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

Druidism and Syncretism - J Craig Melia

Druidism is the umbrella-term used to describe the religion of the `Celtic` people, and specifically the Priest-Judge Caste of the `Druids`. Because `druidism` was an oral tradition, we have no written materials from the Celts themselves. What we know of the religion of the Celts we have learnt from a variety of sources. The main problems we have is in interpreting these sources, especially in seperating the facts from the classical and later literary inventions. Archaeological remains show us solid material objects, and although open to personal interpretation votive offerings, burials and inscriptions give us a physical `feel` of the people.

The Classical Writers, though often with personal agendas, provide us with first-hand knowledge of `Celtic` peoples. From `Classical Sources`, the main references to Druids is in regards to `sacrificial ceremonies`. Caesar, Tacticus and Strabo all refer to human sacrifice. Pliny refers to a Druidic ritual in which a Druid cuts Mistletoe before two white bulls are sacrificed. The problem with interpreting the Classical material is that its authors are not a part of the culture that they are describing, much in the way `Western Culture` has interpreted African or Native American Cultures. Often the dominant culture views them as childlike warriors or as the noble savage, merely caricatures images of a culture.

The Insular Writers, whether Irish Monks, Gildas, Giraldus or whoever, are often heavily tainted by `Christian` thought. However, without these Dark Age and Medieval Writers much would be lost to us forever, and despite the `Christianisation` of the Mythologies and Poetry most of what we refer to as `Celtic` comes down to us from this period. Finally, there is still much to be learnt from the traditions and folk tales of todays `Celtic` peoples. Many people are beginning to recognize how much of the customs and traditions of the 'pagan' Celts continued after their christianisation. It can only be by studying the whole that we can learn anything of `Celtic` Culture.

So, what do we know? The Classical Sources portray the Druids as either great Philosophers, seekers of Knowledge, keepers of Tradition OR blood-thirsty priests, sacrificing, burning, killing in the name of their pagan gods. The Insular Writers, despite their obvious Christian bias seem on the whole rather sympathetic to the Druids. Cathbad, the chief Druid from `the Tain` is a wonderful figure, as is the Druidess Fidelma, also from `the Tain`. Though the tales have obviously been embellished they seem to me to be as close as we can get to an acurate description of a living Druid. We know that they were held in high regard, their wisdom was sort by Kings. We know that they performed rituals and shaman-like acts of magic. We know that they met in Nemetons, places held sacred. We know that there were both male and female Druids. We know that the training to become a Druid was very extensive.

Neo-Druidism, Druidry and Neo-Celtic, are modern interpretations of Celtic religion, and are a very diverse grouping. Many groups who claimed to be Druids or to teach Druidry began but a few hundred years ago. Many were based around Freemasonry, as were a number of other `esoteric` groups that began around this period. Often very `Christianized`, they made little attempt to be historically accurate. As with most syncretic belief systems, although they draw upon (or sometimes merely refer to) the `Celtic` past, they haven`t really evolved from it. Its like `the belief system` without the cultural experiences that have moulded that belief system. Sadly, instead of trying to remedy this they just claim `ancient pedigrees` to cover the cracks.

Although there is much learning in Modern `Druidry` it can be open to sentimental `Noble Savage` wish fulfilment. Some Neo-Pagan groups use nothing from Celtic Culture other than deity names, superimposing them on other magical traditions. Some groups are little more than `Earth-Wisdom` traditions with the label `Celtic` or `Druidic` attached. That is not to say that it is all bad, indeed much of the current enthusiasm for `Celtic Studies` is linked to the growth of Neo-Pagan spirituality. The only danger is that `New-Age Culture` will be superimposed over `Celtic Culture`, leaving little or nothing of the original.

One broad grouping that are addressing these issues has collectively become known as Celtic Reconstructionism. Not confined to any one Order or Group it is rather like a movement that aims, to varying degrees, to add historical accuracy to the beliefs and practices, as the basis of what can be authentically described at Druidic tradition. Western Mystical Traditions, and the latter New Age Movement, have long been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist concepts and many within Modern Druidism are not exempt from attempting to show, for example, direct links between the Celtic and Vedic traditions. That these traditions share some common heritage is well documented but given enough time all things converge back to common sources. Seeking to fuse seperate pathways together via a pick and mix approach insults and potentially damages the very traditions that are being appropriated.

Cherry-picking beliefs as it suits us seems to follow one of modern Western society's worst traits, that of the need for instant gratification. Salvation-in-a-can sold by karma mechanics is not limited to any specific faith and an argument can be made that if people benefit from it how could it be a bad thing? Anything that reduces the achievement of enlightenment to something as easy as donning a hemp shirt minimalises to romantic pyschobabble what should be a life long, life defining process.

The spiritual path of Druidry isn't something that can be attained through sending off your money for a short term course or through simply having an affinity with nature. It is a life long commitment to learning, to mastering your arts, to the seeking of wisdom. All systems of beliefs interact with the place in which they exist as well as the times, all spiritual beliefs evolve whilst at the same time appearing unchanged.

We may, with some justification, ridicule ideas such as Celtic Reiki, but equally as dangerous to maintaining authentic tradition are the actions of many who claim to hold this authenticity as core to their beliefs. Comparative study is always a useful tool, it helps us to view and reaffirm our own beliefs through comparison with contemporary pathways. Seeing connections and patterns within other traditions will always occur, the danger is that we see connections where there are none and force patterns to meet our own agendas and worldviews.

This diminished the very thing that we wish to maintain, it is almost as if they believe that without augmentations from Eastern Philosophies, Shamanism or Native American practises that Druidism isn't a valid enough pathway to stand on its own merits. We are the custodians of tradition, the knowledge, learning and wisdom of our ancestors is our duty to maintain