Pagan Ireland and the Survival of the European Worldview
Submitted by Conor Macaulay
“Our natural magic is but the ancient religion of the world- the ancient worship of nature.” -W.B. Yeats
Among its neighboring isles and the rest of Western Europe, Ireland was one of the last pagan lands. And although today Ireland is Catholic by majority, Irish communities still shimmer with remnants of their pagan past. After all, the old religion is the native religion and had been, in varied forms, for centuries before the 5th century AD, when Christianity became widespread, and indeed centuries more before Celtic society, or written language for that matter, existed at all. From festivals to deities, to common customs and traditions, the native religion of Europe, paganism, that is simply non-Abrahamic in this context, didn’t die out in the 5th century. On the contrary, it is alive and well in Europeans to this day, and the Irish perhaps exceptionally so. The nationalist poet W.B. Yeats called for a return to Celtic values in the 20th century and wrote to romanticize a distinctive Irish nature by summoning spirits of old. He did this- as other European nationalists have- not to make a body of work equal to a museum exhibit but to demonstrate the perceived need for a tribe to embrace themselves as they once had. This philosophy, however, clashes with the Christian veneration of altruism and has since had difficulty regaining traction because of this. In a critical essay of Yeats, George Orwell points out “the profound hostility to the Christian ethical code” of the implications of Yeats’s proposed return to nature.
The many tribes of Europe, ie. Norse, Germanic, Greek, Roman, Slavic, Celtic, Iberian, and so on, once had gods to represent the forces of nature that surrounded them, and as opposed to the Christian linear worldview of a beginning, an end, and a heavenly afterlife for well-to-do devotees, pagans had a circular worldview with no beginning nor end, and inter-tribal rebirth for honorable individuals. Moreover, not only were pagan tribes devoted to the worship of nature but had a profound understanding of nature, represented by, for example, complex Celtic road systems based on the movement of the sun. While nature worship is implied by the nonexistence of modern science and technology, it’s also demonstrated in the concept of rebirth, wherein the protection of nature and the building of legacies have more vitality. Similar religions, those polytheistic and in praise of nature, existed all over the ancient world; today, Hinduism is the most similar religion to the Indo-European still widely practiced and officially recognized as a system and culture comparable to that of the Celts. Between all polytheistic tribes, specifically those of Europe, gods were in many cases analogous: comparative mythology shows us that the Roman goddess Venus is Aphrodite to the Greeks. Baldr, the Scandinavian deity of light is represented by Belenus to Celts. When in Gaul, Julius Ceasar was able to identify the “most worshiped” deity among the Celts as Mercury, the god of guidance in travels, truth, and good fortune, which for the Celts is Lugh, the sun god.
Assumedly a result of Europeans’ lack of willingness to part with age-old traditions, and also tactful syncretism used by Christians, many aspects of paganism became part of what we now conceive to be Christian. Even if the original significance of pagan customs has been nullified or forgotten en masse over time, they are still widely recognized- some, like seasonal celebrations, more overtly than others. Evidence for this phenomenon lies partly in the shift in strategy of the Church from destruction to conciliation of pagans. Epona, the Celtic horse goddess, for example, was replaced by St. Martin, a Roman who’s life in the 4th century AD was devoted to the destruction of pagan temples and holy sites in Gaul or modern day France. The most recognizable Christian adoption of a pagan deity is, of course, Santa Claus, wholly a figure of Scandinavian lore. His image hardly revised, Christians simply renamed him after St. Nicolas, a Greek saint from Byzantium. Santa Claus, however, is merely one detail of the Yule festival, analogous to the Winter solstice, from which Christians adopted the reindeer, pine trees, gifts to children, the divine child, AKA every significant and cherished feature of the so-called Christmas. When one connects the dots of the old festivals, suddenly all the seemingly ornamental aspects of Christian holidays have meaning- and the festivals themselves, rooted in human nature and its environment, come to life when the foreign elements are removed.
