Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past

Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783167920
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Series: New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology Series
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Katja Ritari is a research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies.

Alexandra Bergholm is a lecturer in the study of religions at the University of Helsinki. Together, they have previously edited Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies.

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Understanding Celtic Religion

Revisiting The Pagan Past

By Katja Ritari, Alexandra Bergholm

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2015 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-793-7



Alexandra Bergholm and Katja Ritari

The last few decades have witnessed a paradigmatic change in the human sciences which has challenged the very basis of the process of acquiring knowledge. In the study of history, the point at issue is the one about possessing 'objective' knowledge of the past: if all history is unavoidably situated, how do the scholars' presuppositions and methodological choices concerning the 'proper' way of 'doing history' shape our understanding of historical reality?

It could be argued that the reverberations of this shift have been slow to reach Celtic Studies, which since its inception as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century has been firmly grounded on the methodological premises of comparative philology. Indeed, writing less than twenty years ago in 1996, Hildegard L. C. Tristram could observe that '[c]ritical discourse has only just begun in Celtic Studies and research with more modern methodologies than philology are [sic] as yet rare'. With regard to Tristram's poignant remarks on the stagnant nature of scholarly discourse in the field, an illustrative case in point would be the so-called nativist/anti-nativist controversy, which until relatively recently dominated the study of early Irish textual material. As Jonathan Wooding has observed, this debate concerning the origin and nature of these sources had its roots planted in contemporary cultural politics and wider intellectual commitments of twentieth-century scholarship, and therefore cannot be seen as purely a problem of textual or literary analysis. From a methodological point of view, however, what is particularly noteworthy is the manner in which the constructed oppositions characterising this polemic – oral/literary, native/foreign, archaic/medieval, or pre- Christian/Christian – reflect a particular understanding of the possibility of recovering historical 'reality' from early textual sources, which in itself stems from a fundamental, albeit narrowly conceived, philosophical dichotomy between truth and fiction. Thus, despite the polarised views of the two camps, the epistemological premise of the controversy was ultimately the same: to quote Wooding, 'we either can recover the past – or earlier strata of texts – through "excavating" texts, or we cannot.'

While the efforts of perpetuating and maintaining such rigid polarisations have gradually given way to more dynamic approaches, the question of the methodologies underpinning the study of various sources at our disposal still remains pertinent. In the case of early Irish texts, however, several important publications published in the past few years alone demonstrate that the field is moving towards more theoretically informed approaches, with scholars adopting a plurality of analytical perspectives that present old material in a new light. Recent examples of this include studies addressing topics such as cultural memory, transmission history, textual interpretation, classical learning, narrative strategies, performativity, and literacy, to name just a few. In highlighting the multifaceted nature of the textual material, and bringing to the fore the complexity of intellectual mechanisms of literary communication, this work is increasingly reaching beyond the 'monolithic, self-assertive and positivistic discourse of philology', thereby redefining the questions we should be asking of our sources.

Although such heightened theoretical awareness may still be seen as a relatively recent development in Celtic Studies in comparison to many other neighbouring disciplines, other issues have been more thoroughly subjected to critical interrogation, which has subsequently called into question many of the traditional assumptions guiding scholarship in the field. This is perhaps most readily apparent in the criticisms levelled against the term 'Celtic' – a concept which, according to its critics, has little (if any) basis in historical or ethnographic reality, and equally little value as an analytical scholarly category. The contours of the controversy surrounding the notion of 'Celticity' have been traced many times, and the various arguments need not be rehearsed here. For the purpose of the present volume, the importance of questioning definitions – in other words, of asking who the 'Celts' are, and what counts as 'Celtic' – is, of course, evident, as the term 'Celtic religion' in itself presupposes an understanding of some shared commonalities between the various phenomena included under this broad umbrella term. However, whereas the various ideological implications of 'Celticity' are nowadays generally recognised, relatively less analytical attention has been paid to the fact that as a scholarly term, 'religion' is equally complex and contested. In seeking conceptual clarity with regard to 'Celtic religion', it is therefore worth framing the question anew, asking not only what counts as 'Celtic', but also what counts as 'religion'.

In the academic study of religion, it has become something of a truism to observe that 'religion' as a category is as familiar as it is impossible to define. In this vein, Willi Braun for instance characterises the term as a 'floating signifier', which is 'capable of attaching itself to wide range of objects – many of them obscure – to countless blurry ideas and a host of often imprecise definitional propositions.' For many, this indeterminacy of meaning entails that scholars should abandon the efforts of arriving at a universal definition of the concept altogether, and rather focus on the dynamic processes and operations by which certain social and cultural formations are marked off as belonging to the category 'religion'. At the same time, the questioning of the validity and heuristic utility of the term has also raised the issue of the ethnocentric and Western bias of the concept which, as an academic construct, derives from a Christian (and predominantly Protestant) understanding of religious belief and practice.

