‘Celtic’ Reconstructionism?

So what’s ‘Celtic’?

‘Celtic’ is an umbrella term that refers to a group of cultures that share similarities and common origins in language or material culture (i.e. The stuff that gets left behind by a people, like artistic styles, building techniques and so on). Although it’s primarily a linguistic term, we include ‘material culture’ in our definition because we can see a number of cultures who can be defined as being ‘Celtic’ even though we can’t say for sure if they really spoke a Celtic language at that point in time, because of the similarities in art, religion, architecture and way of life, who we know evolved over time into peoples who definitely did speak a Celtic language later on. We can’t say for sure, however, if the language they spoke before that point in time was Celtic, even though the similarities in material culture, and clear continuity as the cultures evolved, suggests that a Celtic language (or perhaps proto-Celtic language) was likely to have been spoken.

As it’s used today, ‘Celtic’ is a relatively modern term. It’s based on the Greek word Keltoi (which originally referred to a tribe in southwest Germany), first used in the sixth century BCE. By the first century BCE it was recognised that Keltoi or Celtae (in Greek or Latin), as the classical authors say they called themselves, was interchangeable with the Greek Galatae or the Latin Galli as the Greeks and Romans called them, giving a firm link between the Celts and the Gauls.1

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the connection between the Celts of the Iron Age was made with the surviving groups in places like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, who still speak a Celtic language today, and it was another few hundred years before the study of ‘the Celts’ – referring to any culture that shared a common linguistic, cultural heritage – really came into vogue.2

So who’s Celtic?

If we view the term ‘Celtic’ as being based on language, there are lots of different groups that come under the umbrella. They all share a common origin with an ‘original’ Celtic language usually called proto-Celtic, or Common Celtic. Over time, different languages evolved from this common ancestor, some of which survive today, but many of which died out long ago.

Modern linguistic groups include:

  • Irish
  • Scots Gaelic (otherwise known as just ‘Gaelic’)
  • Manx
  • Welsh
  • Cornish
  • Breton

Historical linguistic groups include:

  • Gaulish
  • Brythonic (in Britain)
  • Pictish
  • Cumbric
  • Galatian
  • Lepontic
  • Celt-Iberian
  • Noric3

They are sometimes split into two different groups – P Celtic and Q Celtic. P Celtic languages include Brythonic, from where Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton languages evolved (as well as Pictish, probably). Q Celtic languages include the Goidelic languages, from where we get Primitive Irish, which evolved over time into Old Irish, then Middle Irish, then modern Irish (Gaeilge). Scots Gaelic and Manx also derive from Primitive Irish.

Today, Cornish and Manx are considered to be ‘revived languages’, because native speakers – who were born and raised with Manx or Cornish as their first language – have died out. There are still people today who speak them as second languages, and efforts are being made to encourage interest and fluency in them. In Scotland and Ireland, fluent Gaelic or Irish speakers are generally limited to certain geographical areas, and only a small percentage of the population has any fluency. In addition to this, there are still Gaelic speaking communities in the Diaspora, and many localised efforts to encourage and revitalise interest in, and learning of Irish or Scots Gaelic in many areas of Ireland or Scotland.

Another way of splitting the languages is into ‘Insular’ and ‘Continental’ groups. Insular Celtic languages are the ones that derive from the islands of Britain and Ireland, and so these would be Brythonic, Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton, Pictish, and the Goidelic languages which ultimately derive from Primitive (or Archaic) Irish. Primitive Irish evolved into Old Irish (Sengoídelc), and then into Middle Irish. From Middle Irish we see the Gaelic languages begin to branch off into Manx and Gaelic (Scots Gaelic) as their own distinct tongues, along with the evolution of the modern Irish language. There is also Classical Gaelic, which is primarily a literary language that both Ireland and Scotland shared in the early modern period, even though Irish and Gaelic had already split off into distinct languages.