Another example is Halloween, which is derived from the Celtic festival of Samhain at the Autumn equinox. Today it has degenerated into mere costume and candy purchasing for many, but at its root, adhering to the pagan circular worldview represented by the changing seasons, Samhain represented the end of the harvest and is associated with death and the return of the dead from the ‘other world.’ Even in its Christianized version, Halloween is a celebration of holy individuals who have passed on- this pagan ideal has steadily remained intact- however, the ways in which the honorable dead are remembered have lost their importance. In Celtic tribes, Samhain marked the opportunity for the dead to ‘reincarnate’ through newly initiated children, starting again the life cycle, which follows the stages of death, dying, and life. On the eve of November 1st, children of a certain age or point of maturity entered burial mounds, overcame a series of set obstacles, and if successful ‘became’ one of their dead ancestors, therefore embodying the concept of reincarnation by inheriting the name and belongings of the dead at the winter solstice, that is, the modern day Christmas. The customs of Samhain aren’t as abstract or grotesque as they appear in textbooks and mythology; in other words, the ghosts and goblins described in myths were not merely imagined- they were realized through reenactment, ritual, and purposeful customs which are still more or less symbolically practiced when children dress up as the dead, as they once would have done during their entry into the burial mound. Perhaps Halloween is the ‘most pagan’ holiday still celebrated because it was the Irish American immigrants- those “natural visionaries” from the countryside- who popularized its modern version.
In the case of Samhain, passage tombs, or burial mounds played a significant role. In County Meath near the river Boyne, a burial mound on the Hill of Tara, ‘Mound of the Hostages,’ is illuminated each year by the sunrise on Samhain. This specific mound is dated at approximately 3,000 BC, making it a holy site that predated Celts. Burial mounds are gravelike megalithic structures have mostly been discovered in Western European countries, save the exception of Scandinavia in the north. In Ireland, there are about 300 recorded of them (not including the various other types of ancient monuments). They are circular in shape, typically placed on the top of a hill overlooking land, and in many cases are surrounded, in a circular fashion, by smaller mounds, similar to the layout of the Egyptian pyramids at Giza. Within the burial mounds were contents similar to what is associated with Egyptian tombs as well, that is, household items, tools, ornamental jewelry and clothing, and in Ireland’s case spiral designs on walls and stones done in a uniquely Celtic style. It is speculated that these goods were placed for the dead in ‘afterlife,’ but it makes more sense in the context of the festivals and beliefs of ancients that the grave goods were meant for the inheritor, or the child who symbolically becomes the dead upon successful initiation. Perhaps ‘grave robbery’ was not such a widespread phenomenon- instead, these excavated tombs were sites of initiation rituals.
At the peak of Celtic influence in Europe, Celts existed as far East as modern Turkey, as far north as Belgium, down to the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain/Portugal) in the south and “had more influence over the actions of individual states than the United Nations does today.” It, however, lasted longest in pure form in Ireland, and arguably developed most prominently there. Until the fifth century AD and perhaps longer in hidden corners of Ireland, Celtic culture was the prominent one. The same cannot be said of lands close by, namely Gaul and Britain, that had been Christianized centuries before. Furthermore, Gaelic is the earliest form of recorded Celtic language, and therefore historians refer usually to ancient Ireland when discussing Celtic culture or society, as is most common in everyday historical conversation: when one thinks of the Celts, one thinks of Ireland and its neighboring Isles. Its isolation as an island distantly westward from the Roman empire (by which it was never conquered) also contributed to its peoples’ way of life surviving long enough in Ireland that its influence isn’t wholly intangible or defined by Christian revision. Well built Druidic temples, for example, were simply made into parishes, while “religious functions” of this Celtic priest class such as “consecrating temples, measuring boundaries, [and] counselling kings…were absorbed rather than abolished by the Church,” which could in part explain the unique lack of bloodshed in Ireland’s conversion to Christianity. While Christians occupied holy sites dedicated to Lugh and renamed them in honor of a St. Luc and the Celtic goddess Brigid became a patron saint, her day of worship falling still on Imbolc, one of the four seasonal Celtic festivals including Samhain as previously mentioned, such a process, by contrast, did not take place during the Scandinavian conversion which happened centuries later, over a shorter period of time, being less inclusive to deities like Óðinn and Þórr. This could be explained in part by the observable difference of Iron Age Scandinavian society from that of the Celts- they lacked a class system which for Ireland was vital to the lasting influence of the European worldview. The Druids, a high class of spiritual, educational, and political leaders and lawmakers, were the backbone of Celtic society, comparable to Hindu Brahmans.
