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Author Topic: There's Celtic, and then there's Celtic  (Read 6436 times)
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« Topic Start: July 01, 2007, 08:40:28 pm »

(and most of it rooted in not realizing that what "Celtic" implied, especially to a UK/Eire-dweller - like, say, Gerald Gardner, or W.B. Yeats - up until the middle of the 20th century or so, is very different from "Celtic" in the historical sense)

This I'm curious about.  Maybe in another thread?
I'm sure there's someone on TC who has talked about this and can explain it better than I can (Catja, perhaps?), but I'm the one who brought it up, so I'll at least get it started.  This being TC, I shouldn't need to explain historic Celts.

Basically, it's a question of the Anglo-Celtic heritage of the British Isles, and the particular sort of pride in that heritage exhibited in the time I referred to.  The Anglo-Saxon side of the heritage was associated with hard work, common sense, practicality, and such; the Celtic side was the emotional, imaginative, poetic, mystical, wild.

While there's a kernel of historicity to that, it's wildly oversimplified at best - and, really, isn't about history per se anyway, though it was informed by history and pseudohistory; it's more about inherited characteristics based on cultural bloodlines.  Many of the stereotypes we're familiar with appear to me to derive from this - "Drunken Irishman", at a wake wailing and carrying on in a way that no solid, stolid "Saxon farmer" type ever would, for example; or the fierce wild Highlander compared to the thrifty, canny (Lowland) Scot... you get the idea.

When Gardner identified the religious witchcraft he was writing about as "Celtic", he almost certainly was thinking of this imagery, rather than of, say, cattle raids - it was a common implication of the word in that place and at that time.  Later, North American, writers on Wicca were less aware of the imagery, and connected his use of "Celtic" to their own, different associations (some of which were no more historically accurate, or even less).  I don't suppose I need to go into sordid detail on successive degenerations of the notion (*coughWittacough*).

The imagery actually has some usefulness (especially to those whose practices owe a lot to the Wiccan/Wiccish current), if taken purely as a symbolic thing, almost more a literary device (hmm, there's that "storytelling" theme again).  But it needs to be kept in context of both its origins, and of historical fact, or it's just rabbit food.

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« Reply #1: July 15, 2007, 09:12:15 pm »

I'm sure there's someone on TC who has talked about this and can explain it better than I can (Catja, perhaps?), but I'm the one who brought it up, so I'll at least get it started.  This being TC, I shouldn't need to explain historic Celts.

Basically, it's a question of the Anglo-Celtic heritage of the British Isles, and the particular sort of pride in that heritage exhibited in the time I referred to.  The Anglo-Saxon side of the heritage was associated with hard work, common sense, practicality, and such; the Celtic side was the emotional, imaginative, poetic, mystical, wild.

While there's a kernel of historicity to that, it's wildly oversimplified at best - and, really, isn't about history per se anyway, though it was informed by history and pseudohistory; it's more about inherited characteristics based on cultural bloodlines.  Many of the stereotypes we're familiar with appear to me to derive from this - "Drunken Irishman", at a wake wailing and carrying on in a way that no solid, stolid "Saxon farmer" type ever would, for example; or the fierce wild Highlander compared to the thrifty, canny (Lowland) Scot... you get the idea.

When Gardner identified the religious witchcraft he was writing about as "Celtic", he almost certainly was thinking of this imagery, rather than of, say, cattle raids - it was a common implication of the word in that place and at that time.  Later, North American, writers on Wicca were less aware of the imagery, and connected his use of "Celtic" to their own, different associations (some of which were no more historically accurate, or even less).  I don't suppose I need to go into sordid detail on successive degenerations of the notion (*coughWittacough*).

The imagery actually has some usefulness (especially to those whose practices owe a lot to the Wiccan/Wiccish current), if taken purely as a symbolic thing, almost more a literary device (hmm, there's that "storytelling" theme again).  But it needs to be kept in context of both its origins, and of historical fact, or it's just rabbit food.

Sunflower

OK, you gave characterization to the Irish and the Scots.  Now you have forgotten the other third of the British Isles Celtic population, ie, the Welch.  Or is it as usual that the Welch and their descendants are overlooked or ignored? Grin
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« Reply #2: July 16, 2007, 12:11:40 am »



I'm by no means an expert in Celtic material, but going by historical folklore scholarship, you've hit the nail on the head.  English scholarship (pre 1960s) is *full* of maundering about the inherently mystical and poetic Celt, and, depending on how bigoted the writer in question was, jabs at drunkenness, impracticality, and superstition.  *Celtic* folklore scholars, though, were a major force in the formation of folklore as a discipline:  Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Crofton Croker, and Thomas Keightley were major early collectors.  So you also get people like Yeats, touting the romantic Celtic soul as a strength.  It's no coincidence at all that many early (late 18th-early 19th century) folklore scholars came from places that were ruled or threatened by foreign powers; a key impetus for collecting folklore in the first place was romantic nationalism -- the stories of the peasants revealed the "Volksgeist," the true spirit of the German/Irish/Finnish/etc. folk.  Many folklorists, such as the Grimms and Douglas Hyde, were involved in their countries' political unification (Germany, Italy) or independence (Ireland, Serbia, Croatia) movements. 