In light of these theoretical considerations, it is clear that the critical appraisal of how such conceptual categories as 'religion', 'mythology', 'pre-Christian', or 'Christian' are defined and used in the field of Celtic Studies is also timely. In recent years, some of these terms have come under scrutiny especially due to the eclectic appropriation and re-creation of 'Celticity' in the context of popular movements known as 'Celtic Christianity', 'Celtic Paganism', or 'Celtic spirituality'. Other scholars, focusing on theology in particular, have revised the long-held view of the insularity and marginality of Christianity in the British Isles, and enhanced the appreciation of the reception and development of Christian intellectual tradition in this area throughout the Middle Ages. The present volume serves as a contribution to this wider discussion, by bringing to the fore some of the methodological challenges involved in the demarcation of boundaries that define the elusive entity called 'Celtic religion'. Thus, the questions that we wish to raise are: When scholars attempt to construct the belief system of the Celts, what counts as 'religion'? Or, when something is labelled as 'religion' as opposed to 'mythology', what do these entities entail? To what extent is it possible to attain the pre- Christian stratum through the extant textual sources which themselves present us with a mediated understanding of the religious traditions of the past? And what theoretical viewpoints or analytical tools could help towards a better understanding of the essence of the different strata usually labelled as 'pre-Christian', 'Christian' or 'Celtic'?

This collection of articles has its origins in a two-day colloquium, held at the University of Helsinki back in 2008, where a group of twenty scholars from different disciplinary orientations working in the field of Celtic Studies gathered together to discuss these issues from the point of view of their individual research interests. As the purpose of the meeting was to encourage free dialogue and to create a stimulating atmosphere for the exchange of ideas, we did not expect solutions or ready-made answers. We were delighted by the success of the event, which provided sustenance to our conviction that the topic was indeed worth addressing. The importance of examining the existing paradigms on the one hand, and introducing new insights to the field on the other, became the dominant theme of the colloquium, which generated lively discussion and civilized debate.

It was clear to us from the outset that the current methodological premises of the field also merited critical re-evaluation in print. Therefore we asked our guest speakers to contribute to this volume by elaborating on the problems of methodology with regard to their own research materials. With this aim we also invited a number of eminent scholars who were not present at the colloquium to participate in the publication. In each of the articles, the authors reflect upon the same broad theme, drawing from a range of materials including theology, narrative literature, history, law and archaeology. The case studies illustrate particular problems related to individual genres, while also highlighting fundamental questions and concerns pertaining to the study of 'Celtic religion' at large.

One of the central themes in this regard is the process of Christianisation, which is addressed by several contributors with particular reference to the early Irish literary material. Jacqueline Borsje offers a balanced discussion of the multilayered nature of early Irish sources by considering the survival of indigenous beliefs from the viewpoint of translation and adaptation in literary communication. Drawing upon the methods of theological exegesis, she examines how ritual expression is represented in texts containing spells and other words of power, concluding that pre-Christian cultural elements may be gleaned in the extant sources in a number of different ways. Borsje's observation that the early missionaries in the fifth century did not arrive in a vacuum, but had to seek ways to communicate their message in a manner that was intelligible in the new cultural and social context, is an important one, as it foregrounds the question of how this ongoing process of negotiation is reflected in the textual evidence. This topic is addressed by John Carey, whose article discusses the place accorded in medieval Irish literature to supernatural beings who are evidently derived from the gods and goddesses of the pagan period. The significance of this, and its implications for the nature of Irish tradition, have been matters of spirited debate in recent decades. Instead of confronting the question of origins, the article looks in the opposite direction, endeavouring to trace some of the ways in which the Irish vision of the immortals continued to flourish and further develop in the later medieval period.

The Christian attitudes towards the pre-Christian past are also at the focus of Joseph Nagy's contribution, which takes a performative approach in its examination of the depictions of the non-Christian otherworld in medieval Irish narratives. After a careful assessment of current scholarly approaches to the elusive archaic religious tradition, he argues that even if the early Irish sources cannot be read as accurate or authentic representations of the pre-Christian past, the manner in which this past is enshrined in the texts still merits investigation. The discussion highlights this point by looking at how the otherworldly confrontations in the narrative sources can be understood not only as an encounter between the human and the supernatural, but also in terms of a relationship between the otherworldly performer and his or her audience.

In his examination of the central importance of the Christian scriptures in the literary cultures of the early Middle Ages, Thomas O'Loughlin calls for a dialogue between different disciplines by demonstrating why competence in handling biblical materials should not be confined to theologians and historians of biblical exegesis. Considering the works of Gildas, Adomnán, and Muirchú alongside the Irish collection of canon law Collectio canonum hibernensis, the author draws attention to the pervasive role of the scripture in these works, as well as in collective memory and imagination throughout Christendom. Accordingly, he argues that a reevaluation of our own fundamental scholarly assumptions is a necessary prerequisite of a fuller appreciation of the biblical dimension of early medieval mentality.

