Archive for October, 2018

Celtic vs. Mediterranean Polytheisms

In pan-polytheistic online discourse I frequently see assumptions about polytheism from different cultural or philosophical types of polytheists. For better 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 with polytheistic religions bordering the Mediterranean, specifically I’m thinking of Greece, Rome and to a lesser degree, Egypt.  These are generalizations referring to several spectra of cultures that existed (and still exist just in different forms) across a long time period. Feedback, corrections and critique are welcome and I’ll make note of changes.

Differences

Theology– Our theolog(ies) are very much up to us as contemporary revivalists to discover and develop. Beings in our lore and literature are not easily categorized as gods, ancestors, heroes and spirits of place. There is much overlap between them. It’s debatable how much particular gods were euhemerized by monks or whether the Irish Dindsenchas- that explains the legendary origins of place name or the tales of Mythological Cycle are more authoritative.  Even the question of whether a particular being is friendly or not towards humans can vary by place or even specific person! For example, Balor is a monster thought to symbolize the dangers of the late summer sun being too hot and threatening the harvest. He was defeated by the god Lugh in battle, the young, many skilled god who brings the harvest. But in the folklore of the Tory Islands the two were reversed and it was Balor that was honored!  The Good People are for the most part avoided and propitiated but certain individuals do make treaty and develop a relationship with a spirit or group of spirits. Sometimes these people are called fairy-doctors and act as an intermediary between the spirit and a local community.

Departmental Deities– I often hear people in Irish/Gaelic/Celtic pagan or Druid groups explain to newcomers that “unlike the Greek or Roman pantheons we don’t pigeon-hole gods into departments like god of love/sun/thunder.” Fair enough, but that’s also not an accurate description of either Greek or Roman religion. It’s an oversimplification that might fit a specific cultus at a given time or for your classical mythology class, but not for all times, places and practices. This is also the case for Irish gods. There also isn’t a fixed, organized pantheon with a set hierarchy, no “chief god” and the family trees of the gods and other beings contradict each other in different sources. You know, like in Greek mythology!

Purity– there is a concept of ritual purity, but it doesn’t seem to be a emphasized as it is in Greek and Roman polytheism. Here is an essay discussing concepts of purity/impurity in Gaulish polytheism.

Hubris (or hybris  in the original Greek)- isn’t really a concept that exists in Celtic religions. There are certainly boundaries of respectful and disrespectful behavior in general and in ritual specifically, particularly related to hospitality and reciprocity. Threatening the gods or spirits, especially with weapons or use of iron in general (esp. towards the Good People) are all certainly ill-advised. Boasting, especially among warriors was as common as it was in ancient Scandinavia. The consequences for going too far with boasting were social and sometimes legal in nature, resulting in a loss of honor and possibly being publicly satirized.

Images– statues and images in continental Celtic territories seem to be mostly a later Roman influence and earlier images seem to be syncretized or influenced by Thracians and Scythians. I occasionally come across the assertion than the Celts had a taboo on divine images, but that is likely a projection from Abrahamic laws against idolatry. That said modern Celtic polytheists do typically use various images for the gods in worship.

Lack of primary sources from pre-Christian times- as with most Germanic & Slavic traditions, we don’t really have anything recorded directly by polytheistic Celtic peoples themselves, We have secondary sources from the Romans who were fighting or trading with them, and later ruling over them but of course these have some built-in biases.  Texts written by monks in Ireland recorded native literary traditions and combined them with classical and Biblical references. Christian era folklore & customs end up being really important in Gaelic & Brythonic traditions because they give us more of an idea of everyday spiritual practice of regular people, particularly towards local spirits and the dead. Reconstructing continental Celtic religion involves study of archaeology and comparative linguistics, religion and mythology.

Similarities with Kemetic religion (from my limited knowledge of it!)

-Strong belief in afterlife, alternate realm, though in Celtic cosmology typically there is an Otherworld existing parallel to our own that is partly afterlife realms, but many other realms belong to gods and the Good People.

-the concept of Ma’at -meaning roughly justice & order in a cosmic sense reminds me a lot of An Firinne- which means truth in Irish, cosmic order with a moral dimension

-The ritual role of kingship, relationship to people and the land. This does not necessarily mean a need for a contemporary king/queen, but the concept of kingship/queenship and sovereignty is key to cosmology. Were Celtic kings/queens deified after death, as with pharaohs or some Roman emperors? Not as a rule that I’m aware of, naturally they’d be important ancestors, founders of particular dynasties, kingdoms, chiefdoms, clans were historically viewed as family patrons, and this practice has been continued with the revival of polytheism with key ancestors.

There are a couple more common pan-polytheistic topics that I am unsure of. What do we know about expectations of piety in pre-Christian Celtic societies? In Ireland, which is the area I’m most familiar, our sources of information about ethics are Brehon law, a system which continued with some modifications long after Christianization, and advice for kings on good behavior. I will have to check them to see if anything is said about piety. But my general feeling is that a sense of piety would be pretty different than a Greek or Roman one. Celtic traditions overall strike me primarily as animistic in character and secondarily polytheistic, they are more primal and localized and tribal. Those elements are definitely in place in both Greece and Rome especially in earlier periods and even later on in certain aspects- the cult of Dionysus seems like something Celts would totally be down with. Whereas Greece and Rome seem more primarily polytheistic.

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October 13, 2018 at 8:40 am 7 comments


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