Spirit of Halloween

So it’s Halloween.  It’s also Sunday.  I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the spirituality of this particular day.  Now it’s often treated as a trick, a consumerist holiday with too much candy and befitting spooky decorations.  Like all holidays Halloween has evolved from its origins to how we celebrate it today.  Other than Wiccans and Neo-pagans, however, not too many take it seriously.  At Nashotah House, and therefore likely at some parishes scattered around the world, All Saints Day—which is tomorrow—was a day of obligation.  What we call Halloween was the day before this major festival of praising the faithful.  There is some evidence that All Saints was moved to November 1 to counter the lively celebration of Samhain, or the Celtic fire festival marking the onset of winter.

The Celts included an intellectual class known as Druids.  Druids seem to have been the “theologians” (oh, that word!) of the Celts and they mandated that their teachings not be written down.  A great deal of information was passed on by intensive memorization and only became known to us outsiders because after Christianization it began to be written down.  Their idea of the afterlife seems to have been that it was being born into the other world.  In the otherworld life was different and apparently in some respects better.  When our time there drew to a close, our death led to our birth into this world.  The cycle continued on and on.  Samhain was the time when crossing between worlds could occur.  Death wasn’t a cause for sorrow since the otherworld awaited.  Birth into this world was more problematic.

Fear of death seems natural enough to us.  Even though it’s inevitable and this world’s graveyards are full, somehow we seem to think we can avoid it ourselves.  Our evolved survival instinct runs out of control since we’ve eliminated many of the causes of death that have plagued our species (and many other species) for millennia.  Eons.  As we’ve done so we’ve distanced ourselves from death—dying in hospitals, our corpses prepared in funeral homes, buried and eventually forgotten.  To me, the Celtic idea, from a world where death was likely much more close to hand, seems a more healthy outlook.  Instead of fear, why not consider it a day of wonder and celebration?  To many, I know, that is a spooky thought indeed.  It’s more than a day of masks and candy, however.  And we might learn from it if we stop and ponder.


Druid Redux

I know I’ve talked about this book before.  I had cause to learn about the Druids again, and Peter Berresford Ellis’ book was handy.  I’m pretty sure I have Stuart Piggot’s book somewhere, but I haven’t seen it since the move, so I turned to Ellis again.  The first time I read him I was commuting and couldn’t take notes.  (My specialized form of research has its limitations.)  This time it took several days’ more reading, and doing so with more active engagement.  One thing that really stood out to me this time was the Indo-European connection.  Druids, according to Ellis, were essentially Brahmins—the intellectual class in a stratified society.  Having derived from a common ancestor, the two societies diverged with Brahmins surviving in India and Druids going extinct with the somewhat genocidal treatment of various other groups against the Celts.

Druids were egalitarian as far as the sexes went.  This is one of those examples where Christianity’s masculinist orientation furthered a trend that led to women being treated as inferior.  Evidence points to early female Druids, and even female political leadership among the Celts.  As the male godhead took over the remaining influence of women eventually evaporated.  The Druids, you see, were extremely focused on learning the truth.  Their pre-Christian judicial system was oriented toward fairness and finding out what really happened.  In other words, ethically they required no conversion.  That was a matter of theology, and theology often brings its own set of issues.  

The Romans, who’d had a long and protracted war against the Celts, drove them to the fringes of their empire.  Britain (and Brittany in France) were far enough removed from the base of power in Rome that the Celts survived in the edges of the islands: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland.  As a distinctive culture, Celts have been in fashion for some time now, but that’s a new development, historically speaking.  Ellis’ book explores this angle quite a bit since understanding the Celts is essential to comprehending who the Druids were.  The lack of native written accounts (Druids forbade writing their wisdom, passing it on by memorization over the centuries) hampers our ability to have a coherent history.  Ellis, however, seems to have reconstructed well.  Modern Druid revivals necessarily contain speculative elements, and historically the Druids wouldn’t have been perfect either—nobody is.  They do seem to have had a reasonable and just society for the most part, something we’ve managed to lose, along with much of their wisdom.


Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?


Gothic Celts?

Two separate projects lately set me on the trail of preliterate Europe.  While this isn’t the best time to celebrate white cultures (timing has never been an especial strength of mine), I have been researching the Celts as part of a longterm project.  Not only are these people part of my ancestral mix, they are also mysterious.  Having arisen in central Europe, they were pushed to the margins of the continent by invading Huns from the east.  It’s from those fringes that I came to identify my heritage.  Not only do I have Irish ancestors, but Wiggins, it seems, is a Breton name.  The Bretons were a Celtic people on the northwest coast of France.  Since the ancient Celts didn’t leave a huge written archive, we rely on what others (such as the Romans) wrote, or what archaeology reveals.  Mysterious.  At the same time another project had me reading about the Goths.

