WHEN IS A CELT NOT A CELT ?
An Irreverent peek into Neopagan views of history
Truth is the daughter of time - Old English Proverb
In this essay I intend to examine a number of books that have been published recently on Celtic mythology, Druidry, and various forms of "Celtic Wicca" with an eye to their historical veracity. While I appreciate that the value of the metaphysical often cannot be quantified by means of such documentation, I feel that it is essential to use critical analysis in examining any magical system which claims to have an historical basis.
History is usually written by the winners. This fact becomes obvious to anyone who has ever made a study of the subject. Many Neopagans and Wiccans feel at odds with written history in general because they consider it to be "patriarchal" and highly biased. And for many people the academic atmosphere often associated with the study of the past can be intimidating. Curious amateurs may feel out of their depth.
For these same people, the believe that "mundane" history has little bearing on "us" Neopagans has degenerated into the notion that, because we don't like the history we have--for whatever reason--we have every right to create a history for ourselves that we do like. Hence we don't need to document where we really come from and what has really happened to us; we can simply invent a history to suit ourselves. I need not go into detail about how ill-advised such behavior is, but I will say that we ought to consider our history to be a foundation and starting point for all our actions. Even with an unpleasant but honest history, we are in a better position for creating change; without a real history we are lost.
There is also a strong bias in certain circles of the Neopagan community against critical thinking. The view is that spiritual matters should not be judged from such a mundane perspective. In our eagerness to embrace alternative belief systems, we are too often uninterested in determining how authentic and accurate these beliefs may be. It is true that much of profound metaphysical significance often cannot be expressed sufficiently in mundane terms. Yet this need not always be the case.
Through this discussion, I wish to encourage critical thinking. Indeed I hope that my conclusions will be questioned and the worth of my options will be debated, just as I have questioned those of a number of authors. This free exchange of ideas will make our community stronger, richer, and more diverse.
Critical thinking in this context isn't about judging spiritual worth. It's about basic fact-checking and historical authenticity. Often people new to the Craft or to Paganism in general embrace virtually anything that they are told, no matter how spurious, as "authentic and true." Some people might reply that they are not in a position to carefully research the veracity of every little point in a given book. Nevertheless, if one cannot make even a little effort towards researching one's own belief system, then how serious and real is one's spiritual quest?
On an almost unconscious level, there exists a kind of cultural "pseudohistory" which it is extremely important to avoid whenever possible. How often have we come across seemingly well-educated people who accept without question that hundreds of witches were burned (rather than hanged) in Salem, that John Smith and Pocahontas were happily married in Jamestown, that the Druids built Stonehenge, and that Elvis is alive but hiding in North Dakota?
This sloppy thinking is something which I believe we as Wiccans and Neopagans must avoid at all costs. In my opinion, if we are to make either historical or magical claims, then we ought to be ready to back them up.
I have unfortunately come across a great deal of the sloppy kink of thinking in my research for this essay. While it is not my intention to make any personal attacks on the authors whose works I will discuss, I must admit that the number of obvious mistakes and unsubstantiated theories presented as fact in many of these works is extremely disturbing.
We know tragically little about the actual religious expressions of the ancient Celts. We have a few myths and legends, but very little archeological evidence to support our theories. We have no written records of their actual forms of worship, and the accounts of their culture and beliefs written by their contemporaries are often highly biased and of questionable historical worth. If we honestly wish to resurrect fragments of ancient Celtic spirituality, then we had better seriously examine our sources. Please understand that although I will question the historical veracity of many of these works, it might still be possible for the individual to gain some spiritual insight from them. I will then discuss some books that provide a more reliable view of the ancient Celtic past.
One of the worst examples as far as research is concerned is Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn, 1993) by Edain McCoy. This book seems to be almost a parody of a Wiccan text as a result of the sheer number of glaring and inexcusable errors.
Let's start with the title: Witta. The author assures us that this is "the Irish Gaelic term for the Anglo-Saxon word Wicca" and "is one of the Irish names of the craft" (p.x.) "Witta," however, cannot be pronounced in Gaelic. It is a combination of letters that are virtually never seen together in that language (an equivalent combination of letters in English might be "xyqueph"). I believe McCoy has simply attempted to create and Irish-sounding word that would appear to be highly similar to Wicca. This in and of itself would not be reprehensible, had she not tried to suggest that this is an actual Gaelic word with an actual historical context.
