Pre-Christian Faiths of the British Isles

Before Christianity’s infamous arrival across the lands we know today as Ireland, Britain, and Scotland in the 5-6th centuries, the majority of Celtic peoples who were native to the area observed druidism, or regionally specific land-based traditions. While there were numerous Celtic groups who practiced this form of spirituality across Western, Southern, and Central Europe, parts of the Balkans, and as far as Anatolia, below I’ll be focusing on the stories and histories of my British Isle ancestors: the ancient Gaels of Ireland (not to be confused with the Gauls of continental Europe), the Picts (or Painted Ones) of Scotland, and the Britons of Britain.

As no written Celtic languages or sacred texts exist, most of what we know today comes from oral tradition and the monastery records of ancient Christian priests. One of the most basic components of all Celtic practices, regardless of their lineage, is relationship to the physical world. Places like mountains, hills, groves, bodies of water, and forests are considered sacred places, and are often associated with the “Otherworld” of gods, ancestors, and spirits of the land. Like the Yoruba, Celtic peoples and their reconnecting descendants traditionally believe in reincarnation, the importance of venerating ancestors, performing divination, and offering sacrifice to assist with daily life and to appease their pantheon of over 400+ deities. The more famous of these deities include: Dagda, Morrigan, Brigid, Rhiannon, Arawn, Cernunnos, Cerridwen, and Danu.

A metal engraving of the deity Dagda, sitting cross-legged with a helmet of antlers, and animals surrounding him from both sides, such as an elk and boar. He holds a serpent in his left hand and a ring in his right. Image Via: Balkan Celts 

Some of these [deities], like the Dagda, the all-father, Danu, the mother goddess Brigid or Brigantia, goddess of light, are of more ancient origin than the Celts themselves and are survivors of the Neolithic cultures of Western Europe. Cernunnos, the horned god of the underworld, is depicted with stag’s antlers on the “Pillar of the Boatmen”, constructed by Gaulish sailors around 14 AD. It was discovered in 1710 within the foundations of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, site of ancient Lutetia, the civitas capital of the Celtic Parisii.

English Monarchs

After the Roman Empire’s invasion, Christian leaders sought to assimilate Celtic peoples. Roman culture thus had a profound and lasting impact on the people both in and outside of the British Isles. While the Britons were the first of my ancestors to willingly assimilate, the Picts and Gaels took much longer thanks to geographical distance from the mainland and intentional acts of resistance. One of the most noticeable Roman influences that eventually took hold were changes to the traditional Celtic religious systems, including the weakening and gradual “disappearance” of the Druid class, or ancient priesthood. Druids were known as the religious leaders and knowledge keepers in Celtic communities, and considered to be intermediaries between people and the world of Spirit.

Soothsayers, and making medicinal potions, especially using sacred plants like mistletoe. Druids were repositories of the community’s history and may also have been required to cast geissi or taboos (often less accurately called spells) on people, ensuring compliance to the society’s rules and inclusion in community religious activities.”

Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopaedia
A group of five Druid elders with long white beards, robes, and garland leaf crowns sit underneath a canopy of trees. One of the elders is lifting their right hand towards the sky, as if in the middle of a discussion or story. Image Via: Irish Central.

Other shifts included the emergence of stone monuments when traditionally, wooden tree idol carvings, known as sacred poles, had been used to honor or represent deities. Eventually, these new and blended practices came to be known as “Celtic Christianity”. Because of its limited contact with Rome and continental Christianity, many of its features become distinct from the rest of the West. For many in the British Isles, polytheism remained the dominant belief system, even if it was practiced privately. Similar to the way Santería and Hoodoo would emerge hundreds of years later on the other side of the world as a means of protecting Indigenous beliefs from Christian colonization, many Celtic beliefs maintained protection under the guise of Romano-Celtic practices (Romans were also practicing polytheists before Christianity took hold, and so many Celts adopted and blended their “hidden” knowledge). While there were many commonalities across Celtic traditions in the British Isles, there were even more differences in customs being that each region evolved separately from one another.

Gaelic (Irish and Scots-Irish) Beliefs & Traditions

“Celtic religion on the continent is better documented, in many ways, but you’ve got to remember that Ireland is an island. And quite removed from the continental Celtic culture, though it started with the same roots. Taking those roots and planting them here has led to a tree growing in Irish soil that is quite different to the parental rootstock…”

Lora O’Brien, The Irish Pagan School

The pantheon of Irish Gaelic deities is known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, and all gods and goddesses were associated with physical places across the land. It is believed that some of these gods are the ancestors of certain families, while others evolved into the sidhe (sìthin) or what we know as fairies, referred to as “The Good People/Little People.” There have been some recorded instances in history regarding the belief that some fairies are the souls of those who passed to the next world prematurely or unexpectedly. In Scotland it is believed the sìth are actually survivors or ancestors of an ancient pre-Celtic group, similar to the tuc wa ge or Little People of Cherokee homelands in Appalachia.

The most important time of year for the Gaels was Samain – or the ending of the old year and start of the new on November 1st, as celebrated through feasts and offerings beginning on Oice Samain, or the Eve of Samain on October 31st. Morrigan, the goddess of the feast, battle, and death, was believed to take the shape of a raven to guide the dead to the Otherworld – and it was during this time of the year that the dead could temporarily walk the Earth and mingle with the living. Those who had wronged the dead in any way were known to dress up in disguises to avoid retaliation. After Rome’s influence, the evening became known as All Hollows’ Eve, or Hallowe’en. Because so little is known about Pictish practices in Scotland, many look to the Dál Riadan legacy, or Scots-Gaelic culture alongside ancestral Norse practices for insight into their spiritual understanding of life.

