Celtic Spirituality Part 1: In Search of the Goddess

If you are of European descent,
this is the heritage of your ancestors.

Celtic spirituality is the indigenous spiritual tradition of the European people. As such, it has much in common with indigenous cultures throughout the world. What is now known as Celtic spirituality is a three-layered tradition spanning 10,000 years. It began with the original peoples of Europe, Neolithic Goddess worshippers who had an extraordinarily sophisticated spiritual practice. The second layer of the tradition came with the Celtic tribes, who inhabited most of Europe from 500 BC to 500 AD. Because of the strength of the Celtic tradition in the British Isles, Christianity -- the third layer of the tradition -- developed in a very different way than in the rest of Europe. It merged with pre-Christian Celtic spiritually, thus developing a Christianity rooted in creation rather than having dominion over it. The depth of this tradition is what makes Celtic spirituality so accessible. It brings indigenous spirituality, the sacred feminine and Christianity together into a living spiritual practice.

To understand why Celtic traditions are primarily found today in the British Isles, we must understand Roman conquest. The entire northern campaign of the Roman Empire was fought against the Celtic tribes. Rome ultimately conquered most of Europe, applying its policy of replacing defeated cultures with the Roman model. The countries of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the regions of Cornwall, England, and Brittany, France, retained their Celtic languages, music, customs and spiritual traditions since they were beyond the reach of Roman occupation. This Celtic remnant is representative of the pre-Christian culture of Europe. If you are of European descent, this is the heritage of your ancestors.

The foundation of Celtic Spirituality lies in the Goddess religions of Europe. These were matrilineal traditions whose Creator -- or Creatrix in the feminine -- was the Mother Godess. She has had many names in many places. In the British Isles, she was originally known as Ana, but later became Bridget, a name shared with the Celts throughout Europe.

The Goddess worshippers were a peaceful people whose lives revolved around the rhythms and cycles of nature. Their spiritual practice was expressed by honoring the spirits of the land, plants and animals, as well as Mother Earth. As with most other indigenous traditions, there was no separation between the physical and the spiritual. All life was an emanation from the Mother, and all of one's actions in life were directed to serve or thank Her in some way.

Archeologist Maria Gombutas of Harvard and UCLA describes the Neolithic Goddess worshippers as simple non-hierarchical farming, hunting and gathering people, who had no weapons for war. Their artifacts were food-producing tools and household items. They left simple, voluptuous goddess sculptures that were used as personal fetishes and talismans. The landscape itself was their place of spiritual practice. The evidence of this can be felt today in the sacred landscapes of the British Isles. Labyrinths were etched in stone and carved into the land. Sacred wells, stone circles, trees, groves, lakes, springs, mountains, glens and the sea herself, all were places of prayer, reflection and ceremony. Visits to these places still fills one with feelings of reverence and grace, and are worthy of modern day pilgrimage.

One of the most dramatic places to experience this sacred connection of land and spirit is in the huge megalithic stone structures found throughout central Europe and the British Isles. These great passage tombs, stone circles and stone henges were astronomical and spiritual ceremonial centers constructed of massive 20- to 40-ton stones, sometimes measuring thirty feet in length, as in Stonehenge. The famous sandstones sarsens of Stonehenge align with the midwinter and midsummer solstice sunrise. In addition, twenty three ley lines -- the earth's energetic meridians -- converge in its center.

Passage tombs are great mounds of earth covering a womblike central chamber of large stones entered by a serpentine passage. Newgrange is the renowned passage tomb of Ireland whose otherwise dark central chamber is lit once a year by the dawn of sunlight at Winter Solstice. This tomb is nearly as large as a football field -- and it was built 1000 years before the Great Pyramids of Egypt! While the presence of bones led early archeologists to believe that these were graves, it is clear from the womblike structure that they were in fact ceremonial chambers, much like gigantic sweat lodges into which the bundled bones of ancestors were brought for ceremony and perhaps storage. The astronomical features of these monuments link them to ceremonies honoring the yearly passage of time: the equinoxes, the solstices and the spiritually-powerful midpoints between them, which are the high Celtic holidays of Imbolc, Beltain, Llammas and Samain.

Who were the Celts?

The Celts rode into Europe around 500 BC from Asia Minor and the Russian steppes at the end of a great migration that had originated in the Far East centuries before. The Celts brought with them a warrior culture and cosmology that in time embraced much of the Goddess worshippers culture, including farming and cattle raising. The Celts organized themselves in clans, led by chieftains. Clans were close-knit groupings, with each member responsible for the actions of all other clan members to the level of second cousins. The Celts revered their ancestors as a source of inspiration and guidance; the tales of their exploits -- which fill volumes -- were held as valuable wisdom. Indeed, the Celts had a rich oral culture steeped in poetry, music and legend stewarded by the bards. Their extraordinarily fine gold work style has not been reproduced in modern times.

Celtic traditions did not leave anything behind. Each evolution in spiritual practice brought with it the previous level. Thus, the Goddess and the feminine aspect of divinity were not lost. She remains central to the Celtic world, right into the modern era.

The Celtic cosmology also included male gods. They were part of a pantheon of gods and goddesses who did not so much displace the Goddess as articulate Her many aspects. Lugh was the god of light, sun and inspiration, a warrior. The Green Man was lord of the plant world. Bridget was incorporated as the fire goddess of inspiration, poetry, healing, the arts, smithing, fertility and the harvest. Her continance was further refined as the Triple Goddess -- the maiden, mother and crone. Her continued importance is felt today in the holy wells and landmarks that bear her name and in the places where Bridgit is known in the hearts of the Irish people as goddess and saint.

Although landscape was essential to Celtic life and spiritual practice, the Celts were also defined by their relationships. Kings were elected to ritually serve as consort to the Goddess and the fertility of the land was the measure of his success. Heritage established one's place in the world. Genealogies of the clans were kept by the bards reaching back for millennia. One special form of friendship in the Celtic world was that of the anam cara, the soul friend. This was a relationship of love, friendship and deep belonging to which one could truly open one's heart, mind and soul. Here secrets were safe. It was a relationship not just for lovers, but equally for peers, students and mentors, as well as spiritual counselors.

As the masters of this oral tradition, the bards underwent a rigorous 20-year training that included most of the shamanic initiations common to the indigenous world. Because the bardic lineage was largely unbroken in historic times, a great body of Celtic oral history and legend was recorded. Drawing on a familiarity with indigenous practices, it is possible to glean an understanding of the highly shamanic nature that Celtic spirituality held in this era.

In the second article of this three-part series, we will more deeply
explore the shamanic elements of Celtic spirituality.

Published in Alaska Wellness, September/October 2001