While nationalists pointed to Celtic folklore as an example of how interesting and awesome their cultures were, those on the opposite political spectrum (such as the English powers-that-be) would also marshal folklore to prove that group's ignorance and superstition.  For example, in Ireland in 1895, Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband and their neighbors, who thought she was a changeling, and that the "real" Bridget would come back.  The case was a huge deal for anti-Irish pundits, who claimed that such ignorant savages couldn't possibly be trusted with independence.   (Check out Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary for details.)

So, you get an interesting situation with the various "Celtic" groups in the 19th-20th centuries:  their folklore was exciting and weird, and inspired folklorists to record it, and was intended to raise national consciousness and pride in heritage -- sorely needed for people who were under the thumb of a foreign power.  At the same time, those English folklorists with conservative views wanted England to retain political and cultural supremacy over the Celtic realms (especially Ireland, which was giving the most trouble), and so constructed their folklore theories with a mind to asserting English culture as the yardstick by which all others would be measured -- the pinnacle of civilization.  That's not to say that all politically conservative Victorian/Edwardian folklorists were intending to quash the Irish, specifically -- the English felt themselves superior to everybody in the world.  But the Irish were close, they were causing trouble, and they had a *lot* of folkloric material available, so it's easy to see it working wrt to them.  I keep recommending it, but Silver's Strange and Secret Peoples discusses some of this.  *g*  Bourke does as well, so she's definitely worth reading.

And of course, all these Victorian/Edwardian attitudes in folkloristics influenced modern Neopagan movements -- thus coming back, Sunflower, to our favorite theme!   Cheesy
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« Reply #3: July 16, 2007, 01:18:26 am »

OK, you gave characterization to the Irish and the Scots.  Now you have forgotten the other third of the British Isles Celtic population, ie, the Welch.  Or is it as usual that the Welch and their descendants are overlooked or ignored? Grin

The Welsh contributed a great deal to the ideas about the "romantic Celt" -- especially the dreamy, elegiac bits; the Scots and the Irish were just as likely to be characterized as violent savages, particularly in the 19th-early 20th century stuff that Sunflower and I are obsessed with.  The Highland clearances in Scotland (stemming from the 18th century Jacobite Risings), or the late 19th-century Irish independence movement, were contemporary threats, but the Welsh hadn't posed a huge political threat to England, since, like, Owain Glendower (sp?), so it was easier for the English to go all fuzzy over them.  The Welsh revival in the 18th century was a driving force in the overall Celtic revival, and the Welsh material was embraced by English writers and artists:  Thomas Gray's "The Bard" was an early hit, the Druid revival originated in Wales (IIRC), and of course the Welsh Arthurian material powered the Victorian Arthurian revival.  I think the Welsh tend to get overlooked a bit because their stuff was seen as less politically threatening and so was more likely to get subsumed under the general "Celtic" banner (John Rhys, the pre-eminent Welsh folklorist of this period -- and first professor of "Celtic" at Oxford -- called his major work Celtic Folklore); partly because of the English co-opting of Arthur, and partly because they didn't have anyone as prominent as Sir Walter Scott (Scotland) or W. B. Yeats (Ireland) agitating for them in popular English consciousness.  I could be wrong, as I'm definitely not a Celticist and I know less about Wales than I do Scotland or Ireland, but that's the impression I've gotten from folklore scholarship. 
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« Reply #4: July 16, 2007, 12:24:50 pm »

The Welsh contributed a great deal to the ideas about the "romantic Celt" -- especially the dreamy, elegiac bits; the Scots and the Irish were just as likely to be characterized as violent savages, particularly in the 19th-early 20th century stuff that Sunflower and I are obsessed with.  The Highland clearances in Scotland (stemming from the 18th century Jacobite Risings), or the late 19th-century Irish independence movement, were contemporary threats, but the Welsh hadn't posed a huge political threat to England, since, like, Owain Glendower (sp?), so it was easier for the English to go all fuzzy over them.  The Welsh revival in the 18th century was a driving force in the overall Celtic revival, and the Welsh material was embraced by English...
Didn't Tolkein and Lewis draw rather heavily on Welsh folklore in their research (whch was inevitably woven into their writings...)? I seem to remember hearing this somewhere...
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« Reply #5: July 16, 2007, 01:45:03 pm »

OK, you gave characterization to the Irish and the Scots.  Now you have forgotten the other third of the British Isles Celtic population, ie, the Welch.  Or is it as usual that the Welch and their descendants are overlooked or ignored? Grin
I detect some Cymric genes!

