Gaelic Polytheism? (Opening a can of worms)

It has become conventional to believe that the Gaels practised a polytheistic form of religion which was partly subsumed or wholly supplanted by Christianity at the coming of St Patrick. However, there are a number of problems with such an interpretation that I would like to address.

Firstly, the contemporary sources we have about actual pagan practises in Ireland are almost non-existent, and most of what we know was written long after the establishment of the new religion. The massive efforts to convert the 4thC Roman Empire from fragmenting polytheism to ‘one-over-all’, top-down theocratic rule started with Emperor Constantine I and his immediate successors. This relied upon propaganda and arguments produced by Christian scholars and apologists operating within the polytheist Mediterranean regions of the empire over the preceding 200 years, and which functioned as a model, a ‘manual’ and a ‘road map’ for propagating Roman christianity across the reaches of its contracting Empire and – in the case of Ireland, way beyond. The spread of Christianity was achieved not by proselytizing rhetoric, but by the conversion and alliance of the church with tribal leaders and their elite inner circles. Once this was complete, the worldview of these rulers’ subjects needed to be changed by coercion, propaganda and cultural revisionism. Bearing in mind that we know that early Irish Christian missionaries travelled to the continent and to Rome to receive their instruction, we must consider how the euhemerist ‘continental’ model for replacing polytheism (operating in earnest from the time of the Emperor Theodosius onwards) influenced their reinvention of the pagan past in order to swing people to christianity. The implication that the Tuatha Dé Danann (as opposed to the síd) were believed in as gods should therefore be viewed with suspicion: The ‘Tuatha’ begin to appear in middle-medieval literature presented variously as former gods, ancestors and historic personages (albeit with a very otherworldly countenance) – much in the same way that continental Christians portrayed pagan gods as deified historic humans in order to demote them. They may well have been created as part of a ‘continental schema’ for imposing Christianity.

Secondly, the conversion of Ireland apparently occurred with surprising ease in a country that had showed little signs of being culturally Romanised. This begs the interpretation that the new religion was therefore possibly not such a titanic shift in worldview as it appeared to have been on the continent. In fact it could even have been considered a ‘paradigm-shift’ or evolution of a system to which it had certain similarities, rather than a wholesale replacement of a complicated pantheon. It certainly ‘hit the floor running’, allowing the Irish to lead with confidence in the christianisation and re-christianisation of the rest of northern Europe. If there had been a hugely ‘other’ and complex polytheistic religion in operation this might not have been so easy, especially as Ireland (so far as we know) didn’t have a religious system that – like that at the heart of the Roman empire – underwent an ‘intellectual gravitational collapse’ after absorbing too many external beliefs. Irish legends in the medieval corpus of texts frequently allude to the pagan Irish prefiguring the coming of christianity, a feature I am not aware of from other cultures.

Thirdly, there is little evidence from folk-tales and traditions supporting the theory of the Tuatha Dé Danann being the former gods. The interpretation of a passage in the presumed 5th-6thC ‘Hymn of Fiacc’ (considered to be an early primary source) may account for this:

On the land of Erin there was darkness;
The Tuatha (Peoples) adored the síd;
They believed not
In the true Deity of the true Trinity.

What exactly the síd are or were is complicated and has no satisfactory resolution from the study of  medieval literature alone. The name was later used for burial and ceremonial mounds, fairy mansions and for the fairies themselves. The TDD were ascribed síd-mounds as homes in the later written myths.

Story traditions from Ireland, Scotland and Mann, often focus on An Cailleach, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Manannan and various other giants and spirits who take on some spectacular and god-like properties in mythological accounts. These are joined by legends of their Christian successors – the saints with their often fantastical and god-like properties. Although there is ample archaeological evidence of supra-regional worldview homogeneity since the Neolithic era, the placenames with pagan origin do not back up the theory that the Tuatha Dé Danann were the gods of the Gael. Where we do have surviving traditions of gods, the most notable is Manannán mac Lir who even today is known to Manx people as ‘their’ god. Medieval literary references to the mysterious gods or idols Crom Cruach or Cenn Croithi (both sounding like epithets rather than proper names) and later folkloric ones to Crom Dubh seem to have little relevance to the literary Tuatha Dé Danann traditions, which monks and/or Christian filidh seemed to use in their suspiciously euhemerist historical revision of paganism. These names (Crom Cruach etc) are linked to assemblies at land-loci: particular plains/fields, or hilltop locations.