On the cover of her book is a painting of people dancing around a maypole. McCoy tells us that this is a symbolic fertility dance (p.45). While this is true, we need to realize that the maypole dance was imported from England to Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was very unpopular among the Irish people, as it represented the unwelcome influence of the English.
McCoy goes on to tell us that the ancient Irish had a religious belief that involved the worship of the potato as a symbol of fertility and of the Good Goddess of the Earth: "Because they grew underground, potatoes were sacred to the Goddess and used in female fertility rites," she writes (p. 82). In fact potatoes are not native to Ireland. They were introduced in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries from Peru. A number of the books I will discuss fall into the same "Potato Trap," which either bespeaks a reprehensible ignorance of elemental botany or a total lack of research. McCoy suggests that colcannon (a dish made from mashed potatoes, cabbage, and onions) was an ancient sacred food in which trinkets would be baked and divinations drawn: "It was an old Wittan tradition to hide in it a ring for a bride, a button for a bachelor, a thimble for a spinster, and a coin for wealth....The person who got these items in their portion had his fortune told for the coming year" (p. 168). However, as colcannon was invented in America in the twentieth century, this highly romantic notion falls flat.
McCoy goes on to move Stonehenge to Cornwall, when it is in fact located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire--rather like saying the Grand Canyon is located in Ohio. According to her, the Druids were not involved in Witta, but were apparently part of a separate and somewhat antagonistic religious movement which seemed to involve wholesale human sacrifice. Although a number of ancient writers like Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus claimed that the Druids performed human sacrifice, their accounts are strongly suspect, because these writers often had the aim of making the Celts look inferior to the Greeks and Romans. There is no archeological evidence that the Druids, or the Celts, made sacrifices of human beings.
McCoy makes the elementary mistake of imagining the Druids as an oppressive patriarchal elite that was somehow separate from Celtic culture as a whole. Yet scholars today generally agree that the Druids were an integral part of the Celtic culture and included both men and women. They were, as far as we can tell, the teachers, healers, historians and judges of the Celts. These social roles do not exist outside of cultural groups.
McCoy goes on to claim that "the famous epic poem Carmina Burana was a manuscript found in an Italian monastery which clearly glorifies the Mother Goddess"(p.4). What exactly this statement has to do with anything, I cannot determine. But in fact, Carmina Burana is the name given to a collection of bawdy drinking songs in Latin probably written down in the tenth or eleventh centuries, the manuscript of which was found in a Bavarian monastery. If pieces such as "It's my firm intention in a barroom to die" are to be considered as hymns to the Goddess, then all country music must be pagan.
McCoy goes on to reveal the interesting news that the Vikings who raided Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries were "somewhat sympathetic to the Irish pagan cause" (p.22). In fact, Ireland seems to have made an easy and virtually bloodless conversion from paganism to Christianity several centuries earlier. The Vikings were unlikely candidates for Pagan freedom fighters, since they generally converted to Christianity within a few decades after settling in the lands they conquered. Generally speaking, the Vikings were interested only in a few things in any country they visited: either to trade (or take) anything of value, or if the land was sparsely populated, to colonize the area.
McCoy rewrites history yet again to reveal the shocking news that large groups of Pagans--somehow still alive in the sixteenth century, and supposedly with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth-- conjured up a storm to wreck the Spanish Armada. She says, Elizabeth herself "was believed to have had more than a passing interest in paganism" (p.111). In fact during the reign of Elizabeth a number of the laws regarding heresy and witchcraft were expanded and strengthened, with crueler penalties and more severe punishments than before.
McCoy is also fascinated by something she calls the cult of "Kele-De," which she perceives as a Celtic cult of Goddess worshipers who were "free to take lovers as they chose" (p. 12) and whose existence was tolerated--even encouraged by the Church through the tenth century. Where she came up with this chestnut I am afraid to guess. But I think she has confused "Kele-De" with "Culdee," a term roughly translated as "servant of God" and given to a contemplative movement associated with the early Irish Church. How she determined this was Goddess-oriented is beyond me.
McCoy does her best to portray the ancient Irish in a very New Age light. She has some fanciful notions about the Craft, but she seems to have done little or not research whatsoever.
