Welcome to the Back to School for Writers blog series. Every Wednesday until the end of September, a guest poster will share their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. Today’s guest is Lisa Lawler, who corrects common misconceptions about the Ancient Celts.
Many writers, particularly those writing fantasy, draw on the Celtic culture for inspiration for their novels, and often give an inaccurate view of the Celts, based on many of the mistakes (and sometimes even forgeries and overactive imaginations!) of earlier writers and scholars.
For instance, there are ‘beliefs’ about the Celts that come from the scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who looked to the newly-discovered New World and the Native American people as a framework for what their prehistoric Celtic ancestors were like.
Then, later on, when a separate national identity and culture became important to the people of Celtic descent, a romanticized view of the Celts came into existence.
In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the more popular myths of the Celtic culture and what the historical and archaeological evidence and literature reveals.
1. The Celts were not Wiccan.
The Celts were not Wiccan. For instance, it would have been impossible for a Celt to honor the tenet ‘An it harm none, do what you will’ because Celts did not think in terms of individual will. They were taught to respect the gods and goddesses and to live in harmony with the world around them. They were taught that duty to and the wellbeing of the tribe was of the utmost importance.
- Wicca features the four Classical Greek elements of earth, air, fire and water. The cosmology of the Celts featured three spheres – land, sea and sky.
- Wiccans see the sun as a symbol of the masculine principle and the moon the feminine principle. Celts had both solar and lunar gods and goddesses.
- It appears that the Celts incorporated aspects of shamanic practice in their beliefs. For instance, in the literature, some famous warriors could travel to and from the Otherworld while still alive in quest of knowledge, and both warriors and Druids could shape-shift.
- Another aspect of shamanic belief is that every aspect of Nature was Divine to the Celts. The Otherworld was not separate from the physical world.
2. Druid was not a title given only to a member of the priesthood.
The Druids who were seers and soothsayers were concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of their people and read omens and portents. They also made sure the people paid the proper respect to the gods and respected all life. But there was more to the Druids than that.
The Druids were the professional class of society, the Aes Dána (ACE DAW-nah), which included lawyers, judges, teachers, counselors, musicians, poets, healers, astronomers and so on. They were distinct from the Warrior class, the Ruling class, the craftsmen and freemen.
- There were three levels of Druid, known today as Druid, Ovate, and Bard. In Ireland they were Druí (dree), Fáidh (Fawth with a hard th), and File (FILL-eh).
- The romantic image of Bards as wandering minstrels singing cheerful songs is not accurate. A bard’s role in society was much more important than simply entertaining an audience. They remembered the genealogies of the ruling families (the longer they were, the more prestigious the family), the important historical events and great achievements of the champions and kings, and they could make or break a king’s reputation depending on how he treated them.
- Druids were the only people who were free to travel the length and breadth of Ireland, regardless of tribal boundaries.
- There are accounts of Druids who were physicians, skilled in the prescription of herbs. They also performed surgery including caesarean sections and amputations.
3. Kingship was not inherited by primogeniture.
Kingship was not passed from father to eldest son. The king had to be a strong man in both body and mind so that he could protect his people from both external and internal strife.
The derbfhine (DURV-in-ah)(a group usually made up of three generations of the royal family) had to agree who their leader would be. They usually chose a man from within three generations of the previous king’s family. i.e. a cousin, brother, uncle or grandson.
- Frequently, a king would still be in power when his successor was elected so that there would be no misunderstandings or fighting. This second-in-command was known as the tánaist (TAW-nisht).
- Kings also had to be renowned for their generosity and feasting. A mean king or chieftain reflected badly on the tribe as a whole.
- Kings could have no physical blemish. There are several versions of the story of a king with horse’s ears who desperately needed to keep this secret. It is also why Nuada of the Silver Hand could not be elected king of the Tuatha Dé Danann (TOO-ha day DON-un, a race of people who lived in Ireland before the Celts) until such time as a new hand of flesh and blood was made for him.
- For the Brythonic Celts, such as the Picts in Scotland, kingship may have been based on matrilineal descent.
4. The Celtic Tree astrology is not an ancient system of divination developed and used by the Druids.
The Celtic Tree astrology was, in fact, developed in the twentieth century by a poet by the name of Robert Graves and presented in his book The White Goddess which was published in 1946.
- The Druids were astronomers of renown, and would certainly have looked to the stars for auspicious moments to conduct an important activity. There is evidence, for example, that the building of a new house was governed by the stars. But while the Druids named some Ogham letters after trees, it was Graves (using only 13 letters of the 25-letter alphabet) who decided to link these letters and trees to lunar months and then further link them to constellations. Celtic Tree astrology is no older than the twentieth century.
5. The Celtic Druids did not build Newgrange or Stonehenge (or any other megalithic structure).
Newgrange in Co. Meath in Ireland is older than the pyramids in Egypt by a thousand years. The Celts arrived in Ireland in or around 600BC. Newgrange had already been built and was still standing and being used by the people who had inhabited Ireland long before the Celts arrived.
In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth created the story that the stones of Stonehenge were transported magically from Ireland by a druid called Merlin.
In the late seventeenth century, John Aubrey realized that Stonehenge was not a Roman monument, but because he could not find any other explanation for it, he believed it to have been a temple for the ancient Britons. After that Stonehenge appeared in illustrations connected with the Druids, like the one that appeared in Godfrey Higgins’s The Celtic Druids in 1827.
Dr William Stukeley, in 1740, published a book based on the “druidic temple” ideas of Aubrey and others, but also put forward many other wild claims.
- The Celts did not build Newgrange nor did they build Stonehenge.
- The Celts did not build temples to worship in, preferring the sacred spaces in nature like springs, wells and groves.
You may have found information here that surprised you or confirmed what you already knew, but I hope that it serves as a good starting point for further research. The books by Peter Beresford Ellis are probably a good place to begin, and for the whodunnit-lovers, he has also written The Sister Fidelma Mysteries (featuring a female Druid in seventh century Ireland) under the name Peter Tremayne.
Lisa Lawler lives with her husband and son in Western Australia and loves books to distraction. She believes our thoughts create our reality, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that what we do is not as important as who we are while we are doing it.
She blogs at www.liselmsdiary.blogspot.com.
Prudence MacLeod says
Most enlightening. Some things I knew; others I did not. Thanks for sharing, Lisa and you are quite correct, where you focus your thoughts will indeed dictate your experience of reality.
Thanks for this post, Lisa. I always knew my knowledge of the Celts was of the fuzzy, romanticized kind and it’s good to know a few ways how it was so.
Barbara Forte Abate says
This post REALLY was a back-to-school learning experience. I really thought I knew a thing or two about the Ancient Celts until I read this and found I didn’t! Oh so interesting. Thank you Lisa, for such an interesting post, and Rabia for bringing it to us 🙂
Thank you all for your lovely comments. I’m so glad you found the post helpful. 🙂
And thank you, Rabia, for the opportunity to put this post together and share it with others.
Have a lovely weekend!
Lisa Ahn says
I love having all this information at my fingertips — thank you!