SO… if there is a chance that the Gaels were not polytheists, then what were they? The resolution of this question necessarily takes us back to understanding what paganism in general was, and the following is my own personal definition:

Paganism is an allegorical system of spiritual and material philosophy informing the art of survival in a given environment, expressed and transmitted through the mnemonic and dialectic mediums of story, song, aphorism, art and dramatic performance.

If Caesar’s Gallic and British Druids were matched by the magi of the Irish, then  philosophy might be the core value at the heart of the religion, an opinion expressed by the writer on philosophers Diogenes Laertius closer to the time of Ireland’s Christian epiphany. Philosophy was to the ancient world what ‘science’ is to the modern: a technical system that described the universe in both material and allegorical/spiritual terms. Philosophy sought to delineate the indescribable, and the arts provided a non-didactic ‘fuzzy’ medium with which higher truths could be defined without the inevitable destruction that occurs with explicitness. The written word tends to ‘fix’ concepts that are otherwise plastic and ever-changing, thus limiting its conceptual usefulness in establishing doctrines. The Mediterranean approach was to assign a god or spirit to these phenomena and to make statuary images of them which expressed this nature. They also tended to write about them. Both processes produced fixed images of ‘gods’ and created the polytheistic pantheon we know so well. However, the pre-Roman Atlantic Europeans apparently shunned this approach. Their devotion was to images and wordly things (‘idola* et inmunda’) according to Patrick himself (Confessio). (*The definition of ‘idola’ being debateable, as it is a latin usage of a greek word ‘eidola’ meaning ‘image’ orapparition‘ and not necessarily meaning ‘idol’ as in ‘statue or graven image’.)

We have to somehow reconcile the folkloric remainders of what appears to be original practical aspects of Gaelic or Atlantic paganism (with its strong traditions about fairies and their leaders, second sight and the ‘evil eye’) with the literary accounts of the middle ages and evidence from archaeology, place names etc. Analysis of the propaganda techniques used to replace the traditions of the old system has revealed a veritable smorgasbord of euhemerisation, demotion, transformation, canonisation/sanctification and demonization permeating the Christian-era literature and folklore of Europe, making a recovery of the reality of the old pagan system through literature and folklore a difficult but always rewarding task.

Returning to my second point above – the apparent rapidity of conversion – it is worth lingering over the prefigurative literature which alludes to some form of continuity between the pagan and christian systems: The hagiographic legends of Patrick from the Book of Armagh and middle Irish tales such as Altrom Tige Dá Medar (from the Book of Fermoy) state that the way was laid for christianity when the druids prophesised a new order before Patrick arrived, or – in the case of ATDM, Manannán himself is the prophet! Charles MacQuarrie (‘The Waves of Manannan’) makes the case for this god as a pagan exemplar of the Bible’s Yahweh/Jehovah, albeit with a perhaps milder and more sympathetic and less judgemental disposition!

In the Isle of Man, where Manannán is still portrayed as a former king and ancestor as well as an actual current popular god we can see how this process reached its important and unfinished conclusion.

So why choose this overlord of the blessed Isles as the ‘next best’ as an exemplar to the christian god? In Altrom Tige Dá Medar he is cast as overlord of the Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) whose orders they unquestioningly follow. In spite of this, it is actually quite difficult to include him as a member of the TDD, as he seems to stand apart from them in so many ways. That he should have been chosen for such an explicit euhemerisation in Cormac’s glossary and on the Isle of Man suggests a prominence and equivalence that goes beyond that of the TDD. That a belief in him as lord of the fairy otherworld persisted in folk tradition, along with the strong otherworld ‘fairy’ and ‘second sight’ beliefs I have discussed previously, and the recurring theme of a landscape-associated ‘fairy queen’ suggests that these may well have been core parts of Gaelic paganism.

