Crossing the Danube: Celtic & Germanic differences

June 5, 2018 at 7:52 am 3 comments

Whenever I go into Heathen or Asatru spaces I joke silently to myself that I’m metaphorically crossing the Danube, the river that the Romans considered the rather arbitrary division between the  continental Germanic and Celtic tribes. Similarities and differences between Celtic and Germanic groups are sometimes over-emphasized or downplayed, in addition to of course intra-Celtic and intra-Germanic cultures having those problems. This adds up to create some misunderstandings between these two cultural/linguistic families including in the religious aspects. I will discuss the general spectrum of Celtic paganism, polytheism and Druidry, and get into a little that is specific to Celtic Reconstructionism. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Decent Celtic information has tended to be more obscure than decent Germanic information (at least Icelandic sources!) , in spite of often being more popular among Pagans most easily available information was up to not that long ago. Frankly, I’m amused what Heathens angrily denounce as being fluffy, the amount of fluff they have typically had to deal with seems so minor by comparison to the Celtic side.
  2. I know many Celtic Pagans/polytheists and Druids that are also at least partially involved in Norse/Germanic traditions whether for reasons of ancestral/ethnic heritage and/or spiritual inclination. We also sometimes have spouses who are Norse/Germanic by culture & spirit, and the household may to some degree combine the two, particularly with ancestor honoring. Folks who primarily identify as Heathen or Germanic/Norse polytheist seem to be less frequently eclectic/syncretic or dual/multi-tradition. Though I am seeing an increase in that, especially with the Religio Romana.
  3. How historically gender-egalitarian- or even “matriarchal” or “feminist” nature of Celtic cultures were gets exaggerated, while the not-so gender egalitarian-ness of Germanic cultures gets exaggerated. They both were mixed bags for the status and treatment of women- patriarchal overall, but women especially higher class women, had more rights than most of ancient Greece or Rome. This also varies by time period, specific culture and so forth of course.
  4. The warrior path gets over-emphasized in a distorting way among Germanic folks, and particularly in some types of British Druidry, Celts somehow become say what *where* are you getting this from? When really being mostly farmers and herders with a few aristocratic warbands was for the most part what both the Celtic and Germanic tribes did.
  5. The conversion to Christianity of the Irish, Scots and Welsh at least was more peaceful than that of most Germanic peoples I’m aware of. That doesn’t mean we’re happy about it, but that Celtic Pagan relationships with Christianity & Christians is overall less hostile. You see more overt syncretism between the two, and a spectrum between Celtic Paganism and Celtic Christianity gets referred to as Celtic Spirituality or Celtic Wisdom generally. Though there are shared customs, sacred sites and local spirits honored by both Christians, Heathens and secular folk in Germany, Austria, the Low Countries and Nordic countries and by their diasporan cousins. I certainly don’t see Heathens celebrating the patron saint days of their homelands!
  6. There is more Celtic Reconstructionist (particularly historical) overlap with general Paganism/Wicca/Witchcraft and Druidry both Neo-Pagan & fraternal/ceremonial magic influenced types as compared with Asatru and Heathenry, which has roots in some places in folk culture & custom revivals and to some degree in occult/magical orders, though that influence seems to have lessened over time. Much to its chagrin, Celtic reconstructionists have had more difficulty in differentiating themselves from broader Paganism as compared with Heathens, who have been quite persistent in their distinct identity.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Melas the Hellene  |  June 6, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks for this interesting comparison, which I rarely see. One thing I have noticed also is the appropriation of the Celtic tradition by some Germanic groups, which is seemingly facilitated by the lesser information we have about the former. This is absurd and unfair, to say the least. As for your other points, I will venture a few comments:

    *The Celtic language was somewhat similar to the Italic Roman and it seems the Romans attempted to assimilate all Celts. However, it is known that Celtic peoples inhabited regions above the Danube before the Germanic expansion and invasions.

    1. Do you think the Celtic tradition (because of its obscure and incomplete nature) would benefit from a kind of standardization and supplementation by (for example) a convention of the most experienced druids?

