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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 4

The analogy of religious evolution in other faiths helps us in reconstructing that of the Celts. Though no historic Celtic group was racially pure, the profound influence of the Celtic temperament soon "Celticised" the religious contributions of the non-Celtic element which may already have had many Celtic parallels. Because a given Celtic rite or belief seems to be "un-Aryan," it need not necessarily be borrowed. The Celts had a savage past, and, conservative as they were, they kept much of it alive. Our business, therefore, lies with Celtic religion as a whole. These primitive elements were there before the Celts migrated from the old "Aryan" home; yet since they appear in Celtic religion to the end, we speak of them as Celtic. The earliest aspect of that religion, before the Celts became a separate people, was a cult of nature spirits, or of the life manifested in nature. But men and women probably had separate cults, and, of the two, perhaps that of the latter is more important. As hunters, men worshipped the animals they slew, apologising to them for the slaughter. This apologetic attitude, found with all primitive hunters, is of the nature of a cult. Other animals, too sacred to be slain, would be preserved and worshipped, the cult giving rise to domestication and pastoral life, with totemism as a probable factor. Earth, producing vegetation, was the fruitful mother; but since the origin of agriculture is mainly due to women, the Earth cult would be practised by them, as well as, later, that of vegetation and corn spirits, all regarded as female. As men began to interest themselves in agriculture, they would join in the female cults, probably with the result of changing the sex of the spirits worshipped. An Earth-god would take the place of the Earth-mother, or stand as her consort or son. Vegetation {4} and corn spirits would often become male, though many spirits, even when they were exalted into divinities, remained female.

With the growth of religion the vaguer spirits tended to become gods and goddesses, and worshipful animals to become anthropomorphic divinities, with the animals as their symbols, attendants, or victims. And as the cult of vegetation spirits centred in the ritual of planting and sowing, so the cult of the divinities of growth centred in great seasonal and agricultural festivals, in which the key to the growth of Celtic religion is to be found. But the migrating Celts, conquering new lands, evolved divinities of war; and here the old female influence is still at work, since many of these are female. In spite of possessing so many local war-gods, the Celts were not merely men of war. Even the equites engaged in war only when occasion arose, and agriculture as well as pastoral industry was constantly practised, both in Gaul and Britain, before the conquest. In Ireland, the belief in the dependence of fruitfulness upon the king, shows to what extent agriculture flourished there.5 Music, poetry, crafts, and trade gave rise to culture divinities, perhaps evolved from gods of growth, since later myths attributed to them both the origin of arts and crafts, and the introduction of domestic animals among men. Possibly some culture gods had been worshipful animals, now worshipped as gods, who had given these animals to man. Culture-goddesses still held their place among culture-gods, and were regarded as their mothers. The prominence of these divinities shows that the Celts were more than a race of warriors.


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