The Goths are tricky to define, and again, didn’t leave literary archives.  Also politically incorrect, they were a Germanic people—another significant piece of my ancestry—and they must’ve lived quite close by the early Celts.  Although my parents wouldn’t be born for many centuries yet, their ancestral “tribes” may have known one another.  It’s fun to think about.  There’s quite a lot of interest in the movements of peoples in ancient times.  One thing that influenced both the Celts and the Goths were large, organized forces.  The Roman Empire, with what would come to be understood as Classical style, was one source of pressure.  Another was the aforementioned Huns.  The Romans considered all of them barbarians.  One of the results of these large pressures was the eventual establishment of nations in Europe, often with contested borders.

All of this splitting eventually led to nationalism, a dangerous force.  We’ve seen some of the end results in recent years.  A single nation thinking it is the best.  I’ve always felt that travel—difficult during a pandemic—is a great form of education.  Encountering the “other” on their own territory makes it hard to stereotype and boast.  Nationalism tends to lead to excessive pride, especially when a country is as isolated as the United States is.  And then it even tries to build a wall between one of only two neighboring nations because they speak a different language.  How different this is from the situation when Celts and Goths were moving somewhat freely across the European continent where, at the time, borders were fluid.  I realize I’m idealizing what was certainly not a perfect situation, but I also think Rome may not have been the best model to emulate either.

 


Cultural Religion

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The National Museum of Scotland, like many museums in the British Isles, is free to visitors. Such museums are repositories of national pride and provide a sense of the scope of a nation’s history. While penurious grad students (as opposed to plain penurious, as best describes those long unemployed), my wife and I would wander over to Chalmers Street and pop in for an hour or two of inexpensive culture. During the last minutes of my recent trip to Scotland, I ducked into the newly—well, it has been nearly two decades, I have to admit—expanded museum for a gander. I was naturally drawn to the history of Scotland section—you can see dinosaurs and robots in the US, after all—and was struck at how very religious it was.

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It’s not that the Scots are any more pious than other peoples, but it is the nature of religious artifacts to receive special treatment, and therefore, to survive time’s greedy decay. No one dares to anger the gods. Beginning with the Stone Age Picts, and flowing through contact with the Romans and eventually to the Celtic culture now associated with Scotland, religion is obviously preserved. Prehistoric Picts, by definition, didn’t leave written accounts of their religion, but the treatment of special artifacts in a gritty, harsh world shows where social values were to be found. Christianization, with its apocalyptic earnestness, only accelerated the process. Celtic crosses, case after case of precious metal sacramental artifacts, and a large display of the Reformation denominated the more secular displays, or so it seemed. (The working steam engines and large looms, however, gainsay a bit of my enthusiasm. And swords seemed to be everywhere.)

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While there is a genetic base for some sense of nationhood, it is not unusual to hear a person of African or Indian heritage speaking with the familiar Scottish brogue. Surely they are Scottish too. Culture clearly ties disparate peoples together into a “nationality.” In this museum that reaches back to the dinosaurs and beyond, a great deal of the history involves people of similar ancestry who come into contact repeatedly with those of other heritages. What gets left behind after those encounters, when it’s not swords, is religious. The religions themselves then clash, fracturing into a new stage of cultural development. Even in today’s secular Europe, some of the most notable buildings are the cathedrals. And in its own way, the National Museum of Scotland is a cathedral to all who wish to understand what makes us human.

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Just Druid Again

It would be difficult to suggest an ancient class of people with greater New Age credibility than the druids. Although I spent three years among the Celts, I claim to have no special knowledge of the druids, and when I saw Peter Berresford Ellis’ book on the subject, I decided to learn more. Not really a straightforward history—not enough of the druidic culture survived in any material form for the writing of such a history—Ellis instead summarizes a complex gallimaufry of evidence and speculations into a reasonable facsimile of who the druids might have been. Ellis suggests that the druids were more a caste of society, rather like the Brahmin caste among Vedic culture. Should that seem far-fetched, it would be difficult to read A Brief History of the Druids without noticing the obvious connections between the cultures. The Celts, of which the druids are a subset, have their origins in eastern Europe rather than the usual supposition of a homeland over the sea in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. Connected to India via a common ancestral language, Indians and Celts both derive from the same Indo-European linguistic family tree.

