and Joseph Vendryes's La religion des Celtes (1948)was the inclination, derived from classical authors writing on their Celtic neighbors, to interpret Celtic religious traditions in terms borrowed from Greek and Roman religion (e.g., the search for a Celtic "pantheon"). Some Irish and British scholars of the first half of the twentieth century attempted, sometimes to the point of obsession, to reconstruct insular Celtic divinities consonant with their continental cousins from what they considered to be the garbled medieval record produced by Christians no longer in touch with pre-Christian religious sensibilities. The philologist Thomas O'Rahilly's never completed Early Irish History and Mythology (1946) cast a spell on a whole generation of scholars as it looked relentlessly for solar deities and heroes, although, as the title suggests, historical peoples and forces were also discernible behind some members of O'Rahilly's mythological cast of characters. William John Gruffydd (18811954), in his still influential reconstructions of narratives about gods and goddesses underlying the Four Branches of the Welsh Mabinogi, applied some of Frazer's formulations of "primitive" magical and religious thought (Nagy, 2001) and recycled the "heroic biography" paradigm of mythic narrative previously used by Nutt. Later studies that still employ but fine-tune the biographic-mythic paradigm include Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's Heroic Biography of Cormac mac Airt (1977) and Joseph Falaky Nagy's The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition (1985), both studies of Irish narrative characters whose story cycles have religious implications.

Twentieth-Century Developments

As the twentieth century unfolded, Celtic scholars, pursuing questions raised by earlier scholars and their particular approaches to religion, had access to new resources and tools. Major strides in the uncovering and cataloging of the remains of ancient Celtic peoples made it much more feasible and productive to compare and contrast ancient images with medieval tales and narrative characters, for example, in the work of Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (19001940) and Anne Ross's Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition (1967). Meanwhile the tireless collecting activities of the Irish Folklore Commission made it possible to study the diachronic development of Irish narratives, beliefs, and customs that arguably derive from the pre-Christian religious tradition and that, by adapting to changing cultural circumstances, have survived or even flourished down to modern times. Máire MacNeill's 1962 study of the Irish harvest festival of Lughnasa and the stories and rituals associated with it through the centuries and Patricia Lysaght's 1986 monograph on the enduring figure of the banshee demonstrate the chronological span over which studies of the pre-Christian religious tradition and its protean afterlife can now range.

The profound twentieth-century shift in the scholarly paradigm of religion, sparked by the contributions of Max Weber (18641920) and Émile Durkheim (18581917) to religious studies, and the structuralist approach to the study of symbolic aspects of human culture (deriving from linguistics and semiotics) slowly but surely penetrated Celtic studies in the twentieth century. When Celtic scholars began to view society rather than nature as the primary focus of religion and negotiation among cultural values rather than explanation of natural phenomena as the basic task of religion, solar deities gave way to ideological concepts, especially under the influence of the linguist Émile Benveniste (19021976), who pioneered the techniques of a lexically based search for shared Indo-European institutions and elements of worldview, and of the scholar of religion Georges Dumézil (18981986), who compellingly excavated a model of society consisting of three "functions" out of the religious data available from various ancient and medieval Indo-European cultures (including Celtic).

Heralding these new approaches, Celtic Heritage by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees (1961) presented an ambitiously comprehensive and fundamentally religious interpretation of medieval Celtic literature. As argued by Rees and Rees, who were inspired by the work of Mircea Eliade (19071986) as well as by Dumézil, the Christian milieu of medieval Celtic literary composition hardly deterred the rich body of story preserved thereby from refining and applying the inherited sacred model of the Indo-European "tripartite" society, mapped onto the landscape by way of place names and local associations and traced in the contours of a historicized but still fundamentally mythic past. The reflections and refractions of social structure and thought on display in religious symbolism as expressed through story and image also loom large in Jan de Vries's Keltische Religion, also published in 1961, which focuses primarily on the available evidence concerning the continental Celts and their modes and objects of worship. Druids staged a dramatic comeback on the scholarly scene, this time viewed from a more archaeologically and sociologically informed perspective, in Stuart Piggott's The Druids (1968) and Françoise Le Roux's Les druides (1961).

