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CELTIC RELIGIONS

The pagan religions of late Roman times not only shared many characteristics with each other and the Christianity they all opposed, but formed a kind of single, multi-form, monotheistic religion, incorporating varied means of expressing (and reaching out and touching) the one Supreme Being that all envisioned.

In the same way as all other late Roman cultures, the lifestyle of the Celts influenced the structure and beliefs of their religion, known as Druidism. When Anglesey was settled by the Celts in about 100 BC, it became the center of this religion. It consisted of Pagan beliefs in deities of the Earth, spirits of the woodland, sun gods, as well as elves and demons.

The Celtic religion was strictly oral, and in order to preserve it, the Druids learned a large number of sacred texts and teachings by heart. They traveled widely, in order to conserve the sense of unity between the many tribes. As the priests, wise men and prophets, it was their duty to keep alive learning and morality.

The Celts had great respect for the Earth, so many natural elements and areas were considered sacred. The great oak tree was honored, and the mistletoe which grew on its branches was gathered during services.

Lakes and rivers too were revered, notably the river Avon in Bath, England, which was attributed with mysterious healing powers, attributed to the goddess Sulis. The river Seine in France was also a place of Celtic pilgrimage, where Sequana, goddess of healing, was worshipped.

For the Celts, the soul was immortal and death simply a passing from one world to the next and the places of the living and the dead were continually exchanged. The warrior princes of early Celts were buried in their chariots with all their weapons and household possessions, as well as their rank insignia. The tomb was then covered with a funeral mound, known as a tumulus, and often a statue was placed on top.

The Druids believed the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. The Celts would seek to ward off the spirits with offerings of food and drink.

In the 1st century AD, the Celtic way of life was to face a huge turning point, when the British Isles were conquered by the Romans. However, the Romans did not, as a whole, try to prevent the Celts from practicing Druidism, or forcibly convert them to their religion. When they arrived at the Celtic lands, they realized that their beliefs were very similar to the old Roman religion; the belief in formless, vague spirits known as the "numina." This aided the Romans in their understanding of the Celtic culture.

When the Romans made an alliance with the ancient Greeks, they took a considerable liking in the Greek religion, with its powerful gods including Zeus, Aphrodite and Hermes. But instead of completely rejecting the belief in numina, they combined the two beliefs, identifying the Greek Gods with Roman spirits: Zeus was identified the Roman spirit Jupiter, Aphrodite with Venus and Hermes with Mercury. This was one factor which helped unify the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Romans knew that they could use this strategy to help win favor of the Celtic tribes.

One of the most largest projects of this kind was the building of a Roman bath at the river Avon - today known as Bath. The Romans identified the Celtic goddess Sulis, worshipped by the Celts at this site, with their own goddess Minerva. Thus, the shrine to the deity Sulis-Minerva was built upon the Avon, in an effort to merge the two cultures, which lead to the development of the city of Aquae Sulis. But the unification between Celtic and Roman cultures was not the only motive behind the creation of the great city. The Romans greatly publicized the reputed healing powers of the river Avon, and it became a prominent place of pilgrimage. Romans from all over the empire came to Aquae Sulis in order to be healed of sickness or injury by bathing in the mystical waters of the Avon - now made into the Roman equivalent of a spa with the building of heated baths. The sick would also prey to the goddess Sulis-Minerva in desperate hope of a cure, at the shrine of Aquae Sulis. This in turn lead to the growth of shops and stalls around the shrine, where merchants would sell all manners of charms and offerings to pilgrims. The once sacred area pilgrimage had become something of a commercial site of tourism.

Despite the Roman influences, the Celtic culture thrived until the Middle Ages. At this time, a new religion arrived in Europe from the east - the religion of Christianity. It spread with great speed throughout Britain, leading to the building of churches and cathedrals all over England. Sadly, it was at the time perceived that Christianity could not be compatible with the Pagan beliefs. Over time, the Christian priests claimed that the old religion of the Celts was blasphemous, and embraced the powers of evil. The Celtic woodland gods, with their animal features of horns and tails, were said to be incarnations of the Devil, and the faeries and elves believed to be Angels who fell from Heaven out of their disloyalty to God. The Celtic rituals were wholly condemned as practices of black magic, leading to the burning of those who were accused of witchcraft. Gradually, Druidism became crushed under the power of the Christian church and its relationship with the monarchy, which constantly assured that anybody practicing Pagan traditions would be condemned to eternity to Hell.

It must be noted that despite its intolerance of the Celtic religion, the Christian church was never able to rid Paganism without trace and in many cases, Druidism had to be integrated into the practices of Christianity. The images of the egg and new-born animals used by the Celts to convey fertility, for example, were adopted as symbols of Easter, while the idea of rebirth was carried across as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hare, one of the strongest of all Pagan icons for its sacred powers connected to the Spring, was transformed into a character of ridicule in later times - the Easter Bunny. The holiday of Samhain became All Soul's Day.

At times, however, the leaders of both religions did try to lend a sense of unity between the cultures. As a symbol of both Celtic and Christian traditions, the Celtic Cross was formed, combining the Christian cross with the circular and knot work designs of the Celts. This symbol is still seen widely today, particularly in Ireland where a strong Christian tradition still pays homage to the Gaelic peoples in the art and architecture of the church. Even in the ancient Christian texts, we read of Joseph of Aramathia coming to the Pagan lands, and sharing greetings and blessings with the Druids.

As told in one of the greatest Celtic legends of all time, The Legend of King Arthur, the Celtic way of life disappeared beyond medieval times. However, today we are beginning to increase our understanding in the unique and special culture which was the Celtic Pagan tradition, and the wide gap between Paganism and Christianity is slowly closing. We are starting to realize that the Celtic peoples were not the evil devil-worshippers as portrayed for so long. They in fact shared far more Christian values than Satanist, and like Christians of today, they regarded the Earth as the property of far more divine forces than human kind, and treated the land and all its creatures with respect and reverence.

But may you yourself, O God of life,
Be at my breast, be at my back,
You to me as a star, you to me as a guide,
From my life's beginning to my life's closing.

Celtic Prayer


 

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