Ellis’ book is so full of information that it is unwieldy at times, especially for those of us who find the formidable Gaelic names intimidating. Nevertheless, it is an excellent source for learning about the religion of the druids, insofar as it may be reconstructed. One of the most striking aspects of Celtic culture that emerges from the book is how it differed from the Roman culture that would come to dominate the western world. An obvious example is that Celtic society offered a much more enlightened place for female rights and leadership than would emerge along the Tiber. Another important difference was the Celtic antipathy to abuses of private property ownership. Gaelic bishops earned the ire of Rome by declaring that egalitarianism is the will of God. In the words of a fifth century Celtic bishop:

“Do you think yourself Christian if you oppress the poor?… if you enrich yourself by making others poor? If you wring your food from others’ tears? A Christian is [one] who… never allows a poor man to be oppressed when he is by… whose doors are open to all, whose table every poor man knows, whose food is offered to all.” Words a Perry or Bachmann might do well to read.

So noble were the druids in the eyes of eighteenth-century antiquarians that many suggested Abraham was the original druid and that the great figures of the Bible were part of the druidic heritage. The world, alas, has gone after Rome instead. Rather than druids we have CEOs and politicians worth a mint before they ever “swear” an oath of office. If the current Celtic revival brings back some powerful druids, perhaps the world might just become a more tolerable place.


August Ancestry

Lugh

Now that August is in full swing, it is appropriate to think of Lugh. It would have been more appropriate, I suppose, to have considered him on Lughnasadh (August 1) but I’m afraid I missed the deadline. August is the only month with no officially recognized holidays, either lighthearted or serious, in the United States. Back in Celtic Britain the first of August was one of the quarter days, or days when the rent was due and religious festivals were celebrated. When Scotland was Christianized, Lughnasadh was kept under the name Lammas-mass, a festival of the first harvest of the year. The Christian correlation became the deliverance of Peter from prison or Saint Peter in Chains.

Lugh was, without doubt, one of the most important gods of the Celts. It has been suggested that the Celts understood their gods not to be transcendent beings of a different order than humans, but rather as their own ancestors. They apparently believed that gods came from great humans. Lugh is a warrior god, and occasionally god of the sun. His favored epithet is “long arm” or “long hand,” indicating his felicity with spears and swords. So widely was he known that many important cities were named after him, including Lyon in France, Vienna (known by one of his epithets), and perhaps even London itself. When Romans conquered the Celtic lands, the festival in August was that of the Caesar from whom the month takes its name, Augustus. Apart from the minor Christian festival of Peter in Chains, the month of August was simply forgotten as the seat of holy days.

The origins of gods differ in diverse cultures. The assumption of most people today seems to be that gods exist as an ontological reality and we reverence them because of their factual existence. The Celts, on the other hand, grew their own gods in the tradition that a noble human was worthy of veneration and full of undying power. Lugh may have been one such person. If he was, he has been lost in the heavy haze of hoary antiquity. He comes to us today in August, but more often in March. The word leprechaun is an Anglicized version of the Irish phrase “Lugh the cobbler” (one of his many associations). As such he is remembered every time we pour ourselves a bowl of Lucky Charms.

Part Lugh, part Potter


Peace on Earth

One of the most ironic of Christmas messages is “peace on earth.” The irony comes in the means of declaring that peace. Apparently first-century angels were declaring peace to the entire world, according to Luke. The peace that we see proffered, however, often extends only to those like us. What is the harm in extending Christmas joy to all? Must one be a Christian of a particular stripe before the joy of giving can be bestowed? Over the last several years various Christian groups have sought to reclaim ownership of the holiday they borrowed from the pagan Romans, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons. Make it exclusively ours. Peace to us, and let others find their own way home.

In a season of charitable giving, understanding seems to have fallen off the list of Saint Nicholas. In his guise as Santa Claus he makes the rounds of the entire world, according to the mythology that children are told. Do we ever really picture Santa delivering gifts to those who live in Iran, North Korea, or Afghanistan? Does peace on earth apply to them? The thing about peace is, unless everybody has it nobody has it.

Can we learn to share Christmas? Those who fret over Xmas forget that first-century Christians abbreviated Christ with an X (chi in Greek), just as they represented him by a highly stylized fish. Today an empty fish on your bumper declares what an X cannot, apparently. The message is that Christmas belongs to us, not secular pretenders who just want an excuse to make their kids happy. For most of the history of Christianity, Christmas had been a low-key event, barely noticed by most of the faithful. When the possibility of material gain was added in, however, the holiday became especially holy. Should we share the doctrine but not the gain, or should we make Christmas a gift to all the world – a season when all might reasonably hope for peace?