Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction - Celtic Folk Tradition

4. Celtic Folk Tradition

Although, at the end of the Middle Ages, Celtic communities were conquered by foreign powers, their leaders were killed or exiled, and native Celtic scholarship dwindled from lack of patronage, this was not the death of Celtic culture. The common people who lived off the land remained, under the rule of new overlords; and, despite periods of harsh oppression, they survived. They maintained their language, their ideas about community organization, their lore and their customs, many of them quite ancient. The need to relate to the Land in a sacred manner in order to ensure the safety of crops and herds had been their main concern for many centuries, and changes in religious authority did little to alter this. Christianity had nothing to say about fertility and the Land: it was accepted as a religion of personal salvation, but couldn't displace the old tradition about relating to the Land, since it didn't serve the same purpose. There was an intricate ritual pattern that had to be followed through the seasons to obtain a good harvest. Within the last two hundred years folklorists have discovered and recorded these rituals (and myths attached to them) still surviving in Celtic-speaking communities. These traditions are extremely rich and clearly have pre-Christian roots. The myths often have parallels in the literary texts, but they tend to be more archaic, more intimately related to specific rituals. A classic study like Maire Mac Neill's _The Festival of Lughnasa_ provides us with a good example of how much material -- varied but consistent -- can be found surrounding just one seasonal festival in Ireland alone. There is an enormous wealth of resources there, and it has only just begun to be put to systematic use.


The most precious thing the folk tradition brings to our reconstruction effort is that it is a *living* tradition. We can excavate ancient temples and ritual spaces, but we have no certain knowledge of the ceremonies conducted there. We can identify ancient religious symbols and the attributes of specific deities, but have no idea how they related to religious practice. In folk ritual, by contrast, all these elements appear in action: the context of the ritual is certain, and the ritual vocabulary is clearly defined. We know exactly which people are doing what, and in most cases we can also learn the purpose of the ritual and figure out the belief system that the ritual reflects. In many cases, there are still living informants we can ask about the rituals and their background.


Yet this, again, is not a body of evidence we can accept uncritically. Despite the great amount of ancient lore it has preserved, the folk tradition has always been eclectic. It is conservative because it clings to the tried-and- true, but if it finds something new that works just as well or better, it snatches it up. The Roman occupation introduced some Roman ritual concepts to most of western Europe. Norse and English occupations exposed Celtic communities to Germanic rituals and beliefs, many of which were similar enough to elements in Celtic tradition that they could be assimilated easily. All of this has been integrated into the Celtic cultural consciousness and can be legitimately called a part of Celtic tradition, but it doesn't necessarily reflect what the practices of the ancient Celts were like.


We must be similarly cautious when we deal with folk narrative. Some of it has a clear ritual purpose; some of it is intended as mere entertainment or personal fancy. As a general rule, the less a story is bound to a specific ritual context, the more likely it is to acquire extraneous elements that corrupt its earlier meaning. Not all such traditions are passed down orally for generations within the same community. Especially in more recent times, people have been getting ideas from books and other media, re-interpreting their traditions in the light of this new material, and passing the edited versions on. For instance, the Tory Islanders have a unique view of Balor, the grandfather of the god Lugh, which contrasts with the very archaic stories about Lugh and Balor found on the Donegal mainland. Whereas elsewhere Balor is a threatening figure who must be vanquished by Lugh, the people of Tory Island have a story about Balor being their ancestor. Before we accept this as an alternative ancient folk tradition, we should take a closer look at its probable origin. Literary sources -- which treat all these figures as ordinary human beings -- name Tory Island as the stronghold of Balor. Although the ritual background to the story makes it clear that Balor was originally a mythological being and that Tory Island (like other islands in Celtic tradition) was associated with him because its isolation made it an Otherworldly place, in later centuries more stress was put (especially by literary elites) on the stories as historical rather than mythological documents, and there was more incentive to conceive of Balor as a human person historically connected with the island and its people, providing them with a new, prestigious lineage. Taking this into account, it becomes less likely that the tradition about the Tory Islanders' ancestry is ancient: it seems much more likely that it is a relatively recent graft from literary sources.


Such caveats should not discourage us from studying Celtic folk tradition for the genuinely ancient material it has preserved. As with all the other sources of evidence we have been considering, the best approach is to look for broad patterns rather than fixating on details. Once the broad patterns of ritual and belief have been well established, we can begin weighing the authenticity of the details from the way they fit into the pattern.