A graveyard of our ancestors

From Dead to Deity – How did the Celtic dead become gods?

by Scott

I’m sitting on a train.  It’s like a liminal space, I’m not moving but rushing forward at the same time. Travelling through the amazing Scottish landscape, it’s always a joy.  Even though a brown, white and green dusk coloured blur beyond the window. The sound of the train, the rock of its carriage, always makes my mind drift.  It gets me thinking.  Back to old conversations and thoughts. I have pondered questions around animism and the dead a lot recently. In discussions, its been one of many topics raised over whisky, late into the evening. I thought the friendly debates and these unformed threads of ideas might be of interest to some. I hope, selfishly, getting them down might help me firm up my ideas more than they are. I haven’t referenced any of it as it’s just me, brain dumping ideas on a train. So excuse the bare bones of it. Since writing this article though i have covered this is huge depth. You can read part one of the four part series here.

Etymology of deus

Deus – the origin of the word deity

The idea I’ve been toying with is the subject of deity. How did deity  come about? How did we create god/s? What process created them? In the Christian lens offered, is the view incorrect? Are we thinking about these things in the wrong way? If so, what impact might a different understanding have on folk practices?

In exploring an answer to this, I think the idea of deity/god/s as created out of some mythic stuff, in the “astrals” is perhaps misplaced. In my mind, they are something more related to us, and not so “out there”.  I think there is a process and the process goes like this. It starts from the land spirits, combines with dead ancestors. Then moves to a family spirit, a community spirit, a tribes tutelary protector. Then finally, we have a nations god, goddess or deity.

Animism

Holy well land wight worship

Holy well – land wight worship

So land spirits. There are discussions about characters in folklore that come before the human race was ever conceived of. Those that folk have often recalled and suggested as giants. Such as the Cailleach, the Formorians, the djinn, the land inhabited by angles or demons as giants they say. These are the spirits of the wilds. The dangerous places. The spirits of mountains, rivers, forests, sky, storms and lochs. I won’t be going into too much detail here about pre-human spirits but let’s just say for argument’s sake they exist. How did these land spirits or land wights and our belief in this form of animism lead to deities and polytheism?

As you’ll know I have a definitive belief that ancestors and clan lineage is  important to a lot of the pre and post-Celtic people. These clan lineages link us Scots, and many others, back to some of the big names in Celtic based polytheism. As in theory, these big mythic names are ancient original ancestors. So not really deities from out there, in the sense that we have come to understand them today, but the very very old dead. Some might use the phrase “mighty dead”, others might use the term deity god or goddess, deamon, spirit etc. It’s my thought ancestors were worshipped alongside the land spirits and this evolved as our culture did. … Ok so hear me out …

Cailleachs eye

The process

Originally, there were only families, each one represented as a single community. The heads of family were the most important folk. The spirits of the family ancestors who had passed were honoured. The land spirits, wights or genius loci were appropriated with offerings. (What I personally term along with the spirits of the dead and our ancestors, the sith/sidhe). These land spirits or giants, these animistic spirits were feared.  They were offered appropriate offerings least they come and do us harm.  As we became domesticated, settled and the community grew, families joined one another into a clan structure. Once they did this, things changed. We encouraged the land wights, the sith, to become protectors of place. We asked permission to use the land. We invited the spirits into our houses and farms to guard them. We also buried our own dead in the land and the two became very important and inter related from this point forward. The land spirit became the spirit of the house hold along with other ancestor worship taking place there also. This was now a domestic consideration.  It’s why we offer them things. A bargain was struck. As simple as “If I keep this promise will you keep yours?” Folk were still worried by the land spirits, the sith, though, and this is why we developed protective practices. What if they called the deal off?

Celtic cross graveyard in Ireland Animism

Celtic cross graveyard in Ireland

However, now we are a bigger community or small clan, offerings were made to the success of the larger community and the clan spirit. This might have been represented by a Bile tree or other natural formation within the centre of the community. Here we see the calling of the spirits for clan success, the dead and the land in a tribal ancestral deity. A tutelary protector. The ancestors who passed are the spirits of the community now. If you had a particular brave ancestor, a hero, they would be revered more so than others. It would be these successes our ancestors sought to emulate. This is demonstrated quite well in the structure of old Rann or charms. There is always a verse that calls on those who have done this before. These mighty dead then became the protector of the larger community. As their fame and worth grew it would be called upon by all in the surrounding clan lands. As communities grew bigger these spirits rose in popularity. Perhaps being viewed as the deities we see them as today.

Finally, we have the combining of these clans under larger communities within the rule of Lairds. Later, the Kings and Queens. It is then the rulers favoured ancestor or spirit who becomes the emblem of the “religion”. The clan badge or symbol of the forming nation. It is they who become the representation of that nation. Those who are part of that nation then pay respects to the national deity god/s or godess/s.

