First published in iPagan published by Moon Books 2019
Over the last thousand years or so there have been huge changes in religion – most notably the one god coming to replace the many – the Judeo-Christian god Yahweh, who has swept through the world at the end of a conquering sword or a gun. However, as with all things in life, change eventually comes and now we see a resurgence of multi-religious as well as secular life, as a result of the fact that the iron grip of enforced religiosity has begun to loosen. Just as the Spanish, Portuguese and the British brought their Christianity to most of their conquered domains, I suspect that ancient conquerors did much the same in early and pre-recorded history.
Certainly the Romans brought their own brand of Hellenic paganism to their conquered territories such as Gaul and Britain. Archaeological evidence shows that Romano-Celtic gods were worshipped in the time before Christianity became the official religion of the empire. It’s also clear that the earlier Greek forays eastwards had a significant effect on middle-eastern culture, which strangely lasted into the early renaissance period, long after Europe has lost and forgotten the religious and philosophical writings of the Greeks. Strange as it may be, the Greek corpus retained by the Persians made its way back into Europe via people from this region who had long since become monotheists (Islam) and who once again worship the same god as the Jews and Christians, albeit called a different name - Allah.
Probably there has been ebb and flow throughout known and unknown history with lone gods supplanting pantheons and visa versa along with military achievements or mass migrations of peoples. A good example of this is the reforming of Babylonian polytheism by Zoroaster (Zarathustra) to become monotheism with various classes of lower spiritual beings (both good and bad). Zoroastrian religion was incredibly powerful in the Middle East for at least 1000 years and influenced both Judaism and Christianity. However it was gradually marginalised by Greek and Roman influence before being almost eliminated by the spread of Islam. Ironically, it has survived in India and also Iran, largely due to the protection afforded it by moderate Islam as ‘people of the book’, along with other scripture based monotheism.
From a Celtic perspective there have clearly been a multitude of changes over time, as is evidenced by the different layers of gods that exist. Unfortunately there is no exact timeline, like we’d find with the Egyptians. Their foray into monotheism under Akhenaten is well known and recorded, despite the fact that his religion and his great city barely survived a decade after his death in 1336BCE. The early history of western Europe was not written down, it was passed orally, despite the fact that the Druids were well able to write. In the territories of the Romans the old religions and the histories (or mythologies) were largely wiped out or absorbed by the Roman culture, with what little remained being further degraded with the arrival of the Roman church. So with a few notable exceptions, there is little known of the indigenous gods of western Europe and not much more known of the gods that the Celts most probably brought with them. The two notable exceptions, as sources of the largely lost religious culture of western Europe, are Ireland and Scandinavia. Neither of these places were conquered by the Romans and both were rather late in coming under the influence of the Roman church (approx. 1000CE in Scandinavia).
The Viking’s religion, (now called Asatru), is of unknown age and is most probably the indigenous religion of northern Europe, which was also to be found in what is now Germany and Russia and in Britain (by introduction). Like the Celts they had an oral culture even though they had the ability to write (Runes). Unlike the Celts, they had a clearly defined pantheon (the Aesir), which appears to have remained largely unchanged, most probably due to their isolation. Unlike Scandinavia, Ireland was a warm and inviting area, excellent for cultivation and full of mineral resources, which obviously made it an inviting place to try and colonise. From the medieval book Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book Of The Taking Of Ireland), which is believed to have been orally transmitted in earlier times, we discover that Ireland was subject to several waves of invasions by different races, over an unknown time period. Because of these waves of invaders the culture of Ireland that has been recorded can to some extent be separated or compartmentalised. The mythology that has survived is quite clearly related to different races and times. The people of Dana, or Tuatha De Danann, as the name implies were followers of the Goddess Dana, otherwise known as Danu or Anu and the pantheon of gods associated with her as descendents.