The Druidic education was a twenty-year program based on oration and repetition with the philosophy that one can ‘burn a library, but not a people’ and that it only the most well-trained and disciplined mind would be able to store and recite information. When looked at objectively or in relation to nature, the impression of mystery so commonly experienced in reference to the Druids and Celtic society loses its prominence- on the contrary, what exists of Druidic history can inspire a grounded, realistic awe. Furthermore, outside of verses and law codes, which, like fairy tales, organically developed among people, Druids used Greek letters “for public and private affairs” which goes to prove Celts were not an illiterate race, instead, they simply cherished their doctrine and wished to avoid it from landing in the hands of an enemy. Therefore, literature from Pagan-era Ireland is scarce, and what is available (fairy tales, legends, et cetera) was written down by monks who had already become Christian. These factors, naturally, are the basis for the mystique that surrounds Druids and pagan culture in general. We have artifacts, even corpses preserved in bogs, but the lack of literature makes for lofty scholarship, most of which sees Paganism and the Druids through the lens of Christianity. Whether or not the author is either Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim)- it is an Abrahamic culture in which he is researching and writing. One must use his common sense to cultivate his own theories that tie together loose ends of pre-history.
Regardless, only the remains of pre-Christian traditions are still recognizable today, and reviving them would only be possible after centuries of living tribally- simply an unforeseeable possibility in the current state of the world. Therefore, while the ability to connect dots of the ancient past through study and speculation is important, it seems more pressing to first identify and expand upon the Celtic spirit that still exists within historically Celtic people. This effort was undertaken by Yeats in the early 20th century alongside the Irish Nationalists’ push for independence from Britain, that is, while war waged, Yeats worked in the cultural realm; it has been said after all that ‘politics is downstream from culture.’ An Irishman himself, Yeats was able to recognize a distinctly Irish spiritual culture outside of the cities, which was and still is the vast majority of Ireland. He revered the fairy folklore and legends of the peasants and was part of the effort to record and publish them. Furthermore, Yeats admitted he was glad that the native Irish ways were preserved “by literature rather than science” in that “the very voice of the people, the very pulse of life” is captured instead of each ancient tendency toward superstition being explained coldly with charts and translations. In the spirit of the Nationalist movement of the time, Yeats made a point of distinguishing Irish folk from the British as well, mentioning in his introduction to Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry the close vicinity in which the so-called fairies, changelings, ghosts, leprechauns, pookas, and banshees existed with the people. The ‘little people’ of the ‘other world’ lived amongst them, just as the gods lived among the people in all of Ancient Europe. However, in Yeats’s time, “nobody ever laid new milk on their doorstep for them” except for the Irish. After centuries of persecution and up to the present day, the divine simplicity of the Irish peasantry lends itself to the survival of their native worldview, even through Catholicism.
Without being a theologian, one can notice the most pagan influence in Catholic peoples- specifically Irish Catholics, in comparison to their British Protestant counterparts, for example. They practice devotion to an array of saints, display idols in their homes, and generally, have more religious communities. This is so for a multitude of reasons- namely, their lack of Roman rule, their isolation as an island, and most importantly, their distinct nature. Historically, Ireland falls approximately fifty-or-so years behind the reformations of neighboring states. That is to say, the Irish are a people who operate amongst themselves, within themselves, and in accordance to the spirits that encompass them. The British, in their spirit of conquest, and excusable snobbishness, have clashed with the Irish over these differences of character as two brothers might. However- they are brothers- and if it was Britain, a less zealous people in superstition, who brought Ireland kicking and screaming into modernity, then perhaps it is the duty of Ireland to plant its feet in the soil and allow Britain to go no further, without righteous assessment, into a new modernity that ensures the complete dispossession of its native people.