“Scotland in particular has been subject to several other Celtic cultures – not just the Gaels. The Gaelic Dál Riadans (a people who occupied a large part of Northern Ireland at one time) are thought to have begun settling the west coast of Scotland as early as 200 C.E., moving into areas that would have originally been Brythonic. Within a century or so of this, the Picts emerge in the historical record, occupying the east and far north of Scotland, while the south of what is now Scotland was occupied by the Brythonic peoples. The Picts themselves are likely to have been Brythonic in origin, but over time their language and culture evolved into something distinct and separate, perhaps because of political or geographical isolation from the Brythons in the south, as well as influence from Scandinavian traders.”

Annie Loughlin, Tairis

Though the original creation stories of the British Isle Celts have not survived to this day, there are still hundreds of stories and tales, known as Dindshenchas, or myths that explain how some places came to receive their names and/or how certain places came to exist in Ireland. Many of these stories have been recorded under four collections of “cycles” known as: the “Fenian Cycle”, the “Ulster Cycle”, the “Mythological Cycle”, and the “Cycle of Kings”. Each of them are based on 11th-15th century manuscripts produced and preserved by Irish monks. The main hero of these mythical stories is called Finn MacCumhaill (or Finn MacCool). The “Lebor Gabála”, or “The Book of the Taking of Ireland” also known as “The Book of Invasions”, while a problematic source, is also one of the last complete and cohesive records to glean some understanding of what pre-Christian life would have looked like. In Wales (which did not form as its own distinct cultural entity until the Middle Ages), there exists the “Mabinogion” book. This book is based on the 14th century “Red Book of Hergest,” a collection of eleven Welsh tales that are based on ancient Celtic stories, folklore, traditions, and histories of the local lands.

On the left, shows a stylized painting of the Salmon of Knowledge flapping in the water. Leaves and branches frame the image, and water swirls around the fish scales. To the right is an image of a warrior with their helmet on, brown flowing hair, holding a spear and looking towards the gray landscape. A Celtic cross appears on the warrior’s back. Image Via: IB4UD.

Finn & the Salmon of Knowledge – As Told by Bea Ferguson

Have you ever heard of a man called Finn MacCool?

Well, there are many stories to be told about him, but one of the best is the story of the Salmon of Knowledge. When Finn was just a boy he had to leave his home and live with a wise man named Fineagas, who was to be his tutor. The old man Fineagas was not used to company as he’d been living by himself in a small cottage by the River Boyne for years and years, but he was happy to have Finn to stay.

But what Finn didn’t know, to begin with, was that Fineagas had spent so many years living by himself in that cottage for one very special reason. The reason was that it was rumoured in those parts that a fish called ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ swam in the nearby river. It was said that the first person to taste this salmon would receive the gift of seeing into the future and the gift of seeing into the past, and would certainly become the wisest in all of Ireland. So Fineagas had spent many years fishing in that river, hoping that one day he would come across the Salmon of Knowledge.

One day, as Fineagas was giving Finn a Latin lesson by the river, Fineagas noticed an unusual stirring in the water. He took a closer look, only to see a huge, beautiful salmon of the most glorious pink colour swimming in their direction. ‘It must be the Salmon of Knowledge!’ cried Fineagas, and he quickly ran to fetch his net – and a big one at that, for the salmon really was huge. Another thing he had to be careful of was to avoid looking directly into the eyes of the fish or he would be put into a deep sleep, so as he struggled with the net he was very careful to avoid looking in its direction.

All of a sudden, the salmon leapt out of the water right in front of him and Fineagas could do nothing to avoid looking straight into its eyes. With that, he immediately fell into a deep sleep.

Finn saw all this happening, and so went to Fineagas and shook him awake. Once awake, Fineagas asked Finn to tie a rag from his shirt around his eyes so that he couldn’t see the salmon anymore. Finn obeyed, and a blind-folded Fineagas and a tenacious salmon quarrelled and fought for the rest of that afternoon until the fish eventually gave up the struggle. Fineagas had caught the Salmon of Knowledge. He would be the wisest person in all of Ireland.

Now he had successfully caught the salmon, Fineagas was exhausted. He went off to have a snooze and asked Finn to cook the salmon. He made Finn promise not to take even the smallest bite of it. So Finn took the great big salmon, and cooked it on a spit above a peat fire. After a good while turning the spit (and getting very hot from the fire) Finn thought the salmon looked perfectly cooked, and so he called Fineagas over to taste the fish. But just as he was turning around, a small drop of burning fish oil splashed up onto his thumb. Quick as a flash Finn stuck his thumb in his mouth to stop it burning.

When Fineagas awoke and came over to check on Finn and the salmon, he immediately noticed a great change in Finn MacCool. There was a light behind his eyes that had never been there before, like that of a flame, and his cheeks were glowing bright.

“Finn, did you eat any of that salmon?” demanded Fineagas.

“I didn’t eat any, no!” said Finn.

“Did you taste any of it at all?” asked Fineagas.

Finn thought back, and then remembered about putting his thumb in his mouth when he had been burnt by the hot fish oil. He told Fineagas about this.

Fineagas understood there and then that the special knowledge which came only from that cooked salmon on the spit had been granted to Finn and not him. Despite his loss, Fineagas was happy for the lad, since he knew that he would grow up to be a most wise man and a great hero. From that day forth, Finn MacCool would be the ablest and most celebrated leader of the Fianna warriors.

Sources & Further Reading

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s