Friday, October 20, 2006

Who's a Celt now? - 3

"Celtic Spirituality" as religious outbidding.

During the recent Spanish Peaks Celtic Music Festival, St. Benedict Episcopal Church in La Veta, Colorado, took out a small ad in the program for their Celtic Spirituality weekend.

Yes, before the contemporary Pagan movement was underway, various Anglicans were pushing "Celtic spirituality" as a way to make an end run around the Roman Catholics. Their claim that the Church of England was rooted in the so-called Celtic church permitted claims such as this:

[The Church of England] preserved a tradition of [Celtic and Anglo-Saxon] scholarship which Rome had lost, together with a love of discipline which the Celt never had. The result was a vigorous, dignified, and self-reliant national Church.

Arthur G. Willis and Ernest H. Hayes, Yarns on Wessex Pioneers (1954)

Best of both worlds, you see. It's all about Celtic special-ness.

Whereas the Vatican may claim the keys of St. Peter, Celtic spirituality lets one claim a link to the ancient, noble Druids (one of several interpretations of Druids, as will be neatly enumerated in Ronald Hutton's upcoming book on them). See, for instance, this "Christ as Druid" prayer, attributed to St. Columba, but I wonder.

By claiming that Druids were peacefully converted and led their Pagan peoples into Christianity, the "Celtic church" casts itself as the irenic alternative to "convert-or-die" monotheisms.

Celtic Christians want to be like Druids, because one interpretation of Druids is as proto-monotheists. That interpretation came from writers who never met a Druid, as Stuart Piggott explained forty years ago.

Some Episcopal clergy became a little too enthusiastic about Druidry and learned the hard way where the borders were.

I do not want to be too hard on the American Episcopalians. That church has been slowly self-destructing since the 1960s, when it became infected with a bad case of Vatican II-envy.
More to come.

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Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

I don't think you can reasonably define "Celt" as anything but "person who speaks a Celtic language", or to stretch it a bit, "person whose ancestors, within recorded historical time, spoke a Celtic language".

Thus the Catholic Irish can claim to be Celtic with some shadow of authenticity, and so can the Welsh and Scots from areas above the Highland Line, though not Lowlanders. And the Bretons. And that's about it.

Other definitions tend to get a bit into the buffet-lunch-of-the-identities phenomenon, where you decide each Monday what your ethnic label's going to be until next Tuesday and buy the appropriate costume on the Web for delivery by FedEx.

Celtic is popular; a lot of people also suddenly discover that they're Indians because great-great-grandma was one-fifteenth Cherokee.

Since all my ancestors (except for a very thin strain of Beothuk) are British, I've almost certainly got Celts among my forebearers.
Probably quite a few.

But that doesn't make me a Celt, just as the fact that one ancestor 150 years ago was Indian makes me an Indian.

That doesn't stop me from enjoying Celtic music or the legends or even wearing a kilt now and then -- though most of my Scottish ancestors were lowlanders who regarded the kilt as the mark of a barbarian thief, back when real Highlanders were around.

Like Indians, Highland clansmen became a lot easier to identify with once they were no longer a real threat.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Steve, I would agree with you that the best definition of "Celtic" is a group of languages.

But in future installments, I will try to summarize some new thinking that upsets even that particular applecart.

8:52 AM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

Celtic only became a group of languages in historically fairly recent times -- after the rise of Rome.

Up until 0 CE, or even a bit later, all the Celtic dialects were mutually comprehensible, in essence one language.

That probably indicates that they spread very rapidly over the large area (Ireland to Anatolia) in which they were spoken during the early to middle Iron Age.

3:54 PM  
Blogger branruadh said...

I'd phrase "Celt" as "someone who speaks a Celtic language and participates in a Celtic culture" myself. There are plenty of academicians who can read Old Irish fluently and make a stab at speaking it but are no more involved in modern Celtic cultures than someone who's fluent in Latin is prone to be part of Italian civilization.

3:37 AM  

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