Celtic Spirituality in the British Isles

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To be at peace with our surroundings is to be at peace within ourselves. Celtic spirituality brings such peace. More importantly, it is still alive in the British Isles today.

Road trips around Scotland and Wales are amongst our most treasured memories. The shores or Ireland – westernmost home of the Celts – are calling us for further adventures…

It is part of being human to look for meaning and purpose in life and, on this page, we explore what our Celtic ancestors can teach us to this day.

Celtic spirituality in the British Isles

Who were the Celts?

Let’s start our exploration by trying to find out who the Celts actually were. After a bit of research, it seems we don’t know very much! No, not just us Hobos…but we, as in anyone!

Firstly, Celtic history was orally maintained. Moreover, those who eventually wrote about the Celts did not necessarily like them. Truth is easily distorted.

What we do know is that the Celts were groups of individual tribes who shared a common belief system, language and culture. They formed small tribes as early as 1200BC and they gradually migrated across western Europe.

They lived in small communities of thatched roundhouses or within the walls of hillforts – fortified, walled settlements, usually on top of a hill.

It was actually the Romans who first documented the Celts. Subsequently, they launched a military offensive against them and killed off many Celts on continental Europe.

The Celts, fleeing in front of the approaching Roman army, eventually ended up in the Western outreaches of the British Isles. It is here that glimpses of their spiritual life still survives and it’s these places that we love to visit in our old VW van.

Wales: ancient Celt homeland
Wales: one of the ancient homelands of the Celts

Living evidence of Celtic spirituality

Although solid evidence of the ancient Celts remains on the continent, it is in Wales that you will hear the living evidence. Cymric is strong within the Welsh language. Cornish and Scots Gaelic however is not spoken as widely today. Irish Gaelic, discouraged and almost erased when the English colonised Ireland, is alive on the West coast.

Neither the Romans nor the Anglo-Saxons invaded Ireland so Celtic culture there could have been rich but for the coming of Christianity with Saint Patrick in 432AD. However, Christianity absorbed Celtic spirituality into its own – albeit aided by a mass killing of Druids, the secretive Priesthood of the Celts.  

So, has Celtic spirituality been eradicated or assimilated and altered beyond recognition? It seems not. We actually know more about Celtic religion and spirituality than any other part of Celtic life.

Moreover, the Celtic festivals, always observed in Britain, are now enjoying a healthy rejuvenation due to neo-pagans and an increasing interest in a more natural life. More of that later…

So what do we know of the Celts?

The Celts were master craftsmen

Carbon dated artefacts report facts. And only facts. We just have to interpret their meaning.

Firstly though, the “Celtic” stone carvings at Newgrange, Ireland, actually predated the arrival of Celts by a couple of thousand years, so cross that one off! However, the Celts did craft intricately carved stone and metal with knotwork and interlacing spiral patterns. Therefore adding Newgrange to the list is understandable.

Celtic cross in a church graveyard at Aberdaron, Wales
A Celtic Cross on the Welsh Coast

The Celtic Cross is believed to be an amalgamation of Celtic culture and Christianity. And the Shamrock, Ireland’s national symbol is most likely a Celtic representative of Sun, Sea, and Earth which neatly fitted into the Christian trinity. The number three was important to the Celts as their own divine trinity.

Huge outlines of men or horses carved into chalky or red-soiled hills are most likely Celtic in origin. However, the giant at Cerne Abbas may be Roman. They resurrected interest in the pagan Hercules and the giant’s resemblance is strong. Perhaps the Romans altered a Celtic monument to suit their own pantheon? One horse’s beaked face was changed to a more conventional shape at some point in its history.

Each culture adds its own ideas and beliefs to the previous ones. A religion which does not evolve to suit the needs of its people is doomed – although we firmly believe that modern man needs to reconnect with the spirit of nature to find inner peace.

Celts and ley lines

Many ancient tribal peoples’ history tells of lines of energy traversing the planet. Some cultures use them as tracks, others think of them as lines of energy from within the planet. The Celts respected the fairy lines, or ley lines as part of their spiritual belief system.  

