Understanding ancient Celtic/Irish literature

Medieval Celtic literature presents the reader with a number of problems and puzzles that need to be understood in order to properly comprehend the true wealth of what it contains:

Firstly, what survives today probably represents a tiny fraction of the original texts available at any one time, although we are certain that the creation and diffusion of literature was within a distinctly small social and cultural group who represented the secular and religious elites of medieval Europe.

The impetus for the introduction of the written word into Atlantic NW Europe was the expansion of the Roman Empire in which it was a method of transmitting authority. The fashion for epigraphic inscription was a consequence of this, forming an early public form of local literary self-expression – in memorial or dedicatory stones, or on coinage as symbols of names that the illiterate could recognise. Julius Caesar said in his functional appraisal of the Atlantic Religion that its leaders (druids) found it heretical to commit religious doctrine to inscription or writing.

With the growth of Christianity, Rome adopted this hierarchical religious doctrine as it matched the Imperial model, being able to shore it up in the face of multi-cultural diversification and juxtaposed ambitions which led to the over-pluralisation and eventual collapse of state paganism. Christianity – a form of the monotheistic Hebrew religion synthesising contemporary popular secular philosophies – was wholly dependent upon the written word. This placed literature and the promotion and control of literary culture in the hands of Christian elites, who – as the secular tentacles of Empire withdrew their own literary input from northwest Europe – were to replace this authority with a religious one, welded closely to the propagation of kingly power on a Christian sacral model.

Due to the inherent dangers of oppressing indigenous beliefs (resistance, violence etc), the tactic of Christianisation was to gradually replace pagan sites, holidays, stories and fables with Christian ones (or at least with ones favouring Christian interpretation). Just like propagandists today, the tactic of influence-by-celebrity meant that the church first targeted local Kings and Leaders for conversion, often their wives first, as these would hold a greater emotional sway. In this way Christianity was applied by ‘trickle-down’ means. It introduced Saints as great heroes, after the traditions of the ‘barbarian’ peoples it was trying to intellectually subvert.

A major problem faced in imposing literary culture was the oral culture underpinning European paganism. This culture revolved around what modern computer terminology describes as a ‘Cloud’ of information representing the sum knowledge of a culture, stored in the memories of members of the population and relayed/shared through the formalised expressions of conversation, aphorism and proverbs, poetry, song, drama, art and design.  Knowledge with particular importance for survival or understanding develops within a particular ‘matrix’ of formalised popular expression in such cultures, allowing its retention as a core cultural value. The study and understanding of the technicalities of oral culture therefore created (in non-literate cultures) important elite classes of knowledge-experts: Druids, Ovates, Bards, Fili, Brithem, Skalds, Skops and so on. These sub-specialised around the subjects of natural/religious philosophy, law, traditional storytelling, poetry, geographical and celestial knowledge, geneaology and history. For this reason, pagan European cultures gave special importance to such classes – equivalent to that of Kings in some cases. These were the people the Christians needed to replace/absorb if they were to succeed.

The literary class (Christian monks and priests) would find it essential to absorb the classes of oral-culture specialists, and transform their traditions and knowledge into a fixed written form if Christian culture was to succeed in replacing something with such an ancient provenance and accretion, that would have tied the peoples very strongly to their land and environment. Nowhere was this effort so concentrated as in Ireland between the 6th and 15th centuries. The purpose was to provide the new literary authorities with the ‘knowledge’ of tradition in order to subsume that tradition’s authority in the minds of the people. In reality what they produced could only ever be little more than a facsimile of the ever-changing and plastic beauty of the oral knowledge-base: It was akin to a series of photographs of a beautiful jungle before it was destroyed: The beauty was preserved in ‘snap-shot’ but the reality of it was largely to be lost as the oral traditions fossilised into literary ones, and were consigned to remain in the formalised but officially-derided ‘cloud’ of ‘folklore’ which survived down to modern times.

So, to recap: Roman secular literary culture and then Christian literary culture displaced the official forms of oral tradition underpinning paganism in Atlantic northwest Europe.

Next, in order to understand early ‘Celtic’ literary accounts of old legends, one needs to understand that medieval Christian authors had their own literary traditions and worldviews that were to permeate their approach to the process of Christianisation.

The main themes influencing attitudes to paganism among early Christian writers and proselytes in the north were: Euhemerism – the idea that pagan gods were merely deified forebears made into gods, and Demonisationthat pagan gods and their idols were ‘demons’ or ‘evil angels’ who tried to deceive humanity. Other techniques for dealing with pagan deities included: Demotion, typically retelling their stories and ascribing lesser importance, and Equivalency where the aspects of a god were translated into the tale of a Saint. This placed pagan gods into two camps – one more acceptable (i.e. – supposed gods demoted as ‘eumerhised ancestors’ or turned into saints) than the other (demons, also often portrayed as ‘monsters’ or the Devil himself). Both techniques employed the rhetorical technique of avoiding the outright denial of pagan gods, and instead offered a more persuasive re-interpretation, reinforced by the authority of the target population’s (converted) tribal ruler.

Augustine of Hippo (d.430CE) was a Mediterranean Christian Bishop and propagandist of the 5th century whose works including the great treatise De Civitate Dei contra Paganos (‘The City of God – Against the Pagans’) were to provide some of the main arguments with which late classical and early medieval Christians would go on to tackle paganism and evangelism in northern and western Europe. In ‘De Civitate’, he re-imagines the once-great ideal of Rome’s now faltering earthly empire as the model for the new heavenly Empire of Christ. His opinions about pagan gods echoed those of many other Christian apologists both before (eg – Justin Martyr and Origen: 2nd & 3rdC CE), during (e.g. – Orosius, a pupil of Augustine) and after his time, but none expressed themselves so cogently, and at a time corresponding exactly contemporary with the collapse of the pagan Roman Empire in the west. His works were to be copied and circulated perhaps more than any other outside of the gospels, including in Ireland.

