Last Saturday evening witnessed the apogee of the summer solstice in Ireland, leading to this description of its cultural significance by a regular guest contributor on the RTÉ website.
The ancient Celtic festival acts as a timely reminder and celebration of who, where and what we really are.
Our ancestors saw this key turning point in the Celtic calendar as momentous – a time of blooming, blossoming and wild abandon. Even though it does herald the light starting to lessen, we can imagine they revelled in the height of summer and the fresh earthy freedom seeking new pleasures before Harvest.
The eternal ancestral voice from spiritual traditions is remembered in ceremonies and rituals in nature that can remind us who, where and what we really are. It is a traditional time for weddings, fires, garlands of colourful blossoms, and dance rituals.
Our ancestors had many references to deify the sun, outstanding is Lugh the Sun God, known as Lugh Samhildánach or Lugh of the Many Arts. His entry to the court of King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann (in Gaelic the “Tribe of Mother Earth”) at Tara, the nexus of supreme power, was only possible by his response to the tests heaped upon him by the gatekeeper.
Just as our ancestors gathered to celebrate together for three days of feasting and revelry, there are many modern-day equivalents…
Needless to say these claims, from a “Shamanic Energy Therapist” no less, are utter nonsense. There is precious little evidence that the Celtic-speaking peoples of north-western Europe observed a celestial calendar or took any great heed of reoccurring celestial events in their festivities (acrimonious debates about the continental Coligny calendar notwithstanding)*. The indigenous Irish year was almost wholly agrarian in character, shaped by rather more prosaic concerns about the life-cycles of crops and livestock. Yes, the waxing and waning of the moon and the movement of the sun played a part in the calculation of the seasons, but only in so much as this informed a society largely dependent on grain and cattle for its survival and its wealth.
Furthermore, though the Celtic pantheon – if we can speak of such a thing – had many different deities none of them were explicitly identified as “sun gods” or “sky gods” or “earth gods” (the early Christian Irish concept of “gods under the earth” is a rather different matter from the nebulous notion of a “Mother Earth”). Various supernatural beings may have had characteristics related to nature or natural phenomena, and Lú was certainly associated with solar-like symbolism, but that did not make for divine personifications of nature itself. Such clear-cut ideas and categorisations are largely modern concepts, reflecting a need to impose a bureaucracy of divinity on ancient pantheons.
While the earlier non-Proto-Celtic peoples of western Europe, the megalith-builders, may well have regulated their year and any associated festivities with the solstices, a logical assumption given the physical alignment of most Neolithic monuments in the landscape, that does not mean that their culturally Celtic descendants did the same. The evidence, in Ireland at least, is that our Gaelic-speaking ancestors did not commemorate the movement of the sun or the phases of the moon and what rudimentary mid-summer and mid-winter celebrations or folk traditions we have on this island are Irish adaptations of much later Scandinavian and English introductions. Some of which are very late indeed.
* While some populist sources may claim that the culturally Celtic peoples practised astrology, and that this was integral to a broader “Celtic calendar”, the evidence from the Insular literary tradition is extremely weak and largely Classical in nature (with some exceptions). Instead it is more common to encounter textual references to some form of aeromancy, divination based upon atmospheric events, particularly nephomancy or cloud-reading. However this stands alongside divination based upon the flights of birds and so on. And neither are related to any particular form of solar or lunar observation.
Great to see genuine education here on Ireland’s ancestral religions. It is quite grating to hear Hollywood-esque pastiche of “Celtic tradition “.Personally I like the amalgam that the 19th century mystics like George Russell and Yeats made through combining Hinduism with extracts from the literary tradition concerning the Gods. It’s patently synthetic, but sure what isn’t (the ancient texts themselves are a purposeful amalgam between native and biblical elements) have the Candle of Vision by Russell. I also have a book published myself along those lines. Williams book is very good.
I agree with you, Rossion.
Religion isn’t JUST about tradition, it’s also about Truth, so it’s okay to synthesise our knowledge of Celtic tradition (which is moth-eaten and incomplete) with such Wisdom/Philosophy/Truth as is available to us.
Perfectly put Zayra!
You may wish to reflect on the dates the seasons commence and terminate in Ireland, and consider by what method did the Irish know those dates had arrived.
There is also the awkward presence of megaliths oriented to solstice events. Newgrange, like Stonehenge, was a site that had wooden markers performing the same roles as the stones for millennia preceding.