I'm not overlooking the Welsh, though it might seem so.  Since I was citing the stereotypes as examples, to clarity what I was pointing at, rather than making any attempt to be comprehensive, and since the stereotypes are, aside from their romantic/exotic tones, quite unflattering, I chose to stick to being rude about my own ancestors (I'm a quarter each Scottish and Irish; I have no Welsh blood that I know of).  But if you insist:  "tinkers and thieves".  (Not me, the propaganda of the times.  I can wrap my tongue around "Dafydd", and don't have to resort to "Taffy".)

It could be said that you and I both have ignored the Cornish and the Manx.  But part of the point is that the various sorts of Celts were rather lumped together, in the cultural attitudes I was speaking of - all those stereotypes come down to the same thing:  "not civilized".

The negative aspect of the stereotypes goes back farther than the romantic aspect - and "romantic" is the precise word here.  While some rehabilitation of the Celtic image occurred earlier (according to Peter Beresford Ellis in A Brief History of the The Druids, the earliest manifestations of the Druidic revival were in France in the 1500s, as part of an embracing of the Gaulish - again Celtic - roots), my reading indicates that it was internal and nationalistic, a reclaimation of Celticness by those of Celtic stock.  But in the Romantic period, early in the 19th C., the mood swung to, "what's so great about civilization anyway?".  I would guess that it was at this point that the characterization of the Anglo-Saxon side of the equation came to be associated with stolidity and with outright incapacity for mysticism and poetry.

The Romantic-era characterizations (not just of Celts, but of Noble Savages in general, of the wonderfulness of "nature" [by which they also meant something rather different than the word's connotations to a modern North American] and the drawbacks of civilization, etc) sustained for quite a long time, and were, absolutely, the soil in which not only the neoPagan movement but its occultist and alternate-spirituality forebears grew.

I got the bit in my teeth there, a bit, linking my reply to Loneash to what I'd said earlier and to Catja's contributions.  So this isn't all directly to Loneash.

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« Reply #6: July 16, 2007, 02:21:36 pm »

I detect some Cymric genes!

I'm not overlooking the Welsh, though it might seem so.  Since I was citing the stereotypes as examples, to clarity what I was pointing at, rather than making any attempt to be comprehensive, and since the stereotypes are, aside from their romantic/exotic tones, quite unflattering, I chose to stick to being rude about my own ancestors (I'm a quarter each Scottish and Irish; I have no Welsh blood that I know of).  But if you insist:  "tinkers and thieves".  (Not me, the propaganda of the times.  I can wrap my tongue around "Dafydd", and don't have to resort to "Taffy".)

It could be said that you and I both have ignored the Cornish and the Manx.  But part of the point is that the various sorts of Celts were rather lumped together, in the cultural attitudes I was speaking of - all those stereotypes come down to the same thing:  "not civilized".

The negative aspect of the stereotypes goes back farther than the romantic aspect - and "romantic" is the precise word here.  While some rehabilitation of the Celtic image occurred earlier (according to Peter Beresford Ellis in A Brief History of the The Druids, the earliest manifestations of the Druidic revival were in France in the 1500s, as part of an embracing of the Gaulish - again Celtic - roots), my reading indicates that it was internal and nationalistic, a reclaimation of Celticness by those of Celtic stock.  But in the Romantic period, early in the 19th C., the mood swung to, "what's so great about civilization anyway?".  I would guess that it was at this point that the characterization of the Anglo-Saxon side of the equation came to be associated with stolidity and with outright incapacity for mysticism and poetry.

The Romantic-era characterizations (not just of Celts, but of Noble Savages in general, of the wonderfulness of "nature" [by which they also meant something rather different than the word's connotations to a modern North American] and the drawbacks of civilization, etc) sustained for quite a long time, and were, absolutely, the soil in which not only the neoPagan movement but its occultist and alternate-spirituality forebears grew.

I got the bit in my teeth there, a bit, linking my reply to Loneash to what I'd said earlier and to Catja's contributions.  So this isn't all directly to Loneash.

