From Druidry to Christianity
or how we got from worshipping trees
to hanging a god on one

First rule and chief principle -- Celts, all Celts, are fiercely religious. It doesn't matter what the religion is, they will cling to it and all its attendant superstitions and traditions. And they rarely get rid of any part of a religion, but merely graft it on to what already exists.

Nowhere is this more true than in Ireland. The Christian religion merely overlaid the pre-existing Druid faith, absorbing many of its customs and turning the myriad of lesser gods into "saints".

The Druids, although outlawed by the Romans throughout the Empire after 43 A.D., were untouched in Ireland, long considered the founding point of the religion. The Romans never landed a military force in Ireland and their trading influence was minimal. The Druids continued their practices until the coming of the first Christian missionaries, among them Palladius in 431 A.D. and Patrick in the following year. Then the Druids quietly vanished, yielding to the new faith with little or no bloodshed.

There is a legend that the fire of Beltain was always lit by the Chief Druid on a certain hill, but Patrick lit his fire first on a neighboring hill and the populace flocked to him instead and that is considered the point of transition of power between the old faith and the new.

Why did the Druids, who had withstood the might of Rome, yield to Patrick and his fellow missionaries? One theory is that the Druids knew that their day was done. The druidic school on Anglesey had been destroyed, the sacred groves throughout Britain and Gaul had been cut down, the priests and priestesses murdered, the safe passage from tribe to tribe ended by the brutal boot heel of Roman oppression. Isolated in Ireland the Druids continued, but their power was limited to that one small island. The very nature of their religion required that it be passed down orally and the number of those willing to undergo training no doubt dwindled after the coming of the Christians.

It is reasonable to suppose that the Druids saw that the best way to preserve their tales and traditions was through the monks themselves and that, by not fighting the conversion, much of the old way of life could be incorporated into the new order. And in this they were correct. The Bards, whose music and poetry was part of the ancient priesthood, continued their honoured place, as did the Brehons, who as judges and lawspeakers, were an integral part of Irish society. The Bards and Brehons survived until the depredations of the English in the 16th century.

In addition, the monks set down the ancient tales and traditions, making the Gaelic language one of the earliest written vernaculars in Europe. Although many legends were "improved" for the Christian audience, enough of the pagan underpinnings remain untouched to be recognizable today. In some cases the monks left the pagan aspects intact, noting that this is what people used to believe before the Light of the True Faith shone upon them. The alterations usually consisted of nothing more than to demote the many god characters to human proportions (albeit humans with supernatural powers) or to change them into the sidh (fairyfolk).

After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, the various pagan tribes invaded and there ensued the long of the struggling Christian church against the pagan invaders. The Anglo-Saxons were amongst those who believed that the people should follow the god/s of their king, that the king was the people's intercessor with other world. Pagan kings meant pagan populace. If a king converted to Christianity, the people would follow. Hence, many of the early tales of a saint converting 10,000 in a day are good church P.R., but the fact remains that only one was actually converted -- the king.

During this time the conversion to Christianity in Ireland went smoothly and rapidly, spreading with into Scotland. The Celtic Church was firmly established in the West long before the Church of Rome sent missionaries there. The conversion was eased partly because of the similarity between the popular Celtic god Mabon or Maponus (a.k.a Bel, Belenos, Oenghus, the Son of Light, the Divine Youth) and Jesus Christ. There may also have been a connection between the Gaulish tree god Esus and Jesus (who died on a "tree"), although the name similarity was strictly coincidental. Mabon was the intercessor between humanity and the dark powers. He was considered the son of a dark, mysterious goddess and the legends of his sacrifice and sojourn in the underworld echo aspects of the Christian legend.

Mabon may be considered a genuine Celtic Christ. The early monks shifted emphasis to him. There were reports that the Druids knew of the coming of Christ and welcomed him (maybe more early church P.R.). Efforts to obliterate the other gods took a little longer. Most of them were swallowed up in the cult of saints. The most obvious example of the latter is the three-fold fertility goddess Brid, whose worship was easily switched to the cult of a Christian saint who may or may not have existed. Saint Brigid's day, attended by many rituals and superstitions, is the first day of February, the date of ancient Imbolc, the feast of the Goddess Brid. Saint Brigid remains to this day one of the most popular saints in Ireland.