This does not mean that the different levels of spirits were not paid homage to, far from it. This was not hierarchical in my mind. One did not supersede the other. There are different levels of spirit devotion/appropriation/relationship in operation. The spirit of the house once a land spirit perhaps, the family ancestors, or maybe both, was still important. Known as the Lares, the Domovoi, the Kobold or the Brownie. The Celts would have paid homage to something like them.  Those they refer as the Sith/Sidhe/Aos Si outside of their home. Offering them milk, bread and honey. This is pretty much what the other domestic spirits were offered. As suggested in the covenant laid out in the Irish and Gaelic myth cycle. Perhaps here is the first clue.

Arthurian Gawain of the Guotodin tribe Animism

Arthurian Gawain of the Guotodin tribe

There was also the clan ancestors, paid homage to at burial mounds and other places. You might have called on different members of your family for protection.  This was something that the family could have done as and when required, in such acts as fishing, weaving, curing folk etc. There would have been different ones for different tasks. You might also give them offerings to stop them rising back up to bother you or the rest of the family and community too. You would also pay dues to the ancestor of the clan or the Tuath.  This was the idea of the milk, honey and bread tithe to the sith, and the Tuatha de Dannan. For instance in East Lothian, where I live, the Iron age Celtic Votadini tribe were said to have worshipped Lugh, the long armed. Or possibly as the Guotodin they might have worshiped the Dadga, the good god.  There were those who ruled the clan who may have traced their lineage back to him. So they became the clans ancestor or protector spirit. Later termed deity by monotheistic or Christain influenced thinkers. All these different spirit activities would have gone on simultaneously. It’s perhaps why we have so many different Celtic deity names.

Cailleachs eye

Conclusion

So this is one suggestion how animism, necromancy, and polytheism  and folk magic might all link together. So no one is really doing anything wrong. We are just looking at it for our own frame of reference. Perhaps just focussing on one part of the process.  So what influences might this have on folk magical practice or witchcraft?

Calling on your ancestors in Ranns and charms would be the most effective recourse to get things done. It also means that you may have a personal ancestral practice, a family practice and a mythic ancestor or deity of the place where you live. Which could be called upon at once or one at a time for different things.

When carrying out each of these practices, it would happen at the centre of things. For instance, our hearts and our hearths for our ancestors. The Bile tree for our community spirits. The centre of the country or clan territory for our national guardian. The centre then being of intrinsic value for the success of these activities. These associations could be used in a number of different ways by the folk practitioner to effect different results.

It also means if your European decent and call on Celtic deities, they might not be deities at all. They are, in effect, your ancient blood ancestors.  Your are part of the fabric of community and place where you stand if you call them in Europe. Especially if you live in the place your family has been for a long time. This doesn’t mean you can’t call on them elsewhere. After all, it’s where your heart and hearth is. Where you centre is after all.

It also means in the wilds of the landscape is where you are most likely to meet wild “untamed” land wights and land spirits. Those giants of old. Not so much in the arable farms lands, cities and urban sprawl. This means to communicate with them you need to move or use an intermediary.

There’s a suggestion in all this too. We don’t want to get rid of spirits from places. No magic circles required. These spirits are welcome if they will work alongside us and do us no harm. If they seek to harm, there are ways to make them happy, not banished or excluded. The way a folk practitioner or cunning person would work this approach is with understanding.  To build relationships with those they encounter.  From both this world and the other. They would offer help and build relationships. Not command and dominate, unless there was no other way. Because, in the long run, this is your family your dealing with here.

Ok, casting the idea wider, are there spirits of professions? I’m sure there are ancestors that you could call upon to help you. Just as they are Saints for the lost and worried. This approach leaves open so many great questions. Something more to think about, do modern communities have spirits too? Cities, society at large, does each one have an egregore that we might tap into and communicate with? Are they even aware of us, or of themselves? What is it that moves and blows through the town and city streets, and alleyways at night?

I’ll think about this more as my train rocks its way through the darkness rushing past the window.

Cailleachs eye

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9 comments

morinoravenberg 11th February 2016 - 10:52 pm

Font & BG color makes for a difficult read 🙁

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Cailleachs son 12th February 2016 - 10:11 am

Sorry to hear that Morinoravenberg. Don’t suppose you can email me a screen shot of where the issue is, so, I can look to fix it?

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Ren Ravenclaw 16th February 2016 - 9:25 am

It’s the entire gray color of the font that he’s referring to above.

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Cailleachs son 16th February 2016 - 11:41 am

Hey there Ren,

How strange the colour on my monitor is Black. Thanks both for alerting this to me though. I’ll ensure that it’s black through tweaking the settings and see if I can improve it. Many thanks.

