Pre-Christian Celtic Culture & Religion

by Benna Crawford
Dolmens, once covered with earth, are ancient Celtic grave sites.

Dolmens, once covered with earth, are ancient Celtic grave sites.

The pagan Celts were a lively polyglot of people with an equally numerous and diverse pantheon of gods. They lived in a Europe of vast, primordial forests, soft green fields and precipitous stony shores. Nature informed many of their beliefs about the sacred and their religion was entirely interwoven with their lives. Christians wisely merged their own divine beings with Celtic beliefs in order to convert the polytheistic pagans.

The Fish of Wisdom

Irish mythology tells of a magical fish, a salmon, that swam in the sacred Boyne River and held the key to wisdom. It was an extraordinary creature that inhabited the watery passage between worlds and legend had it that the first person to eat the fish would acquire its vast knowledge. One day, a bard caught the salmon and gave it to his apprentice, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the hero of the Fenian story cycle about fabulous characters who interacted with the gods and might be from history, or myth. The fish is a common motif in pre-Christian Celtic art and may have supplied the model for the Christian symbol for Christ, the Son of God, whose human incarnation and teachings linked earthly beings with the afterlife or heaven. Although there is no clear record of the Celtic customs and spiritual beliefs overlaid by Christianity, bountiful examples of the intersection of religious icons, saints and festivals describe how many deeply held Celtic practices merged with the new religion and inspired its rituals and feast days.

Druids

Celtic culture was not homogeneous but was linked by shared language and religious beliefs. Central to religious practice of the pre-Christian Celts was the role of the Druids. Druids served as priests, poets, judges, philosophers, astronomers, overseers of sacrifice and petitioners of the gods. They controlled ritual and could mete out a dreaded punishment to any mortal who ran afoul of them -- banishment from participation in sacrifice. To be forbidden a part in sacrificial rites was to lose any chance of favor from the gods. Sacrifice may or may not have included human offerings -- the Druids wrote nothing down and the evidence for human sacrifice is controversial. When Christianity began to infiltrate Celtic cultures in earnest, just prior to the start of the Middle Ages, the Druids adapted to the new religion and some became Christian priests and even saints.

Sacred Nature

The pre-Christian Celts had a close affinity with the natural world, seeing spiritual forces in trees, lakes, stones, unusual land formations, weather patterns, seasonal changes, animals and the night sky. Ceremonies and practices to honor natural elements took the form of tree worship, sacrifices of goods to ponds, rivers and lakes, veneration of sacred springs and holy wells, and the formation of stone circles and burial mounds aligned with the annual path of the sun. Traveling Druids, who sheltered overnight under trees, hung their valuables from the branches of the tree, safeguarding the possessions and paying homage to the spirits of the tree. Pagans worshipped the sun on mountains and hill tops and believed that caves were the openings to the underworld. Islands served as retreats for solitary worship because bad spirits and dark magic could not cross water.

Life After Death, and Year Round

Celts believed in immortality and in a world inhabited by the gods and the fortunate dead. Druids also taught reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul: the essence of the deceased would be reborn in another body, not necessarily human. So pagan Celts had reassuring posthumous options that made them terrifying and nearly reckless on the battlefield. Grave goods might accompany the deceased to show position in society or to provide familiar comfort in the afterlife. Bodies, laid in shallow graves or rock-lined tombs, were buried head to the West -- the direction of the Otherworld, a place of perfection where gods and goddesses dwelt and the virtuous took up residence after death. But the Otherworld had no fixed place; it might exist below the waters of a lake, deep underground through the mouth of a cave, or on an inaccessible island in the sea. Celts celebrated the turning of the seasons with rituals for summer and winter solstice and spring and autumn equinox. Today these celebratory days coincide with major Christian holy days like Christmas and Easter, and with secular holidays like Halloween.

Gods and Goddesses

Pagan Celts worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses who freely consorted with mortals and sometimes married or gave birth to them. Many of the divine beings were local but art and mythology have preserved scores of them who would have been known across the Celtic world. Lugh, the sun and harvest god, master of every skill and magic, routed the Formorian monsters and fathered Cú Chúlainn, a mythical Irish hero. Brighid or Caeridwen is the goddess of poetry, learning, knowledge and inspiration who gave birth to the celebrated bard, Taliesen. Brighid became St. Brigid when the Celts would not abandon her for the Christian gods. Danu, the great mother goddess, produced the Tuatha De Dannan, a divine race who inhabited Tir na n'Og, the Otherworld. The Morrigan, a grotesque war goddess who inspired the later figure of Morgan le Fey in the Arthurian myths, is also a trinity of goddesses who practice fearsome magic. Cernunnos, the horned fertility god, was worshipped by a loyal cult that stubbornly resisted Christianity. Epona, the horse goddess, earned her own cult in Rome where people admired the Celts' formidable skills as horsemen.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .

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