Today, many sects of so-called neo-pagan and occultism exist, most of which confuse heathenism with hedonism, so to speak, and adopt a random amalgamation of world religions based on the same flimsy attraction one would have to a brand of soda or beer in order to “act in non-Christian fashion” and to ‘find themselves’ through self-indulgence. This, needless to say, dampers the popular opinion towards paganism- but a single generation of well-disciplined youth in search of rooted identity could rekindle a native spirit in a time where spirit, identity, and faith are widely lacking in Europe. Not to proclaim, of course, a return to pre-scientific ignorance or irrational prejudice- simply a collective embrace of native Europeanness- one potential route being the way of pre-Christian Ireland, which even the countryside of today’s Ireland sparkles with. Although Ireland became independent, it’s own nation, through the efforts of nationalists of Yeats’s time, the modern socio-political and cultural landscape remains a threat to the “realistic naturalism” once possessed by the Celts. That is, “[the] love of nature for herself, [the] vivid feeling for her magic, commingled with the melancholy a man knows when he is face to face with her, and thinks he hears her communing with him about his origin and his destiny.” Ancient Europeans inarguably had something we lack, which is the wisdom of barbarians- those who place themselves, as men, in the same plane as animals, spirits, and nature herself- and don’t deny themselves the ability to become godlike through honor and reverence. The pre-Christian Irish folk adhered to this natural doctrine in a uniquely charmed an unassuming fashion- which is exactly what kept them from the otherwise merciless sword of Christianity- and is indeed precisely why that doctrine is still animated in the blood of historically Celtic peoples.
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“Edition used: Loeb Classical Library, 1917. The text has been in the public domain since 1973”
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Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. New York, NY: Carrol & Graf, 2002.
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“Mound of the Hostages- Tara.” Knowth. Accessed April 16, 2017. http://www.knowth.com/tara.htm.
“Knowth.com is a resource website for the Megalithic sites of the Boyne Valley.”
Nally, Claire V. “The Political Occult: Revisiting Fascism, Yeats, and a Vision.” In W. B. Yeats’s A Vision: Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally, 330-43. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2012.
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———. Reflections on European Mythology and Polytheism. Middletown, DE: Marie Cachet, 2015.
———. Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia. London: Abstract Sounds Books, 2011.
Yeats, William Butler. Essays and Introductions. New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1918.
———, ed. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1991. First published 1888 by Walter Scott.
 Yeats, William Butler. Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan Company, 1918, 217.
 Orwell, George. “W.B. Yeats.” George Orwell’s Library. Accessed April 16, 2017. https://orwell.ru/library.
 Vikernes, Varg. Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia. London: Abstract Sounds Books, 2011, 120.
 Ceasar, Julius. “The Gallic Wars.” Ceasar: The Gallic War. Accessed April 16, 2017. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Caesar/Gallic_War/.
 Robb, Graham. The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe. London, UK: Picador, 2013, 74.
 Vikernes, Varg. Reflections on European Mythology and Polytheism. Middletown, DE: Marie Cachet, 2015, 65.
 Vikernes, Varg. “The Key to Paganism.” ThuleanPerspective (videoblog). Entry posted December 31, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRo8gZBkwZk.
 Yeats, William Butler. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1991. First published 1888 by Walter Scott.
 “Mound of the Hostages- Tara.” Knowth. Accessed April 16, 2017. http://www.knowth.com/tara.htm.
 Haribson, Peter. Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988, 106.
 Ibid., 56
 Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. New York, NY: Carrol & Graf, 2002.
 Robb, 88
 Ellis, 25.
 Robb, 279.
 Ibid., 280
 Ceasar, The Gallic Wars.
 Yeats. Fairy and Folk Tales, xiv.
 Vikernes. “The Key to Paganism.”
 Yeats. Essays, 209.