Kisma Stepanich fares equally poorly with her Faery Wicca series (two volumes, Llewellyn, 1994-95). She also suggests that her tradition is an ancient one but she refused to offer any proof for this claim.
Stepanich certainly does not make a habit of footnoting her sources. She calls the Priest and Priestess of her tradition the "Leprechaun" and "Banshee," and, if that weren't bad enough, she too falls into the dreaded Potato Trap on several occasions, suggesting that it, along with corn (that is, maize, another food imported from the New World) is a good offering for the Faery Folk.
I had the good fortune to meet with Stepanich and to question her about many of the more problematic points in her books. She responded to my questions by claiming that her use of the titles "Leprechaun" and "Banshee" and her suggestions regarding the sacramental nature of potatoes and corn were "fun." She seemed curiously proud of her self-admitted anti-scholastic status and could offer me no source material or justification for any of her more outrageous claims. When pressed for answers, she would simply complain of my "negativity" and of how "mean, cruel and academic" I was.
Stepanich makes no reference to the well-attested Celtic cult of the severed head, and she claims that Druids had little or nothing to do with her tradition; they were apparently too busy burning people in large cagelike wicker structures. Like McCoy, she suffers under the misapprehension that the Druids were somehow separate from the rest of Celtic culture. As for the "Wicker Man" scenario, which both Stepanich and McCoy accept as historical fact, this notion is derived form Caesar's propagandistic Commentaries on the Gallic War, which cannot be trusted for veracity or objectivity. There is no archeological evidence to support this notion, and serious modern scholars discount it.
Stepanich tells us (vol 1, p. 141) that while other Wiccan traditions can be traced back to such people as Gerald Gardner or Alex Sanders, Faery Wicca was created by none other than the Tuatha de Danaan, the legendary semidivine race that came before the Celts! When I questioned her about this, Stepanich was once again unable to explain herself or justify her actions. She assured me that she was not the founder of this tradition, that she has been initiated by others. Yet she does not give any acknowledgement of these people in her book.
Stepanich also attempts to pass off a poem written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century regarding the Irish Republican Army as "ancient" (vol. 1, p.247) and somehow relevant to her system. She actually describes it as an "ancient Irish ballad written by Charles Kickham, Fenian leader and novelist." Given that the Fenians date back only to the nineteenth century, it is hard to imagine how "ancient" this could have been.
When I questioned her about this poem, Stepanich was at a complete loss to determine when it was composed--although she claims to have seen a manuscript of it which she believed as from the fifth century! She could not explain the eighteenth-century historical figures, like Wolfe Tone, mentioned in it.
Stepanich claims an odd origin for the world "necromancy" (consultation with the spirits of the dead): "The modern word necromancy was originally spelled, by old writers, as nigromancy, which means that divination was practiced through the medium of negroes instead of dead personas as we are lead [sic] to believe"vol. 1, p. 129). I cannot determine if this is a racial slur or a bizarre joke, but i do not find it funny. (A footnote to a newer edition of Faery Wicca explains that "in an old vocabulary of 1475, 'Nigromantia' is defined "divinatio facta per nigros"--"divination done by blacks,: but we are not told what this "vocabulary" is.)
Most of Stepanich's tradition, like McCoy's, appears to have more in common with a box of Frosted Lucky Charms than with ancient Celtic religion. Again, this is just standard fill-in-the-blanks Wicca with some shamrocks attached. Stepanich's general distaste for academic veracity and her stated preference for the "fun" over the factual shows a marked contempt for the intelligence of the Neopagan community. During our conversation, Stepanich promised to send me copies of her research material. By the time of the submission of this article, she had reneged on that promise.
THE 21 LESSONS OF MERLYN
Now we move on to Douglas Monroe's The 21 Lessons of Merlyn: A Study in Druid Magic and Lore (Llewellyn, 1993). Few stranger and more disorganized books have ever been published, although Llewellyn publisher Carl Weschke informs us that "certain styles of format, typography and illustration have been utilized at times that may appear as awkward or disruptive to the smooth flow of narrative but which are, in actuality, psychological--nearly 'subliminal'--sign posts, that act to alert the Unconscious Mind to the Magical Lesson within the text" (emphasis in the original). Unfortunately, I must be too spiritually ignorant to perceive these special insights. All I got from the book is a headache.