Ancient sites of sacred importance are often re-used by succeeding cultures. We also know that the Celts worshipped many Gods…

Most peoples of the Iron Age, including the Celts, held polytheistic views and worshipped many major Gods. Animism also formed a part of their beliefs. Animism is the worship of Gods or Spirits who inhabit the natural features of the immediate area. Each district or tribe would have their own animistic pantheon.

The Celts also regarded the heavenly bodies of the sun, moon and stars as supernatural forces.

Celtic Gods held sway over natural elements. Therefore they were revered in their personal realm outside. Some spaces were deemed sacred, namely lakes, rivers and geographical features.

Were these sacred sites re-used by later cultures? And are they as familiar today as they were to the Celts?  

The Celtic Gods – still recognised today

The Celtic Gods were both male and female. The feminine qualities of home-making and childbearing were ascribed to the females but they were also ferocious warriors. This tends to indicate gender equality in Celtic life. Each probably had its own roles but lines were very much blurred.

Many Celtic Gods and Goddesses were retained by Christianity by absorbing them into the new faith. One good example is Brigid, Celtic Goddess of Spring, healing, home and hearth. Catholic Christian culture links her with St Brigid of Kildare.

Using the Celtic deities made Christianity more palatable to them. It certainly saved the slaughter of more Celts. Their priests, the Druids, were eradicated or driven into hiding, however. 

Roman treatment of the Celtic Gods was similar – they were re-clothed as Roman deities. Never a people to accept any other belief systems, the Romans’ justification for mass extermination of Celts was that they practiced human sacrifice – something that the Roman Empire had only just stopped.

It is not clear how often the Celts inflicted death on their fellow humans, but very probably not as much as the Romans implicated. The sacrifices made to the Celtic Gods were more likely to have been symbolic or of possessions.

Celtic myths and stories – written into history

Celtic mythology and history was transcribed in Ireland during the sixth to eighth centuries.

Subsequently, three books emerged from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries – the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster and the Yellow Book of Lecan. These three books hold stories and myths which were part of the oral tradition of the Irish Celtic tribes.

These books were compiled centuries after Celtic spirituality and traditions were diluted or eradicated. They nonetheless hold tantalising glimpses of Celtic practices.

The Book of Invasions tells of mythical inhabitants who were all drowned bar one in a “Biblical” flood. Most tribal cultures have a flood story however, probably told throughout the centuries after planetary warming and cooling.

Modern Irish Celtic Spirituality

John O’Donohue, in his book, Anam Cara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World resurrects the tribal poems and stories. Moreover, he breathes new life and new understanding into them.

Reaching back along the silver thread of time to the ancestors, he brings their words back with him. In the traditional Celtic way, the book uses poetic language and story to instil ancient wisdom into our fast-paced modern world.

It is one of our favourite books and always goes with us when we venture into Celtic territory.

Anam Cara: Celtic spirituality for the modern world

Welsh stories

The Welsh Celts also handed down myths and stories. The stories were eventually written, albeit after centuries of retelling and additions.

The Black Book of Carmarthen is the oldest existing example from the thirteenth century. Another is the Red Book of Hergest, a 14th century manuscript. It was common for a roaming Celt bard to swap a story and a poem for a night’s lodging.

The stories combining myth and folklore would alter in detail depending upon personal preference and circumstance.

We wonder if a campsite would accept a few poems these days?

Interestingly, the legendary King Arthur and his knights feature in some Celtic tales. He was carried, dying, to the mythical island of Avalon, meeting place of wounded heroes. In our modern world, areas which match the criteria in the myth stake claims to the name Avalon. Glastonbury Tor heads the list.

Celtic spirituality in the modern world

It is however via the continuation of feast days and retention of beliefs in some Gods that we have gained the most knowledge about Celtic spirituality.

Celtic feast days are still celebrated within the British Isles. Due to neo-pagan interest in Celtic spirituality, the original names and formats are enjoying a revival.

Celtic spirituality alive and well at this Beltane festival
Celtic spirituality alive and well at this Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, 2017 Image: everfest.com

The four Celtic festivals are Samhain, Beltane, Imbolc and Lughnasadh. In short, each festival roughly coincided with the death of one season and the birth of the next.

