Celtic Heritage - culture, belief and traditions of the Celtic Peoples Celtic Heritage - culture, beliefs and traditions of the Celts

Celtic Heritage - culture, beliefs and traditions of Celts and Druids


Celtic Heritage

Honouring the Ancestors - J Craig Melia

Honour the Ancestors, worship the Gods and do no evil.'

Who now can trace a continuous line of their Ancestors back further than a few centuries? Who sings their praises? Who knows their histories and tells their tales?
Indigenous peoples the world over hold tradition as the basic tenet of society. It is the glue that binds them together. It is one of the points of focus that creates a group identity. And the greater part of this is our relationship with our Ancestors.

People leave their mark upon the landscape, and this is often the link to our connection to them. This is not just true of monuments like Stonehenge or New Grange, but of the entire landscape around us. The city that sprang up from the group of huts by a stream, the rolling green hills of the farm, the old wall by the road-side. Our ancestors live on.

I am lucky that I can stand beside a nearby canal on the former site of a house where my Great-great-great-great Grandfather lived, and I can 'feel' the connection. John O'Donohue, in his book on Celtic Spirituality 'Anam Cara' recounts a tale of a Connemara priest who was going to build a car-park outside his church.

There was a ruin nearby which had been vacated for fifty or sixty years. He went to the man whose family had lived there long ago. He asked the man to give him the stones for the foundation. The man refused. The priest asked why and the man said: 'Céard a dhéanfadh anamacha mo mhuinitire ansin?' i.e. What would the souls of my ancestors do then? 1

Their actions have brought you to where you are today, allowing you to be who you are. If for no reason other than that we should honour them. And in the very act of acknowledging our ancestors it helps us to find our place in the world, a sense of belonging within the tribe. Our past and our future.

Living with Honour

The Three highest causes of the True Human are: Truth, Honour, and Duty.
The importance of belonging to a larger social unit is often overlooked. Most people only feel the power of the tribe when supporting their team at a sporting event.
Within Brehon Law the 'Tuath', the family, extends to 'four generations of descent from a common ancestor'. All the rights of an individual existed only within the protection of this grouping. The honour of your kin-group was a thing worth dying for.
It should be noted that the Gaelic word for Honour -'enech' is linked to the word for Face. To lose face within your Tuath was considered a great disgrace, but to allow someone from your Tuath to lose face was seen as worse. The Brehon Law is a collection of legal precedents, tradition and custom. Within Gaelic society they allowed the people to police themselves. Truth, Honour and Justice, instead of just been 'buzzwords', were held to be principles for everyday living.
Sadly, in these modern times the individual is seen as more important than the family or the community. Even within modern spirituality the impetus is more towards 'personal spiritual growth', instead of the practitioner asking how they can serve the community. 

The Otherworld

In a wider sense too, we need to honour those who have trodden the path before us, our Spiritual Ancestors. Those who maintained the Sacred places and kept the traditions alive, those who sang of the Gods, the Filidh and the Bards.

The Ancestors inhabit the Otherworld, but where is this? It is here and now, it is yesterday and tomorrow. The portals to this world lies all around, a landscape within a landscape. There the ancestors live, not in an afterlife, but it a place where the normal physical rules of time and space cease to exist. A century can last but a minute there, or a minute a century. The pathway to this realm lies behind the 'real' world, hidden until the Mists of Manannan part.

Celtic tales abound with heroes adventuring to the Otherworld, to return with gifts for mankind, new skills, new food sources, knowledge and wisdom. The entrance was often one of the many Tumuli that are spread throughout the landscape. Tertullian states that the Celts 'spend the night near the tombs of their famous men`, so that they might seek knowledge from them. In the first Branch of the Mabinogion Pwyll is doing just this when he sees Rhiannon ride passed. Pwyll himself later becomes the Head of Annwyn, the Brythonic Otherworld. The poet Seanchán Torpéist sought out the burial mound of Ferghus mac Róich so as to learn the 'Tain Bo Cuailgne' (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which had been lost to the poets of Ireland. The great warrior himself came to tell the tale least it be forgotten.

The Otherworld is both the Realm of the Gods and the Realm of the Dead. It is a strange island across the sea, it is a revolving palace of wonders. It is the land of the young, it is the enticing plain.

Ancestors of the Tribe

'All the Gauls assert that they are descended from Dispater, their progenitor.'

To the Celts, the Gods themselves were seen as the original ancestors, the progenitors and protector of the tribe, provider of fertility. In Gaelic mythologies Bilé, cognate with Belenus and the Brythonic Beli, is referred to as 'the Father of Gods and Men`. Traditionally several royal lines of Wales claimed descent from Beli Mawr. Bilé has been linked to the Daghdha whose name appears to be a title, the 'Good God', who is also given the sobriquet 'Ollathair', that is 'father of all'.

Bilé and Danu, (Beli and Don), seem to have formed the closest thing to a Celtic Universal Mother and Father. The name Bilé is thought to mean 'Sacred Tree', while Danu is 'She that flows'. Danu herself was also seen as the Mother of the Gods, who were collectively known as the Tuatha de Danann, the people of Danu. In Welsh mythology they were known as the House of Don.

H.R. Ellis Davidson in 'Myths & Symbols of Pagan Europe' states:-

'Danu, probably the same as the goddess Anu, called by Cormac the mother of the Irish gods. Both goddesses have general characteristics of the Great Mother, partly identified with the Earth itself, as suggested by the name of the two rounded hills in Kerry known as the Paps of Anu.' 2

In the 'Lebor Gabala Erenn' (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) the sons of Mil are seen as the pseudo-historical ancestors of the Irish peoples. It is interesting to note that the father of Mil was Bile. Donn, the eldest son of Mil, became the ruler of the Otherworld, sacrificing himself so that he may guide future generations. He is said to have inhabited the small island called Bull Rock near the Beare peninsula, known as Tech Duinn - The House of Donn. In ancient times, this was a place of pilgrimage, indeed, though now Christianized, it maintained its prestige until recently. Despite the suppression of many pre-Christian cults, folk-tradition has kept much alive.

The four seasonal festivals, despite Christianization, still continue practices begun in the Iron Age and beyond. The spring festival of Oimelg, long been sacred to St. Brighid, the Mary of the Gael, keeps alive many of the cult practices of her pagan namesake. Beltaine and Lughnasa too maintain a continuation of pre-Christian rites. Samhain, the festival of the dead, has survived in many of the customs of All Hallows Eve. The traditions of our Ancestors still live on.

We may speak of 'getting back to our roots', and perhaps we should consider this. The roots of our family are our ancestors, and like every tree, that is from where we must seek nourishment if we would continue to grow.

J.Craig Melia - 1999
(Published in Sacred Hoop magazine - www.sacredhoop.org)
1 - John O'Donohue, from his book on Celtic Spirituality 'Anam Cara'
ISBN number 0-593-04201-8  Published by Bantam Press

2 - H.R. Ellis Davidson in 'Myths & Symbols of Pagan Europe'
ISBN number 0-8156-2441-7  Published by Syracuse University Press