When we think about the Ireland that we know and love today, many aspects of its culture appear, to at least some degree, as givens. Here, one of the first things that might spring to mind is prevalence of Irish Catholicism. For centuries upon centuries, the native Irish have been viewed on an international scale as a religiously staunch, God-fearing people — and this reputation has followed them abroad, too, giving birth to countless proud Irish Catholic settlements that have thrived as part of greater national communities in the United States and elsewhere.
Irish people, the belief goes, are people who follow the Ten Commandments; they abstain from sinful behaviour, especially during the month of Lent; and they dutifully say their prayers to God each night. In many cases, this is true, and has been for a very long time. But let’s think for a moment about the spiritual space the Celtic people occupied before Christianity came to the shores of the Emerald Isle. After all, this new religion didn’t begin to spread until around 400 A.D.; and Celtic culture had been around for at least 1,200 years by then.
THE CELTIC PANTHEON
John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe" (1911) is among the most popular portrayals of the old Irish gods, or Tuatha de Danann. (Public Domain)
The Celtic people, history indicates, were polytheistic, worshipping not one god but many, each of whom was markedly different in function and role. Examples of these might include Lugh, a leader god who represented the arts, as well as truth and lawfulness; Badb, a war goddess who took the form of a hook-beaked crow; or Brigid, the goddess of fertility and healing. Over the course of Celtic history, countless myths and narratives surrounding these deities developed, often changing along with the values and concerns of their worshippers.
The Celts celebrated their faith in ways that many an Irish Catholic would find alien today. Their calendar was marked by many annual festivals — Samhain (on November 1), Imbolc (on February 1), Bealtaine (on May Day), and Lughnasadh (in August), to name just a few. During these times, the Celtic people would drink and feast, participating in rituals and contests to win the favor of the god or goddess of the hour. Sacrifices — particularly of animals or harvest crops — were also common.
One important thing to bear in mind about the traditions of Celtic polytheism is that its storytelling customs were strictly oral. Though the Celts were a very visual people who frequently paid tribute to their pantheon through artwork and craft, they did not write, instead choosing to pass on the stories and legends of their culture to new generations through word of mouth. Of course, this fact will beg a very important question for those of us who have ever researched the primary sources of stories from Celtic myth: if Ireland’s native pagans didn’t produce their own mythological texts, who did?
The answer, as you might have already guessed, is the early Christian missionaries who arrived in Ireland about four hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ. But, hold on — doesn’t it seem confusing that Ireland’s first monotheistic denizens would so willingly pen the stories of the pagan gods they rejected? That’s because it is confusing — at until we factor in the importance of religious conversion in those early, uncertain days. When the vast majority of the country was passionately (and, at times, even aggressively) attached to their pagan belief system, it was essential that Ireland’s new monks and missionaries tread carefully, gradually introducing the ideas of monotheism without “rocking the boat” too much. One of the ways in which they achieved this was through the transcription of old Irish narratives and ideas, while adding a distinctly Christian twist.
Often, this twist came in the form of the one and only St. Patrick, today known as the patron saint of Ireland. Historical records show that Patrick was instrumental in this time of religious change; over time, he came to be seen as an icon of the triumph of Christianity over polytheism — though initially, he stood out as a figure who helped facilitate the concessions required of both factions. This is best reflected by his inclusion in many texts that concern themselves with pagan myth. In these stories — which we know existed in the pagan oral tradition long before they were committed to paper by Christian scribes — Patrick almost exclusively appears as a kind of savior figure, taking mercy on the “barbarian” characters of pre-Christian mythology by showing them clemency in their hour of need.
One of the best examples of this can be seen in a later oral version of Oisín in Tír na nÓg, the story of Oisín, a member of the Fianna warrior band from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, and Niamh, an otherworldly princess from the Land of the Young, with whom the little character falls in love. The pair elope to the princess’s magical homeland, but eventually Oisín grows homesick and embarks on a journey to visit his loved ones in Ireland. Once he gets there, however, he realizes that the three years which had passed in the fairy world have numbered a devastating 300 in reality.
