Who were the Celts? Did their spirit endure?
There was a quest underlying my journey through Europe in 2015, born from my attraction to ancient Celtic spirituality. Celtishness has been claimed by the Irish. And indeed, Ireland, the heart centre of the western lands of ancient Hibernia, is where Celtic spirituality survived the longest.
To explore how this happened, I began by gathering some background about these tribes from central Europe, collectively called Keltoi or Celts. From about 1000 BCE they spread westward as far as the British Isles. They imposed their societal structures, but their approach to the spiritual was attuned to what had been an integral part of life since prehistoric times. They worshipped gods and goddesses of rivers, lakes and hills, the divine in nature based on seasonal rhythms and the movement of the heavenly bodies, in particular moon and sun, behind which worked the power of divine beings. Druids, trained in secret knowledge of the spiritual realms, acted as conduits to those other worlds. Female druids, called bandrui in Ireland, had their own mystery schools. The poets – Irish fili and banfili (from ‘to see’) – were highly esteemed. They memorised timeless myths and set their words to music. For music filled the Celtic soul.
As Rome’s power extended through Europe, Celtic Gaul resisted. When my kids were young, our whole family enjoyed the funny, satirical Asterix the Gaul books about one tribe from a village in Amorica (Brittany) that held out against Julius Caesar.
Fictional of course. In 50 BCE the individualistic warriors of Gaul were finally defeated by Caesar’s rigorously disciplined troops and Roman administration was imposed. Britain was only gradually subdued.
Rome did not reject native gods and goddesses. They were absorbed into its pantheon. But the power of the druids was another matter. Eventually Suetonius Paulinis the Roman governor of Britain decided to be rid of them forever. In 60 CE his troops attacked their stronghold on Ynys Mon (modern Anglesey), an island off the north-west coast of Wales. Tacitus the historian wrote that the male defenders raised their arms and uttered wild cries; then females charged shrieking out of the forest upon the Romans, who slaughtered both men and women. That was the end of the druids. Or so Rome hoped.
From the late first century diverse Christian groups began to spread their message. This happened quietly and didn’t become an intrusive force until the Emperor Constantine called a council at Nicaea in 325, to create a formal church structure. The church became Romanised – that is legalistic and hierarchical. After this its leaders worked hard to stamp out ‘wrong’ doctrine and ‘devilish’ pagan cults.
The Roman empire never conquered Scotland and Ireland. Romans eventually gave up the northward fight against woad-painted warriors and built the famous Hadrian’s wall to define the extent of their reach in Britain. And rumours – probably spread by the Irish themselves – of the deadly treacherous sea meant Roman troops left the island alone.
The Roman church didn’t penetrate these far western lands either. Yet when the Bishop of Rome did send missionaries to Ireland – Saint Patrick was one – they found a unique version of Christianity already flourishing. Not a lot is known about it, but I believe this Christian way was one reason why Celtic spirituality survived in the isles, far longer than was possible in Europe. There’s evidence that Druid and Christian lived together and blended harmoniously for centuries. Celtic spirituality was visual and verbal. Christianity brought reading and writing in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the languages of literary culture. Yet there was no conflict with the old religion.
A few signifiers: The male druids shaved the front part of their heads from ear to ear, leaving the hair behind to grow long and Irish Christian monks chose to do the same. Both druids and monks carried a staff on their journeys. Each staff was uniquely carved with images and treasured as a personal symbol of union of the divine with the earth. Other ancient symbols endured or were adapted, like the universal sun-cross.
Sun crosses on Irish grave slabs: a) outside the Gallarus oratory on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry;
b) at the monastery of Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, founded in 544
Geometric shapes for the mineral kingdom, twisted spirals and braids for the living plant world, fantastical animals – you find them all carved into Celtic high crosses.
(Left) In the Iona museum: St John’s cross was re-assembled from fallen fragments – said to be the first stone high cross incorporating the sun circle. Ancient symbols, their number and arrangement, convey the message. (Right) St Martin’s high cross outside the abbey on Iona – with human figures and symbolic forms.
Discovering more from legends and visions
Legends are helpful when other information has been lost. The nature wisdom of the feminine was integral to Celtic spirituality and one legend concerns the Chief Druid on the sacred island of Iona. He had a vision of the goddess Brigit or Brigantia with the child Jesus cradled in her lap. Threefoldness was central for the Celts. As well as being a triple goddess, Brigit was also mother in a divine family, a trinity, along with the father Dagda (or Taranis the thunder god); and Lugh or Beli the son – he was god of light, a characteristic enabling association with the Christ. Behind this legend is the likelihood that the trinity of Irish Christianity also had had a feminine aspect. The patriarchal church of Rome didn’t see Father, Son and Holy Spirit like that. Much later Brigit was turned into Saint Brigid.
The legend of King Conchobar mac Nessa closes with his dramatic death. An eclipse darkens the sky, and he asks his druid about the portent’s meaning. ‘The son of God is being crucified,’ the druid replies, at which the king reacts in such shock that a wound in his head bursts open. He falls down dead and is baptised by the blood from his wound.