Sunflower

*nodnodnod*  Yes, to everything.  I think it's really interesting that those Celtic groups that became more assimilated into the political entity of the UK got to keep the "mystical, poetic, Romantic" image, while starting to shed the "savage" -- while "savage" still clung to the category "Celtic" as a whole, by the end of the 19th century it was far more likely to be attached -- if there was any differentiation within the category "Celtic" going on -- to the Irish than to the Scots, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, or Bretons.  In Scotland, the Jacobite Risings were crushed, and the clearances completely broke the power of the Highland chieftans, so the Scots stopped being considered a threat by, oh, the mid 19th century; by then, it was safe for the English Victorians to co-opt the image of Romantic Scotsman as promulgated by Sir Walter Scott -- just as they'd co-opted and commodified the Romantic movement as a whole.
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« Reply #7: July 16, 2007, 05:51:57 pm »

Didn't Tolkein and Lewis draw rather heavily on Welsh folklore in their research (whch was inevitably woven into their writings...)? I seem to remember hearing this somewhere...
Yes, Tolkien was a master at linguistics, obsessed in learning a lot of the earlier european languages but (I think) his fictional writings were just a product some of the things he was studying in regard to language.
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« Reply #8: July 16, 2007, 06:55:44 pm »

Yes, Tolkien was a master at linguistics, obsessed in learning a lot of the earlier european languages but (I think) his fictional writings were just a product some of the things he was studying in regard to language.

That doesn't mean there wasn't a healthy influence from various mythological sources, though.  It just means that retelling/adapting/honoring/etc. the myth wasn't his reason for writing.  Wink  (I don't know about Welsh, but I seem to recall Norse myth being cited as a heavy influence in LotR, for example.)
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« Reply #9: July 16, 2007, 11:50:32 pm »

Didn't Tolkein and Lewis draw rather heavily on Welsh folklore in their research (whch was inevitably woven into their writings...)? I seem to remember hearing this somewhere...

Tolkein drew on the Welsh language as a model for one of his Elvish dialects (which one is escaping me now, but he used Finnish for one of the others); he drew pretty promiscuously from Northern European mythologies, including Celtic, Finnish, and especially Norse/Germanic.  Lewis, not so sure about -- it's been a while since I read the Narnia books, and I remember Christian and Greek mythology being paramount there.  However, anytime you get Arthurian overtones, Welsh material is lurking somewhere in the background.  If you want Welsh myths showing up in fantasy series, try Alexander's Prydain books (The Black Cauldron, etc.) and Cooper's The Dark is Rising series.  There's also an *awesome* YA book based on the Bloduwedd (sp?) story in the Mabinogian:  The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.
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« Reply #10: July 17, 2007, 02:04:57 pm »

That doesn't mean there wasn't a healthy influence from various mythological sources, though.  It just means that retelling/adapting/honoring/etc. the myth wasn't his reason for writing.  Wink  (I don't know about Welsh, but I seem to recall Norse myth being cited as a heavy influence in LotR, for example.)
I totally agree..  from what I've read about Tolkien he was learning Old Norse/Old Finnish/Jatvingian in order to better understand the Eddas/Sagas of all the northern euro countries. Although he was born and raised English, the Tolkien name derives from old East Prussian languages. That may have been his reason for the interest there..

Here's a nice bio webpage showing his homeplace and some references to his writing ideas
http://home.freeuk.net/webbuk2/tolkien-biography.htm
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« Reply #11: July 17, 2007, 02:18:42 pm »

I totally agree..  from what I've read about Tolkien he was learning Old Norse/Old Finnish/Jatvingian in order to better understand the Eddas/Sagas of all the northern euro countries. Although he was born and raised English, the Tolkien name derives from old East Prussian languages. That may have been his reason for the interest there..

OK.  Perhaps I misunderstood you, then; if that's the case then I do apologize.  It had sounded to me like you were saying that Tolkien couldn't have been drawing on Welsh mythology because he was just writing to explore language and lingustics, which is what I was responding to.  *is slightly confused*
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« Reply #12: July 17, 2007, 06:06:48 pm »

OK.  Perhaps I misunderstood you, then; if that's the case then I do apologize.  It had sounded to me like you were saying that Tolkien couldn't have been drawing on Welsh mythology because he was just writing to explore language and lingustics, which is what I was responding to.  *is slightly confused*
I am always confuzzled due to chronic lack of sleep!  That's one reason I get the quote thingy messed up all the time.
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« Reply #13: July 18, 2007, 06:24:44 pm »

I detect some Cymric genes!


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CYmric genes? you better believe it.  My grandfather (who acted more or less as my surigate father) came from Guent in 1880.  Since I know very little of my fathers side, I'm very proud of my Welch ancestry.
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« Reply #14: July 21, 2007, 04:31:33 pm »

CYmric genes? you better believe it.  My grandfather (who acted more or less as my surigate father) came from Guent in 1880.  Since I know very little of my fathers side, I'm very proud of my Welch ancestry.

While we are at it, how about the Breton? What is now Brittany was known as Lesser Britain and the inhabitants were genetically and liguistically linked with the Welsh and Cornish. My family are Breton. with Welsh, Cornish and Irish in that order.

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