Cernunnos (a.k.a. Lord of the Trees, the Green Man, the Stag God, the Horned One,) could neither be absorbed nor obliterated. He, combined with the Roman Pan and the Middle Eastern shaitan (adversary), came into Christian mythology as the Devil, horned, hoofed and evil. He was, of course, nothing of the sort (well, horned and hoofed, certainly, but not evil). He was the embodiment of the mature male, earthy, virile and willing to do it in the woods for the fertility of the earth. This godly gift of testosterone was just not in keeping with any of the popular Christian ideas about sexuality.

So Cernunnos had to go, but being a god with a large and faithful following he was hard to ignore. So he was transformed to represent all that the new religion opposed. Even so, after a few years he crept back into the fold. Many of the great cathedrals have carved figures of the Green Man, made of leaves and disgorging vegetation, as symbols representing the male aspect of fertility and rebirth.

The monastic system, best suited to the tribal lifestyle of the Celts, became the strongest in Europe. In Ireland the monasteries became the centers of learning and art. Men and women travelled to study there, to enter the various religious orders which ranged from rich beautiful monasteries to barren cells on rocky outcrops. From Ireland came missionaries to other countries, some successful, some martyred.

One of the major incidents in the transformation of the Britain occurred with the arrival of Saint Augustine in 596 A.D. Pope Gregory the Great had sent him to convert the Anglo-Saxons and very relunctantly he had made his way to England to effect the conversion. Augustine's reluctance was based on tales now spreading throughout the continent of just what Saxon pagans liked to do with captured missionaries and left-over bishops. However, with some additional prodding from the Pope, Augustine managed to get his act together and convert King Ethelbert of Kent.

The spread of Christianity proceeded through Britain moving up from the south, becoming centered at York. Meanwhile, the Celtic church was spreading from Scotland's major communities in Iona and Lindisfarne down into Britain from the north,. The Celtic church, fueled by missionary zeal and isolation, was different from the Roman church, and the two were bound to meet.

Celtic Christianity was heavily monastic with most of the power concentrated in the abbots. The Roman church was centralized, with the power coming from the Pope through bishops. Celtic monks tonsured (shaved) their heads in a different manner, choosing a style that removed the hair across the front from ear to ear. The Roman style removed the hair from the crown of the head. But the most critical difference between the two churches was the calculation of Easter.

The issue came to a head in Northumberland where King Oswald who followed the Celtic practices married a queen who had been taught by Paulinus of York. The issue was one of basic household management. The King was celebrating Easter while the queen was still observing Lent. Under Oswald's brother Oswy the issue was decided at the Synod of Whitby in the autumn of 663 A.D. where, in classic Celtic tradition, the argument was left to heroes in single combat. Bishop Wilfred argued the case for Rome, Colman led the fight for the Celts.

After lengthy debate and some broken crockery Oswy decided to go with Wilfred and Rome, thus uniting Britain with the religious mainstream of the Continent and further isolating the Celtic Church in Scotland and Ireland, with a certain amount of bitterness. It is here that the beginning of the split between England and its Celtic neighbors began. England's "progressive" attitude and desire to turn every opportunity into a profitable venture, led them to the arrogant belief that the Highlanders, Islanders, and Irish were merely backward savages. It is no great leap from there to the idea that those same people are vermin whom God wishes to have exterminated.

A timetable of pivotal events:

ca. 397 A.D. Saint Ninian, native of Strathclyde, returned from Rome to establish Candida Casa at Whithorn near the Solway. His missionaries preached to Britons and Picts, going north as far as the Orkneys and Shetland, but did not affect Dalriada for both linguistic and geographic reasons.

ca. 410 Saint Honoratus and his kinsman Hilary found a monastery on the island of Lérins (near Cannes). Patrick and Augustine both "did time" here.

ca. 480 Saint Benedict of Nursia fled Rome to live in a cave, eventually founding a community at Monte Cassina (529). Benedict died around 547. His Rule for Monasteries was a best seller.

ca. 500 settlers from Ireland had long been established in the Kingdom of Dalriada, but at this time Fergus MacErc with his brothers Angus and Lorne led a new invasion, establishing their dynasty in a stronghold at Dunadd near Crinan. They and their successors continued to pay tribute to Ireland and it is thus from Ireland that the first great wave of missionaries came into Scotland.

bef. 548 Saint Oran came to Dalriada from Ireland, establishing churches at Iona, Mull and Tiree. (Saint Oran died of plague in 548.)