The author avoids the burden of having to document anything he is writing about by being completely obscure and self-referential. His work is half fantasy novel and half stream of consciousness essay. Like McCoy and Stepanich, Monroe portrays the Druids as an all-male New Age enclave of white bearded wizards in silly robes, separated from those around them by their "magickal specialness."
Monroe's work appears to be highly misogynistic and rather racist, as he devotes long and rambling diatribes to discussing how all women possess vampiric powers with which they feed off the positive energy radiated by men. He also dwells on the supposedly magical significance of pretty, blond, blue-eyed little boys. It would seem from his writings that Monroe has a fixation with determining racial heritage and purity. He too is guilty of falling into a variation of the Potato Trap by insisting that "long ago in the days of Arthur" the English countryside was dotted with pumpkins in the autumn. Pumpkins, like potatoes and corn, are New World crops.
There is a total lack of both continuity and source material in this work, although the author claims to be working from an authentic "Druidic Barddas." Such Barddas were popular in the early romantic period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were historically groundless forgeries fabricated to inspire Welsh and Irish nationalism. Although they might be of some political interest, such documents make extremely poor historical sources.
The works of both Stepanich and Monroe touch on an awkward issue that must be examined before proceeding any further. It is the relative importance of race and racial purity in the modern Celtic Revival. There seem to be two basic schools of thought regarding this thorny topic: either one is born a Celt with a particular genetic heritage and proclivity toward things Celtic, or one is a "Cardiac Celt," that is, one feels "Celtic" in one's heart. (I have borrowed the phrase from Marion Bowman's brilliant essay on this topic.) There are obvious problems with both these distinctions.
The first view is disturbingly racist as well as historically inaccurate. The Celtic tribes wandered all over Europe. They intermingled with a variety of other tribes with whom they came in contact. They were a wonderfully motley crew, so as far as racial heritage is concerned, it would be hopeless to attempt to trace a "pure" Celt. One cannot look at a person and determine that he or she is "Celtic." Celtic heritage is not determined by red hair, blue eyes,or freckles; indeed, these would most likely imply Nordic ancestry. The Celts were just as likely to be dark-haired, small, and stout as tall, blond, and pale.
As for Cardiac Celts, here the problem lies in inaccurate research and painfully romantic notions of history. Many people who claim to "feel" Celtic usually have a very poor understanding of who the Celts were. Ironically, a number of these Cardiac Celts become "racial purists" once they feel sufficiently comfortable with their imaginary history and culture. However, if one feels a genuine rapport with Celtic mythology, culture, and history--and if one's rapport is based on accurate knowledge rather than vague imaginings, then in my opinion, there is no reason not to embrace it. Racial issues and notions of genetic "purity" never seem to have troubled the ancient Celts.
CELTIC GODS, CELTIC GODDESSES
R. J. Stewart has written a fine introductory work on the mythology of the Celts. Entitled Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, (Longdon, Blandford, 1990), it is neither overly simplistic nor too obscure. Stewart wades into the murky mists of the Celtic pantheon and makes a valiant effort to clarify the obscure without belittling the wonderful density of these legends. As is appropriate, he covers perspectives on the deities ranging from the Breton to the Welsh, Cornish, and Irish. Because of its clarity of style and purity of language, I recommend this work for both beginning and advanced students of mythology. I can find little fault in his research, probably because he is simply relating the myths and not attempting to establish or justify a particular magickal system. Stewart is a fine scholar who in the past has produced much of worth to the Wiccan and Neopagan community. He is usually clear about differentiating between fact-based theories and creative extrapolations.
In this work, Stewart covers a darker side of the Celtic nature as it appears in the cult of the severed head. We know that the Celts were headhunters, and that they venerated the image of the severed head as a source of spiritual power. It has been suggested that they considered the head to be the seat of the soul. Possessing the severed head of an enemy added a great deal of prestige to any warrior's reputation; the more heads, the mightier the warrior. Such heads had to be collected within the honorable confines of battle, so that sneaking up on a sleeping or unarmed enemy in order to decapitate him would have been unacceptable.
Celtic mythology is full of stories of the severed heads of heroes, and we find hundreds of these heads represented in the art and archaeological remains of Celtic sites. Being in the unique situation of being separated from the physical body, although still alive, the animated head acquires an "unseen" mystical body, and becomes part of the mythic realm. Its eyes can see into both the magickal and mundane worlds. It can continue to eat, guide, and converse with comrades, like the head of Bran in the Mabinogian, or it can ridicule cowardice and vanity, as in the Irish Briacru's Feast. The theme continues in literature up into the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, as we can see in the English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This story, in which the Green Knight picks up his own head after Sir Gawain strikes it off in a wager, is through to recapitulate the earlier Celtic motif.
