Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction - Classical Writers

Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction

The ancient Celts used writing sparingly, and never to make detailed records of their religious beliefs and practices. This means that the Celtic Iron Age has left us no legacy comparable to the Vedas in India, the Avesta in Persia, or even the Iguvine Tablets in Italy. Some writers have been led by this lack of specific written records to claim that nothing can be known of Celtic religion. However, such an assessment is premature. There is, in fact, a large body of evidence available that relates directly or indirectly to the religious traditions of the Celts. In the words of the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe: "It may fairly be said that there is more, varied, evidence for Celtic religion than for any other aspect of Celtic life. The only problem is to be able to assemble it in a systematic form which does not too greatly oversimplify the intricate texture of its detail." (_The Ancient Celts_ (1997) p. 183). The field of Celtic religion can indeed be described as a vast, unassembled jigsaw puzzle made up of a huge number of pieces. Nobody knows for certain what exactly the finished picture should look like, nor can one be sure that all the pieces are available. The initial challenge is to identify which pieces really belong in the puzzle: this first stage has been one of the major preoccupations of Celtic scholars over the past century. At the next stage, an attempt is made to fit the pieces together. Eventually, as more and more of the evidence falls into place, broad patterns emerge, providing a glimpse of the entire picture.

In order to proceed with the long and difficult work of reconstructing pre-Christian Celtic religion, we must first establish which sources we can consult to obtain evidence relevant to the subject. Broadly speaking, there are five types of sources that will be of use to us. Each of them offers particular advantages, but also presents certain difficulties in evaluating the evidence we find there. We will here examine the advantages and disadvantages inherent in each of these five bodies of evidence in turn:


1. Classical Writers
Beginning in the 6th century BCE, Greek writers made mention of people they called Keltoi or Galatai who lived to the north and west of them. At first these descriptions were sketchy and confused, but as the Greeks established colonies along the western Mediterranean they began to trade actively with the Celts, and their accounts became more abundant and more detailed. When, late in the 5th century BCE, large numbers of Gallic Celts, fleeing overpopulation and political instability in their homeland near the Rhine, invaded northern Italy and established settlements there, Celtic civilization came into even sharper focus for the literate peoples of the Mediterranean. As the Celts began to engage in more and more political interaction with their southern neighbors, Greek and Roman writers included them in their histories. Around the turn of the 1st century BCE, Posidonius of Apamaea, a Greek Stoic philosopher from Syria, wrote an extensive description of Celtic culture which has not survived but which was quoted from liberally by later Greek Stoics like Diodorus Siculus, Athenaeus and Strabo, as well as Latin writers like Pomponius Mela. Roman conflict with the Celts in Italy (as well as Roman expansion into Gaul) led other Latin writers to show interest in Celtic matters. The historian Titus Livy (who appears to have been of Celtic descent himself), writing in the 1st century BCE, gave much space in his writings to the early conflicts between the Romans and the Celts and may have included some items of genuine Gaulish tradition, available to him through his ethnic background. And, of course, his older contemporary, Julius Caesar, the main architect of the Roman takeover of Celtic lands, has left us a gripping account of his campaign, complete with detailed descriptions of the people he conquered. These are only some of the best-known sources: tidbits of Celtic lore can show up almost anywhere in Greek and Latin literature, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. In fact, one could say that the whole of Classical literature between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE is permeated with allusions to Celtic history and Celtic customs.

The advantage of these sources is that they are contemporary with the civilization they describe. Most of them are based, at some point or another, on eyewitness reports. They deal with a people living in close proximity to the Classical world, not a half-fabulous people from far away, so there is less likelihood that complete fantasy has seeped into the accounts. They do seem to represent a consistent picture of how the Celts appeared to the Greeks and Romans.

But this last fact points to one of the caveats we must bear in mind when we consult the Classical sources. The ancient writers who observed the Celts were themselves foreign to Celtic culture. They noted how the Celts behaved, but they didn't necessarily understand the motivations behind the behavior, and the interpretations they provide could be very far from anything the Celts themselves would have conceived of. Since many of them saw the Celts primarily as a menace -- a people with an alien mindset and highly developed military skills, ready to destroy peaceful towns -- they tended to portray them in a somewhat sinister fashion. Those (like Caesar) who were directly involved in wars against the Celts would have had reason to exaggerate this threatening element, simply to justify their own campaigns. On the other hand, the aforementioned Stoic writers may have projected equally erroneous *positive* ideas onto the Celts: they saw them as "children of Nature", and depicted the Druids as wise natural philosophers, enlightened not by civilized learning but by the direct influence of Nature, as Stoic theory would have it. This is not likely to reflect the real self-image and motivation of the Druids.

Interpreting the Classical sources will thus require being aware that they may contain skewed interpretations while accepting that, on a level of surface description, they are likely to be highly accurate. There is no reason to dismiss out of hand everything that has been written by the "enemies of the Celts". While many Classical (especially Roman) writers display a negative bias in their descriptions of Celtic customs, they would have gained little by lying outright, when so much of what they said could be easily verified. Their errors and false assumptions are subtler in nature, and should be evaluated with the aid of a good knowledge of the Greek and Roman cultures -- how they saw virtue and vice, for instance, which would not necessarily have corresponded to a Celtic understanding of such things.