Proinsias Mac Cana's perennial Celtic Mythology (1970) inaugurated a golden age of scholarship informed by a confidence that key themes and motifs in Celtic religion and mythology could be securely identified and interpreted (Gray, 19811983; Sayers, 1985; Sterckx, 1981). Such studies judiciously combined an openness to the nuances of the linguistic, literary, and archaeological evidence with those elements of Dumézil's and Sjoestedt's approaches that served the Celtic materials bestsuch as viewing sovereignty myths and rituals as fundamentally religious, making a distinction between culture heroes who operate within the social realm and those who ambivalently dwell on its borders, and appreciating the "multitasking" that characterizes the careers of goddesses and other mythological females. Busying themselves more with the details than with the big picture, scholars of the latter half of the twentieth century prudently shied away from perpetuating a monolithic concept of Celtic "religion" or "mythology" and grew more sensitive to the diversity of religions and mythologies that historically developed among the Celts, who themselves were never a single people.

A major contribution of the second half of the twentieth century to the evolving understanding of Celtic religious traditions has been a heightened awareness of the delicate artifice underlying both the modern scholarly concept of Celtic and the reports of pre-Christian belief, practice, and myth conveyed in early medieval texts. Careful probings of "Celticity" punctuate Patrick Sims-Williams's (1990) salutary sorting-out of concepts of the otherworld as they were supposedly shared among the insular Celts. Bernhard Maier's Die Religion der Kelten (2001) similarly displays a healthy skepticism concerning the literary evidence that, on religious matters especially, can be as intentionally misleading as it is enlightening about the preliterary past.

The boldness behind the medieval Irish project to construct a picture of pre-Christian Ireland and its religion that would appear consistent with biblical history and early medieval, not exclusively Celtic, notions of how pagans worshiped and what they believed in was the focus of Kim McCone's revisionist Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature (1990). In light of what is now known both about continental Celtic religious belief and practice (particularly as these engaged in cultural dialogue with those of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans) and about medieval Irish and Welsh cultures engaged in lively cross-cultural communication on the northwestern edge of Christendom, it is no longer scholarly wisdom, as it once was, to view the Celtic peoples as having been compulsively conservative in regard to their religious traditions. Indeed the tendency is now to highlight the syncretistic trends that have produced what were once thought to be characteristically Celtic religious concepts of either the pre-Christian or Christian era or concepts that seem to straddle both (Borsje, 1996; Mackey, 1989; Sjöblom, 2000). Stemming in part from hyperrevisionist critiques of Celtic and Indo-European as cultural categories, an even more radical scholarly approach to the study of Celtic religious traditions emerged in 1999, spearheaded by Simon James. Receiving considerable attention but not immediately widely embraced, James's approach highlights the impact of the geographic contiguity or proximity of peoples over linguistic and cultural inheritance as a factor in determining the outcome of cultural development, including religion.

A controversy over a familiar and formulaic phrase from medieval Irish literature serves as a demonstration of some of the key shifts in perspective and agenda that have shaped scholarship on Celtic religions. A recurring preface to heroic boast or assertion in a body of late Old Irish and early Middle Irish tales constituting what is called the Ulster Cycle, having to do with heroes and situations pertaining to a period well before the coming of Christianity, is, to the effect, "I swear by the god(s) my people swear by." This expression was considered an example of what much in the Ulster Cycle seems to offer, namely, "a window on the Iron Age" (Jackson, 1964), replete with a pre-Christian worldview, tribal gods for one's people to swear by (parallel perhaps to the continental Celtic deity Teutates "God of the People"), and other elements of belief and practice that seemed more reflective of pre-Romanized Gaul than of early Christian Ireland. In the late twentieth century this attractive reading of the Ulster Cycle as a portal into the Celtic past was challenged, and the argument made that the "I swear" expression is a Christian-era invention meant to evoke the flavor of an imagined pre-Christian past (Ó hUiginn, 1989). A scholarly battle ensued, with the original interpretation of the phrase stoutly defended by Calvert Watkins (1990).

Whatever the outcome of this controversy and whether or not the expression is authentically pre-Christian, there is still much to be learned about the religious traditions of the continental and insular Celtic peoples. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, the increasing availability of different types of data (textual, archaeological, and folkloric) and the increasing confidence in understanding and using them has made Celtic scholars more hesitant to treat sources as unambiguous time capsules and more leery of blanket statements of the sort that used to characterize the study of Celtic religion and that still, alas, bedevil the seemingly endless stream of popular published treatments of the subject. At this stage of knowledge of Celtic religion, those who truly know their Celtic archaeology or their Celtic literatures are hardly ready to swear to anything, by any god.