When medieval Irish monastic authors were putting quill to vellum and recording their own versions of the traditional oral knowledge and culture of the ancient Atlantic Celts, they employed both euhemerisation, demonization, equivalency and demotion to deal with achristian characters and themes from these traditions. In fact, the official telling of such re-envisioned pagan tales became a major European literary craze which was to fascinate the courtly and popular cultures, resulting in what became known as ‘Romance’ literature and story traditions: These tales were replete with Kings, Queens, Knights and Heroes, and more often than not contained references to ‘magical’ (i.e. – pagan) characters who seemingly enjoyed a marginal but inspiring role in the narrative of the plots: The Irish ‘Mythological Cycle‘, ‘Fenian‘ and ‘Ulster Cycle‘ tales, the Welsh ‘Mabinogion‘, Germanic ‘Niebelungenlied‘ legends, Scandinavian ‘Edda‘ and the ‘Arthurian‘ romances of Britain and France are fine examples of the genre. What they attempted to achieve was to consign tales embodying the oral traditions of paganism to a form of entertainment – a niche they could stubbornly occupy but remain (more or less) harmless to christianity.

So, It was for this reason that Irish monks and their secular associates in the new Christian order wrote down, copied and modified tales about the old beliefs and ‘invented’ what we know as the Tuatha Dé Danann who were interpreted as euhemerised ancestors, and consigned to histories. They were cautious to maintain much of the knowledge, form and format of the oral traditions in order to ensure cultural cogency and believability, so for those who know how to read their versions, much of the old ways are ‘hidden in plain sight’…

A third problem in reading medieval Celtic literary legends originally borrowed from oral tradition, is the plasticity of names and words. This can impede us from identifying characters shared between tales. This could be both deliberate obfuscation or accidents of transliteration and transcription where the spelling of sounded words was at variance when recorded from different oral sources. Stories could be translated between different vernacular dialects, into Latin, and then back into the vernacular causing distortion and accretion of words and names.

A process of actively changing names and roles in stories would also have served to deconstruct traditions linked to pagan religious ideas, without altering the popular notions of traditional form or altering the entertainment content too much. The fact is that many of the clergy (regular or secular) were practising a merged tradition, as the literate church subsumed traditional roles and offices formerly held by pagans in Celtic societies.

Similar alterations were woven into oral folklore, and in the naming of places. If you look carefully, and use your intuition, you can usually trace the changed traditions: Pagans were instructed by nature and natural philosophy and by the use of their senses, with a shared formalised oral culture supporting their scientific-philosophical construct. They did not rely on the ‘written word’, which reduces and largely negates complexity! This means that the Christianised versions of traditional lore usually seem to contain a ‘cognitive dissonance’ which can alert the pagan enquirer!

Linguistic evolution is another problem faced by pagans studying their ancient traditions from both folklore and literature. A lot can change in 1000 years of a spoken language, as the various dialects of Gaelic and English from Britain and Ireland show. There are two (three?) main groups of Atlantic -Celtic languages surviving today: ‘P-Celtic’, including Breton, Cornish and Welsh; ‘Q-Celtic’ including Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx; Also (possibly) Basque and the culturally extinct Occitan languages of historic North Iberia and historic Occitania (now SW France).

The ‘Q-Celtic’ languages are supposed to stem from a common Old/Middle Irish language and to have diversified after the time of writing of many of the medieval romances. Manx only started to develop a literature during the 17th century, largely due to Protestant evangelism looking to have religious texts in the vernacular during the ‘Wars of Religion’. It seems to retain certain aspects of the P-Celtic language and culture, perhaps representing its geographical closeness to Cumbria and Wales and its maritime links.

The linguistic distinction between the ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ Celtic/Atlantic dialects uses the interchangeability of the ‘P’ and ‘Q/K’ phonetic sounds as as exemplary difference: A Scotsman might be surnamed ‘Mac Ivor’ and a Welshman a ‘Map Ifor’, for example. However, there are a number of peculiarities of the languages and dialects which further add confusion to the language and the interpretation of old names and words:

Lenition and aspiration of consonant sounds are common and can alter the interpretation of spoken words by literary recorders. Also, metathesis is not uncommon – where the internal structure of a word is re-arranged in certain dialects, but the meaning maintained.

Dialectical variants of stressing, softening, super-adding, replacing or omitting consonant sounds are common in both P and Q Celtic languages and varies with local dialect. In addition, the vowels are prone to various states of shortening, lengthening and transformation (e.g. ‘a’ becoming a short ‘i’ or ‘e’), and vowel sounds (e.g. ‘oo’) can be derived from written consonants (i.e. – bh : as in Tarbh = ‘bull’, Manx: ‘Tarroo’), which has led to confusion. Unexpected consonantal sounds sometimes appear (e.g. – Manx Slane (health) is pronounced ‘sledn’). G and D sounds are sometimes interchangeable. D becomes ‘Th’, V becomes W, M becomes ‘W’ or ‘V’ when pronounced, ‘Th-‘ becomes softened or slurred, sometimes eliminated. B becomes V, ‘W’ sometimes acquires a ‘kW’ when spoken and ‘kW’ sounds can equally lose the ‘k’, and the same applies to Old and Middle Irish ‘mB‘ which transforms to both ‘B’ and ‘M’ (think ‘Mary Berry’!) – and so on and so forth. The addition and admixture of English and Norse to the Celtic languages adds another dimension to all of this, particularly during the middle ages.


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