On Ancient Celts, Druids, & Vedic Roots
I’m writing this in response to this post, which the OP acknowledges is what they have learned and does ask for corrections if others have better sources; so this is a fleshing-out that I hope will be useful.
I think the main thing that’s getting in the way here is Peter Berresford Ellis’ work. He has some great stuff, but he’s very prone to poor citations and not clearly marking when something is his own guess or not, which can perpetuate things as truth that he possibly never meant to be promoted as such. I feel like he thinks he’s writing in to a vacuum sometimes. I haven’t read his Druids myself, but I’ve read his Celtic myths & legends compilation in which he includes a creation myth which he’s written himself — a lot of people think this is a legitimate historical record of a creation myth because it’s not super clear (I did myself when I was younger). From others who have read Druids, I understand that it suffers from similar problems.
I cannot go point-by-point with the original post to clarify and redirect; it would be impossible in the space of an afternoon. One could write an individual book breaking down each of Ellis’ points. As such, I’m going to go over what I see as the most immediate issues, and hopefully this will encourage any of you to go and explore further.
Throughout this post, I am going to cite Nerys Patterson’s Cattle Lords & Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland for my examples.
The Unusefulness of “Ancient Celts" As a Term
First, and most importantly: conceiving of a group of “Ancient Celts” is rarely useful. A lot of the usage in scholarly works today comes from Caesar’s writing which is one of our main primary sources, but when Caesar is referring to Celts, he is generally referring to the Gauls. Gaelic and Brythonic languages share Celtic roots as well, but what happens is that when you think of Gaels and Brythons as “Celtic,” you then start to apply to them information about “the Celts” that really only applies to Caesar’s observations of Gaul. Brythonic cultures certainly had some interchange with Celtiberians and possibly Gauls, but Gaelic ones almost certainly did not, and the Romans never got to Ireland.
This renders statements by Ellis like this one totally unuseful:
“Tree worship exists both in Celtic tradition and in “the agricultural tribes of India,” as “every village was positioned near a sacred grove” (Ellis 40)”
The Celts covered such an impossibly vast area, there is no way that we can possibly verify a statement such as this. Further, “villages” is not necessarily a useful term, particularly in regards to Irish history and the structure of the tuath. Early Irish structure was far more complex than to be able to just generally make statements about “villages,” and I would suspect that’s true of all the cultures that come under this Celtic umbrella. Patterson’s work covers this in great depth.
All of this stated, we see that most of the points under the original post’s section “Ancient Celts Were Pretty Advanced” are not at all applicable or useful; it’s impossible to make any blanket statements about Celtic philosophy, or the rights of Celtic women or the roles of druids (see my section on castes below). A lot of the points aren’t technically untrue, but when you look at the history you see that modern discourse has childishly simplified a lot of facts about societal interactions, in such a way that tends to promote the bizarre sort of Advanced Feminist Celtic Mythological Personage Thing.
Breaking Down Blanket Statements
I’m going to gloss through one example of this to give you an idea of what I mean by this. Let’s take “Officials were elected and property was more or less shared.” Again, one could do this with any of the statements, such as “Celtic women could do [xyz]” or “the ancient Celts seemed to have the best healthcare system.“
I’m going to break this statement down from an Irish perspective. See all of the nuances and differences I’m describing here. You can imagine that you would be able to find this amount of nuance and difference for every country and culture under the Celtic umbrella, for every single one of these general points. It should be pretty obvious how unuseful these blanket statements are (and why it’s impossible for me to break down all of these fully in the space of this afternoon).
All of this is cited from Patterson’s work. Page citations are in parentheses.
- Kinship was the focal point of societal organization, and it influenced economically productive social relationships (such as guilds), economic actions that individuals could or could not take, and who was liable for which defaults and debts. Kinship obligations may have been the origin for the way various levels of society interacted with each other. (11)
- Irish law tracts appear to have largely been written by subject matter experts rather than law-focused academics, which is what provides a lot of granular detail within these relations (for example, we have a tract with lengthy descriptions of legally acceptable forms of fencing for different kinds of agriculture). (15-17)
- Irish farming was migratory, and necessitated people moving between different types of lands and pastures and ecological “chunks,” if you will — communities were identified in terms of descent, rather than territorial boundaries, because the land was only important in terms of what physical resources it could provide. The job of a tuath’s king was to ensure peaceful interactions between its people, regulating such things as how many animals each farmer could have on a given piece of land. Ensuring that land was shared and used properly, and that those who used the land worked in sync, meant that people weren’t ruining each other’s crops or effectively limiting resources for one another’s livestock. (84-108)
- Certainly, inheritance of ruling positions wasn’t, say, determined by descent by a monarchy, but it wasn’t exactly elected, either; kinship relations may have roughly determined individual’s roles within society (8-12). As such, when a king passed on, there wasn’t a de facto “heir apparent,” but it wasn’t an election so much as a scuffle.
Castes & Vedic Roots
In early Irish society, we do not have a clearly defined “caste” system, and as such, druids couldn’t be clearly labeled a “caste” of their own. Again, social strata and relationships were faceted and would vary depending on the situation at hand. One law tract, for example, made distinctions between nemed, privileged, and non-nemed, and between sóer (free) and dóer (bond). There were both kinds of both; that is, you could be privileged and be bonded to someone, or you could be free but unprivileged (Patterson 40). The status of Irish druids varies by law tract. In Uraicecht Becc, we’re shown that druids in Munster were fairly prestigious, and were grouped with wrights, blacksmiths, braziers, whitesmiths, leeches, and lawyers, who would all have had a status similar to that of a lesser lord. In other tracts, the druid isn’t much more than a commoner (Patterson 41).
Vedic roots for Celtic society and religion are overblown; the above information on castes is one example. The influence of this Indo-European “lens” in scholarship has a lot to do with budding nationalist feelings in Ireland and other parts of Europe that wanted to distinguish themselves firmly as un-British, and has scholars to overlook a lot of discrepancies with actual Vedic and Indo-European culture (Patterson 18-20). Again, this could be a full essay in itself; what you should be taking away from this is that Vedic roots for religion is unfounded, and has led to the appropriation of Vedic traditions of reconstructionists to fill in gaps. Though many Celtic societies had druids and other parallels that we are aware of (such as the lack of a creation myth), “Celtic spirituality” cannot be generalized. All of these cultures’ religions were distinctive from one another and largely tailored to their locale, rhythms, and needs.