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Chapter One
Ancient Celts and Modern Christians

The search for the meaning of Celtic spirituality has led me back to uncover the culture and spirituality of the ancient Celtic peoples. Many others share my enthusiasm for these ancient peoples as well. The various reasons for this awakened interest include the pursuit of ethnic roots and fascination with pagan and new age connections. A great deal more is now known about the Celts than has been for centuries. Today the Celts are hailed as the first Europeans, the earliest named people in Europe to whom we can look for our roots. They are recognized as the "European Aborigines," like Native American tribes already on the land with their own developed culture prior to being conquered, driven out, or assimilated by more powerful invaders.

My awakened realization of the presence and magnitude of Celts in history emerged in many places. When I was a high school boy in Latin class studying Caesar's Gallic Wars it never occurred to me that the Celts in those books had any relationship to the Irish, Scots, or Welsh. After all, the names of the Gallic chieftains Dumnorix and Vercingetorix hardly sound like O’Brien or McCarthy. But these Gauls were indeed Celts who were to be found across much of southern Europe until Rome forced them to move northward and westward. Later, on my first journey to Rome, I visited the Capitoline Museum of Antiquities. As I gazed on the marvelous statue of the Dying Gaul, I was awed by the dignity of this naked warrior without making any mental connection with things Celtic, nor did I realize that I was looking at a copy of a Greek sculptor’s second-century B.C.E. picture of a Celtic warrior. In the same museum I also admired a wonderful sculpture on a first-century B.C.E. sarcophagus of battling Greeks and Galatians, the former in their customary uniforms, the latter naked but for a golden neck torque. Yes, these were the same Galatians that Paul would address in a letter a century later ("You senseless Galatians!"). And, yes, they were Celts. The names should have given it away. "Gaul," "Galatia," and "Gael" all come from the same root. I had not yet comprehended how widespread these Celts had been.
World history taught me that Rome and Greece represent for us the fonts of our Western civilization. Until recently we have relied heavily on writers of these two cultures for information about the Celts. The word itself, "Celt," is Greek, Keltos. We are not certain what the word means. It is not the same as "barbarians" (barbaroi) but seems to mean something like "the other" or "stranger." The Celts never called themselves by that name but rather used various tribal names, such as the Belgi, Veneti, Senones, Carnutes, and so forth. The ancient Greek and Latin texts to which we look for data on the Celts include works by Plato, Pliny, Strabo, and Julius Caesar. Some of this literature, for example Caesar’s Gallic Wars, was written for propaganda purposes and depicts the Celts as a fierce and worthy enemy, though inevitably inferior to the military and political prowess of Caesar and Rome.

My study also revealed that the records of Christian monks are a second source of Celtic history. Roman monks, such as Saint Jerome, struggled to rid themselves of their interest in the classical writings of Greek and Rome, considering all to be pagan and useless when faced with the gospel. But the Celtic monks relished the preservation of all history and literature and were not embarrassed to hand on the Celtic myths and legends. Some modern writers dismiss the writings of the Celtic monks too easily, believing that they did not respect the integrity of ancient stories. But the Celts had a unique way of seeing reality. They seemed to delight in telling the stories of Cuchulainn, Finn MacCumhail and the Fianna, the poet Amergin, the goddess Bridget. We owe much to these monastic copyists whose sense of humor and respect for their sources are evident in the glosses, side comments, and illustrations in their renditions of the old stories. The most ancient legends of Ireland are preserved in a twelfth-century monastic manuscript entitled The Book of the Conquest of Ireland, more often referred to as The Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhala). It is suspected that the monks often changed ancient gods and goddesses into human superheroes, but they did little to cover up details of greed, sex, and violence. They surely were not ashamed of anything that was human.
I also found that an important aspect of this literature is the language in which it was written. The discipline of philology gives us tools to understand the culture, thought patterns, and beliefs of a people through their language. Nineteenth-century scholars, notably in Germany, found that the Celtic tongue belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and thus is a cousin of Latin-Italic, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Hellenic, and other similar languages. The Celtic language has two main branches, the Brythonic and the Gaedonic. The former probably came to Britain from Gaul and became embodied in Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Clearly related to the Brythonic but differing in some respects are the Gaedonic languages of Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. The rudimentary Irish tongue was probably brought to Ireland by invading Gaels around 300 B.C.E. and later spread to Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Ireland the language went through four stages of development in its written form: Old Irish (600—900 C,E.), Middle Irish (900—1200), Early Modern Irish (1200—1650), and Modern Irish. Although it borrowed words from other tongues, such as Latin, Norse, and English, the Irish language is notable for its conservative tendency to preserve original forms and words.