There is truth to your pushback, the target of your opprobrium is merited but I would not go as far as you do, nor be as adamant. Mainly because the solstice and equinoxes were tracked by our ancestors and are important to our pre-christian traditions.
Neolithic traditions, most probably. As I pointed out in the post, the alignment of many megalithic monuments make that connection with celestial events very likely. However the Celts proper, so to speak, or the Celts as extant in their post-conversion writings have very little to say about the solstices as annual points of celebration. It’s all harvests and calving and moving up to the pastures (and down again) and so on.
Counting the cycles of the sun and moon seem probable but not moments of festivity in and of themselves.
As much as the later cultural Celts absorbed or adapted pre-existing traditions, the importance of the mounds as sí locations etc, the solstices seems to have been lost or discarded.
That said, I have no objection to staging ersatz Neolithic celebrations at the summer solstice. Just don’t label it “Celtic”.
And yes, loaded, debatable, flexible term that it is! 😉
Think about this. What was the first culture to reach Ireland as the ice retreated?
Our seasons are not aligned with the solstice – Oíche Samhain. Yet the megaliths of NW Europe are. Newgrange was occupied for a long time before the megaliths were built. From the solstice you can determine the equinox and all manner of other celestial events.
We know there was no disease event, or mass replacement discontinuity where the original inhabitants of Ireland were displaced or replaced by Celts, or any other people. So any cultural change since, was voluntarily adopted by the inhabitants.
Once we rule out the conversion of Ireland to a Celtic culture by force, then one has to ask if the Celtic culture was adopted or grew out the culture present at the end of the ice age into a pan-European culture. That lasted until wars of the Neolithic and the waves of migration and invasion into Europe.
The pace of whole genome sequencing of ancient DNA is picking up pace and we should have answers to these questions in the next 5 years. Fingers crossed.
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Good points. There is the (highly controversial) Palaeolithic Continuity Theory which I like and kinda sounds right but unfortunately probably isn’t. Or at least not as some advocates argue.
There is a great deal of continuity between Neolithic -> Bronze Age -> Iron Age -> “societies” but, and a big but, enough differences to argue that there was some sort of cultural disruptions going on.
Personally I opt for the Celtic from the West theory, another controversial one, arguing that the “Celts” emerged sorta-kinda in situ on the Western littoral but with some sort of split between what went before and after.
But defo, the DNA studies are the roadmap to getting a cleaner picture of the early millennia BC.
This is a bit of a parable. Last millennium, when I studied genetics, the debate within human evolution raged between the Out Of Africa and the Multi-Regional models. There too, in the background, were the subtle interplay of politics. The right tended to align more with MR, the left with OoA, and concerns about politics influencing positions was present in much the same way the PCT vs Celtic invasion debate has them. Our lecturer, and class were all solid OoA at the time.
Now 25 years later and with the addition of Homo denisovan, naledi, floresiensis and luzonensis and the evidence of several other archaic hominids in our genome the conclusion to the OoA/MR debate is: It’s both. It’s a braided stream with branches, leaving and folding back in. For example, Neanderthal. We absorbed them back into our lineage. We didn’t rape them. We didn’t kill them. We accepted them as human and we assimilated. They live on in us. The Vikings that found the Americas merged into the tribes, as did some of the next wave of European colonization. As did the Normans.
It seems to be what happened with Ireland. Initial founder population, a pulse of Med agrarians to Galway and otherwise a slow drift of small numbers merging into the population peacefully.
That seems to me to be the true nature of humanity. Gonna pitch my James C Scott again because I do believe we can be a better, healthier species, that makes better, healthier outcomes. Rousseau was right.
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Again, some interesting stuff. But I’m not so sure about the peaceful merging. To culturally submerge the arguably non-Indo-Euro Neolithic population with a linguistically Proto-Indo-European implies a bit more than acculturation by osmosis of the indigenous population. The Neolithic Disruption in Ireland seems to have been not so insignificant.
Yes, absolutely there was hybridization. But the end result put the PIE crowd in linguistic mastery of the island from the Bronze Age on.
Of course, you can have fun speculation about linguistic and cultural substrata. Maybe the importance of the burial mounds and tombs is the last scrap of Neolithic tradition in Celtic dress? A subsumed scrap of a memory of an ancient prehistoric absortion in the Bronze Age?
