Monday, June 20, 2011

Who were the ancient Celts and Druids?

The June solstice is here (summer solstice in the northern hemisphere), and ancient solar monuments such as Stonehenge are the site of all kinds of solstitial revelry, as is increasingly common in recent years.

While these celebrations are often associated with neo-paganism and other forms of nature-worship, it is appropriate to ask if the builders themselves may have intended them to represent something quite different. In particular, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at some alternative theories regarding the ancient Druids and Celts which were put forward in previous centuries, which are largely ignored or ridiculed today.

We venture into this territory only very tentatively and with sensitivity for the fact that the subject is a very living and personal issue to many individuals around the world today. In fact, members of the order of Druids may still be said to exist, and so any discussion of the subject must maintain respect for this fact.

While some may vigorously disagree with their conclusions, it is clear that many scholars in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries believed that the Druids, and the Celts in general, appeared to have strong connections to the ancient Hebrews and Phoenicians, and may well have shared their religious beliefs to some extent which is difficult to determine today.

To begin with, many ancient historians including Josephus, Posidonius, and the more recent 12th-century Byzantine scholar John Zonaras believed that the people the Greeks called the Celtae and the Romans most often the Gauls were descended from Gomer the son of Japhet the son of Noah in Genesis, and that the names Comerian, Kumero, Kumeri, Cymero, Cimmerian, Cimri, Cymbri, Cambria, and other ancient names for these people were all derivations of the name Gomer. The traditional name for Wales is Cymru ("the land of the Cymry").

Eustathius of Antioch, who was a participant in the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, wrote that "Gamer [as the name Gomer was written in the Septuagint] was the founder of the Gamerians, whom we now call Galatians or Gauls" (cited in Godfrey Higgins [1772 - 1833], Celtic Druids [1829], page 55). St. Jerome voiced a similar opinion.

Ancient Phoenician and Hebrew culture shared many similar aspects, including language and style of writing (from right to left and without vowels in the earliest forms), and eighteenth-century scholar Charles Vallancey (1721 - 1812) argued that "the Celtic, Punic, Phoenician and Hebrew languages" share "the strongest affinity (nay a perfect identity in very many words)" (in An Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language, page 21). He points out that the ancient Irish assumed to themselves "the name of Feni or Fenicians, which they have retained through all ages," and gave the name Bearla Feni ("the Phoenician tongue") to one of their languages (19).

Vallancey also lists numerous words from ancient Hebrew and Phoenician that correspond to Irish words, such as gan and gan-gamel (Hebrew and Phoenician words for a hovel or small enclosure) and Irish gan, gan-ail, and gan-gamuil for the same concept, or the ancient Phoenician term shac for a king or ruler, corresponding to Irish seadh for the same concept (17). He alleges that the ancient Phoenician word suren and Hebrew sar, for next in power to the king, became Irish saor and saoi, and is related to the modern word "sir."

In speaking of the ancient Druidic religion, Vallancey maintains that it was preserved in its purest form in the British Isles (probably because Roman conquest ignored Ireland)(55). He declares that "The pagan Irish never admitted the modern Deities of the Greeks and Romans into their worship; even to the days of St. Patrick their worship was pure Assyrian, and consisted of the heavenly host alone, as I have described elsewhere" (65). He notes that they did not make idols or representations of the deity (and that if they had it would have certainly attracted the attention of St. Patrick) and that there is ample evidence that they maintained a Sabbath on the seventh day, a system of tithes, and used the term Beith-Al to refer to the "House of God" (55-56, 64). Other historians have noted that the Druids, like the Levitical priests of the ancient Hebrews, were exempted from military service.

Julius Caesar noted that the Druids were extremely learned, declaring in Book IV of the Gallic Wars that:
They have, also, much knowledge of the stars and their motion. They hold long discussions about heavenly bodies and their movements, the size of the universe and the earth, the physical constitutions of the world and the powers and properties of the gods, and they instruct the young men in all these subjects.
Is it possible that these very learned students of nature, the heavens, and the movements of the celestial bodies, who shared so many linguistic and cultural affiliations with both the ancient Hebrews and Phoenicians, whom Vallancey alleges "believed the Deity to be infinite and omnipresent, and thought it ridiculous to imagine that he whom the Heaven of Heavens cannot contain, should be circumscribed within the narrow limits of a roof" (55-56) were practicing some form of the Hebrew religion, and that the deities and sun and moon worship attributed to them is related to the encoding of celestial motions within myths and legends as discussed in this previous post on "God and the gods"? That there was a long-running tension between those who began to worship the heavenly bodies themselves and those who worshiped the one who created and set in motion those heavenly bodies is quite clear from the Hebrew Scriptures.

There are other pieces of evidence that historians of previous centuries have noted, such as the possibility that the Goidels or Goidelic Celts took their name from the Hebrew tribe of Gad, or that the phrase Tuatha de Danann may be related to the Hebrew tribe of Dan.

This subject is taken up in the final chapter of the Mathisen Corollary book as well.

In closing this brief foray into a very deep and complicated subject, it is important to stress that these clues and the interpretations offered for them by scholars of previous centuries are just that: scattered clues and the analyses of those clues offered by admittedly imperfect human beings, each of them with various gaps, biases, and possibly agendas of their own. It is probably important not to become too dogmatic on this subject, since very little is really known for certain about the most ancient origins of the Druids and Celts of twenty-three or even twenty-eight centuries ago. These clues are important to examine and not to simply dismiss, and it is probably best to adopt the attitude that those who look into these matters should be open to looking at the strengths and weaknesses of all the possible explanations, and ways in which those explanations fit or do not fit the various pieces of evidence that remain to us today.