Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction - Correlating the Pieces

Correlating the Pieces


Having established what the sources of our evidence are to be, we must now begin to correlate all the pieces of evidence from all five sources into a consistent whole. It is best, however, not to proceed haphazardly in this, but to follow a particular sequence that will make sure we don't favor weak evidence over strong. There are seven steps in this sequence:

1. We must make sure that we fully understand the context of our research, and that we have the proper tools to do the research itself. In order to dispel the stereotypes and fallacies we get from popular culture, we must be able to access the primary sources that will give us an authentic historical and anthropological picture of the ancient world and of the Middle Ages (especially in relation to Indo-European traditions). We should have a good sense of the chronology (who lived when, what influences were being felt at what time -- e.g., the 5th century BCE wasn't like the 4th century BCE), and of the way basic ideas about society and religion developed over time, so that we know which religious beliefs and ritual practices were associated with each time-period (much of this will be accomplished through Track One of this course).


Our research will bring us into contact with academic writing, and invite us to adopt the research methods and standards of academia. This will teach us to be intellectually rigorous in our approach to the primary sources, and to make sure that all our conclusions are sufficiently grounded in the available evidence. Yet scholarly opinion should itself be treated with caution. Academia, as a professional milieu, is highly competitive and very much dominated by politically-based fashions. Academics often take controversial positions to draw attention to their work and boost their careers; or, conversely, they follow the latest fashion to gain approval from certain quarters. In many cases, fashionable scholarly opinion is quite irrelevant to the purposes of Celtic religious reconstruction. Some scholars would indeed be quite opposed to the notion as a living religious movement. Others (quite prominent in the current academic scene) are hostile to the whole notion of "Celtic culture". We shouldn't be intimidated by them or look to them as unassailable authorities. Because the Neo-Pagan milieu has for so long been characterized by shoddy research, some within it now have reacted to the situation by holding academic scholars in exaggeratedly high regard. We should remember that the main function of academic research as it relates to our purpose is to lead us to a firm knowledge of the primary sources, and that scholarly opinion is just that: opinion, which may or may not turn out to be valid. Our goal should be to get a good enough grasp of the primary sources that we can evaluate such opinions by ourselves.

This first step in our research process will be the longest and hardest one; but it is the one that pays off most in the end.

2. Once we have a good grounding in the religious beliefs and practices that were generally common in Classical antiquity (and that were documented by the literate Mediterranean cultures), we can try placing the archaeological data from the Celtic world in that context. Can we, using criteria derived from the ancient world in general, clearly identify some Celtic sites as religious sites? How does their structure echo what we find elsewhere? What do the objects found at such sites tell us about the rituals held there, and about the wealth and social status of those who participated? What were burial practices like, and what do they tell us about beliefs concerning the afterlife? Did the practices change over time? Did different practices seem to be linked to different types of people? What do later Celtic representations of the gods suggest concerning native Celtic theology? As we look at this evidence, we should always bear in mind that Celtic civilization wasn't something isolated and static, but that it communicated freely with the rest of the ancient world and shared many of the same ideas and beliefs. It also changed over time, as all cultures do, while retaining its specific character.

3. We should now look at the testimony of the Classical writers and see how it fits with the archaeological evidence. Can we find direct links between descriptions in the texts and the material remains? Does the Classical version of Celtic history agree with the chronology of cultural change archaeology presents us? Can Classical accounts of Celtic beliefs and practices shed light on the uses and purpose of certain religious sites and ritual objects?

4. Once we have integrated what we know of ancient and Indo-European belief and practice with what we know of the Celts from both archaeology and the reports of Classical writers, we must see if any reflection of this can still be found in the ritual traditions of living Celtic communities. Because agrarian rituals tend to be very conservative, they may very well preserve material from a much earlier period in a community's history. How much of what we find in the rituals fits with what we know from ancient sources? Do the stories explaining the rituals have obvious correspondents in other Indo-European traditions? If so, what does this suggest about their origin and meaning? How does the cult of saints in a given area reflect the manner of earlier polytheistic worship? How do the practices at holy wells and springs continue pre-Christian practices at similar sites? Can we detect an overarching pattern into which all the seasonal rituals can fit, with a theological justification for it? Is there a consistent ritual vocabulary we can nail down and use as a basis for generalization?

5. At this stage we may want to take what we have found and compare it with living polytheistic systems. Hinduism is a good choice, because it is one of the few living religious systems that is directly rooted in Indo-European tradition (despite its many borrowings from the other traditions of the Indian subcontinent), and because of the many similarities in the learned traditions of both India and Ireland that scholars in this century have pointed out. Of course, this shouldn't be taken to mean that Hindu and Celtic traditions correspond exactly to each other: they obviously don't. But observing a tradition like Hinduism in action can bring to life for us many elements in polytheistic worship that are no longer so easily accessible to our modern Western way of thinking. How does Hindu propitiation of deities resemble what we know from the ancient world? How apparent are its Indo-European roots? How does it resemble folk veneration of the saints in Celtic areas? What can we learn from it that will provide a living spark for our own practice? This is a crucial step in our process of reconstruction, because until we can *feel* what it was like to operate within an ancient polytheistic system all the knowledge we have accumulated remains a lifeless mass of data, and will never turn into a functional religion we can actually believe in and to which we can entrust our spiritual destiny. Many reconstructionist efforts founder because they are never able to access that living spark.

6. Now we turn our attention to the vast field of mediaeval Celtic literature. What can we find there that reflects the picture we have already assembled from other sources? Are there stories that provide more vivid and specific illustrations of themes we had established in a more general way? Can we connect the lore of the nobility and the learned classes (preserved in the literature, but not in folk tradition with its peasant context) directly to what we know from more ancient sources? What (based on historical evidence, not on our modern prejudices about Christianity) reflects the changes in world-view brought about by a Christian society?

7. As the evidence provided by all our sources begins to come together in large patterns, we must make sure that the final result of our reconstructionist effort has covered all the necessary areas of a functional religion. There has to be a consistent cosmology: a spiritually significant image of the structure of the universe, an account of how it came to be, and a sense of how it applies to everyday life. There has to be a consistent theology: an understanding of the nature and function of the gods, of the way they relate to each other, the cosmos, and humans. We need a consistent ideology of ritual (how and why it works), and a consistent symbolic vocabulary out of which rituals can be constructed. And there must be rituals that apply to all the important situations a Celtic world-view takes into account: the seasonal cycle (folk tradition has preserved this in some detail); rites of passage such as naming, reception into adult society, marriage and burial; occupational worship, relating to the divinities that represent one's calling; family worship, focused on the ancestors; and personal worship, relating to the individual circumstances of one's life. While much will of necessity have to be invented, all the elements for these must have some authentic base in an attested source.