Legends like these are external reflections of a deeper reality. Druids, initiated into the Mysteries of Hibernia, inherited the sun worship of their megalithic ancestors whose ‘temples’ were underhill chambers and massive stone rows and circles, aligned to significant points in the sun’s passage though the seasons. The philosopher and seer Rudolf Steiner has revealed that in the first century, at the moment when the tragedy of Golgotha was taking place in Palestine, druids in Ireland beheld the events inwardly. As Jesus died on the cross his whole being was irradiated by the spiritual sun, the Logos, and the power of the Logos permeated the earth’s spiritual atmosphere. This extraordinary transformation came to those druidic seers as a symbolic picture which they had the knowledge to interpret. They knew the Logos, the spirit of the sun, and they experienced it most strongly in the elements and seasonal rhythms. That’s why the Christ impulse as it came to expression in Ireland was imbued with a deep love of all nature. You can see this in a prayer for strength and protection, called a ‘breastplate’ (anonymous, but later attributed to St Patrick). The passion and connection with elemental forces, the four elements of fire, earth, air and water, is typically ‘Irish’.
I arise today
Through strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
The earliest Christians experienced the Christ event as a radical shift from the restrictive legalism of both Judaic and Roman society. The individualistic Celts had always lived more by personal choices, and druid seers readily acknowledged the Christ spirit as available to each human being. The druids were seekers of knowledge and the gospel of John especially resonated with people who followed the sacred way of old Ireland. The Christianity born in Ireland is often called Johannine. The heart of this gospel is the cosmic Christ that is also the mystical inner Christ, the I AM, to be discovered as the core of self through knowledge and personal commitment. At times this meant a retreat from the ordinary life to be alone with nature. The Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula may have been a small sanctuary for private contemplation, with the sun piercing directly through from tiny window to doorway as a reminder of the spiritual sun.
Gallarus Oratory: the closely fitted dry stone technique without mortar has been used since prehistoric times,
e.g. at the Newgrange complex (Brú na Bóinne) – the structures are still waterproof.
Christian communities would grow up when people gathered to learn from a wise teacher. In some, men and women lived side by side; others were single sex. The life they chose was frugal, involving application and dedication to the inner life. Sometimes they settled in isolated places like the rock called Skellig Michael; sometimes they would live within an ordinary settlement of families. They were like families themselves surviving together without a hierarchy of abbots and bishops. But as with druidic training, the teachings emphasised both the divine expressed in nature and the personal path to union with the divine. Spirit and the flesh, the heavens and the earth were experienced as the harmonious interplay of one reality.
Skellig Michael, 12 kilometres off the coast of the Iveragh peninsula, County Kerry
– surrounded by the elements and abundant bird life, the small community felt closer to God.
In 563 the Christian monk Columcille (Columba) arrived on Iona from Ireland. His community became a major place of pilgrimage and a centre for the spread of Christianity. Columba converted Scottish kings and tribes. He also helped to restore the old bardic orders to their former prestige – another instance of the respect between the two spiritual ways.
Return to the Continent
Around 394, a man called Pelagius had arrived in Rome with a message of a freely chosen and personal Christianity. Little is known about him except that he was probably Irish, had prodigious learning and was an inspirational orator. He came into conflict with the eminent church father Augustine and Roman church authorities, was branded a heretic and hounded, even after his death when fraudulent versions of ‘Pelagianism’ were distributed and mocked. The official church settled back into its autocratic comfort zone.
Irish missionaries were venturing in their flimsy coracles across to Europe, bringing a spiritual treasure with them. They set up centres – for example at Luxeuil in Burgundy and on the island of Reichenau on Lake Constance. And in this manner Ireland’s Celtic spirit returned to the continent, renewed and revitalised. But its proponents quickly ran into trouble.
Columbanus who travelled to Europe in 591 is the most famous of the Irish missionaries, partly because he and his followers came into the most serious conflict with Pope Gregory the Great and the Roman bishops in Gaul. By now a battle was raging in Christian Europe. This wasn’t one of the endemic wars and conquests. It was a battle for souls.
Each ‘side’ had the support of one branch of the Merovingian royal family – a family already infamous for fratricidal murders. Overtly the dispute centred around the date of Easter, but it was really about Christianity as a personal path versus obedience to the legalistic structure of the church of Rome, overseen by the bishops. Columbanus, despite being imprisoned, hoped for harmony and spiritual cooperation. But it wasn’t to be. As a start, the pope made a counter-move. He sent a monk Augustine with twenty-four other monks to England. In Canterbury they founded the first Roman Catholic monastery.
It’s a story that spans centuries, but eventually the communities founded by Irish monks were taken over by Catholic church, across Europe, throughout England, into the Celtic heart of Ireland, and to sacred Iona. The monks of this Celtic outpost on the north-west edge of the earth, long a centre of learning, continued to produce beautiful artworks in the intricate Celtic style imbued with love of nature. One reminder of this high culture is the wonderful Book of Kells. Hand-painted gospels created on Iona, the illuminated manuscript survived the Viking raids, Catholic reforms, and even the Cromwellian anti-Catholic era, and is now on display, two delicate pages at a time in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Detail from the Book of Kells - created around 800; the style is much imtated today
The Roman church emerged victorious, but although much was lost, that special ‘insular’ spirituality wove into church art, in between the bible scenes, saints and martyrs. Finding expression in medieval churches and cathedrals, even on floor tiles, there’s abundant nature, living creatures and the spiral, that symbolic image straight from the Celts,
Tiled floor at Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Side portal, Vezelay Abbey, Burgundy
The deeper expression went underground to emerge at times, to mingle with other influences and be transformed – as in the Grail stories, the school of Chartres, troubadour song and in the private visions of mystics. Even now it flows unseen like a river, but its music is felt in souls that can listen.
With my husband Stephen I followed the route of the Irish Christians into Europe searching for that deep Celtic river. Did I find it? Well, the answer wasn’t so clear-cut, and this is what I explore in my next post, Part 2 of Searching for the Celtic Spirit.