Sunday, July 11, 2004

Myths about Celtic Mythology

Yesterday the rather incredible assertion was made to me that the Celts did not have a sun god, that the sun was the Goddess as was the moon. Both major celestial bodies were, according to this source, symbolizations of the Goddess. The explanation was given that in the morning the sun is red, like a maiden experiencing her first menses, at noon the sun is overhead like a great mother, nurturing all of life. In the late evening the sun is red again indicating the onset of menopause and then the moon is the crone. This is all very pretty, and in fact as mythology goes it is a fine metaphor, probably a good one to use in explaining the trinity of Maiden, Mother and Crone.

But it is flat out wrong to assert that this is an accurate portrayal of actual Celtic theology/mythology.

I am not an expert in this field, in fact I am self-taught, so this is a dangerous place for me to be treading. So be aware that any errors are my own in here.

The Celts were not a centrally organized empire with a unified theology. Rather, they were a grouping of culturally and linguistically affiliated independent tribes. Celts peoples did identify themselves as being Celtic. Julius Caesar noted this in his book, The Conquest of Gaul, and apparently the Greeks were referring to the Keltoi as far back as 600 BCE (Hecataeus of Miletus). Caesar’s commentary on his campaigns across Europe that even in the face of conquest they were unable to form strong enough bonds to unite against the common threat: the advancing Roman army. So there is convincing evidence that there was not a great deal of political or military unity amongst the Celts.

Similarly, there is little evidence of theological unity among the Celts. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence against there being a unified mythology. We have accounts from the Greeks and Romans about Celtic religion, but these accounts were rarely written with the intent of conveying knowledge of Celtic beliefs. For example, it is pretty clear that the little Caesar wrote about the Celtic religion was written largely to convince a population in Rome that his wars upon the Celts were justified (he never found the weapons of mass destruction either). Oral accounts, primarily from unconquered Celtic territories (Wales, Ireland, Scotland) survived long enough to be recorded by monks. It is wonderful that the early Christian monks wrote these accounts down; it is less wonderful that they were often Christianized in the process.

The last source we have for the religions of the Celts is archeology. Not only do we have some statues, cauldrons and engravings, we also have burials, offerings to the Divinities and some religious structures to study. Even so, the picture is highly unclear.

Back to the question of Sun Goddess, a brief search of Encyclopedia Mythica reveals 2 Celtic Sun Goddesses (Aimend and Etain, both Irish Sun Goddesses, no apparent connection), 4 Celtic Sun Gods (Alunus, Belenus, Curoi Mac Daire, Mog Ruith), 2 Celtic Moon Goddesses (Arduinna, Arionrhod) and one daughter of the Sun Deity (Din Griene—no specifics on which Sun Deity was the parent).

That is a pretty mixed bag from which to draw the conclusion that the Celts saw both sun and moon as female.

A second unsupported assertion that was presented to me was that the Celts did not practice human sacrifice upon unwilling participants—they all volunteered. I find it highly unbelievable that the Roman captives of the Celts volunteered to die for the Celtic gods. In any case, here is what Caesar has to say regarding the Celts volunteering themselves for sacrifice:

“Some tribes have colossal images made of wickerwork, the limbs of which they fill with living men; they are then set on fire, and the victims burnt to death. The think the Gods prefer the execution of men taken in the act of theft or brigandage, or guilty of some offence; but when they run short of criminals, they do not hesitate to make up with innocent men.”

While Caesar is probably not the most impartial source (his main purpose being to promote his political career) there are many other similar accounts in classical literature of the Celts practicing human sacrifice, both as an offering to the Divinities and as a means of divination. There are also indications that the Celts gradually abandoned the practice in favor of offerings such a possessions, statues and treasures.

Author Barry Cunliffe brings up some interesting points about common themes or structures in Celtic mythology in his book The Ancient Celts. The first point is that the Celts were not quite so bound to a solar or lunar mythology as previous cultures were. He points out that the great solar and lunar oriented places of worship such as Newgrange, Stonehenge and countless other stone and wood henges, circles, barrows, etc. had been abandoned by the time of the Celts. Rather, the emphasis is on a seasonal mythology oriented to the land and its productivity. This may well reflect a shift from a hunter/gatherer mode to a nomadic pastoral and increasingly agrarian way of life.

A second point Cunliffe makes, and one I am less comfortable with is that male Gods tended to embody themes of tribe/war/sky and female Goddesses represented place/earth/fertility. Overall, I tend to agree, but the Celts seemed to have a lot of Goddesses who were skilled at battle.

There is so much to Celtic history, culture and religion, I could spend my life immersed in it! This post suddenly seems so incomplete and ill informed that I hesitate to even post it.

I wonder if I could make a decent living as a historian or scholar of mythology. Probably a little late to start working toward that career.

Goddess Brigit, I thank You for my sobriety today. I am Andy, I am an alcoholic and I am one of Your children. Please guide me through the day to do Your will. Please help me stay sober just for today. Thank You. Blessed Be!