Celtic Practices

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Celtic Practices

Celtic practices are based on popular and historical conceptions of ancient Celtic culture, primarily of the British Isles and Ireland. Such practices and beliefs are today most commonly a matter of ideological preference rather than heritage, and more of a spiritual preference than an organized movement or religion. There is no evidence to suggest that the cultures we now refer to as Celtic thought of themselves as "Celts." Names such as "Celt," "Gaul," and "Gael" were bestowed by outsiders including Greek geographers, Roman historians, and various invading forces. The whole of the British Isles, Gaul (now France), and much of northern Europe were in the common language group that defined the Celtic culture. Those attempting a serious study of Celtic cultural history tend to draw from two broad categories: early Greco-Roman writings, which demonstrate clear biases against the Celts (the Romans would eventually conquer them), portraying them as barbarous and mysterious; and later Celtic sources, largely composed of Christianized Celts writing long after the systems of Celtic belief had vanished. Most works on ancient Celtic history insist that the cultures left no writings and transmitted all knowledge orally, though several sources report that St. Patrick ordered the burning of the books of the early Celts as part of a campaign of Christian missionization.

As no widely accepted historical record of the Celts yet exists, conceptions of Celtic history and contemporary Celtic spirituality are continuously reconstructed. Perhaps the most compelling figures to emerge from the mists of Celtic lore are the druids. Although druids were rumored to have practiced human sacrifice and other objectionable acts, most of these reports originated with classical writers. According to modern reconstructed Celtic cultural history, druids commonly appear as a wise priesthood, ecologically aware, holders of ancient wisdom, masters of natural power, and custodians of Celtic culture and religion. The druids, combination priest and magician, represent the spiritual side of the Celts, although they also are believed to have had an influence in governmental matters, serving as advisers to kings and chieftains. The role of Merlin in relation to King Arthur in literature is representative of this relationship.

Druidical figures are a constant in Celtic mythology, along with heroes such as Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCool. These heroes were master warriors, an idealized version of the actual feared Celtic warriors. Celtic mythology is full of stories of endless possibility, ancient wisdom, and magical creatures such as the fairy folk, the White Stag, and the Salmon of Wisdom.

Contemporary interest in all things Celtic is concurrent with the larger questioning of the values of the Western worldview. Broadly, Greco-Roman religious forms are considered to be temporal and transcendent in nature. Celtic religion posits in immanent divinity (creation infused with the divine, no separation of the creator and the created) assuming a multitude of forms, a sacred presence accessible through the landscape. Water and nature were considered portals from "normal" reality to a supernatural realm, sometimes referred to as the Otherworld. Wells, streams, woods, and caves were all places where magic was possible or likely.

Celtic, or immanent, considerations of nature address growing anxiety about the physical survival of humanity. There is a conviction among a growing number of people that we are spiritually out of tune with nature, ourselves, others, and the universe. Ancient wisdom is considered the key to regaining the harmonious, balanced, sacralized life of our ancestors. For many people, this ancient wisdom is best exemplified in Celtic practices.

Many New Agers and some Neopagans believe that ancient Celtic wisdom was passed to Celtic Christianity in an essentially smooth and harmonious transition from the old religion to the new. Celtic Christianity is considered more spiritual, more intuitive, and more in touch with nature than its Roman counterpart. Celtic Christian churches exist in the United States in growing numbers, in many cases combining Eastern Orthodoxy with various aspects of ancient Celtic mythology. One may consider modern Celtic Christianity in the United States to be an example of a revitalization movement. Legend to outsiders and historical fact to followers, the Celtic Christian Church is believed to have originated in Glastonbury, England, quite early in the first century c.e. Joseph of Arimathea, said to have been a tin merchant, came to Glastonbury with Mary after the death of Jesus, carrying two vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus on the cross. It is widely accepted that Christianity met almost no resistance upon its introduction to the British Isles and Ireland. Brigit, a highly venerated triple goddess, was Christianized as St. Brigid; some druids assumed roles as Christian priests; and the filidh, or poets of Celtic culture, became monks. The fluid syncretism of Celticism and Christianity is summed up in St. Columba's famous sentiment "Christ the son of God is my Druid." Other syncretic elements include the Celtic cross, a creative combination of ancient Celtic and Christian symbolism; and the Christian baptismal fountain, reminiscent of Celtic sacred wells and water holes. Commonly, Celtic Christianity emphasizes equal rights for women both within and outside the church, a reverence for nature, the importance of community, the worship of Celtic as well as Roman saints, and the primacy of the Celtic church.

Celtic practices are also a vital component of many Neopagan groups, especially those self-identified as Wiccan. Wicca, or Witchcraft, employs both ritual magic and a reverence for sacred nature. Many Wiccan groups worship figures derived from Celtic mythology, including a horned god (commonly Cernunnos) and a triple goddess (Maiden, Mother, and Crone). Wiccan groups usually celebrate the equinoxes, solstices, and Celtic holy days, especially Samhain (October 31) and Beltane (April 30), and including Lughnasadh ( July 31) and Oimelc ( January 31).

The term "Wicca," as well as many of the rituals used in Wiccan groups today, derives from the work of Gerald Gardner, who created rituals and philosophies based on his interpretation of pre-Christian Celtic worship emphasizing a central great Goddess. Various forms of Gardner's teachings appeared in the United States during the 1960s, fueling the advent of American Neopaganism and the Celtic revival. Most people embrace things Celtic on an individual level and have been dubbed "Cardiac Celts," those who feel in their hearts that they are Celtic. Many subscribe to Celtic magazines, acquire Celtic "artifacts," or attend workshops and seminars on Celtic wisdom. Many books continue to be published on Celtic tradition, mythology, and spirituality, written largely from Neopagan or New Age perspectives. The commodification of the Celtic revival is evident in a wide variety of retail contexts, with the promise that possession of Celtic-flavored items, usually crafts or books (though also including a seemingly endless array of consumer goods), connects one with a Celtic past. One thus "acquires" Celtic identity through the collection of purchased "artifacts" and reconstructed wisdom.

Modern manifestations of Celtic religion, whether based in Neopaganism, Celtic Christianity, or an individualized spiritual practice, encompass values of ecological responsibility, gender equality, and spiritual growth. The "Celtic revival" is both a commercial and a spiritual venture, resembling in many aspects mainstream America's artificial construction of a generic Native American spirituality. Constructed Native American and Celtic philosophies are devoid of an accurate historical context, representing an idealization of a "noble savage" archetype that serves as a model for ecological awareness, and serving as motifs for a wide array of consumer "artifacts," self-awareness and self-improvement seminars, and popular music and literature. A common claim in New Age literature is the similarity between druidic practices of the Celts and the "shamanistic" practices of North American Indians. Unfortunately, no widely accepted evidence exists detailing the practices of early Celts, making such generalized claims difficult to substantiate. Interest in things Celtic remains largely a spiritualized version of an unclear history, representing for many people a magical and harmonious way of living in balance with the world.

See alsoDivinity; Ecospirituality; Goddess; Liturgy and Worship; Magic; Missionary Movements; Myth; Nature Religion; Neopaganism; New Age Spirituality; Practice; Roman Catholicism; Spirituality; Wicca.


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John Baumann