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Cailleachs son 16th February 2016 - 11:44 am

Dear both,

I have adjusted the settings. If you get the message I would be reassured that you can now read it without too many issues?

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Ren Ravenclaw 19th February 2016 - 11:53 pm

Much better. Thank you kindly and blessed be.

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Cailleachs son 20th February 2016 - 10:41 am

I’m glad thank you for the feed back, was really help full 🙂 have a great day !

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Heather Awen 27th April 2016 - 12:22 pm

This was really great to read. My main religion was bioregional animism until I was forced to be inside all the time because of all the chemicals outside including in the wild and woolly middle of nowhere where I live. We often read that the Celts have gods who are of the tribe socially and goddesses who are of the land especially water . It’s repeated so much and in doing the research for this book for Celtic pagans in prison I’ve been rereading that endlessly . 10 years ago I thought it was far too simplistic but it does make some sense, as it is pretty hard to find a goddess not associated with a river . Considering that each tribe would have its own gods and goddesses this makes sense. When we look at the similar Germanic pagans the female ancestors travel with the family while the male ancestors are often buried in mounds and they are often Gods, for example Freyr was dead and buried for 300 years and people paid their taxes into the hole in the mound because he was just so great with prosperity and peace nobody ever mentioned he died . On my fathers side of the family I am a descendent of Ingvi Freyr , Odin and a giant in Finnmark . On my mothers side I am a descendent of the river Tweedy male fairy . So the cross over between having a deity be a great ancestor and being in a patriarchal society it’s usually a male ancestor while also coming from the land herself/itself , I’ve always said that a tribe is ancestry plus bioregion . In so many cultures the dead move into trees or rocks or mountains , that’s part of Mongolian Shaman work, because sometimes a dead person will want to move into a tree that somebody else already inhabits . And then I think of the Cherokee Trail of tears and how the women were hugging different trees sobbing their goodbyes and I wonder if it’s an animist relationship or an ancestral relationship, which is when it hit me that the dead literally break down into the land and the DNA is everywhere. It’s in the trees, it’s in the food. So when I do devotions I always include the dead of where I am because they live even if as molecules that were once part of their bodies , but also the land knows them and they are the land , I can’t really have a good relationship with the land here without having a good relationship with the dead here and part of that is indigenous rights solidarity , knowing the mythology without misappropriating ( it’s actually very similar to Scandinavian because the weather is so similar ) and being supportive of local Indian country struggles whether it’s about burial mounds being flooded to make recreational parks in Ohio or contacting the Lenape who are the most active activists about doing animism ceremony on land that until recently was part of them until they were removed although some did stay by saying that they were people of color as opposed to Indian . That’s actually a pretty common track on the East Coast . Where I live now only recently has the government even acknowledge there ever were any indigenous people here and for a state with only 600,000 people there are somehow six people who have declared themselves the chief of the tribe and there’s a lot of chaos which is normal when in Indian country politics . But I have to acknowledge that a lot of that chaos is because of the harm done by people who is not my direct ancestors did a lot of horrible stuff so that my direct ancestors could have an easy time of it when they got here . I have ancestors in the United States from the 17th century who were “freethinkers” Quakers and ranters but I also have 18th-century Scottish ancestors who I suspect probably had no problem with slavery and were pioneers and probably had no problem with the genocide which from their limited point of view was a struggle to stay alive , I don’t think they had much of an idea of it being an orchestrated event. And then I also have ancestors who arrived within the last 100 years , so I am working on different levels of connectedness to the history of a nation . That’s really one part that I’ve noticed that European pagans haven’t had to face very much. I mean European nations made a time of money out of slavery in the colonies , but your Land isn’t soaked in the blood. However there’s all sorts of bloody wars about people being less than all over Europe for centuries and centuries which you have to deal with haunting your lands.

Often I’ve noticed European pagans wonder why Americans are so focused on reconstructing the ways of our ancestors and like I tell my closest companion who lives in Ireland, I’m an Irish citizen, he is the accumulation of countless generations of Connemara farmers . There’s nothing but Connemara farmers . He never thinks of his ancestry and thinks it’s bizarre that I do genealogy work because as he says nobody in Ireland ever thinks about ” I am from these Vikings in Dublin and from this part of Wales and these Vikings in Scotland and the Irish attacked these ancestors in Wales ” you just are Irish even if you are Chinese or Polish which is more and more the population along with different African communities although I guess Polish is the number one group of immigrants where he is now. And they’re all Irish which is upsetting to the tourists so the Irish government is trying to get Irish people working in hospitality because Irish-Americans do not go to Ireland to have Polish people be their waitstaff. There’s so many layers of prejudice , including the American idea that Ireland is some mythical place.

