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Historically based study and exploration of Celtic religion, mythology, folklore, and shamanism.

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Unearthing the Celtic Ancestors

In our society, we feel more and more the disconnection with those things that are meaningful and which truly nourish us... nature, spirit, community, wisdom traditions, and a sense of belonging. For some, connecting with the ways and wisdom of the ancestors is an important way of remembering who we are, and of reconnecting with the wisdom we once knew. But beyond an Irish grandmother or connection to a Scottish clan, those connections can seem tenuous... in place of a strong remembered lineage, it can be very easy to fill the gap with modern ideas or projections, no matter how sincere those may be.

A quick google search for 'Celtic wisdom' or 'Celtic paganism' and the like reveals a remarkable array of websites all professing to be a direct line to 'the' ancient Celtic knowledge... regardless of the fact that the information presented directly contradicts the other sites (as well as historical evidence), or that the vast majority is a blend of medieval (male upper class dominated) non-Celtic magic, Victorian perceptions of pan-European folklore, and modern occult and NeoPagan traditions. Apparently by paying for a two year program in Celtic shamanism (4-6 weekend meetings) one becomes qualified to start one's own website and proclaim oneself ready to transmit an entire ancient tradition.

For others, though, treading carefully through the authentic sources of wisdom we do have is paramount, as finding a reasonable modicum of 'truth' guides the quest, whether or not that feeds our ego or our fantasies. So let's start at the beginning... What does the word 'Celtic' mean? it refers to people whose languages and associated cultures are first identifiable about 800 BCE in Central Europe (although their roots may spread back into the later Bronze Age). The Celtic languages are part of a larger Indo-European family of languages, spoken by cultures who share some elements of social organization, religion and mythology. (No, the Indo-Europeans did not violently displace earlier peaceful matriarchal societies, no matter what popular sources tell you. See The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe by S.P. MacLeod, on McFarland Publishers).

Most Celtic people would have self-identified by tribal designations, like the Epidii in south-west Scotland (from a root word meaning 'horse') for example. Later, Greek and Roman writers referred to them by their tribal affiliations, as well as broader population terminology like Celts, Gauls, and so forth. There is at least one Classical source which states the Celts did self-refer by this word, although tribal names would have been more common. In some cases, tribes, clans or large family groups claimed descent from a famous or legendary hero or leader. This was still the case in medieval Ireland, where many centuries after the introduction of Christianity, certain Irish families claimed descent from pagan deities, like Lug and Nuadu. This was also the case in Wales; one of my family lines traces itself back to the goddess Dôn (through legendary scenarios involving Uther Pendragon); obviously many other people would have this lineage as well!

Until very recently, though, scholars could not say what the word Celtic actually meant. In a recent publication, Celticist Kim McCone put forth the brilliant and now quite widely accepted theory that Keltoi (a word used by the Greeks to refer to the Celts) means 'Devotees of the Hidden One.' Which deity is 'the hidden one'? McCone refers to a Classical report which states that all of the Celts in Gaul professed to be descended from Dis Pater - 'Father Dis,' who is actually a Roman deity with Underworld associations. The Celts obviously did not claim descent from a Roman god; the writer was simply equating this figure with the Celtic deity in question through common attributes or symbolism. McCone suggests the Celtic deity may be Cernunnos, the Celtic horned or antlered god who is known to us through an inscription and numerous depictions. This is a fascinating origin legend to contemplate! Elsewhere in the Celtic world, of course, tribal descent would have been through different spiritual lineages and traditions.

Whether your quest to connect with the wisdom of the ancestors is recent, or has been in place for some time, it is always a good practice to find our center by returning to the earth. Who were the historical Celts? Where and how did they live? What were their houses like? What did they eat? What did they wear? And what was their religious symbolism like?

Start off with a reliable source like The Celtic World by Barry Cunliffe. There is a reliable and accessible recommended reading list in the back of Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief (McFarland). Out of respect, any claim for the ancestors must be backed up with an actual source for that claim - archaeology, written records of some kind, oral testimony of a Celtic-speaking elder who is from a traditional community, etc. A cultural tradition must be based on actual tradition, and also upon truth. Only then will our revived traditions be built upon solid ground.

 

 

 

 

 

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Born on the eve of Lugnasad, your guide and ban-fili is a published author, teacher, and Celtic singer and musician. She trained in Celtic Studies through Harvard University, and has taught Celtic mythology and folklore at the university level. Her research in Celtic myth and religion has been presented at the University of Edinburgh, University College Cork, and the Ford Foundation Lectures.


She has served as Faculty at the Celtic Institute of North America and the Omega Institute, and her books include 'Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief' (McFarland), 'The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe' (McFarland), and 'Queen of the Night' (Weiser).


Currently she is Director of the Eolas ar Senchas research project, with grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Scottish Clans Association of Canada to research ancient Celtic music and ritual. Her previous group, The Moors, has cult status in the pagan world. She leads workshops and distance training programs, with new books, CD's and research on the way.

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