Because of that slowness to change, we are able to reach back into the ancient mind with some ease. There is no evidence of any significant use of a written language in Ireland until after the arrival of the Christian evangelizers around the fifth century. Some of the earliest writings, such as Saint Patrick’s Confessio, are in Latin, but an early vernacular literature soon blossomed, probably the oldest vernacular literature in Europe. Whether as oral or written, the language is central in understanding the Celtic culture and way of apprehending reality. The Celts have always been a people who delight in the power and value of the word!
Finally I found that the greatest development in our renewed appreciation of the Celts comes from contemporary scholarship in the field of archaeology. The combination of many new finds plus new methods for more accurate dating of old treasures is bringing forth a wealth of new knowledge. In 1846 at Hallstadt, site of ancient salt mines near Vienna in Austria, twenty-five hundred graves, dated between 700 and 500 B.C.E., were unearthed, producing the first tangible evidence of early Celts and their way of life. Soon after this, lake waters were drained at La Tène, Switzerland, revealing many more ancient Celtic artifacts. These findings precipitated the modern reappraisal of the Celts and a new interest in the study of their way of life. In 1978 in the city of Stuttgart on the Danube in Germany, the greatest twentieth-century finding was uncovered, the Hoffgott treasure, containing a funeral bier of a Celtic prince with a huge decorated cauldron, as well as other finds of bronze, wool, flowers, and horses, all dating to about 55 B.C.E. Then, in 1984, in Cheshire, England, a marsh was cleared for an airport runway, uncovering the twenty-three-hundred-year-old body of a young man evidently killed in a ritual sacrifice. He was first stunned by a blow to the head, then garroted with a twisted cord, and finally had his throat cut. The British Museum in London now exhibits his remains as "the Lindow Man." Other such findings have surfaced all over southern Europe. Many of these findings and their significance were heralded in the May 1993 issue of the Smithsonian magazine in an article entitled, "Once Maligned, Celts Are Now Touted as the First Europeans."
I was beginning to find some answers to my first question asked at the museum: Who were these ancient peoples who developed such a sophisticated art and culture? Thanks to ancient classical and monastic sources, to language, and to archaeological break-throughs, we know a lot more about the ancient Celts than ever before. I began to feel that I might learn something from them for my own spiritual quest. Perhaps these ancient peoples might offer something special to the Christian church of today and to the modern world. So I had to discover more about just who these people were.

Origin and Ways of the Celts
I had expected to find evidence of the Celts in the British Isles but was surprised to find how much more widespread their domain actually had been. Their remains can be found in modern-day France, Belgium, southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, and Asia Minor. Their place of origin, however, remains a mystery. Since they populated the river valleys of the Danube and the Rhine, some have posited their origin in the middle of Europe. Others believe they go back to the Black Sea area, and still others believe they originated in India or the Himalayas around 1500 B.C.E. The similarity of mythological stories and some anecdotal tales argue for the latter. Thus it is said, "If an Irishman would begin a story an Indian could finish it." I was fascinated to hear a musician friend confirm what I had already read, saying that he observed a similarity between Irish and Eastern music. Another musician told me that when he was learning to play the bodhran (Irish drum) he was surprised to learn how similar the rhythms of jigs, reels, and other Irish dance tunes were to Sufi music.

Britain was Celtic long before the Angles and Saxons invaded it in the fifth century C.E. and established the area we now know as England. The Romans helped to push the Celts back into Scotland and Wales, but Celtic influence did not die out for some time in other areas of Britain such as Northumbria. Perhaps the Celts first came to Ireland from Gaul through Britain. The Book of Invasions, however, recounts the story of the Milesian invasion, Celts or "Gaels" coming to Ireland from northern Spain in the third or fourth century. Whether the previous inhabitants were also Celtic is a question still pondered. In any event the Celts became the predominant group in Ireland, eventually absorbing other ethnic groups that invaded the island through the subsequent centuries.
I don't remember encountering the Celts at all in world history and still don’t see much about them in history books I pick up today. Lacking the centralization as well as the written documents of Greece and Rome, they were never taken seriously as a people of import. I believe we uncover a key to understanding the Celts when we realize they were never a unified empire. They were rather a fluid confederation of tribes united by language, religious outlook and practices, and the same lifestyles in war and peace. Their spread from east to west was due to their technological expertise in the iron culture of the day. For about one thousand years they spread across the continent. Their presence began to be felt from about 800 B.C.E., when they were noticed for their colorful costumes, use of horse and chariot, hunting, feasting, and war-making.

Though the culture may not have been the expression of a unified people, I nevertheless am immediately struck by its high degree of sophistication in art, technology, story, warfare, social mores, and religion. The recent archaeological finds have added to the wealth of what is known as "La Tène Art." Full of swirls, circles, and geometric figures, it is a form of abstract art unique for the time, especially in the West. These designs are playful, with a sense of the unending and eternal, showing some relation to or influence from the East. Visually, the Celts liked color, brightness, movement, and human and animal shapes in abstract forms. I believe we are in touch with the Celtic mind and imagination with this characteristic of the "spiral knot." Their mind and their imagination differed from our modern scientific and literal way of seeing things. Theirs was more of a "symbolic consciousness" that reveled in images, symbols, myths. They saw reality from the lens of eternity, with no beginning or end, no distinction of the seen and unseen. The circle, rather than the straight line, emerges as the figure that expresses so much of Celtic life. The importance of relationships and kinship; all persons in the clan being on the same plane rather than in hierarchical positions; the equality of men and women, of king and peasant — such are characteristics of Celtic life that reflect this way of seeing reality.

    Excerpted from Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition, A Vision of Hope by Timothy Joyce.
    Orbis Books, 1998
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