549 Saint Finnian died. Called "the teacher of all Ireland in his day", he founded Cleonard, one of the first great monasteries in Ireland. From Finnian we get Saint Columba of Iona, Saint Brendan, Saint Kieran of Clonmacnois, and Saint Kenneth of Derry.

562 Saint Moluag from Ireland founded a monastery on the Island of Lismore.

563 Saint Columba (521-597) left Ireland to found a monastery on Iona. He was of royal birth, but seems to have left Ireland under a cloud. His influence was political as well as spiritual. After a defeat of the Scots by the Picts in which the king was killed he picked a new king and helped to restore Scottish morale.

590 Gregory the Great became Pope.

ca. 591 Saint Columbanus (543-615) left Ireland to bring Irish monasticism to France. He established a community at Luxeuil, then went on to Italy, founding Bobbio in 615.

596 Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine and 40 monks to Britain where they established a monastery at Canterbury.

657 Saint Hilda established a monastery at Whitby for both monks and nuns. Such double commuities are rare outside of this period.

663 Synod of Whitby. There is the saying that "the Celtic Church gave love, the Roman Church gave law."

672-735 Saint Bede, good old Venerable, enters Jarrow in 685 and starts writing, noting that the practices of the Celtic clergy are "wicked", "lewd" and "wrongful".

795 Ireland's insularity ends with the first Viking raid on the island of Lambay near Dublin. Vikings also hit Inismurray in Donegal Bay and Inisbofin (western Galway).

795, 802, 806 Vikings raided Iona.

807 A.D. survivors from the last Viking raid on Iona withdrew to central Ireland and founded Kells, where they wrote a book with some very nice pictures.
Now, to be fair to the Vikings, they weren't the only ones raiding monasteries. Celtic Christian kings and even other monasteries were also guilty. In 764, more than three decades before the Vikings made their appearance, the monasteries of Clonmacnois and Durrow fought it out, killing over 200 people. Once the monasteries became the central repositories of knowledge, wealth and power they were targets for anyone and everyone.

Governmentally, Celtic early history shows that it was politically formless. There were small kingdoms with equally minor kings or chieftains. The economy, if one can call it that, consisted of property and what it would sustain. Four-footed property was a form of currency and even monks engaged in cattle stealing, a fine Celtic tradition. There were a few fixed power centers, later developing around monasteries, but the Celts were not great city builders. From 830 on the Vikings went everywhere and by the middle of the century the new waves of Vikings attacked settlements of old Vikings who had become "partially domesticated".

There is little evidence that the Celtic Church engaged in forced conversion, seeming to prefer a genuine change of heart over a nominal change in gods. However, at no time did they worry about religion interfering with whatever they really wanted to do -- like to raid a neighboring monastery or to fight a battle on Good Friday.

Still clinging to their pagan roots the Celts were devoted to charms to protect them and their property. They knew of charms to "steal profit" from another's property and they consulted those who were believed to traffic with the fairy folk. The hanging of mistletoe at Christmas is a Druidic holdover, as is the custom of decorating with evergreens, putting up lights, the Yule log -- even the season itself is basically drawn from pagan origins, the birth of the sun as opposed to the birth of the son. Halloween (the Gaelic Samhain is purely pagan as are most of the rituals of Easter.

The wide spread belief in fairies (a.k.a. the little people) was prevalent throughout Celtic history and remains as superstition even today. Fairies were thought to be of normal human proportions (with the exception of leprechauns) and invisible to mortals not blessed with the "sight". Those believed to have power over the otherworld were posthumous children, seventh sons (with no intervening daughters) and silenced priests, as well as the local "wise" man or woman. There seems to have been no fear or penalty for these beliefs.

The list of customs and taboos is incredibly long and it is a wonder that anything ever got done. Here are some customs relating to Lent and to Good Friday. Lent was a strict period of fasting and abstinence. Little would be served in the way of meat, although barnacle geese (having the nature of fish) were eaten in some areas. "Bia bocht" (poor fare) was the rule. Palm Sunday, which precedes Good Friday, was known as Domhnach na Slat (Sunday of sticks) because of the sprigs of yew worn. (The palm population of the British Isles is pretty low). On that day children collected eggs for the Easter feast.

On Good Friday no meat should be hung on a nail, nor should any nail be driven, nor should any wood be burned. No blood may be shed on that day. No milk was drunk and the cakes baked should have the Sign of the Cross marked upon them. Women and girls allowed their hair to hang loose and (great news for migraine sufferers) anyone having a haircut that day should be free from headaches for the coming year.

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