Ancient Myths & Modern Man
Unlike other religions around the world, Wicca* has a very ‘open source’ relationship with mythology and ancient wisdom. As a result, different Traditions** have developed relying upon various aspects of our collective cultural heritage. While the various Traditions based in familial practices do exist, it is the ones that draw upon ancient cultures that we are addressing today. Among the most common Traditions available for one to follow, Celtic Wicca is among the most popular.
We are going to examine the process of interpreting and applying ancient mythology to modern life within the context of this Tradition. The process that we use will be applicable for other Traditions based in different mythologies. It is vital to remember that the differences between modern and ancient man are quite large. Illness, for example, was often interpreted as the anger of the Gods or a supernatural attack of some sort. This does not indicate that ancient man’s wisdom is no longer useful for modern man, only that it must first be considered in context. It is contextual analysis that takes a myth from a place of mere curiosity to its true role as an educational tool.
The value of myth to ancient man is equivalent to the value of education to modern man because myth was part of the method by which ancient man passed down knowledge. Carefully couched within language specific to the society that birthed the mythology that is to be examined, one can find deep theological wisdom and valuable insight into the human condition regardless of time or socio-economic status. It is unfortunate that the word myth has become synonymous with falsehood. Wicca, in many ways, seeks to rectify this within its various Traditions by attempting to decode the wisdom hidden within the myths referenced.
To understand Celtic mythology, one must first have a working understanding of ancient Celtic society. The ancient Celts were initially a nomadic people that came across the Russian Steppes prior to the advancement of the Huns. Some archaeologists and anthropologists theorize that the pressure of the Huns was what spurred the migration of the Celts into Europe. Given what can be determined of the economic pressures and the challenges of scarce resources within that region, it is a logical theory. When the Celts entered into the fertile regions of Europe, they intermarried with the native peoples and the previous wave of invaders, the Aryans.
The society of the ancient Celts was very different from the more familiar ancient Greeks or Romans. Women had greater freedoms compared to their contemporaries, frequently being found to hold their own property and voice in affairs of state. While their apparent equality was greater then that of the Greek or Roman women, they still were found to have curtailed freedoms compared to men. Ancient Celtic women, like the ancient Germanic women, did upon occasion ride into battle or on the hunt. It is believed that these women were the origins of the Greek myth of the Amazons.
Like their contemporaries, the ancient Celts did practice slavery. It is inconclusive if this was strictly upon the basis of spoils of war or if there was an active slave trade element to their society. It is presumed that then ancient Celts, like the ancient Germanic tribes, had four social classes, not including slaves. These social classes were priestly, royal, warrior, and serf. The Druids of the ancient Celts are something a mystery. Much of the knowledge we have of them comes from the biased perspectives of the Romans and the later Christian clergy. The little that we do know is that they had a special status that in many ways put them apart from society much like the priestly caste of early Hinduism. It is unclear if the division between the four classes were as ‘hard’ as the divisions of early Hinduism or not.
Among the ancient Celts, it is difficult to determine what were the chief deities followed. It is apparent, however, that the God of the Animals (known variously as Herne, Cerrunnos, or Kernunno) was a figure of prominent worship. Also, the Goddess of the Horse (most famously known as Epona) was a popular figure of worship. It stands to reason that these two gods are among the oldest of the Celtic pantheon. They are found in various guises among the ancient regions inhabited by the Celts and mentioned by several of their contemporaries (the Greeks and Romans). Various local deities, which are most likely remnants of earlier faith practices of the conquered peoples, pepper the Celtic pantheon, making it difficult to assemble a definitive picture of what the whole of ancient Celtic worship was like.
Equally challenging is the recreation of the various ritual practices of the ancient Celts. It is with some difficulty that the written language of Ogham is translated from the various stelae and other carved objects found within Celtic archaeological sites. The lack of something akin to the Rosetta Stone serves to hinder much of the efforts to translate this ancient language. What can be established is that the Celts, like their Germanic contemporaries, buried their dead with grave goods. Individuals who were of the higher social strata were often buried with cherished possessions, slain horses, and, at times, slain slaves. It is purpose, presumably, for these grave goods to serve the dead in some afterlife. There also appears to have been some evidence of ancestor/hero worship, much like the ancient Greeks and Etruscians.
A practice that has echoes in today’s folk practices in places like Ireland is the veneration of holy wells and similar sites. The survival of practices like the veneration of holy wells suggests that these rituals were deeply entrenched in the cultural consciousness prior to the arrival of Christianity. It is unclear if these are practices that the Celts acquired when they intermarried with the native people of the regions or if they are practices that they brought with them. In equal obscurity is the origins of the now famous fire festivals of Imboleg, Beltaine, Lughnassad, and Samhain. There are practices, however, that are described by the contemporaries of the ancient Celts that serve to illuminate at least a portion of their practices. The practice of divination, ritual taboos, and the importance of oaths are described in some detail by both Roman and ancient Greek sources.
In the light of all these things, it becomes difficult to see how the myths of this mysterious people can be applied to the life of a person living over two thousand years later. This is where we look at the major details that we do know about ancient Celtic society.
- Oaths are taken seriously and were upheld as a matter of honor.
- Nature is venerated and rituals to invoke the blessing of natural spirits/local Gods were common.
- Equality between the genders.
- Courage in the face of battle or conflict is praised.
- Ritual taboos were observed.
- Curses and ‘black’ magic were potent weapons within a magically skilled Celt’s hands (most frequently women or Druids).
It is this information that provides the basis from which we examine the mythology of the ancient Celts. If we were to be examining the ancient Greeks, we would need to establish the same essential facts to sketch a rough image of their cultural values. It is from these cultural values that the values reflected in the myths are established.
* Wicca is being used as a general term and is being considered interchangeable with witchcraft.
** Tradition is used to describe a sect of Wicca.
Originally Published via Helium in 2010 (approximately.) This is the first in a small series of posts.