It is rather sad to realize that for much decent academic work we have to look to books other than those classified under "Neopaganism." When we examine The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Eerdmans, 1994), we find serious and useful scholarship. Ellis is not interested in presenting any particular magickal system; indeed he has little patience with the kind of "mystical" literature we've been examining. He simply wants to clear up a number of the culture misconceptions that have grown up around Druids. He points out the fuzzy thinking so prevalent about the ancient Celtic peoples and how poor scholarship has produced a favorable environment for such works as those previously mentioned.
Ellis isn't going to teach anyone how to become a Druid and he had no time for most of modern Neopagan Druidism. but his is an extremely well-researched book, probably the best on the market, on exactly who the Druids were and who they weren't. He too devotes some serious attention to the meaning of the severed head in ancient Celtic culture. I would recommend his book without hesitation.
THE QUEST FOR MERLIN
Nikolai Tolstoy's work on the figure of Merlin in history and folklore, The Quest for Merlin (Boston: Little,Brown & Co, 1985) is a carefully researched and educational read. Tolstoy, the grandnephew of the famous Russian novelist, is well-versed in Arthurian legend and myth, and he has done some serious scholarly (and implicitly magickal) work regarding this complex archetype. This is probably the best book that I have ever read regarding the legend, folklore, and history of Merlin. I wish it were on more Pagans' bookshelves.
Like Stewart and Ellis, Tolstoy examines the cult of the severed or "talismanic" head. In addition, he goes into great detail identifying various mythical locations and exploring their magical significance. I find new and fresh things in this work every time I read it.
It is true that Tolstoy approaches his study in a highly academic manner, presenting an initial challenge which will turn off many casual Pagan readers, but if they can get past the scholarly tone of the work they are bound to learn some important things. Tolstoy not only explores the Celtic aspects of the legendary Merlin, he also examines the early Nordic and Anglo-Saxon influences and even compares these fragments with elements of myths from India.
This book is wonderful to have if one is ever lucky enough to go on a walking tour of England and Scotland, as it has detailed information about finding various sites associated with Merlin and certain early Celtic tribes. They are admittedly a little off the beaten path, but are well worth the effort to find.
The Quest for Merlin is far more of a scholarly study of themes running through myth and legend than it is a typical work on "alternate spirituality." Nevertheless I recommend that we start to look away from the books that promise to "make you a Witch/Druid/shaman in ten easy lessons" and return to serious, rich, and complex works such as this.
All in all, I've had a lot of hard things to say about a number of popular works. I must admit this exercise has left me very disillusioned about the scholarship in the Neo-Pagan community. Many Pagans complain that we as a movement are not taken seriously by the non-Pagan world in general and by mainstream religions in particular. This is absolutely true, and it is due in part to the kind of shoddy and haphazard research currently being passed off as "Pagan literature." These books are being churned out in great numbers because of the growing numbers of people hungry for information. But the popular audience deserves better than such sloppy scholarship. How do we honestly expect to be taken seriously when we cannot even deal with our own history?
To be of any relevance, Wiccan and Neopagan practices must be living things. Our real power lies in our respect for the earth and for all life on it. If we intend to research ancient mythologies, we need to be serious in our scholarship, and if we honest respect the Celts, we won't try to romanticize their history. All cultures have profound lessons to teach about what it is to be human. If we cannot find the answers we seek within one culture, it is sometimes easier to discover it in another, but this is only possible if we are honest about culture, about history, and about ourselves.
Joanna Hautin-Mayer is co-founder of Vanaheim Hof, a Heathen magical group. She is active in the Denver-Boulder Neopagan community and holds a master's degree with an emphasis on medieval history from the University of Colorado.
Ms. Hautin-Mayer would like to thank both her friend Sue Chabot and her husband, John. For their support, this essay is lovingly dedicated to them. She also acknowledges her indebtedness to the works of Stuart Piggot, John Carey, Hilda Ellis Davidson, and Ann Ross for her initial exposure to Celtic history and mythology.
(Used with permission from the author)