The Continental Celtic languages are basically all of the other languages in our list, which are from the European Continent. As you might notice, although Breton is primarily found in what’s now France it ultimately derives from Cornish – which is itself part of the Brythonic language family – and so Breton counts as an Insular Celtic language and is therefore not a Continental Celtic tongue. In spite of its development on the Continent, Breton has no direct relation to Continental Celtic languages like Gaulish, which would originally have been spoken in that region in the Iron Age.

While the academic definition of the word ‘Celtic’ generally refers specifically to language, and those groups who speak (or spoke) a Celtic language, it’s not so easy to define the word in practical terms. Regardless of whether or not people are fluent, or knowledgeable of a Celtic language at all, there are many today who identify as being Celtic for a variety of reasons – either because of their heritage and/or upbringing within a Celtic country or community, in the Diaspora, or because a group or individual has adopted the term because of their deep, heartfelt connection to the Celts. This latter group is often referred to as so-called ‘Cardiac Celts’ – people who, in their heart of hearts feel Celtic – and this latter definition is particularly relevant to spiritual communities as a whole, either Celtic Christians or Celtic Pagans and Polytheists.4

Certainly for reconstructionists, at the least, there is often something of an overlap between at least two of these definitions.

Reconstruction?

Reconstructionists look to the historical beliefs and practices of a particular pre-Christian culture and try to bring those practices into the modern day. This doesn’t mean we want to reconstruct things exactly as they were; obviously we can’t, either because of changes in our modern society and legal system, or because of what’s been lost.

The pre-Christian Celts didn’t write about their beliefs or practices – in fact, Julius Caesar wrote that the Gaulish druids felt that it was ‘improper’ for such things to be put in writing, and we can only assume that this was the same in places like Ireland and Britain.5 This means we don’t have anything explicit about their beliefs in any great detail from the people themselves, as other reconstructionist groups might.

Because of this, it would be fair to say that an exact reconstruction of Celtic pre-Christian religious practises is nigh impossible, and in this sense the term ‘reconstructionism’ is something of a misnomer. However, the Wikipedia entry for Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism states that the term was chosen to distinguish it from eclectic and largely Wiccan-influenced paths that were evolving and gaining attention in the popular press at the time of Celtic Reconstructionism’s early inception. As such, the ‘Reconstructionist’ label identifies the path with other forms of polytheistic reconstructionism, who use the same methodology in developing their practices, and while reconstructionist religions are very much a modern, neo-Pagan groups of religions, they also have very little in common with non-reconstructionist neo-Pagan religions in practical terms.

In following this methodology, then, Celtic Reconstructionists tend to draw from three main sources in reconstructing the beliefs and practices: archaeology, historical sources (such as the classical sources and evidence from Celtic countries after Roman conquest, or the myths, annals and literature recorded during Christian times) and the more modern traditions/folklore that can often be seen to preserve pagan elements of belief and practice. These sources form the basis of Celtic Reconstructionist beliefs and ritual expressions, and so there are no Classical four elements, circle casting, Lord and Lady, Drawing Down the Moon, Great Rites, and so on, to be found. A process of dedication or initiation is not required for membership within the CR community either. Other types of Neopagan practices that have no foundation in Celtic cultures – like Tarot reading, rune divination, ‘godspouses,’ and so on – are also eschewed.

None of the sources referred to are perfect, and there is always a certain amount of interpretation necessary in order to put our research into practice. As a result, Celtic Reconstructionists rely on a certain amount of UPG – Unverified Personal Gnosis, or “stuff that feels true in my gut, but I can’t prove it with hard evidence.” This UPG helps to fill in the gaps, so to speak, and forms a large part of our experiences in practice.6 However, reconstructionists do tend to emphasise that which can be verified by ‘hard evidence’ (information that can be backed up by scholarly references) and so UPG tends to take a backseat to hard evidence. This means that if UPG is contradicted by the evidence, then it cannot be considered to be appropriate to a reconstructionist context. You might guess, then, that Celtic Reconstructionism involves quite a bit of reading and self-study, especially since there’s no straightforward ‘how to’ manual (yet).