Just speculation! 🤓
The peaceful integration of Neanderthal is now the consensus opinion, and it appears it was repeated with the other archaic hominids. That is what is meant by braided stream. Look at first contact in North America, in contrast with contact with the empires of South America.
You can poke around the ncbi pubmed search engine for the relevant papers and download them from sci-hub if they are not available for free. With corona there seems to have been a loosening of restrictions.
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Other thxing is it wasn’t built by ce!tic speaking peple. They were speakino.running
Some pre indo European tongue
The previous cultures before the Celts or Gaels that established the Neolithic monuments like Newgrange, Tara etc were probably a type of Celtic culture also, They were still ancestors of ours as they would have mingled with the later Celtic invaders.
But likely not Indo-European in language/culture though the Indo-European speakers that succeeded them likely absorbed some of their traditions and those peoples then became the ancestors of the Celts. So it could well be that the veneration of the old Neolithic monuments so obvious in Irish tradition is a dim echo of that melding and mixing.
Yes most of this stuff is New Age tosh or Victorian tarrididdles. The stone circles were built by the people who peceded the Celtic migrations. The Roman Civitas comprised of the Urbs; the sub-Urbs (Suburbium) and the Pagus. After the conversion of Constantine it was the conservative rural Pagus who preferred the old way of doing things: hence Pagan: meaning “the hicks from the sticks.”
All of this is a work in progress and as archeology reveals more and more, all of the much held myths are being revised.
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Barry Cunliffe’s Celts from the West volumes I, II, III is great if you can get your hands on it.
There’s also this Atlas of Irish & UK genomes. The major population migration into Ireland occurred when the ice retreated. Subsequent migrations have only replaced about 10% to 20% of Irish genomes. That includes the migrations of Neolithic agrarians, later the Celts and the Normans/English/British.
Add in the observation that every place name in Ireland means something in Irish. There are no Chicago or Chesapeake. And like Cunliffe you start to wonder if the language, the knots, spirals, the entire Celtic culture did not exist before the last ice age. Was kept alive in the ice age refuges of southern Spain and Greece. Much like Christianity in Ireland/Scotland after the fall of Rome. Have you ever seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams? The peoples of the Dordogne, Languedoc and Bavaria were related and they migrated over that range of territory, before the last ice age.
Don’t read Guardian articles on Irish/British DNA, omg but they are almost always heinously erroneous.
The one takeaway from ancient DNA that everyone should take is this 13,000 years ago humanity almost went extinct. There was less than 2,000 humans alive on the planet. Some argue as few as 600. Four times in the last 120,000 years we have almost gone extinct. Last time was the closest. And that is how closely related we all are. 13,000 years ago there were less than 2,000 of us. We are the most inbred species on the planet, except for all the ones we have hunted to the brink of extinction.
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The links got lost above – the Irish/UK Atlas link is https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-17124-4 and the other link is mtDNA of European Founder Lineages – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1288566/
The into/abstract & discussion are usually sufficient to read – most academics skip the middle if they can.
One obvious point is that it’s perfectly possible to notice or keep track of any number of things without having a major festival.
The early Islamic society was very aware of the movement of the sun and stars-but they didn’t exactly have religious festivals for it if you know what I mean. What I’ve heard is that people who navigate the seas or deserts tend to now these things. Those in very deep rainforests not so much.
I’d go along with some of what you say, Sionnach but you would need to explain the existence of places called “Grianán” and the reference to (“taobh na Gréine de Shliabh na mBan” in the 1798 song by the Gaelic scholar Ó Longáin). Using the rising sun in the east may have had more than orientation significance and in Irish to “go back” (dul siar) is related to “thiar” (back there/ west) which makes going forward going eastward.
I am not sure about the rising sunburst emblem allegedly of Na Fianna but thought I’d mention it.
The feast of fire in Bealtaine would seem to suggest a relationship to the sun too. Whether at certain times of the year or not, celebration of the sun does seem to have been an important part of ancient European culture.
The Basques (probably the first Neolithic of Europe) have their fire ceremony too and their Lauburu design, the four-armed disc but they say that they got it from the Celts. The three-armed disc of the Triskele is more commonly celtic as with our own “St. Brigid’s Cross” (Brigid by the way is also associated with fire, among other things) and the Manx national symbol. As far as I know, all of these are associated with the sun by experts in the field.
Just a few things I thought worth mentioning though certainly I am no expert.
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