Celtic Languages and Celtic Paganism

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The Celtic languages make up one of the major divisions of the Indo-European Language family. They are noted for their outstandingly beautiful literature which has always maintained a high standard of poetic quality. The Celtic cultures are often associated with a distinctive style of art which first appears about 500 BCE in La Tene and is characterized by a use of spirals and interlace. This art style is so distinctive that the Celts are one of the few cultural groups that we feel confident in identifying in an archaeological context absent of actual writing which would indicate the language spoken.

The Riding of the Sidhe by John Duncan

Geography and History
The Celtic languages were once spoken from the Danube west of the Black Sea, to the coast of the Atlantic in northern Europe, and as far east as Cappadocia in Turkey. Possibly it was spoken by Scythians north of the Black Sea, but there isn’t enough information to be sure. They also formed a substrate language in Greek and Roman (Italic) speaking areas including Spain and France. Eventually many speakers of these languages came to speak other languages, mainly Romance languages and English, in western Europe. However Celtic languages remain in use in the northwest of France (Brittany) and in Ireland, Wales and parts of Scotland although they have been under constant political and cultural pressure for centuries. Even where other languages have replaced the Celtic languages, many of the people who formerly spoke Celtic languages remain proud of their Celtic heritage. [fuggle26]

Linguistics
The Celtic languages can be distinguished from all other Indo-European languages by the loss of *p in most environments. They are divided into two major groups, the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. The sound of *kw in the original Proto-Indo-European language became p in Welsh, Manx, Cornish and Breton. The same sound remained Q in Gaelic of both Ireland and Scotland, although it subsequently became ch in most words. Both P-Celtic and Q-Celtic forms appear in early Gaulish inscriptions. For example, the Goddess Epona “horse” appears in many votive inscriptions, but Equos appears as the name of the month corresponding to July/August in the Coligny calendar. There is such a wide variety of languages and dialects in the Celtic language group, it would be unrealistic to try to address them all in any detail in a short article.

Individual Celtic Languages
Gaulish is the general word for the Celtic languages spoken in France, northern Italy, Spain, the Balkans and the British Isles. It is known from a few references in Latin literature, as well as votive inscriptions and coins, most dating from a few centuries BCE to a few centuries CE. The earliest inscriptions date to about 500 BCE and are in the Etruscan alphabet. There are hardly any substantial texts in Gaulish (there is a curse tablet and at least one story retold by Plutarch), but there are many Roman votive inscriptions which give the names of Celtic Gods in both the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic dialects. Little is known about these deities based on the inscriptions because they are often identified with Roman or Greek Gods in the form of interpretatios which are more confusing than revealing. However, in connection with the literary sources in later Celtic languages and the wider knowledge of the Proto-Indo-European religion they can be easily identified as cognate Gods of the Indo-Europeans. Most of the information about the votive inscriptions was published in the CIL books, though more inscriptions continue to be found, and in the last two centuries a much better understanding of the cultural context has been developed by scholars.

More recent Celtic languages are much better known, though some of these are hardly spoken now. The earliest sources about Welsh are in Latin but contain early forms of Celtic names. By the Middle Ages there are substantial texts in Welsh. The most outstanding text is known as the Mabinogion, a group of tales which are thought to contain later forms of ancient myths. The earliest were certainly composed by the 11th century. Other texts like the Welsh triads are much more cryptic but contain recognizable elements of ancient Paganism. Some of these Welsh myths became part of the popular Medieval literature and eventually became the basis of modern operas such as Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal.

The oldest writing in Cornish is a miracle play about St. Meriadoc which dates to about 1508. Cornish continued in every day use until the 1800’s but is now effectively extinct. Because of its linguistic isolation from English-speaking people, the Cornish people retained ancient traditions for a very long time and some of the most beautiful songs were recorded in Cornish: they are now sung in English as Christmas Carols. The people of Cornwall have also maintained traditions like the Padstow horse which are well known to folklorists.

The Manx language was spoken on Isle of Mona, or Manx island which has influence from Celtic, Norse and English sources so it is not always easy to pick out the origin of a particular custom. Although Manx is no longer spoken, there are songs, charms and stories known in that language which represent some ancient traditions.

Breton literature was one of the outstanding sources of artistic inspiration in Medieval Europe. There seems to have been a substantial literature in the language of Brittany, in northwestern France in the Middle Ages. The stories provided the source for the greater part of Medieval romantic literature all over Europe, although it seems that the originals often have not survived. Breton is still spoken in Brittany, despite the best efforts of the French government.

The earliest Irish texts consist of glosses and short texts and date to the 8th century CE.
Later Irish literature includes mythological tales such as:
Heroic or Epic Cycles of the Fenians and Ulsterians
The Book of Invasions (a legendary history of Ireland)
• The Dindsennchas, a collection of explanations for the names of geographic features which were very common in Irish literature. Some of the explanations are quite fanciful but they often contain elements of ancient Pagan myths.
Some of these ancient myths are still sung in the form of folksongs in Gaelic, and they have been notated and published by Peter Kennedy among others.

Scottish (or Scots Gaelic) is the language of the Carmina Gadelica which is a collection in six volumes of the prayers, charms and songs of the people of Scotland, collected by Alexander Carmichael between 1900-1912. This isolated population retained ancient formulas of the Indo-Europeans along with the rituals and customs often with the occasional substitute of a saint’s name for the obvious God. The books are rarely available, but the first two volumes (in Gaelic with English translation) are available on the internet at Carmina Gadelica on the Sacred-Texts Archive.

