Celts

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Editor: J. Gordon Melton
Date: 2001
Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Article
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 260

Celts

The ethnic origins of the Celts are somewhat complex, and often obscured by Celtic-influenced languages. Ancient writers referred to the Celts as tall, fair-haired people with blue or grey eyes, but they are more often considered to be the shorter, dark-complexioned Celtic-speaking peoples of France, Great Britain, and Ireland. In general, the Celts are believed to be a warrior race of the early Iron Age, originating north of the Alps, and spreading through central Europe during the La Tène period (500 B.C.E.-1 C.E.).

The Celts who settled in the British Isles comprised two strains—the Brythons and the Goidels. The former became established in England and Wales, but the Goidels migrated from France to Ireland about the forth century B.C.E. At a later date Goidel contingents from Ireland formed settlements in England, Wales, and Scotland, eventually merging with the Brythons. The Gaelic-speaking Celts dominated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, whereas the Brythonic speakers were more common in Wales.

According to Lewis Spence, magic among the Celtic peoples in ancient times was closely identified with Druidism. Celtic origin and its relation to Druidism, however, is a question upon which much discussion has been lavished. Some authorities, including Sir John Rhys, believe it to have been of non-Celtic and even non-Aryan origin; that is, the earliest non-Aryan or so-called Iberian or Megalithic people of Britain introduced the immigrant Celts to the Druidic religion.

The Druids were magi as well as hierophants, in the same sense that the American Indian medicine man was both magus and priest. That is, they were medicine men on a higher scale, possessing a larger share of transcendental knowledge than the shamans of more barbarous races. They may be linked to the shaman and the magus of medieval times. Many of their practices were purely shamanistic, while others were more closely connected with medieval magical rites. The magic of Druidism had many points of comparison with other magic systems and seems to have approximated more closely to the type of black magic that desires power for the sake of power alone rather than any of the more transcendental type. It included the power to render oneself invisible, to change the bodily shape, to produce an enchanted sleep, to induce lunacy, and to cast spells and charms that caused death. Power over the elements was also claimed, as in the case of Broichan, a Caledonian Druid who opposed Saint Columba, as related in St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba:

"Broichan, speaking one day to the holy man, says: 'Tell me, Columba, at what time dost thou propose to sail forth?' 'On the third day,' says the Saint, 'God willing and life remaining, we propose to begin our voyage.' 'Thou wilt not be able to do so,' says Broichan in reply, 'for I can make the wind contrary for thee, and bring dark clouds upon thee.' The Saint says: 'The omnipotence of God rules over all things, in Whose Name all our movements, He Himself governing them, are directed.' What more need be said? On the same day as he had purposed in his heart the Saint came to the long lake of the river Ness, a great crowd following. But the Druids then began to rejoice when they saw a great darkness coming over, and a contrary wind with a tempest. Nor should it be wondered at that these things can be done by the art of demons, God permitting it, so that even winds and waters are roused to fury.

"For it was thus that legions of devils once met the holy Bishop Germanus in mid-ocean, what time he was sailing from the Gallican Gulf (the British Channel) to Britain in the cause of man's salvation, and stirred up dangerous storms and spread darkness over the sky and obscured daylight. All which storms, however, were stilled at the prayer of St. Germanus, and, quicker than said, ceased, and the darkness was swept away.

"Our Columba, therefore, seeing the furious elements stirred up against him, calls upon Christ the Lord, and entering the boat while the sailors are hesitating, he with all the more confidence, orders the sail to be rigged against the wind. Which being done, the whole crowd looking on meanwhile, the boat is borne along against the contrary winds with amazing velocity. And after no great interval, the adverse winds veer round to the advantage of the voyage amid the astonishment of all. And thus, throughout that whole day, the blessed man's boat was driven along by gentle favouring breezes, and reached the desired haven. Let the reader, therefore, consider how great and saintly was that vulnerable man through whom Almighty God manifested His glorious Name by such miraculous powers as have just been described in the presence of a heathen people."

The art of rainmaking, bringing down fire from the sky, and causing mists, snowstorms, and floods was also claimed by the Druids. Many of the spells probably in use among the Druids survived until a comparatively late period—the names of saints being substituted for those of Celtic deities. In pronouncing incantations, the usual method employed was to stand upon one leg and point with the forefinger to the person or object on which the spell was to be laid, at the same time closing an eye, as if to concentrate the force of the entire personality upon that which was to be placed under the spell.

A manuscript preserved in the Monastery of St. Gall, dating from the eighth or ninth century, contains magic formulas for preserving butter and healing certain diseases in the name of the Irish god Diancecht. These bear a close resemblance to Babylonian and Etruscan spells, and this goes to strengthen the hypothesis often put forward that Druidism had an eastern origin. All magic rites were accompanied by spells. Druids often accompanied an army to assist by their magic in confounding the enemy.

The concept of a Druidic priesthood descended down to the beginning of the twentieth century in a more or less debased condition in British Celtic areas; thus the existence of guardians and keepers of wells, said to possess magic properties, and the fact that certain familiar magic spells and formulas are handed down from one generation to another are proof of the survival of Druidic tradition. Females are generally the conservators of these mysteries, and that there were Druid priestesses is fairly certain.

There are also indications that to some extent witchcraft in Scotland was a survival of Celtic religiomagical practice. Amulets were worn extensively by the Celts, the principal forms in use being phallic (to fend against the evil eye), coral, the serpent's "egg." The person who passed a number of serpents together forming such an "egg" from their collected spume had to catch it in his cloak before it fell to earth and then flee to avoid the reptiles' vengeance. Totemic amulets were also common.

Sources:

De Jubainville, H. d'Arbois. Les Droides et les dieux celtiques à forme d'animaux. Paris, 1906.

Gomme, G. L. Ethnology in Folklore. New York: D. Appleton, 1892.

Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Laing, Lloyd Robert. Celtic Britain and Ireland, A.D. 200-800: The Myth of the Dark Ages. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1990.

Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1958.

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Rhys, John. Celtic Britain. London, 1882.

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Spence, Lewis. Magical Arts in Celtic Britain. London: Rider, n.d.

Squire, Charles. Mythology of the Ancient Britons. London, 1905.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403800941