But I had an experience of doing a lot of ancestor work with Northern Wales and meeting a goddess who basically was the whole focus of this tribe for centuries and centuries and I could see my people dealing with her at different time periods and then somebody put me in contact with someone who actually lives there who has had all of the same types of visions but has gotten them from the land and we were able to compare and find out that we had the exact same information although I had access to the most personal parts of the ceremonies and she was able to give me the whole history . So she could do it through bioregion and I did it through ancestry. More and more people will be discovering gods and goddesses with no names and no history recorded .

So when does ancestery and animism become polytheism ? I don’t think any of this fits into Cartesian labels the way that so many books or organizations tried to categorize it all. You can’t move anything out of context and one thing that I’m realizing is incredibly important for understanding polytheism is understanding what it was like living there at the time of when the folklore or mythology was recorded. There are not a lot of people who understand that Norway doesn’t have great farming land so the God Njord fisherman is incredibly important because most of us live inland although I have a relatively recent ancestor who died fishing in the Irish Sea , which is now one of the top 10 most toxic places in the world for the oceans .

How does that affect gods and goddesses and why doesn’t modern animism include those hazards ? The world we live in today is completely different than 100 years ago, every human has 300 chemicals that did not exist 100 years ago in their bodies , no matter where they live. All breastmilk is toxic now. But it’s better than formula. But for a goddess of the fields , what has all the pesticides done to her? Or as a bioregional animist what have they done to the spirits/personhood of that land? When the Seine River is overflowing with estrogen due to endocrine disruptors from pesticides or the trout in England , one fourth of the male ones are turning female due to the estrogen again from pesticides , why don’t we see this in paganism? All of our ancestors were completely focused on the land knowing that is exactly what keeps them alive and all of the rituals around the world have mostly been focused upon food . Or keeping tribal people from killing each other . But the goddess of the Siene Sequana, how is she today ? I actually send a little bit of money for taking care of the Tweed River because I come from that river. But how are people disconnecting themselves from nature when they’re in a nature religion ? And do they feel it on the same level as when the land is your actual ancestral family? The way that our ancestors would’ve felt it.

I also wonder how much virtual reality keeps people from acknowledging what’s outside .

It’s just strange to me that people can talk of gods and goddesses while removing them from their geographical and historical context and that they aren’t forming relationships based on where we are today which is what all pagans always did. This is nothing like the planet 1000 years ago. 200 species go extinct every day . There is not really any wilderness left . There is nowhere that isn’t toxic for everybody with multiple chemical sensitivity would have moved there . There are cell towers everywhere producing bizarre EMF patterns that are screwing with migrating animals and causing high rates of cancer especially in children , there are parts of the ocean that are dead , the GMOs are almost inconceivable , how do those things fit into our mythology today worshiping the same gods and goddesses in the religious context of our animistic and ancestor focused pagan history? What does it mean when the Pacific ocean is radioactive ? Is Godzilla actually a new monster/Deity somehow?

I guess having multiple chemical sensitivity and having to be really aware of environmental justice issues and how many environmental illnesses there are like asthma , cancer , autism etc. along with so many reproductive problems , to me it’s really important how we integrate the reality of today into our pagan religions because I prefer a living faIth not trying to stay in a museum exhibit . We need help and the only way we can get it is if we accurately can look at and feel what’s happened to the land and our bodies and go through whatever grieving process we need to to get into reality and talk to the land, the gods and goddesses as they are now ( and some of them do need to be caught up to dateay especially if they’re not directly related to the land or the sea ) and also to keep telling our ancestors and asking for guidance and even praying for our best case scenario descendents to reach back and help us do whatever it is we did that got them to the best case scenario , we live in a very different times , although unfortunately feudalism is still here .

Well, I’ve been rambling! I just haven’t found an interesting blog in a really long time . I mean a really really long time. Also you aren’t trapped in all of the trendy different arguments that never end in paganism which have derailed most bloggers . And you aren’t following somebody else’s project trying to win some meaningless blogger award . Maybe I’ll just come up with my own blogger awards and give them to people. Anyway I don’t follow blogs because I’m too sick but I do bookmark them so I can read them when I am feeling better. I’ve had a really high fever for a few days but it went down six hours ago . Which is why I’ve gotten a chance to look at your blog finally.

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Cailleachs son 27th April 2016 - 3:27 pm

Heather, Thank you so much for your words! you raise so many different ideas and complexities it is hard to know where to start :). Sorry that you have been unwell, Lyme disease is horrible. For me, there is a disconnect from lots of things especially in modern life. I intend to write a lot better referenced article on these ideas soon. I hope to re-examine things a little in these areas and hope you will follow along with it. Please also feel free to email me via the contact page its a lot easier for me to reply via that medium than via teh comments on so many interesting thoughts.

Slàinte Mhath

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