In the Isle of Man, Manannán is ascribed an immanent presence on the summit of the mountain known as South Barrule, where an ancient hilltop enclosure (‘Cashtal Manannan‘) filled with circular stone ‘beds’ or ‘hut circles’ used to be employed by trysting couples at the festival of Luanys (Lunása – 1st August) as a site for proving love, lust and fertility. The mists which frequently crown the mountain as well as shrouding the whole Island are commonly referred to by most locals as ‘Manannan’s Cloak’. It is somewhat surprising then, that there are comparatively few other places in the Isle of Man named after the god, unless you accept that the whole island itself is eponymous with him.

   Perhaps more interesting are the sneaky profusion of ancient place-names here in this special place that allude to a character of Gaelic folklore with a much more typically immanent presence and connection with the creation and husbandry of the landscape – the Cailleach (Manx: Caillagh) and her various incarnations and epithets as the Fairy Queen. From the hill of ‘Cronk y Berry’ (Eng: Hillberry, Ir: Cnoc Bheara) to the promontory of Gob ny Cally in Maughold and the ancient farm estate of Ballacallin in German the island is peppered with places whose names evoke the giant magical female characters also found in Irish and Scots as well as Welsh mythology, albeit often in ancient and corrupted forms: ‘Chibbyr Unya’ (Aine’s Well), the parish of Santan (‘Saint Anne’ = ‘Seatainne’), ‘Lhing Berrey Dhone’ (‘Pool of Ox-Bheara’, Maughold – there is an ancient Manx folksong about an Ox-stealing ‘witch’, in which it appears that the word Donn has been corrupted. She butchered the Ox in this pool by tradition). There is a ‘Caillagh’s (‘Nun’s’) Chair’ coastal feature on the MArine Drive side of Douglas Head, quite close to a mysterious cliff-cave (now bricked up). The ancient originally Brigitine nunnery of Douglas Priory lies in the shadow of the hill – a continuation of the goddess worship in a pagan guise… Another cave known as ‘Lag Eevl’ (after the Irish Fairy Queen, Aoibheal) in Kirk German, and the hill facing Cronk y Berry known as ‘Cronk y Vill’ or ‘Honey Hill’ have a similar provenance. Add to this the similarly-named hills of ‘Ardwhallin’ (pron. ‘Ardcwhullin’) and the mount of Slieu Whallian (‘Slieve Chullain’) which sits above the Tynwald assembly site and you soon get the idea that Manannan’s presence as an immanent former deity of the island might need to be challenged! The Caillagh was believed to be the Sibyl of the Island and was remembered in recorded folk traditions as late of the 20thC as the source of many prophecies, including one prefiguring the TT Races (which charge deosil around the Island’s central spine of hills). Manannan’s Cloak may once (from the profusion of places named after her) have been the ‘Veil of the Cailleach’…

All this has left me considering if the Gaelic pagan religion was in fact effectively dualistic and ancestor-based? My conclusion is that Manannán was the masculine (solar) polarity who presided over the spiritual Otherworld and the future, terminally and cyclically estranged from the Cailleach who was the elemental ancestress-Creatrix whose body is the earth/elements itself, renewed in the annual cycle. Manannán is a Sun god, NOT a Sea god! There is much circumstantial evidence to support this proposition – in fact, so much more than supports a polytheist interpretation that I find it hard to place a pantheon, except as a philosophical ‘exploding’ of the interactions of these two fundamental characters of Gaelic (and Brythonic) traditions (after the model of Plato’s Timaeus, which I will post on soon). From the Second Sight and Otherworld traditions explained by Robert Kirk, Martin Martin etc to the ancestral-creation myths involving the Cailleach and fairy queen(s) of Ireland and the various half-human wild spirits such as Brownie, Fionn, Phynodderee and Cuchullain, all point towards a binary interpretative system that does not in any way efface with a Tuatha Dé Danann ‘pantheon’.

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