The Celtic Spiritual Tradition
Although, geographically, the Celtic church in the British Isles may seem hopelessly isolated from Mediterranean religion, in actuality it was totally cosmopolitan. Celtic Christianity was composed of many threads: it took the practices and theories from Egyptian, Greek and Frankish Christians while retaining and adapting elements of Celtic and Classical Paganism. According to the nineteenth-century Welsh bard, the Reverend J. Williams ab Ithel: 'The Bards believed that all things were tending to perfection; when, therefore, they embraced Christianity, they must on their own principles have viewed it as a stage in advance of their former creed.' Thus, there was continuity and not a break between Paganism and Christianity. Celtic Christianity allowed its priests to travel widely. Many did not spend their lives cooped up in caves or monastic cells; rather they made regular journeys across mainland Europe, through the old Celtic heartlands to the Mediterranean. Celtic priests were the founders of many of the greatest monasteries of Europe, through which learning was maintained and disseminated.
In the bardic tradition of the Pagan Celts, where knowledge and understanding were the most prized abilities in a person, the Celtic priests were naturally highly learned men. While the Roman Empire in the West was breaking up, the monastic schools in Ireland were recognized as the best in western Europe. As Gregory of Tours lamented in the sixth century: 'Culture and education are perishing, dying out in every city of Gaul People often complain "Alas for our times, literacy is dying among us, and no man can be found among our people who can write down the events of the present day".' However, that was not the case in Ireland. Bede tells us how: 'In Ireland, there were many Englishmen, both noble and low-born, who travelled from their homeland in the time of Bishops Finan and Colman ... some soon bound themselves by a monastic vow, but others thought it better to travel around the cells of various teachers for the joy of reading. The Irish welcomed them all, provided them with food and lodging free of charge, lent them their books and taught them without a fee.'
In a real way, the Celtic monks were the inheritors of the Cclto-Roman tradition, continuing and preserving classical and druidic learning as well as teaching Christianity. For example, the Irish priest Columbanus, known as 'Prince of Druids', who founded several monasteries in mainland Europe, was one of the most learned men of his age. In addition to his priestly role, Columbanus was a noted poet who wrote in Greek according to classical modes. Many of the founders of the Celtic church came from the upper class, which in Pagan times had provided the druids and temple priests. The genealogies of the British Saints who founded Christianity in Britain after the fall of Rome show them all to be members of one or other of the Eight Noble Families of Britain.
Thus, the leaders of the new religion took the same career path as their Pagan forebears, and in Ireland we can see that many Celtic Christian priests took over almost imperceptibly from the druids. They continued all of the druidic functions, reinterpreting their more Pagan elements according to Christian beliefs and practices. So, for example, when St Patrick, St Carantoc and other members of the High King's legal commission reformed the laws of Ireland, they brought in Christian elements, but left as much of the traditional structure in place as possible. Just as the role of the druid as law-giver was taken over by the church, so other social functions were transferred from the Pagan to the Christian priesthood. Thus, St Findchua took over the role of official curser for the King of Leinster when the druid who should have performed the traditional battle-rite was found to be too old to conduct it. So the Christian priest substituted for the druid, and kept the job, later handing it on to his successors.
If the priestly caste remained little altered when Christianity arrived, then neither were the ancestral sacred places of the Celts tampered with greatly. Holy places in the Celtic landscape are the collective shrines of the community, maintained by the families which legally own them. Because in traditional society land could not be bought and sold, but only inherited, Celtic holy places were the hereditary property of families. Any man who became a priest in the Celtic church maintained his hereditary rights over the ancestral holy places in his
The leaders of the new religion took the same career path as their Pagan forebears, and in Ireland ... many Celtic Christian priests took over almost imperceptibly from the druids.
family's ownership. In Pagan times, priesthood was hereditary, and the Celtic church did not alter the custom. Thus, holy places owned by a druid family would become Christian when the leading member of the family became a Christian monk or priest. Many of the ancient monasteries in Celtic lands are on such land.
Gradually, as time passed, the ancestral holy places of the Celts were altered by Christian worship, during which process the older practices were not obliterated but absorbed. In the Celtic realms, vernacular customs and usages of Pagan origin were observed alongside the official liturgy of the church. Local traditions and myths of the old gods, goddesses and heroes were re-stated as episodes in the lives of saints. Thus, traditional society was not disrupted by the new religion, but retained its continuity and stability. The main difference was that the patriarchal nature of the Christian church now excluded women from most of their traditional religious roles, such as being seeresses and guardians of women's shrines. Sometimes women were expelled from their traditional places, as in the shameful incident when St Columba expelled all cows and women from the holy isle of Iona, on the pretext that: 'Where there is a cow, there is a woman, and where there is a woman, there is mischief.'
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