Robin Chapman Stacey's article focuses on a body of material that has long been at the centre of debates about the origins of the earliest Irish sources. Early Irish law tracts have played a major role in scholarly efforts to define the nature of the extant source material and to reconstruct the historical 'reality', whether pagan or Christian, that these sources reflect. The fact that the secular legal material has traditionally been given an unusual place of prominence in the study of the religious institutions and practices of the early Irish is in itself noteworthy, and highlights the need for a reassessment of this body of texts alongside other source materials analysed in this volume. In her discussion, Stacey departs from the positivist approach of much of the earlier scholarship in order to apply new methodologies to her analysis of three of the main early Irish status tracts, Críth Gablach, Uraicecht Becc, and Míadshlechtae. Examining issues of gender, political space and symbolic landscape, she illustrates how these aspects form a critical component of the way in which status is conceptualised in both literal and symbolic terms, thereby affording an important insight into the representation of reality in these tracts.

Scholars have always privileged archaeological material as one of the key sources for the study of 'Celtic religion'. Yet as Webster argues in her article, the label is intensely problematic for many later prehistoric archaeologists in Britain today. Her contribution begins by asking why this is so, and examines key recent developments in the archaeological study of Iron Age religious belief and ritual practice. She demonstrates that much of our current understanding derives not from Iron Age sites and finds, but from post-conquest epigraphy and iconography, as well as from Irish and Welsh textual sources that continue to be routinely employed in archaeological work on Celtic religion. Webster offers a critical assessment of the evident methodological difficulties that arise from such an approach, and demonstrates how recent re-analysis of the Romano-Celtic religious encounter, inspired by post-colonial theory, has transformed our understanding of the dynamics of religious change in the Roman west.

We hope that this volume will stimulate further discussion and encourage others to engage with the methodological challenges that provide part of the fascination of working with early medieval sources. Finally, we wish to acknowledge the funding granted by the Otto A. Malm Foundation and the liberal financial assistance of the Department of Comparative Religion (now part of the Department of World Cultures), which made the hosting of the colloquium at the University of Helsinki possible. The editing of this volume has been funded by the Academy of Finland (project numbers 1114180 and 1138310).



Jacqueline Borsje


The study of Celtic religion is a difficult, almost taboo, subject area that we should explore further, using the knowledge that we have gained in the past decades. Within Celtic Studies, the term 'Celtic religion' is a historical concept that refers to all religious phenomena connected with the cultural groups now identified as 'Celts' who spoke a Celtic language. Outside this discipline, however, the term is also used to refer to religious phenomena associated with adherents of modern Celtic Christianity and pagan Celtic religions. In this contribution, the term is reserved for those forms of religion that pre-date the Christian missions and to a certain extent coexist with medieval Christian religion. The focus is on Irish forms of Celtic religion.

There are three types of sources that give access to 'Celtic religion': first, archaeological finds; second, Classical (i.e. Ancient Greek and Latin) witnesses; and third, texts in Celtic languages, of which Irish texts are most numerous. None of these sources is unambiguous; because what we find in the earth is silent, we must speculate a lot. The Greek and Roman authors represent the voice of outsiders whose view of the Celts is often far from neutral. The Celtic texts were written thanks to Christianity, which introduced manuscript literacy; therefore, they do not reflect a pristine Celtic religious view.

This book is the result of a round-table conference on 'Celtic religion' at the University of Helsinki organised by the Finnish scholars Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm, who asked various Celticists to describe their methodologies when they attempt to study Celtic religion. My field of study is religious phenomena in medieval Irish texts. The methodologies and analytical tools that I apply in this field of study have been to a great extent formed during my training as a theologian, and especially through the discipline of exegesis (the interpretation of biblical texts).


Excerpted from Understanding Celtic Religion by Katja Ritari, Alexandra Bergholm. Copyright © 2015 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
List of Contributors

Foreword by Jonathan Wooding

1. Introductions: ‘Celtic Religion’: Is this a Valid Concept?
Alexandra Berigholm and Katja Ritari 

2. Celtic Spells and Counterspells
Jacqueline Borsje

3. The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages
John Carey

4. Staging the Otherworld in Medieval Irish Tradition
Joseph Falaky Nagy

5. The Biblical Dimension of Early Medieval Latin Texts
Thomas O’Loughlin

6. Ancient Irish Law Revisited: Rereading the Laws of Status and Franchise 
Robin Chapman Stacey

7. A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion
Jane Webster


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