A Brief Deconstruction of “Celtic Spirituality”

One of the things that comes up for me a lot when I am designing my programs about the spiritual traditions of the British Isles is what to call this field of study.

Do I say Celtic? Insular Celtic? Iron-Age? Ancient British? Is it accurate to say “spiritual traditions”, when most likely spiritual beliefs infused every part of life of the ancients? Is it better to say “cosmology”, when cosmology refers to a wide range of cultural practices and worldviews, not just spiritual beliefs, even though my focus is on the spiritual side of things, and even though you can’t actually separate these?

Let’s start with Celtic. This word is thrown around a lot, and it can have specific meaning in some instances, and be so vague as to be meaningless in others.

The word “Celtic” actually only has a specific definition in the field of linguistics. Today, there are 5 surviving Celtic languages, and one that has only recently become extinct (Cornish, and blessings to those championing the revival!). Language, of course, is vitally important to culture, but it doesn’t encompass everything.

So, what does it mean to speak of “Celtic cultures”? Can we really even do this? Well, in my view, this is a lot murkier. While this is somewhat vague as a term (it would be a lot more accurate to say, “Scottish”, “Gaulish”, “Welsh” etc.), it still points to something, and there are entire nations embedded in a Celtic identity.

Often when we hear the word today, we think of Ireland or Scotland, or we think of a static snapshot of some time in the distant past where people danced with fairies in the greenwoods of Britain, and played the harp.

But actually Celtic cultures have, at one time or another, existed over a wide expanse of Europe, and over several millennia. There are of course great complexities within this as well, with various different eras marked by cultural variation within this time and geographic frame. Generally speaking, the Celtic era is understood to have started in the late Bronze Age, having a stronghold throughout the Iron Age (approx. 800 BC - 100 AD in the British Isles).

The Celtic identity and languages are also still very much alive today, particularly in the British Isles (Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Manx, and Cornish), and so it’s incorrect to see Celticity as something only from the past, or something that has ended.

However, when we hear people speak of “Celtic spirituality”, usually what they are referring to are the practices and worldview of the Celtic nations of Britain before the Roman invasion, which is roughly between 700 BC - 50 AD. However, it of course carried on during the Roman occupation that ended around 400 AD, and has survived and adapted ever since throughout many invasions and changes until today.

The trouble with saying “Celtic spirituality” without making room for these nuances is that there is an awful lot of ambiguity in our practice and study - and unfortunately, misinformation about what falls under this umbrella.

One way that I found to be more clear is to say, “Insular Celtic”. This term refers specifically to the Celtic languages of the British Isles, and I tend to use it to indicate that my work focuses on this geographical area. However, I know there are still a lot of limitations with this term - for example, it still only strictly refers to language, and I am not teaching any of the Celtic languages, but the worldview in a spiritual context. It also indicates that these cultures are homogenous with the same lore and traditions, when this is absolutely not the case.

The trouble is in finding a term that people will generally recognize and understand, and yet that is still accurate and respectful of these cultures. A lot of misinformation, stereotyping, and flat-out lies have been peddled under the guise of “Celtic spirituality”, and most often, our learning these days necessarily starts with unlearning.

Going further, I also tend to use “cosmology” over “spirituality”, because it is actually quite bizarre, if you think about it, to only be interested in the spirituality of a culture - why pick this out over the music, language, art, dress, food, literature, current struggles and cultural revival efforts, etc? And also, as I have found, you cannot actually come to know the spiritual beliefs without knowing more about these other cultural aspects. Unfortunately, in my 25+ years of being in spiritual communities, I have noticed that many of us have such a drive for spiritual connection due to our very disconnected society, that we tend to miss out on learning about these other important cultural elements. We lose the actual substance of cultural connection in the pursuit of it, and end up with very ungrounded spiritual practices that are taken out of context.

This doesn’t bring us any closer to what we are actually seeking. It’s why in my classes, I always include references to the cultures as a whole, with references to music, poetry, story, language, current and past cultural teachers, geography, history, and so on.

I believe that one of the reasons we avoid this level of connection is because it’s a lot of work, time, study, and, often, money to truly connect to a culture if we are of the diaspora. It takes years of research, finding accurate sources, learning the language, learning the history and geography, purchasing books and classes, and taking trips to our homelands. It’s incredibly overwhelming and can feel like you will never be able to know enough to have a genuine connection.

I get this! Even though I was born and raised in England, and spent a lot of time in the Scottish highlands with my family there, it has still taken me literally *years* of focused study and practice to feel like I have just a bit more than a surface understanding. Most days, I feel like a complete novice, lost at sea in the depths of what I don’t know.

You can probably see what I mean from this discussion alone - if the word “Celtic” itself has so much nuance and complexity in its usage before we even get into active practice, then we already know we are swimming in deep waters! But this is how it should be. Celticity is not up for commodification or a one-liner explanation. As with any culture, the Celtic cultures and worldviews are incredibly complex, deep, vast, and nuanced, and we can’t learn them in a weekend class.

When it comes to spiritual practice, it has become commonplace to be able to attend workshops certifying you in “Celtic Shamanism” or Druidry. I hope that this article has shed some light on why this is a fantasy, and an affront to the actual cultures that they claim to be based upon. I also hope that in our seeking, we realize that true, embodied connection is so much more than a string of disconnected spiritual practices - and when we realize this, the felt connection is that much more profound, potent, and we start to find that we really are getting closer to that feeling of homecoming that we are ultimately seeking.

There are many more things to be said about this subject, which I will keep writing about. As with connecting to culture, you can’t do it all in one bite-size piece.

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