Celts grouped their seasons into three lunar months. Firstly Winter, or end of harvest, headed by Samhain (November to January). After that, Spring began with the Imbolc feast in early February. Beltane starts summer in early May. Finally Autumn begins with Lughnasadh in August through to the end of October.

Samhain

Samhain in particular has survived into modern day as Hallowe’en. Marking the beginning of the Celtic year, it was also the time when the Gods of the Otherworld were closest to our plane. Entering the living realm, the Gods would play tricks on the people.

Also, in Celtic myth, Samhain was the day on which the people had to sacrifice two thirds of their corn, wine and children. This was to appease the spirits of darkness which ruled winter.

Romans consequently surmised that Celtic Gods were only appeased by human sacrifice. The actual sacrifices were likely to have been less demanding since the myths were symbolic. For instance, a hoard of Celtic gold and silver found on the island of Anglesey is most probably a sacrificial offering. 

Likewise, rivers, lakes and bogs have revealed similar offerings on mainland Europe.

Imbolc

Imbolc is the February festival of Spring and birth. This festival eventually became associated with St Brigid. She is the Christian version of the Celtic fertility God Brigid. Christianisation ultimately lead to Imbolc becoming Candlemas.

Beltane

The festival of Beltane is at the beginning of May. Named for the Celtic God Bel, it is a time of rebirth and renewal. The people lit fires to ensure fertility of crops and animals as well as the tribe. There was also ceremonial dancing around a May Pole. We can remember the May Pole from primary school! A fertility ritual though?

Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh celebrated and anticipated the coming harvest. It was subsequently Christianised as Lammas.

Celtic Spirituality - historic roots for our future

Pagan additions to Celtic festivals

Pagans subsequently added four to this list – the celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes. In other words, Yule, Ostara, Litha and Mabon.

These could also have been a minor part of the Celtic calendar since the Druids first began the tradition of a Yule log. They thought that the sun stood still for twelve days so they burned a special log to banish darkness.

However the huge stone “calendars” which appear to show the solstice sunrise were not necessarily of Druid construction. Stonehenge for instance, predates them by a thousand years.

Celtic beliefs in Heaven and Hell

The Celts certainly believed in a Heaven and Hell. Namely the Otherworld and Underworld. The Otherworld had thin borders and sometimes a God could enter the mortal world. Likewise, a worthy Celt may spend time with the Gods in The Otherworld – a paradise of feasting, fighting and fornication!

The Celts certainly believed in life after death as they buried food, weapons and decorative items with the deceased.

The Underworld seems to have been a place of fear and challenge rather than punishment. Heroes went there in order to prove their worthiness of a place in the Otherworld.

The Druids taught of the everlasting soul and its transformative journey towards enlightenment. Importantly this gave the tribes hope during difficult times.

Celtic Spirituality on the road

On our road trips we love to immerse ourselves in natural spaces. Above all, we do what we can to connect with the land; the mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, the flora and fauna. By doing so, maybe we commune with our Celtic ancestors too?

The ancient wisdom of the myths and legends of Celtic spirituality, along with their everyday stories, has so much to teach us to this day – and days yet to come. 

Perhaps it is needed now more than ever?

Two more Celtic books we love…

Hobo Gav has had a copy of Ross Nichols’ ‘Book of Druidry’ for over twenty years. It covers in details matters of seasonal rituals, ancient holy sites and explores the significance of dolmens, barrows and stone circles in places such as Glastonbury and Stonehenge. This really is the definitive book on Druidry, written by a Chosen Chief of the Druids from 1964 to 1975 and although it’s selling on Amazon these days for over £40 it’s worth every penny. A real collector’s item!

J.P. Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God almost matches the literary masterpiece of John O’Donohue’s ‘Anam Cara’. It merges the ancient wisdom of Celtic spirituality with Christianity, highlighting that many of the beliefs in the early days of the British church were heavily influenced by the Celts.

Learn more about Celtic spirituality:

https://www.realmofhistory.com/2018/07/02/ancient-celtic-gods-goddesses-facts/

https://thecelticjourney.wordpress.com/the-celts/wheel-of-the-year/

https://www.johnodonohue.com/

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