Image: Part of the Neolithic stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar, on the Orkney Islands of Scotland just after dawn. The site dates back to between 2500BC to 2000BC and is part of a wider archaeological complex containing Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe.
I’m dropping in today with an important topic that’s really foundational for embarking on this journey of ancestral remembering.
As someone who teaches from the earth-honoring traditions of Ireland & Britain, I often see a lack on nuance and cultural respect in these wisdom traditions that stems from an overuse of the word “Celtic”.
There’s a lot of confusion and debate about what “Celtic” really is, even amongst scholars. I often see it being used as a catch-all term, and it’s become something that people are actively searching for and engaging with as a spiritual pathway.
I’ve been on a personal journey these past few years to unravel from the “Cetlic” concept and really focus on honoring more specific cultural traditions (the Irish traditions most strongly). This has been a vital and necessary shift for my spiritual practice and my teachings.
In this blog post I’ll impart some of the wisdom I’ve learned along the way so you can better understand what “Celtic” really means, why using it as a catch-all term is problematic, and how to come into right-relationship with these traditions.
In the following 22-minute video, I speak about the topics covered in this blog post. If you prefer learning through video content, this is for you:
Who were the Celts?
Celtic is a term that describes an ethnolinguistic group of people in European history. A collection of native tribes, who at some point or another were nomadic, and who would not have called themselves “Celtic” but who would have shared a similar ethnicity, language and culture. Julius Caesar very much related to these tribes as “barbaric”: and it was he who coined the term “Keltoi”, naming this collection of tribes probably for the first time.
There’s a lot of debate about exactly where and when the Celtic era and Celtic people began, and there are also different timelines depending on which region in Europe you’re looking at, because of course Europe is a big place and the Celtic peoples once stretched out over most of the continent during the Iron Age.
To give you an example of one of these regional timelines, some scholars say that the first Celtic invasion of Ireland is thought to have been around 750 BCE, and they obliterated the Pre-Celtic Indigenous tribes who were there for many thousands of years before that.
There’s so much that I could share here about the connection between Hallstatt culture and Beeker culture with the Celtic peoples during the Bronze Age, and perhaps even before. There’s archeological evidence that supports different theories about the emergence of Celtic people as a distinct culture. There’s so much complexity, and I’m still learning about all of these different aspects. It’s a lot to learn about.
And at the end of the day, it’s really impossible to know for sure how and when the Celtic era began, but we are much more clear on how it ended.
By the third century BCE the Celtic peoples were spread out over much of the European continent. The Roman Empire then came into direct conflict with the Celtic peoples starting with the reign of Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, and lasting until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th century.
The fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent influence of Christianity (which came to Britain and Ireland in the 5th century) marked the end of the Iron Age, and the beginning of the Medieval period.
It’s important to understand that the Roman Empire colonized and affected different areas of Europe in different ways. For example, the Romans never made it to Ireland or large areas of Scotland, especially the Highlands. This is certainly part of the reason that the legacy of the Celtic traditions and Celtic languages has survived so prominently in these areas.
The Celtic Languages
Language is a very, very important aspect of cultural identity throughout history and into modern times, and there are four Celtic languages which are still commonly spoken today:
- Irish Gaeilge, known more commonly as just Irish
- Scots Gaelic, or just Gaelic
- Cymraeg (Welsh)
All of these languages are connected, belonging to what’s called the Insular Celtic languages. There are also at least two other Celtic languages which have been identified, but are not actively spoken today.
Language is one of the ways that culture is preserved, and it’s deeply connected to the way that traditions get passed on. It’s part of the ecosystem of the ancient mythology (for example, all of the Irish myths are written in Old Irish) and we can even think of the native Celtic languages as being the underlying root system of these traditions.
The Influence of the Church
It was during the medieval period that Celtic myths and stories of Ireland and Britain were first written down by Christian monks, stories which are rooted in paganism, animism, and ancient ancestral wisdom. This was a very big moment in the evolution of the native traditions.
In many ways, those Christian monks did us a great service by recording these ancient ancestral stories to paper. Many of them came from the native bardic (storytelling) tradition, in which stories were passed down orally from one generation to the next. With the emergence of the written word, highly educated people (including the bards) began to convert to Christianity and document the native lore.
However, we can also assume (and see in the source material) that the monks changed aspects of these stories to adhere to the Church’s values and agenda, and they would have woven in these agendas to varying degrees. This makes it somewhat of a challenge to know what is truly ‘native’ in the mythology, and what has been influenced by Christianity.
One of my favorite bodies of mythology from Britain are the Arthurian legends of the Grail. In the Grail stories, we can clearly see the evolution of the lore and the way that Christianity hijacked these stories.
In the early stories of the Grail, it had no association at all with the Holy Grail. It was a French man called Robert de Boron who introduced a whole new thread into the Grail stories, and decided that the Grail was actually the Holy Grail from the Last Supper. He drew on an old Christian story which suggested that Joseph of Arimathea had taken the chalice used at the Last Supper and brought it to Glastonbury, where it was hidden in the Abby. So he wrote a story conflating the old pre-Christian vessel with the Holy Grail from the Last Supper.
This is a very obvious example of how the Church influenced the native lore over time, but often the influence is not quite so obvious.