The Ireland that Oisín beholds is a strange, unfamiliar place, not least because his loved ones are all long dead. The country’s people no longer worship the many colorful gods and goddesses which he remembers, and instead live by the laws of a single Gold, who is both Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Confused and filled with grief, Oisín wanders the land before eventually falling from the saddle of Niamh’s magical horse. The moment his skin touches the ground, he begins to age rapidly. As he lies there dying, he is happened upon by none other than St. Patrick, who listens with patience and kindness to Oisín’s story. As the now-old man draws his last breaths, Patrick baptizes him, absolving him of his previous religious “wrongdoings” and granting him a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Another interesting text which indicates the revisionist nature of narratives mingling Christian and pre-Christian elements is the Acallam na Senórach, or Tales of the Elders of Ireland, which was written in the tail end of the 12th century. In both poetry and prose, it tells many stories from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. Set several hundred years after the death of the greatest Fianna leader, Fionn mac Cumhaill, the it finds its main narrative in the meeting of his son, Oisín (who appears here as having never journeyed to the Land of the Young), and nephew, Caílte mac Rónáin, with the newly-arrived St. Patrick. Historically-speaking, this places the events of the tale somewhere around 500 A.D.
Together, Oisín, Caílte, and Patrick begin to travel the length and breadth of Ireland, exchanging lessons and allegories. The two pagans teach Patrick the name of every new location they pass through, explaining to him its history and cultural significance. Most of the conversations that the three men share involve the importance of successfully melding the old ways of pre-Christian Ireland with the new morals and values brought in by missionaries like Patrick.
Both Oisín in Tír na nÓg and Acallam na Senórach are an excellent examples of the way in which pagan Ireland was illustrated by Christian scribes as having “handed off” the reigns of the country to the new, monotheistic way of worship, rather than having been beaten down by force. This is likely because, on arrival in Ireland, the theologic newcomers quickly understood the extent to which pre-Christian myth was entrenched in the native people. For thousands of years, the people of ancient Ireland had devoted themselves in body and mind to an entire pantheon of gods and god-like figures, teaching their children and making sense of their world through the stories associated with them. This was a cultural framework that could not be simply wiped away, cast off as though it had never existed. A kind of middle ground had to be reached.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OLD CELTIC GODS?
But what of the old pagan gods themselves? While Oisín in Tír na nÓg and Acallam na Senórach are narratives intended to explain the ability of paganism and Christianity to coalesce (with dominance, of course, going to the latter), neither particularly deal with how the Irish could have come to understand what happened when power was transferred from many gods to one.
One common explanation of this was that as Christianity became more and more ingrained in Irish culture, the pagan gods of old physically retreated below the ground, where they underwent a transformation (sometimes written as metaphorical, sometimes as literal) to become the aos sí, or fairy folk of more contemporary Irish lore. Otherwise known as the “Good People,” “Good Neighbors,” or “Fair Ones,” these creatures were held to be less powerful than the ancient pantheon, but not by much; great care was taken by the Irish Catholics of centuries past to avoid angering them or insulting their sensibilities, and they were often offered gifts of food and drink in order to court good favor. Members of the aos sí are said to include many hallmark mythical Irish creatures, such as the leprechaun, the banshee, and the pooka.
There is one old Irish goddess who would appear to have evaded a fate beneath the fairy mounds, however. This is, of course, Brigid, the above-mentioned keeper of fertility, health, and the spring, who shares her name with St. Brigid of Kildare, a nun and abbess who is said to have lived slightly before St. Patrick.
There are some who suggest that St. Brigid is a true Christianization of the pagan goddess. Art historian Pamela Berger, for example, argues that “Christian monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart.” Others claim that St. Brigid existed independently of the deity, with the two becoming confused in associations and legacy after her death. No matter which belief resonates with you most, there certainly is no denying that the many similarities to be found between this ancient pair provides fascinating insight into the Christian conversion of the Emerald Isle.
What are your thoughts on the many ways in which old Celtic myths were reshaped upon the advent of Christian Ireland? Let us know in the comments below!