In the early days of CR, a pan-Celtic approach to practice was adopted by some, while others preferred to focus on a specific culture. As a result of many discussions on email lists and CR communities, however, Celtic Reconstructionists these days tend to focus on a particular Celtic culture (perhaps also influenced by how modern Celtic Studies has evolved, and therefore the academic resources available) because a pan-Celtic approach contradicts the aims of reconstructionism: In spite of the Celts’ common origins, they spoke different languages, worshipped different gods, and practiced in different ways compared to their Celtic neighbours, and so mixing them all together cannot be said to be a reconstruction or historically accurate.

Because of this emphasis on a specific cultural focus, some reconstructionists have begun adopting labels to describe their practises that are more relevant to the culture they are focusing on, and perhaps a little less of a mouthful than ‘Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism’. As a result, terms such as Gaelic Polytheism (or more specifically, Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheism), Paganchd/Paganacht, Fálachus, or Ildiachus Gaelach, to name but a few, have been used by groups and individuals with varying degrees of success or popularity. One of the problems with using these terms is that they are not as easily understood or particularly self-explanatory to outsiders as ‘Celtic Reconstructionism’ is, which is why the Celtic Reconstructionist label remains popular today as an umbrella term even though many groups are now distancing themselves from it.

In light of all this, it should be remembered that CR is an umbrella term, not a path in and of itself. However, there are some issues and questions that can apply to any kind of Celtic Reconstructionism.

 

But what about….you know…the bad stuff?

As with any reconstructionist religion, Celtic Reconstructionists recognise that there are certain elements of pre-Christian belief and practice that aren’t appropriate or possible to reconstruct in a modern context.

While you’ve probably read that Celtic Reconstructionism aims to build a path based on what Celtic beliefs might look like without the advent of Christianity, it cannot be ignored that modern principles and ethics (inevitably influenced by modern major religions like Christianity) affect our approach to reconstruction, as do laws that are generally based on those principles and ethics.

Human sacrifice, as the most obvious example, is not a part of Celtic Reconstruction, and for a lot of people neither is animal sacrifice (though some do – generally those who homestead and raise and kill their own livestock anyway). Aside from the fact that human sacrifice would be illegal, practices like this are also often considered unnecessary because there’s clear evidence to suggest that other types of offerings took precedence over time. In general, the evidence shows that animal sacrifice surpassed human sacrifice in frequency during the pre-Christian era, and alongside that other kinds of offerings such as inanimate objects and food or drink are considered to be just as good and acceptable to the gods and surpassed even animal sacrifice in frequency. (See Offerings).

The ultimate aims of reconstructionism is not to ‘go back to the Iron Age’. Modern technologies like the internet have been invaluable – instrumental – in the development of CR as a whole, so there’s no expectation that we should all start living in roundhouses with no electricity, and so on…Neither does it mean we have to go back to what are often quaintly called ‘primitive’ or ‘barbaric’ practices.

 

But if the beliefs have been lost and nothing was written down, what do you actually know?

Well the short answer would be to look around here to see what I think about that…

As far as Gaulish or Brythonic practices go, there is a lot to be found from Roman sources (for example), though of course there is the question of how far Roman occupation in these parts influenced or changed native belief, and whether or not this can be separated. Some of those with a Gaulish focus in particular choose to embrace a historically-based Romano-Gaulish syncretic approach; while reconstructionists generally eschew eclecticism, sometimes syncreticism is considered to be a valid reconstructionist approach if it is historically attested.