St. Michael’s Well, Dungegan, Baile an Sceilg. This well was visited on 29th September and its miraculous water cured blindness and lameness (1939)
Image from the National Folklore Collection
The Influence of Colonization
As we move further along in time, we have the rise of European colonies, who oppressed their own people and closest neighbors before setting out to colonize other parts of the world.
The history of colonialism is still deeply felt in places like Ireland, Scotland and Wales who were heavily colonized by the English. This was another huge moment in history when the native traditions had to adapt and evolve due to the fact that people were living under an oppressive regime.
Historian Kwasi Konadu talks about how colonized people, even on the winning of their independence, will only value what the colonizer valued, and associate anything demeaned or ignore by the colonizer as not worthy of development or preservation.
There’s so much to say about the multi-faceted ways that colonization has affected Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and if you’re going to connect with these traditions in an integrous way, it’s important to learn about this history.
I’ll give just two examples here for the sake of providing context.
The first example is the attempt to erase native languages by the English. An example I’m going to give relating to this is specifically about Cymraeg (Welsh) but of course the Welsh were not the only ones subjected to cruel and violent attempts to erase language and cultural identity.
The Welsh Not or Welsh Note was a punishment system used in some Welsh schools in the late 19th and early 20th century to dissuade children from speaking Welsh. It was represented as a piece of wood, inscribed with the letters “WN”, that was hung around the necks of children who spoke Welsh during the school day. The “not” was given to any child overheard speaking Welsh, who would pass it to a different child if they were overheard speaking Welsh. By the end of the day, the wearer of the “not” would be given a lashing.
A second example of colonial influence is the potato famine in Ireland during the 1840s, which was exacerbated by the English rule who were exporting huge amounts of food from Ireland even during the height of the famine. The famine resulted in a wave of emigration that was hugely impactful on the traditional way of Irish life.
This more modern history is really important to understand as we come to these traditions. It’s part of reconciling the past and coming into right-relationship with these traditions in the present.
Coming into Right-Relationship with these Traditions
Hopefully this article has provided some important context and history for why the word “Celtic” is problematic.
In my view, the word Celtic can be helpful for understanding a period of time in history, the Celtic era of Europe which I’ve just spoken about, very briefly. The word Celtic can be useful for identifying similarities between myths, traditions, artifacts, texts, language, and beliefs—while understanding that there are distinct regional differences.
This is sort of the basis I suppose for what is often called “Celtic paganism” today, because there are similar themes found in the ancient myths and traditions, because once upon a time there was this shared culture and identity amongst the Celtic peoples.
It also feels potent to share here that there are also some really interesting cultural and linguistic similarities between Celtic Europe, the Middle East and India, because when we go really far back, there is actually a connection between all of Indo-Europe. For example, there are words in Sanskrit that are the same or have the same root as in Irish. So all of this depends on how far we go back.
Llyn Padarn is a glacially formed lake in Snowdonia, Gwynedd, north Wales
What I’ve come to realize is that respect and right-relationship is so much about depth rather than breadth, going into the heart of these traditions, committing ourselves to really go deep, going beyond just the spiritual aspects of the culture but learning about the wider context of where these traditions come from, and how they have evolved over time.
I know that some of you perhaps are holding a question in your heart around appropriation of these cultures, and this is a really important question. And to me, appropriation is a nuanced conversation where we really need to address that colonial, extractionist mentality of taking what we want from who we want and calling it our own.
If you’re only connecting with the spiritual aspects of these traditions, and not honoring the wider context of where these traditions come from and the living evolution of the culture, then there’s a risk of crossing over into that realm of appropriation.
Looking at this another way, there’s also a missed opportunity to embrace these traditions in a multi-faceted, holistic way, really embracing the whole.
It feels important to be clear here that I’m not of the belief that these traditions are exclusively for people who are native, although I’m sure there are some people who might argue otherwise. I’m not even of the opinion that people need to fit a certain ancestral criteria to make this connection.
For example, you might have no Irish ancestry but you live in Ireland and want to connect, the land is calling you to connect. Perhaps you have this overwhelming sense that you had many lives in a place that you have no ancestral connection with. I think we need to be careful of rigidity, because rigidity doesn’t leave space for nuance and complexity. And many of us are holding a lot of complexity.
But respect is key. Respect is paramount. Respect is how we truly open our hearts to these traditions.
Part of coming to these “Celtic” traditions and “Celtic” paganism respectfully is actually asking yourself, which traditions? What specific regional traditions are you seeking to connect with and learn from? Looking at your own ancestry can be a really great place to start. Looking at the Celtic Nations is a good place to start. The Celtic Nations include Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and sometimes Galicia in Spain as well.
I would recommend picking one tradition that you want to be your primary focus. Your primary focus might shift and change over time, especially if you have mixed ancestry. But picking one area of focus at a time will help you achieve a level of depth and respect, understanding that to really be in right-relationship with these traditions, you’re going to need to commit to a wider variety of learning beyond the spiritual aspects of these traditions.
I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections in the comments about the word “Celtic”, what being in right-relationship with these traditions means to you, and what you’re taking away from this blog post.
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about the Irish traditions…
…I lovingly invite you to explore my membership The Roundhouse, which is a year-long journey into the nature-based feminine wisdom from the Irish traditions to remember your innate feminine magic.