Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction - Mediaeval Celtic Literature

3. Mediaeval Celtic Literature

Although the ancient Celts have left us with relatively few written texts (none of them of a mythological or narrative nature), during the Middle Ages their descendants produced an extremely rich and colourful literature that continues to fascinate readers today. The bulk of it is in Old and Middle Irish, but there is also a significant amount from Wales. Among the most striking elements in this body of literature are numerous stories about heroes from pre-Christian times, often with vivid supernatural elements that suggest ancient religious beliefs and practices. In one of the Irish literary cycles -- the "Mythological Cycle" which has as its centerpiece the _Lebor Gabala Erenn_ or "Book of the Conquests of Ireland" -- a number of the characters have names that seem to be identical to names of ancient divinities known from earlier Celtic inscriptions, suggesting that the stories in which they appear may be, in fact, re-tellings of pre-Christian myths. The same can be said of the Welsh stories that comprise _The Four Branches of the Mabinogi_. The stories that follow the career of the great hero Cu Chulainn (the "Ulster Cycle") agree in many respects with what both archaeology and the Classical writers tell us about Celtic warriors. The lore of the Fianna -- strange fraternities of warriors who live away from society, in the wilderness -- presents us with images that seem to reflect ancient attitudes towards hunting and the Land. One can expect a study of these sources to turn up many survivals of pre-Christian Celtic belief -- and, of course, the sheer beauty and power of this material invites such study. Most people who feel drawn to the Celtic world can trace the origin of their attraction to the first time they were exposed to this literature.

 


The great advantage of the mediaeval literature is that, unlike the Classical texts, it was produced by the Celtic peoples themselves. Here, finally, the Celts speak to us with their own voice. The spiritual, moral, aesthetic and social values expressed through these texts have a unique flavor: they are clearly part of the deep heritage of Celtic-speaking communities. Whatever the age or origin of the stories themselves, they reflect a Celtic view of things, a Celtic interpretation of the elements they contain. They are truly a window on the Celtic world.

 


Yet we must always remember that they are not necessarily a window on the *pre-Christian* Celtic world. All the Celtic literature we have was produced at a time when Celtic communities were thoroughly Christian. They had been Christianized largely through a slow process of internalizing the Christian beliefs and practices they had originally acquired from contact with the Roman world, not through conquest and colonization by a foreign power, so there was no sharp break with native tradition. Nevertheless, adopting Christianity meant that many native institutions and practices had to be re-thought and re-designed in order to meet the requirements of a new religious world-view. The old lore couldn't be dispensed with altogether, because it permeated the entire culture: the legal system, for instance, was entirely based on precedents, and some of the most important precedents -- through which some of the most basic social customs were justified -- had been provided by ancestors and gods in the mythological "time of origins". What was needed was a "new lore" that preserved the most important patterns of the mythological precedents without contradicting sources of Christian authority (like the Bible).

 

 Beginning in the late 7th century and becoming systematic and internally consistent in the 9th, a major effort to create an acceptably Christian version of the pre-Christian mythology mobilized scholars throughout the Celtic world, but especially in Ireland. The _Lebor Gabala_, composed between the 9th and 12th centuries, is one of the principal fruits of this endeavor: beginning with the Genesis account of Creation and tracing all genealogies back to Adam, it then presents us with a very ancient pattern of six invasions that has parallels in other Indo-European traditions and is certainly carried over from pre-Christian lore. However, it is obvious that many of the details of the story have been changed. The characters that may have been gods and goddesses are never identified as divinities, but as humans with magical powers. Many of the names are certainly not ancient, and appear to have been invented by the writers. New stories have been added, often inspired by the Bible and by Classical literature. The same treatment was given to all the other narrative cycles, and the later the date of composition the more likely it is that a story was intended primarily to entertain rather than to provide information on an ancient precedent.

 


It is thus important not to think of these mythological stories as *scripture*: they were not written for a religious purpose, and every detail in them does not have a specific religious significance. The writers may or may not have known the pre-Christian meaning of their material (their degree of knowledge probably varied a great deal according to time and place), but their primary aim was certainly not to convey this meaning to their readers. In most cases they were not so much seeking to preserve the past as to influence the present. Certain families wanted to be associated with a particular hero, who then had to be fitted into their genealogies; certain districts wanted to be the site of an important mythological precedent, and so on. All this necessitated the composition of new stories (probably based on old ones). So, if we wish to find the pre-Christian form of the stories, it isn't just a matter of removing "Christian interpolations" from old myths, as some have naively assumed. The stories we have were completely re-composed in a mediaeval Christian context: we cannot remove them from that context without destroying the essence of their meaning.


Yet this shouldn't be taken to mean that *no* pre-Christian elements can be found in mediaeval Celtic literature. There is, in fact, a great deal to be found there; but not so much in things like names of characters or incidental details as in the broad patterns of the stories: the types of characters; the consistent ways in which they interact; the way in which tribal divisions and whole countries are depicted; the basic beliefs about the world and people that are inherent in the narratives. These patterns were deeply ingrained in Celtic thought, and they continued to be expressed in creative ways long after Christianization.