Otherwise, and especially in Irish or generally Gaelic terms, it could be said that while the beliefs and practices as a whole have been lost, certain elements can still be seen that, overall, give a well-defined and consistent structure, from the dim and distant past to the present day. Some academics argue that pre-Christian practices never died out with the adoption of Christianity, but instead they existed alongside Christianity or were given a Christian guise and carried on and evolved over many many centuries. Others are, admittedly, more skeptical, but even with a very conservative and cautious attitude there is still plenty for us to go on.7

The observance of the festivals Là Fhèill Brìghde, Bealltainn, Lùnastal and Samhainn clearly have pre-Christian origins (as recorded in myth and early medieval records), but were celebrated widely into the twentieth century in parts of Scotland and Ireland, for example, albeit within a Christianised context. In some cases, these festivals still are celebrated in a traditional manner, or have been revived, or have been repackaged for a modern neopagan audience (the Beltane celebrations in Edinburgh, for example). Folklorists, antiquarians and modern academics all provide a wealth of information on these survivals from Scotland or Ireland from the eighteenth century onwards, as well as studies on various aspects of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, and these sources are like bread and butter to reconstructionists. Or bannocks and cheese…

Archaeology helps to show how the various Celtic cultures expressed themselves in ritual in pre-Christian times, which can then be compared with the surviving records or practices, and consistencies can often be seen. The use of bonfires at festival occasions, for example, can be seen in the archaeological record at Uisnech in Ireland, which was also written about in medieval and early modern sources, and can be compared with other historical evidence and surviving folk practice elsewhere in Ireland and Scotland into modern times.

Historical sources can inform us on the Celtic cultures which have myths that have been preserved, and therefore how they perceived their gods, as well as more incidental references to practices that were considered to be (or known to be) pre-Christian in origin. The study of placenames can also sometimes be useful.

At the end of the day, though, any spiritual path requires a certain amount of faith. While Celtic Reconstructionism relies a lot on academic sources with which to inform its practices, these sources are not the be all and end all of the path. Inevitably there has to be room for manoeuvre when old research is replaced by new, and reconstructionism is nothing without practice as well as study.

Contrary to popular perception, then, Celtic Reconstructionists have to be flexible in their beliefs, to a certain extent. While there has not been any new research to date that turns some of the fundamental beliefs of Celtic Reconstructionism on its head, there is always the possibility, no matter how remote. More usually, any new research that comes to light helps to expand on the information that’s already available, without changing the fundamental tenets.

 

What’s the difference between CR and Druidry?

Celtic Reconstructionism embraces a variety of approaches, and because a large strand of evidence comes from folklore and modern survivals, many might describe their practices as being centred upon the ‘lay population,’ rather than the Druids. These are, essentially, the practices of the home and hearth. Otherwise there may be a focus on filidecht, or a warrior path, for example, or else there might be a mixture.

Put simply, since not everyone in pre-Christian Celtic cultures was a Druid, not everyone within Celtic Reconstructionism feels the need to be either. The Druids were the priests, the philosophers, the advisers and diviners, and it took a long time for Druids to attain their rank and status. What has survived, and what we can glean from the various sources, does not necessarily involve the intervention of a Druid, and so it is likely that outside of those rites and rituals that were governed by the Druids, for the general population and at specific times, people had their own ways of expressing their beliefs and their relationships with the gods.

Some reconstructionists do call themselves Druids, though it is usually a title that is conferred upon them by others, and they generally serve in a role similar to that which Druids historically did – serving a community, and attaining an advanced degree of knowledge in the many different areas that Druids are said to have studied (which is not to say that non-reconstructionists don’t!).

Either way, the beliefs and practices of those who embrace the term ‘Druid’ in a reconstructionist context are in accordance with reconstructionist principles and practices. There are many different kinds of non-reconstructionist Druidisms, and in general they may be termed ‘neo-Druidry.’ While some organisations like ADF might have reconstructionists amongst their ranks – often as a means of finding a physical community when CR communities may be lacking, in addition to taking advantage of the learning materials and study courses that are available – in general their approaches are quite different to a reconstructionist’s.