This group of gods comprises just a dozen or two of the Irish gods. The goddess Tailtu, the foster mother of Lugh is remembered in the name of the town Telltown, but she was in fact Firbolg, not Tuatha De Danann. Lugh himself, to complicate matters further is descended from both the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomhoire (grandson of Balor). The pantheon of the Tuatha De Danann is clearly defined by the geneologies and admittedly imported into Ireland, which is corroborated by the existence of Tuatha De Danann deities in lands other than Ireland – such as Britain and France, where one can find, for example, both Brigid and Lugh. Other Irish gods may or may not be traceable to earlier peoples but many of them are still known to us – such as Bilé (Beli), Crom Cruach, Ériu, Tlachtga or Bel. These gods may have belonged to the Milesians, Fomorians (Fomhoire) Firbolgs, the Nemedians, or Partholans, but it is thought that they are not of the Tuatha De Danann. At this stage it is nigh impossible to tell at what point many of these gods arrived in Ireland if indeed they are not actually indigenous. Amergin (famed druid of the Milesians) gained victory over their Tuatha De Danann opponents by agreeing to name Ireland after the three goddesses Ériu, Banba and Fódla. In a few cases (e.g. Geoffrey Keating, 1634) they are linked to Ernmas of the Tuatha De Danann, but it is likely that they are a much older triad than say the Morrigu (Badb, Macha, Nemain/Anand) which is found in the Tuatha De Danann and later mythology.
In addition to the various layers of pantheons or remnants of earlier pantheons there is also a plethora of localised gods that relate to places, some of these are simply linked to a river or hill, many of which are forgotten or forgotten in all but name. The Irish ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’, codified in the Middle Ages, demonstrates that many place names are derived from gods or mythical heroes. Some deities such as the goddess of the river Boyne, Boann are clearly localised but were appropriated by the dominant culture (Tuatha De Danann). In some of the mythology Boann is also linked to Brú Na Boinne, also known as Síd in Broga (now Newgrange), which is situated very close to the Boyne itself. Although Boann and other Tuatha De Danann gods such as Aengus Mac Og and Dagda are linked to this site, it is clearly a much older location than this bronze age mythical supernatural race. Newgrange has been estimated to have been built around, 3000BCE, during the Neolithic period yet Boann is clearly linked to both the river and the site; in fact she is credited with creating the river and losing her life in the process. Although accepted as part of the Tuatha De Danann, she does not appear outside Ireland like Ogma, Lugh, Brigid, Nuada and various others of this pantheon that can be found in Britain or France. My belief is that she is much older than the Tuatha De Danann gods but was assimilated by invading peoples in much the same way that Christianity assimilated some of the pagan beliefs (e.g. transforming Brigid from a goddess into a saint). Boann has survived through the writings of the medieval scholars into modern Pagan consciousness, but one can only guess wildly at how many other river gods and goddesses have not survived. Significant finds such as the Battersea shield, and many others like it in river beds are generally accepted as votive offerings to the gods, perhaps even specifically the god of the river the article was thrown into. Likewise there were probably gods of hills, mountains, lakes, forests etc. that have simply disappeared from history.
Often people think of the transition of religious belief and practice as discrete – e.g. a sudden conversion from Paganism to Christianity, however it is rarely that simple. Taking Ireland as an example – despite what the monks wrote, we can be sure that all Ireland did not convert to Christianity with the triumph of St. Patrick. The evidence of graves is undeniable – a period of transfer from Pagan style to Christian style burial took approximately 300 years to be completed. One must consider also that given the enormous amount of Pagan survivals in both folk belief and practice that became reluctantly absorbed into the new religion – the Christianity that developed in Ireland was most likely much more a fusion of old and new than Patrick may have hoped for. Given that such a fusion did in fact occur (although largely dismissed by the Christian church), it’s also quite likely that similar fusions took place in earlier eras with the arrival of each new race into Ireland. I could imagine that by the time that St. Patrick arrived, the seemingly homogenous Paganism of the Druids was a mishmash of popular deities and practices from various races, survived, fused, recycled or added to over a huge time period. Even now, long after Paganism was supposed to have died out in Europe there are survivals of Pagan folk practice, particularly in the remaining Celtic world.
Even now, after around 1500 years of Christianity there are still people in Britain and Ireland who claim to have inherited Pagan beliefs in secret and carried on their religion in isolation. Up until the second half of the last century it was still unsafe to identify oneself as a Pagan. If not likely to suffer actual physical danger, any overt Pagan would have been liable to perhaps lose their job or be ostracised by their neighbours. Since the 1950’s with the emergence of Neo-Paganism it has gradually become safer for secret Pagans to reveal their beliefs. The vast majority of Pagans today are not hereditary Pagans; they have gained an interest in Paganism only because of the fortunate survival of Paganism in literature, folk practices and the anthropological sciences. Of course, in previous centuries there were always people who had Pagan leanings but unlike today, such people would not have been free to express it without suffering some form of retribution.