    2. As a general observation, I have seen too many people of Celtic descent (broad definition, i.e. ancient Celts) attracted to traditions other than their own. Germanic, Roman and Hellenic are the most common. Perhaps the reason is the lack of material surviving about their native tradition. Hence no. 1 above.

    3. Egalitarianism depended on the nature of the society, which varied with the Celtic peoples in the course of time. This was the case with other peoples too, including the Greeks. As a rule, the more a society becomes urbanized, large in territory and practices imperialism (conquering foreign lands), the more it will become patriarchal. The Celts borrowed many ideas from the Greek colony of Massilia (now Marseille), the most notable being complex urbanization. However, this was sometime during 500-300 BCE, and not for all Celtic tribes. The ideas did spread in Gaul though by the time Caesar came, but not quite yet in Britain, which was more egalitarian.

    4. I am surprised this is the case. The Celts, at least certain tribes, were known to be the most warlike in Europe, second only perhaps to the Scythians. Some men fought naked, and raised terrible warcries before battle as well as sounded many frightening warhorns (see Carnyx). Thousands of armed men travelled to form new colonies or conquer foreign lands like Brennos and his 40,000 attempting an invasion of Greece in 270 BCE. The Celts reached as far as Ukraine to the east for this reason. A proof of the warlike and expeditionary culture of the Celts is their common acceptance of homsexuality, mainly within warbands. The Germans on the other hand forbade homosexuality and so this is proof to the contrary. The raiding we see among “Vikings” was something common among all small tribal societies living in a harsh environment.

    5. Correct.

    6. That’s because the core of Wicca is Celtic, particularly a sort of Gallo-Roman form.

  • 2. caelesti  |  June 11, 2018 at 3:05 am

    Yes, the “folkish” sorts of Heathens often frame it their religion as pan-European or “Northern European” & ol’ Stephen McNallen had an essay comparing Celtic & Germanic, implying the two were “close enough” so we should just join them. Such people are typically more concerned about having the right skin color or ancestry than grounding in a particular culture. Hence the rise in the use of Heathenry (rather than Asatru) for more culturally & regionally specific traditions rather than pan-Germanic mish-mash. Or Asatru with the accent marks for Icelandic & Norse. The sloppy & misleading use of “druid” and druidism thanks to British Romantic influence is in some ways parallel to the distortions the general populace has about Vikings. I was mainly using the Danube river as a division as a metaphor, but thanks for the additional context. I am less familiar with continental sources. Short answers to your questions, I can definitely go further!

    1) Standardization is very…not Celtic! Though there are various experienced practitioners & scholars who have put together the CR FAQ which has a lot of good information but involved much compromise. Specific groups & sub-traditions form, explain themselves- occasionally a few of them even last more than a few years! Same problem as most pagans & polytheists, for all the insistence on the division between the two, I haven’t seen much evidence of one or the other as more successful. I do think more grounding in mainstream society (the more functional parts!) would be helpful, though that doesn’t mean compromising our values & traditions. We need to find a middle way. (I will post more links later)

    2) For people of many backgrounds, assimilation, intergenerational trauma leads people to ignorance & shame about their cultural background. What’s left of ethnic identity is often connected to belong to a particular church, living in a neighborhood, belonging some type of fraternal or cultural organization or belonging to a particular job or profession. Over generations, those ties fade. People who join New Religious Movements in general often have feelings of being misfits, experiences with abuse/trauma, mental illness, and seek out an alternative family. Unfortunately this creates a lot of obstacles for building stable communities!

    3) Good points.

    4) I usually see that framed as *druids* as peaceful, while they did work as military advisors & diplomats, so sometimes they were peacemakers, but that may get distorted by modern cultural mores. Seeing Celts as victims & underdogs of history, when they were in fact, pretty dang bad@ss! Yes, acceptance of same-sex affections is documented in every Celtic culture of which I’m aware, there’s more variation among historic Germanic cultures, and its also more subject to debate.

    6) Wicca…I will leave to the Wiccans!

  • […] understanding of where I’m coming from as an Irish polytheist, a previous post compared Celtic & Germanic polytheism. This is an attempt to compare Irish polytheism and a little about continental Celtic polytheism […]


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