The Three Cauldrons: Celtic Myth and Spiritual Wisdom

Academic and historically based study and exploration of authentic Celtic religion, mythology, druidism, folklore, literature, languages, wisdom texts, archaeology, ethnography, ritual, poetry and visionary practices, as well as the anthropologically supported identification of shamanic elements in Celtic contexts.

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Earth and Bone: Searching for the Celts in Archaeology and History

To understand Celtic literature and the parts of that literature that may represent Celtic mythology, we must have at least a basic understanding of who the Ancient Celts were (and along the way, clear up some misconceptions that are quite prevalent in popular culture these days). First, we must emphatically state that there is not a Celtic 'race' - this is a mistaken concept promoted by the Victorians (or earlier), passed along through early 20th century writings, and still (sadly) used by some hate groups today. Being 'Celtic' has more to do with language and culture, than it has to do with DNA.

This is not to say that people today are not descended from the Celts (they are!) or that someone does not have Irish ancestry when their grandmother is Irish (they do!). There is not a lone genetic marker for being 'Celtic' (although some interesting patterns emerged over the millenia) - and much of the genetic research shows that in many regions we associate with Celtic culture, the primary genetic makeup of the people who live there is the same as those who lived there before Celtic culture arrived or emerged. This is not true everywhere, but it does show that for various reasons the people who were already living in these European regions adopted Celtic language and culture.

Celticism is the result of both culture and language - and occurred in many places in ancient Europe as a result of trade, migration, cultural exchange, and/or battle. Celtic languages and their associated cultures - for a wide variety of reasons - became the predominant set of languages and related culture throughout Europe for many hundreds of years. That fact alone should give us pause when looking to the cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East for the supposed 'origins' of our culture (a religocentric and ethnocentric paradigm that is slowly beginning to be revised). We might almost think of it as a cultural worldview, which included a variety of recognizable elements, and was encoded, preserved and transmitted through Celtic languages.

Like the Norse, Romans, Greeks, and other ancient peoples, the Celtic speaking peoples were Indo-Europeans. This simply means that their language (and some elements of culture) can be traced back in time to approximately 5,000 BCE to a group of people living somewhere around the Black Sea (the exact location is somewhat disputed). They began to move around, as ancient people do... some went south and east, and into parts of the East and India, and some north and west into Europe. This is why Sanskrit is related (way way back) to Old Irish, for example... not because of strange migration theories, but because these languages share a parent language, called Indo-European.

Here we must pause to diffuse another popular myth - that the Indo-Europeans were solely violent, patriarchal peoples who violently oppressed previous peaceful, matriarchal cultures. There are many problems with this assertion. First of all, as we saw above in the case of the Celts, in some cases Celtic I.E. language and culture was disseminated through peaceful means, like trade or peaceful migration. Sometimes battle was involved (find me proof of an ancient culture who didn't at some point use violence, and I'll eat my sporran) but many social and historical processes were involved in the spread of I.E. language and culture.

Secondly, while a few academics proposed a peaceful, Mother-goddess worshipping culture in some parts of the Near East (something which really has not been proven in any solid way), we can't just transplant this idea to all of the ancient world (which is exactly what popular writers have done). When those first theories were published, many other scholars yelled out and said, Hey, here are the multitudinous problems with your theory, which show it to be either false, or at least far-fetched and unprovable. The original scholars (yes, Gimbutas is one of them) never stepped up to the plate to respond to these comments and observations. And as a result, a great big conspiracy theory based on false or mythic history has evolved.

This is not to say that we shouldn't revisit our understanding of history from a female perspective. We absolutely should. And of course we should look at women's roles, women's influence on history, and the role of the female divinities (plural) in all of this. This is absolutely crucial, and thankfully it is underway! But this is different from postulating a lost Golden Age that did not in all likelihood exist. This reality does not in any way diminish women's importance or women 's influence then or now, nor does it prevent women in our day and age from focusing on women's roles and knowledge, and the veneration of (separate) female deities. This is an excellent activity that can help restore balance!....

But, back to the Indo-Europeans: Sometimes by looking at certain linguistic aspects or cultural elements from one Indo-European culture, we are able to shed light on something from another I.E. culture. This is a separate branch of study, and quite complex. But it is one of the tools we have for helping us understand Celtic culture and religion. Here are just a few examples I like to show my students regarding the connections between I.E. languages:

Sanskrit raj ('king'), Old Irish rige ('kingship')... Latin Rex, Gaulish Rix

Old Irish ech ('horse'), Latin equus, English equine

Gaulish tarwos, Latin taurus, Welsh tarw, Old Irish tarb ('bull')

Not all I.E. related words are so visually obvious - I chose these examples because they are - but it is a beginning example of how the languages come from a common parent language, called Proto-Indo-European (P.I.E.) There are also interesting examples of parallels in terms of how society was organized, and some religious symbols and concepts.