As a Neo-Pagan Druid myself, I first experienced Paganism, as a child, through the mythology of the Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Egyptians and Celts. I did not choose to become a Pagan until I was already an adult; being free to explore a number of different religions over time. Eventually I settled on Celtic Polytheism, not because I was born into it, but simply because it suits my beliefs. Modern people, to a large extent, have the luxury of picking their own religious beliefs or converting to another religion if the religion of their birth does not suit them. Much the same as the known world was before Christianity swept across it, there are now a multitude of religions to choose from, both monotheist and polytheist. In the pre-Christian era there was certainly co-existence of vastly different religions, but whether it was as easy to move from one belief system to another, like it is today, is hard to say. As now, where collective religious life is in flux, I imagine that various religions and cults rose and fell like the tide, perhaps increasing in one region and declining in another. We can see clearly from history that religion, like culture, is not static, that extent and popularity of religions shifts, as do the practices and belief within individual religions.
Fairly recently, I was able to attend a Lughnasadh ritual (August 2015) with a varied group of other Pagans, mostly from the west of Ireland. The bulk of those in attendance were Neo-Pagans like myself, but there were a small number of secret hereditary Pagans too. It was fascinating to hear one of these hereditary Pagans recite a prayer that I have never heard spoken and that bore great similarity to a prayer attributed to St. Patrick. I suspect the St. Patrick’s prayer I speak of is itself a modified version of a prayer used by the Pagans of the time. The imagery used in St. Patricks’ Breastplate, to me, has more in common with Druidic incantations than it does with the more familiar Christian prayers. Of course my understanding of what it is to be a Druid, to be a Pagan and to be a human being is probably vastly different from the understanding of people of Europe who were Pagan in pre-Christian or early Christian times. Today there are Celtic Druids, Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids and even secular Druids, not to mention the vast array of different types of other Pagan that exist.
One can only speculate whether or not the original Pagans would approve of the re-emergence of their gods and the resurrection or re-imagining of many of their beliefs and practices. Either in secret, through many generations, or through a personal Gnostic journey of choice one can find oneself praying to these same gods of our ancient ancestors. How one arrives at a particular belief system may be very different and the understanding of that belief system might be quite different. In a dogmatic religion there is little or no room for interpretation and where differences occur it most often leads to conflict. In Pagan spirituality, at least in its current form, there are as many gods as there are colours and there is apparent freedom to express our own experiences of them. The gods may be defined by history but they are also ethereal inhabitants of our world, not of some far off heaven separated by an impassable chasm.
Our relationship with the gods is for us to choose, it is not mapped out for us and the face of the divine we see now may change in the future, just as it has always changed throughout human history. The Celts were said to have laughed as they destroyed the statuary at the Oracle of Delphi in their 3rd century BCE attempted sacking of the town. The Celts supposedly understood that these were not gods, but merely laughable human representations of what deity is. Both the Celts the Norse of the time were highly skilled in art, yet their representations of the gods were rudimentary, crude and barely humanoid, while their Greek counterparts produced life-like ‘human’ statues to represent their own pantheon. In truth, whether we are Christians, Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists or whatever, the images of deity we might choose to use are not real. At best they are tools that enable us to conceptualise and imagine the qualities of the divine that we wish to connect to. At worst they are abominable idols that give a false and childish representation of a power that is beyond human understanding.
Just as every dandelion leaf is unique, the face of the gods is unique to each and every one of us. Perhaps it is not the divine that has changed at all, it is us, humanity, that has undergone immense changes over thousands of years. As we change so does our ability to see, feel and understand what the divine actually is and what our relationship with the Creation is, or should be. Perhaps after endless generations of being trapped by our beliefs, trapped by dogma we are arriving at a time in which we can be free to choose the gods and spiritualities that most enable us to connect with the divine as we understand it. Each of us has to live our own life, no-one else can live it for us. Perhaps it’s time to accept responsibility for our own personal Gnostic journey – to begin understanding both ourselves and the divine. If we all took responsibility just for ourselves only and bringing the sacred into our own lives, this might bear more fruit than endless religious debate and conflict. Surely, when our lives comes to an end how we, ourselves, have chosen to live is all that really matters. What everyone else chooses to do is not our responsibility.