Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction - Comparative Religion

5. Comparative Religion

The Celts, of course, were not an isolated people. On the contrary, they were at the crossroads of Europe, and must have exchanged ideas as well as trade goods with their neighbors. Theories about the universe, the nature of the gods, and the best ways to propitiate them circulated widely in the ancient world, certainly not excepting the Celtic realms. Moreover, through their language the Celts shared a cultural ancestry with other Indo-European peoples such as the Romans, the Greeks, the Germans, the Slavs, the Scythians, the Persians and the Indo-Aryans. All these peoples, although each later developed in its own distinctive way, inherited a common set of ideas about the cosmos, the gods, society and ritual. For the last hundred years the field of Indo-European studies has been devoted to exploring this rich and many-faceted heritage. Earlier scholars in this field have included Georges Dumezil, who first drew attention to the tri-functional model of society in Indo-European traditions; and Emile Benveniste, who catalogued the legal and religious terminology used by the Indo-Europeans. More recent scholars like Calvert Watkins, Jan Puhvel, Bruce Lincoln, Jarich Oosten and many others have continued to explore the various aspects of these traditions. Through their work we have been getting an ever-clearer sense of the Indo-European world-view, and much of it is directly relevant to our purpose of Celtic Reconstruction.


Comparing the religious traditions of many ancient peoples will reveal broad common patterns that genuinely explain many of the details within them. To return to our image of the jigsaw puzzle, these patterns can serve as templates, guiding us as to where the scattered pieces should go. For instance, in the ritual formats of many Indo-European cultures we find a consistent body of ideas about the meaning of fire and water, the two primal elements that make up the universe and affect it in opposite ways. These ideas are spelled out in the religious texts of India and Persia, but are also illustrated by other rituals throughout the Indo-European world. The scraps of information we have about Celtic ritual and mythology conform to this pattern, so we can be sure that the ancient Celts thought about these elements in the same way. Similarly, common Indo-European theories of sacrifice adequately explain the little we know about sacrifice in the Celtic world, suggesting that the Celts did not greatly differ from their neighbors in this regard. The same can be said about many other ideas and practices common throughout the ancient world.


However, while comparative religion is very good at placing details within general patterns, it is much less good at helping us reconstruct details that have been lost. While basic ideas may have been passed down relatively unchanged throughout the Indo-European world, their implementation could vary a great deal from culture to culture. Rituals from different cultures are thus not interchangeable, even when they are based on similar premises. Because there are so many resemblances between Celtic and Indian traditions, and because the Vedas (the ritual manuals of ancient India) give us such a superabundance of information, we can be tempted to use them to "fill in the gaps" in our knowledge of Celtic ritual. This, however, should be done very cautiously, since there are instances where we know for a fact that the Vedic material would lead us astray. For example, we know that in both ancient India and ancient Ireland a horse sacrifice was used to affirm a ruler's sovereignty over a territory. In India the _ashvamedha_ (a lengthy and complex ritual) involves a *stallion* that the *ruler's consort* pretends to mate with *after* the animal has been sacrificed. If, lacking any other evidence, we assumed that the ceremony would be exactly the same in the Celtic world, we would be wrong, because Gerald of Wales wrote an account of the Irish version in the 12th century, specifying that the *ruler himself* mimed copulation with a *mare*, *before* the sacrifice. So, although the two ceremonies are obviously based on the same ideas and use the same ritual vocabulary, they are in fact implemented in almost opposite ways. Celtic thought wasn't merely Indo-European: it had its own originality.

Nevertheless, comparative religion and Indo-European studies are necessary to bring the deepest layers of Celtic thought into perspective. Once we are well acquainted with those basics, the maze of details we pick up from other sources will be a little less confusing.