P.3: From N. Pennick to Celtic/Northern Literature

Nigel Pennick's work and other similar writers today, give the impression of presenting a singular 'truth' about the past, but maybe the more obvious aim of such writers is more concerned with the present than the past, and how the past can be used to empower current ideas.

Classical authors were referring to diverse localised communities, rather than a homogeneous entity, that came to be called 'Keltoi'.

Current academic literature will claim, the Celts themselves were regionally variant: Gaulish Celts were similar to but not the same as Irish Celts. Although the 'linguistic' definition of the Celts is broad, it remains the accepted terminology - 'Celt' has an undeniable 'currency' - and archaeologists and Celticists have little choice but to battle with its generalising, nationalist, but useful nature. And in the popular realm, 'Celtic' is a buzz-word, frequently used unreservedly to mean many things, from the Neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange to silver jewellery and rock music.

Religious knowledge among the Celts, according to various interpretations, was plausibly achieved through trances, frenzies or stimulated inspiration of some kind. But there are other references the chief Druid of the King of Ireland is described as wearing a bull's hide and a white speckled bird's head-dress with fluttering wings, a typical shamanistic appearance. S. Piggott an academic in his 1968 “The Druids” suggests p. 164:

“Here and in other ritual and ecstatic contexts of the use of bullhides, we may indeed have a fragment from a very archaic substrate of belief. Here too we might place such evidence as the sacrificial deposits of horse-hides or ox-hides, represented by the surviving skulls and leg bones, recently identified in the votive find in La Tene itself- this 'head-and-hoofs' practice, known from the late third millennium BCE onwards in South Russia, was a feature of recent shamanism in the Altai and elsewhere.”

Tacitus describes the druids in Britain; their 'blood stained groves, the howling priests, their arms uplifted to heaven'. Tacitus's statement exemplifies the ambiguous nature of the classical sources: he may simply be misrepresenting the 'savage' Celts for political ends. But, howling and screaming may refer to shamanistic chanting or singing, a common technique of trance induction. The posture of the priests is also interesting in this example, being characteristic of many inspirational religions. 

Before recent revisions of the term 'culture' and simplistic conflations of material remains with culture-boundaries, archaeologists suggested the Celts were a 'civilisation' of 'Indo-Europeans' who were the first to use iron and colonised Europe west of the Danube from c.1000 BCE. Others will claim that strictly speaking the term 'Celt' is a linguistic convention, the Celtic language being divided into Brythonic and Goidelic, both of which suppose to survive in modern form in parts of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. While they do not therefore denote a racial or ethnic category, 'Celt' and 'Celtic' as they are used today (among academics and in popular culture) implicit ly refer to a distinct people and culture. 

A combination of the term 'Celtic' with 'shamanism' doubles the contention and at first appears contradictory. According to classical authors, the Celts were noble savages; they had a strict and complex social hierarchy with all the attributes of civilised agricultural peoples. According to some culture historians even today, they had 'evolved' considerably from the 'simple' and 'savage' society associated with shamanisms. Though current archaeological theory avoids such loaded terms as 'civilisation' and deconstructs notions of social evolution and similar racist, elitist approaches to the past, academia struggles to loosen the tie with these ingrained concepts. 

Many neo-Shamanic publications reinforce them all the more strongly because they rely on outmoded classic texts which reproduce them, and because neo-Shamanisms are predominantly unfamiliar with contemporary archaeological/culture theory.

Both neo-Shamanic and academic writers often do little to explain what Celtic and Northern shamanisms were actually like, only pointing out examples which represent them. Recognising the spirit world activities of shamans, the 'religious' component in shamanisms, is arguably a vital factor. But it is not the complete picture. Shamans are social beings, so to be able strongly to argue for such shamanisms we must socially and politically situate Celtic and Northern shamans in specific, localised, chronological and geographic circumstances.

For the Northern example, only those discussing the volva in Eiriks Saga rauda provide some degree of specificity, and it cannot be inferred from this alone that one Greenlandic colony was shamanistic in its world-view, let alone other Northern societies. 

Acknowledging the difficulty of imposing 'shamans' on the evidence, and the possibility of a close link between coin producers and practitioners of altered conscious states, J.Creighton (in “Coins an Power in Iron Age Britain” 2000 p. 54) there 'may have been no conceptual difference between a ritual specialist and a metalworker' (in “Coins an Power in Iron Age Britain” 2000 p. 54), and he thereby avoids having to give a specific name to these 'metalworkers/ritual specialists'. 

It is also noteworthy that although Creighton does not avoid the term altogether, he is certainly reluctant to argue for a form of Celtic shamanism in his example, reflecting a wider shamanophobia in archaeology, although the 's' word need nor be a monolithic one.

For 'Celtic' and 'Northern' shamanisms, it is imperative that the term shaman is theorised and that any cited evidence for shamanisms be contextualised, not universalised

J.Matthews's assumption that 'beyond reasonable doubt Celtic shamanism did exist' (Taliesin:1) is too bold a claim, though the possibility of Celtic and more so Northern shamanisms certainly deserves more rigorous examination. and in terms of Northern shamanisms as it might have been widespread.

But today’s interpretations of a Celtic and Northern shamanism exist predominantly in the form of neo-Shamanic literature. The 'alternative' neo-Shamanic view reigns supreme in the public sphere. These encounters with the “Otherworld” basically comes down to sightseeing and acquiring souvenirs. Paganism, said to be the fastest growing religion (as is Islam) - suggests 'it works'.

However the experts are feeding the public with information while leaving it free to make such imaginative reconstructions as it wishes.


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 June 28, 2003






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