Borsje, Jacqueline. From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts; An Investigation Related to the Process of Christianization and the Concept of Evil. Turnhout, Belgium, 1996.

Gray, Elizabeth A. "Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure." Éigse 18 (1981): 183209; 19 (19821983): 135, 230262.

Gruffydd, William John. Math vab Mathonwy: An Inquiry into the Origins and Development of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi with Text and a Translation. Cardiff, 1928.

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. The Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age. Cambridge, U.K., 1964.

James, Simon. The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? London, 1999.

Le Roux, Françoise. Les druides. Paris, 1961. Later editions, coauthored with Christian Guyonvarc'h, are considerably expanded but not necessarily improvements on the original.

Lysaght, Patricia. The Banshee: The Irish Death-Messenger (1986). Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology (1970). Rev. ed. New York, 1983.

MacCulloch, John Arnott. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. Edinburgh, 1911.

Mackey, James P., ed. An Introduction to Celtic Christianity. Edinburgh, 1989.

MacNeill, Máire. The Festival of Lughnasa : A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest. London, 1962.

Maier, Bernhard. Lexikon der keltischen Religion und Kultur. Stuttgart, 1994. Available in English as Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. Translated by Cyril Edwards. Rochester, N.Y., 1997. Contains entries on and brief bibliographies for most of the concepts and authors mentioned in this article.

Maier, Bernhard. Die Religion der Kelten : Götter-Mythen-Weltbild. Munich, 2001. An up-to-date and reliable survey of the subject; the opening chapter deftly covers some of the major intellectual trends that have influenced the study of Celtic religion.

McCone, Kim. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature. Maynooth, Ireland, 1990.

Meyer, Kuno, and Alfred Nutt. The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal to the Land of the Living: An Old Irish Saga. 2 vols. London, 18951897. As well as an edition and translation of this and other texts that are important for an understanding of the concept of the otherworld that inhabits early Irish literature, this work contains Nutt's characteristic "Essay on the Irish Vision of the Happy Otherworld and the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth."

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition. Berkeley, Calif., 1985.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. "Folklore Studies and the Mabinogion." In 150 Jahre "Mabinogion"Deutsche-Walische Kulturbeziehungen, edited by Bernhard Maier and Stefan Zimmer, with Christiane Batke, pp. 91100. Tübingen, Germany, 2001.

Ó Cathasaigh, Tomás. The Heroic Biography of Cormac mac Airt. Dublin, 1977.

Ó hUiginn, Ruairí. "Tongu do dia toinges mo thuath and Related Expressions." In Sages, Saints, and Storytellers: Celtic Studies in Honour of Professor James Carney, edited by Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Liam Breatnach, and Kim McCone, pp. 332341. Maynooth, Ireland, 1989.

O'Rahilly, Thomas F. Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin, 1946.

Piggott, Stuart. The Druids. London, 1968. The latter half of the book includes a helpful survey of early modern popular and scholarly attitudes toward druids and Celtic religion in general.

Rees, Alwyn, and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London, 1961.

Rhŷs, Sir John. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom. London, 1888.

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London, 1967.

Sayers, William. "Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword." History of Religions 25 (1985): 3056.

Sims-Williams, Patrick. "Some Celtic Otherworld Terms." In Celtic Language, Celtic Culture: A Festschrift for Eric P. Hamp, edited by A. T. E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia, pp. 5781. Van Nuys, Calif., 1990.

Sjöblom, Tom. Early Irish Taboos: A Study in Cognitive History. Helsinki, Finland, 2000.

Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Translated by Myles Dillon. London, 1948. Dillon's English translation of Les dieux et héros des Celtes (1940).

Sterckx, Claude. La tête et les seins: La mutilation rituelle des enemis et le concept de 1'âme. Saarbrücken, Germany, 1981.

Vendryes, Joseph. La religion des Celtes (1948). Spézet, France, 1997. An additional critical apparatus (including bibliography) supplied by Pierre-Yves Lambert adds to the value of this reissue of Vendryes's work.

Vries, Jan de. Keltische Religion. Stuttgart, 1961.

Watkins, Calvert. "Some Celtic Phrasal Echoes." In Celtic Language, Celtic Culture: A Festschrift for Eric P. Hamp, edited by A. T. E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia, pp. 4756. Van Nuys, Calif., 1990.

Joseph F. Nagy (2005)