The Celts

Christianity Advanced Among the Celts Tribe by Tribe. The Celtic word for tribe is tuath. The word for “people” in Welsh (tud) is related to tuath. This in turn is related to the word Teutonic. At the head of each Celtic tribe was the or king who, if he were king of a small tribe, might be bound by personal allegiance to a rí ruirech, on ‘over-king’.[1] (This person we know today as the “high king,” as in “high king of heaven”). Christianity advanced among the Celts as each tribe made a group decision after everyone had had a say in the proceedings.

Christian Governance was Administrated by the Monastic Leaders. The Celts monastic leaders established a tribal, hereditary pattern of Christian administration over a great expanse of Europe. Monasticism obtained a speedy mastery over Celtic minds not only by reason of its emotional appeal and its severe ideal of renunciation, but even more because of its perfect adaptation to the Celtic genius, and by its power of falling in with the clan or sept system under which the Celts were organized [emphasis added].[2] The effect of “falling in with the clan or sept system” was this: clan leaders would choose the ruling abbots from among their sons. These abbots were not subject to Rome’s bishop, even if that bishop were Patrick himself. For, despite Patrick’s best effort to spread the Roman form of administration—he had been appointed bishop by Pope Celestine I before returning to Ireland in 433—the Celtic Christians preferred, even insisted on, a hereditary pattern of governance. Of the diocesan model, historian Nora Chadwick writes, “Within a comparatively short time in Celtic Britain and Ireland this system proved incapable of adaptation to a tribal system of society.”[3] The diocese “gave way to the federation of monastic communities, each with its paruchia under the supreme jurisdiction of the ‘heir’ of the founder-saint.”[4]

Human Sacrifice Among Pre-Christian Celts. There is little direct archaeological evidence relevant to Celtic human sacrifice, apart from head-hunting and a possible cult of the head. The bog body found at Tollund was that of a man who had either been hanged or strangled and it has been suggested that he had been sacrificed. Sacrifice by drowning is apparently represented on the bowl from Gundestrup, a method of sacrifice which, according to one of Lucan’s scholiasts, was dedicated to Teutates. The much more plentiful archaeological evidence, corroborated by classical literary references to various offerings of inanimate objects, often of considerable value, in rivers, lakes, sacred groves and the like, and the possibility of animal sacrifice, suggest that human sacrifice among the Celts, although of great ritual significance, may have been practiced more commonly at times of communal danger or stress, rather than as part of regular ritual observance.[5]

The Gallic Celts were head-hunters, as Caesar and the church father Jerome both recorded. Posidonius, who had encountered their habit, is reported by Strabo as giving the following account:

There is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes . . . when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrance of houses. At any rate Posidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although at first he loathed it, afterwards through familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly.[6]

Tt should be remembered that head-hunting was widespread, not only in Gaul, but among the insular Celts also. Irish sagas and early Welsh poetry contain many references to it, and traces are to be found also in the medieval Welsh story of Math fab Mathonwy. Even in Norse we meet it in the story of the Earl of Orkney, who is said to have died of blood poisoning caused by a tooth from the head of his slain enemy which he was carrying hanging from his saddle-bow.[7]

Blincoe: More to come.

[1] Nora K. Chadwick, The Celts (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970). 103

[2] Herbert B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal from the Earliest Times Down to the Coming of the Friars (London: C. H. Kelly., 1913), 184. “Sept: a division of a family, especially a division of a clan.” It is a philosophical question of no small consequence to decide whether any country is ever no longer “a missionary country.”

[3] Chadwick, The Celts, 197.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 144

[6] Ibid. 37

[7] Ibid. 38