Christianized versions of Celtic Gods and myths make up the major part of Celtic Christianity. It is not at all clear when Christianity was introduced into the northern Celtic-speaking areas, but most of the early Christian saints and saints tales are actually Pagan Gods and myths with a very thin veneer or no veneer at all (who exactly would St. Hawthorn be?). The Celtic Goddess Bride is so christianized that she has an entire mass written for her.

English is certainly not a Celtic language but there is a considerable body of literature in English on Celtic subjects which seems to have been produced by native English speakers who had intimate knowledge of Celtic lore. Among these we find substantial poems like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and many beautiful lyric poems, some with music. Some poems like “Maiden in the Moor Lay” may be connected to ancient rituals or myths. There is also a very substantial ballad literature in English from Wales, Scotland and Ireland which is based on Pagan myths.

Secondary Sources
Some of the more fun books to read are the early translations of the Celtic literature, which are very widely available. While these translations are not very accurate and they are sometimes bowdlerized, they are stately and beautiful and make dramatic reading. I have only rarely read anything intelligent on Celtic Pagan religion which dealt with the linguistic relationship with other Indo-European languages. Much of the scholarly analysis has been written by Englishmen (who hate the Welsh and Irish) or by Germans who don’t seem to know they exist. The exception to this unfortunate situation might be (not surprisingly), actual Celtic speakers. Gwyn Jones’ translation of the Mabinogion is very beautiful and the introduction explains the connection between the Welsh myths and Indo-European myth in general and won’t put you to sleep.

Religion
Celtic sources provide nearly complete information on the Celtic forms of the Proto-Indo-European religion. Many people may feel that all was lost with the annihilation of the Druids by the Romans. Certainly much literature has been lost, but more has been created and the old ways are remembered.

Gods and Goddesses
There are hundreds of Deities known from various sources and although there is little information about them from the time when the Celts were still openly Pagan, the languages and their relationship to other Indo-European languages are transparent. In conjunction with the later mythological lore and the rituals maintained in the Hebrides, it is clear that they correspond to the major Gods among the rest of the Indo-Europeans. The Celtic Gods do come out slightly on the Sanskrit side of the Pandemonium however, the reason for which is completely unknown to me. Two well-known Goddesses of the Celts are Arianrhod and Rhiannon.

Festivals
The Celtic Festival calendar has been somewhat confused by the neopagan tendency to produce a geometrically consistent version. However, noticeably, the cross quarter days were celebrated as major festivals by the Celts in the islands. They are called cross quarter because they fall half way between the equinoxes and solstice. The cross quarter days fall on Feb. 1st, Imbolc, a festival of light; May 1st, Beltaine, a festival for Bel; Aug. 1st, Lammas or Lughnasy for Lugh, a festival for the grain harvest; and Nov. 1st, Samhain, for a God whose name we pretend not to know, but it is probably some form of the original Indo-European God *Yama. The festivals fall somewhat earlier in the year compared to similar festivals in Germanic language areas and may reflect the southern origin of Celtic people (perhaps originally from Mediterranean areas of Europe) or it may reflect the milder climate of lands on the west coast of the continent. The Celtic holidays, based on an analysis of the oldest sources, are strongly oriented toward animal husbandry and less so toward actual agricultural (grain growing) as compared to other Indo-Europeans.

Myths
Of the 28 Proto-Indo-European Myths easily recognized among the Indo-Europeans many can be seen in Celtic myth and folklore, often in multiple versions. These multiple versions represent an important element in Pagan literature since they show the same myths with the same persons with the same cognate names doing the same things. However, some versions are actual myths in which Gods do godlike things, some are epics or fairy tales in which heroic humans have supernatural abilities and supernatural problems; some consist of early dynasties of legendary kings and some are folktales suitable for children with only barely recognizable features. Often the basic skeleton of the story remains the same but the motives of the characters vary greatly, most notably in the hero tales which seem to require complex explanations for why humans would do so such (absurd) things; the explanations create ever expanding back stories which seem to increase the literary corpus. With the introduction of Christianity, the same stories are told, this time with saint added before the God’s name and a new set of motives which are often quite nonsensical. In the literature of ballads and saints’ tales of western Europe there are some 200 versions of the Pagan myth about the death of *Yama which can be traced back to either Celtic or Latin versions based on the forms of the names.

Rites
Descriptions of the traditional customs of the Celtic people have been collected by folklorists since the 1800’s and though these often have an admixture of Christian elements, it is easy to separate these out by comparing them with other Indo-European traditions and also by a careful examination of the linguistic evidence. Celtic rites consist of food offerings to the Goddesses, especially as thanks for gifts received, celebration with round dance and song, hymns of praise, and a series of charms used to heal the sick, among other things. These are all typical of Indo-European religious practices. Because of the political, geographic and linguistic isolation which has characterized the relationship between Celts and some of their neighbors, there is a tendency for ancient traditions to be continued among the Celts to this day.

General References
• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov, Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995 (abbrev. G&I).
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), published by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.

© 2009, last updated 8/1/2016, piereligion.org/celtic.html