Now, of course the ancient Celts did not refer to themselves as indo-Europeans, or even the ancient Celts. In fact, other than one part of ancient Gaul where Caesar alludes to the existence of peoples he calls Celts, we would assume that most Celtic speaking peoples referred to themselves by their tribal names - such as the Parisii (near Paris), Brigantes (in Britain), Cornovii (near Cornwall), Dumnonii (near Devon), Sequani (near the River Seine), etc.

The earliest mention of a word like 'Celt' comes from the Greeks, who referred to some of them as Keltoi (showing the hard K sound at the start, as opposed to the 's' sound inexplicably used in the name of Boston's basketball team). It is possible that tribes other than the one(s) referred to by Caesar used a tribal name similar to Celtii or Celtici or something like this. But not all Celtic speaking people used the word Celt. This does not mean they 'weren't Celts' (a useless and circular argument some academics have taken up, in order to derive assumed authority from a negative and authoritatively pointless stance).

Interestingly, until the last decade, we did not actually know what the word Celt meant! An important paper came out some years back which showed that when the Greeks put the -oi ending on a word it meant 'Devotee of...'. And the word Celt could be related to a word like Old Irish ceilid ('hides, conceals'). This would give a meaning of 'Devotees of the Hidden One.' Caesar said that some of the Gauls asserted that they were descended from Dis Pater, a relatively minor Roman God associated with the Underworld.

Obviously the Gauls did not mean Dis Pater directly, but in this example of Interpretatio Romana Caesar merely equates the ancestor deity of those Gauls with a deity from his own pantheon who had somewhat similar attributes. The paper goes on to suggest that because of some iconography, the deity in question may have been Cernunnos (an argument I find attractive and convincing). 

Other tribes were named for patron gods or goddesses, and even into historical times certain population groups in Ireland and Wales maintained their descent back many generations, ultimately including gods or divine figures in their lineages. Other tribes appear to have named themselves for animals, which may have served as a sort of totem for their tribe, or perhaps was associated with a deity or divine / legendary ancestor. Others took their names from aspects of the landscape or natural world, or attributes they strove to embody.

We must be cognizant of both the commonalities and the diversity amongst the Celtic cultures, ancient and modern, in order to approach them with respect, and arrive at any sort of possible known truth. In the next blog entry, we will talk more about how ideas about Celts and Celticity have changed over time, and how we can approach the materials we have with wisdom, caution and respect - and get some excellent results!





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Born on the eve of Lugnasad, your guide and ban-fili/ban-druí 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, the International Celtic Congress, the Harvard Graduate Study Group for Ancient Magic and Religion, and the Ford Foundation Lecture Series.

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), ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’ (McFarland), 'The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe' (McFarland), ‘'Queen of the Night' (Weiser), ‘Early Celtic Poetry and Wisdom Texts: The Three Cauldrons, The Songs of Amairgen, and other Cultural Studies’ (forthcoming) and a chapter in the academic collection ‘Celtic Mythology in the 21st Century’ (University of Wales Press).

Currently she is Director of the Eolas ar Senchais research project, which received international grant funding to research and restore authentic ancient Celtic instrumental music and vocal art forms, and historically attested Celtic ritual in socio-religious context.

She sings in many of the modern and medieval Celtic languages and is a multi-instrumentalist. Her previous musical 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.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 12 May 2016

    Ms. NicLeoid,

    How do you feel about the theories of British archeologist Francis Pryor? Do you share his belief that the Anglo-Saxon invasion didn't happen, that it was a case of medieval propaganda?

    I myself reject Mr. Pryor's theories. Clearly there was a lot of continuity in British life throughout the post-Roman period, but people don't usually just give up their culture and language without massive levels of coercion.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Friday, 13 May 2016

    Hello there and thanks for this great question. I too reject
    his theories - it's possible some details were accentuated in
    medieval literature but it sure was a widespread belief. Plus
    the fact that we are all speaking English at present ;)

    I think there were invasions or at least incursions, and their
    effects were huge. It's possible it was aggressive at first and
    more settlement later, like the Vikings. But something happened,
    and clearly among the Celts it wasn't remembered too fondly.

    There are interesting DNA studies by Bryan Sykes outlined in
    several books that show where and what percentage of non-indigenous
    DNA made an impact on indigenous British populations. Of course DNA
    can't tell us everything about what people believed or what
    language they spoke. But it's interesting for example that there is
    almost no genetic trace of the Romans in Britain. Yet they were there and
    had a cultural impact. Thanks for writing!

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