Some other Druid groups embrace influences of eighteenth century Romantic Revivalism, and/or influences from neo-Paganism, and so in that respect they might be seen to be incompatible with a reconstructionist methodology and philosophy.

 

But… you all seem so knowledgeable and I don’t feel like I know enough… how can I be a Celtic Reconstructionist?

All Celtic Reconstructionists have to start somewhere, and not everyone has a degree in Celtic Studies or the like. Reading is a good start: Study what interests you. Read the myths, since these are a good place to start learning about the gods; read up on history and archaeology of the Celtic cultures, along with folklore. Explore. Have confidence in yourself.

Perhaps one of the most important things to get to grips with first of all is an understanding of what CR is, and also an understanding of whichever specific approach you wish to take within the CR umbrella. This site focuses on Gaelic Polytheism in particular, and I personally focus on Scottish practices so it’s fair to say that there’s a bias towards that here, but you might find something useful no matter your approach, even if it’s just in the Book List!

Finding other websites or online communities can be a massive help and support, and blogs are a good source of information and inspiration, too. There are also some physical communities that offer learning support and communal worship if you’re lucky enough to live nearby. Always be discerning, though; a good website (or a good reconstructionist) should cite their sources so you can evaluate how reliable the information you’re being given might be, and any outlandish claims are likely to be just that.

 

To sum it all up then:

Celtic Reconstructionism is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of different Celtic cultures, and approaches within those cultures. In general, Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (to give it its full title) can be defined as the reconstruction of pre-Christian beliefs of Celtic cultures into the modern day, using historical, archaeological, academic, and traditional/folkloric sources with which to base these practices on.

There are still ‘Celtic cultures’ and Celtic languages and Celtic countries in existence so the ‘reconstruction’ label does not refer to the culture; it refers to the pagan aspects of those cultures – strictly speaking we should be talking about Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, but that last word often gets dropped for the sake of making things less of a mouthful. Because of the various issues with the term ‘reconstruction’ in relation to Celtic cultures the term should also be considered to refer to the reconstructionist methodology, rather than a wholesale and exact reconstruction of pre-Christian beliefs as they once were. No reconstructionist religion can be 100% accurate anyway. In addition to these points, many Celtic Reconstructionists (but not all, by any means) might also have family members who emigrated from Ireland, Scotland or Wales (etc.) but who were not brought up with the survivals of tradition, it can also be argued that it’s a means of reconstructing or reviving those traditions, or links with a cultural heritage, within the family once more. It should be stressed that Celtic ancestry is not a necessity for practice, however.

While reading and research using reliable sources is emphasised within a reconstructionist approach, studying is not the be all and end all of the path. Celtic Reconstructionists, while they are essentially putting together a modern path based on old beliefs, are actively practising a spiritual path as well as studying the resources in a more intellectual manner.

In short, Celtic Reconstructionists – of the many different kinds – are creating a living tradition based on different kinds of evidence that are pieced together in attempt to make a cohesive and coherent modern religion.

 

And…I’m sorry to be pedantic but…

It’s Welsh, not Welch.

And its Scottish or Scots, not Scotch. Scotch is a type of whisky. Or beef. Or a savoury egg surrounded by sausagemeat and golden breadcrumbs… A general rule of thumb is: Scotch products are tasty and delicious. Scots, not so much. In fact it’s kinda frowned on.

 


References

1 Maier, The Celts: A History From the Earliest Times to the Present, 2000, p1-6.
2 Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, 1997, p22-23.
3 Ibid.
4 See Bowman, Marion (1995). ‘Cardiac Celts: images of the Celts in contemporary British paganism.’ In: Harvey, Graham and Hardman, Charlotte eds. Paganism Today. London: Thorsons, pp. 242–251.
5 Caesar, De Bello Gallico, (6, 13-18).
6 See The CR FAQ for more on this.
7 Ó Giolláin, ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’, in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997, p199.