Approaches to Celtic Studies

Gaelic Polytheism is a relatively young contender in the reconstructionist field, and in many respects so is Celtic Studies in academic circles.

Trinity College, Dublin, by Can Pac Swire

Trinity College, Dublin, by Can Pac Swire

Early medieval Irish literature forms a large body of information for academics and reconstructionists alike, and the interpretations and meanings found in the literature has changed drastically since studies began. The same can be said for archaeologists who specialise in Celtic, or more specifically Gaelic, fields of study. Understanding how this material is approached, academically, and the way these approaches and interpretations have changed over the years, can help us in our own studies, and this is what this article intends to address. Here we’ll be looking at the major trends in Celtic Studies, as well as archaeology, that have defined and directed the course of these academic fields, and we’ll be looking at what this means for us.

Change is inevitable in any academic field, as approaches to the material take a different tack. Like the scholars who write within the Celtic field, reconstructionists often make very personal interpretations of the material at hand upon which they base their practises. No one is ever going to agree with everyone else, just as scholars often don’t always agree with each other. As a result, finding your own way means that sometimes very differing (and therefore possibly confusing) perspectives will be encountered regarding the same subject.

Because of this, it helps to know where particular authors are coming from when viewing their work critically, as any reconstructionist must do. Generally speaking these different approaches form distinct “eras” with which to categorise the way scholars have interpreted the literature over time, since the nineteenth century when Celtic Studies really began to take off as an academic field. They can be split into the following sub-headings:

  • The early translators
  • Philologists
  • Nativists and Folklorists
  • Reformers and Godslayers

Bear in mind, though, that these eras relate to when these approaches when they were most common; just because a different approach gained favour doesn’t mean old approaches have died out or are now (necessarily) invalid or obsolete.

The early translators

During the nineteenth century a number of native Gaelic speakers began translating old manuscripts into English. Men like John O’ Donovan and Eugene O’ Curry1 sifted through the Old Irish manuscripts and picked out the bits that interested them. Working with only their own knowledge of the language, and no dictionaries, their selective translations were often inaccurate, but it started to make the material more widely available, and helped to open up the field of Celtic Studies.


By the late nineteenth century, studies in medieval Irish literature was gaining popularity, and with its new found fashionability came a new approach. The next wave of scholars took a more linguistic approach to the manuscripts, focusing on how language and grammar had developed over time. Continuing the work of the early translators, huge amounts of the medieval manuscripts were translated into English (and German), making them accessible to a wider audience.

More to the point, however, these studies enabled scholars to see how the material itself had changed over time, by identifying words from significantly earlier or later linguistic periods to show which stories, or even which bits of the tales were older or younger and therefore (theoretically) more intact in terms of containing original, perhaps even pre-Christian, elements.

Using this approach, it has been found that certain stories in particular mythological cycles appear to be significantly older than others. The tale The Intoxication of the Ulaid, for example, is thought to be significantly younger than the rest of the Ulster Cycle based on linguistic evidence, possibly indicating that it was added to the cycle later on to flesh out the body of tales and explain certain elements found elsewhere in the cycle (i.e. why the men of Ulster were unable to fight the men of Connacht in the Tain Bó Cúaligne).2 This approach is not always simple, though. In many cases poems tend to be the oldest element of a tale, and a specific kind of poem called roscada tend to contain evidence of the oldest kinds of language and grammar used. It can be dangerous to assume that just because something looks older than the rest of the tale that it really is, however. Sometimes roscada deliberately use archaic, difficult or obscure language to give an ancient look or feel. In these cases sometimes the archaic language seems a little off somehow, and linguists must try to figure out if that’s because the scribe didn’t understand what the roscada said, and got things wrong, or maybe they just weren’t very good at writing in an archaic style.

Philologists have also used the approach to gain a better understanding of specific parts of the tales, by exploring the very nuanced meanings of the words used in the myths that help give us a deeper understanding of the tales and the symbols behind them. Often, words have layers of meaning which can offer a certain ambiguity or depth to a sentence that a simple translation into English (or any other language) can’t quite capture.

One of the biggest problems with the era of the philologists and early translators is that they are rooted in a very romantic, antiquarian view. Their work is sometimes affected by their biases or prejudices (although to be fair, this could be said of any academic or scholar), and is very much a product of their time when theories about the Aryan race, the obsession with tying everything into a very Biblical view (the insistence on Baal being an Irish deity being a good example here), the new theories of Indeo-European common origins, and so on. The nineteenth century was a time of barbarians and noble savages, the Celts often being cast in the role of noble savage – uncivilised, pagan, but ultimately not something they could help because Christ hadn’t died for our sins yet. Sometimes some of the rougher edges – the slightly rude, the overtly sexual, the thoroughly gory, or the outright unChristian – were quietly smoothed out or just ignored as “untranslatable.” Sometimes these rough edges were even played up. In a colonial age where Ireland was still a part of Britain, Africa was a goldmine of slavery and India was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s almost global empire, the Celts were as exotic, as other, as the finery that was being stolen from the colonies or the “natives” who were being paraded around as tourist attractions or talking points at parties. These foreign, colonised, subjugated “primitives” provided inspiration for how scholars might view the Celtic past, while at the same time the Celts, as ancestors, who contributed to the rise of western civilisation as a whole, were cast in glowing terms.

Some of the best known scholars in this category are Whitley Stokes, Kuno Meyer and Rudolf Thurneysen. Stokes published a lot of his work while he was working in Calcutta, so considering the circumstances he was both a prolific and successful author. Like a lot of early published work, some of his translations have never been re-translated for a modern audience and are now quite out of date given the more recent developments in our knowledge of Old Irish.3 Even so, Stokes’ translations remain a valuable resource for academics and reconstructionists alike.

Of all the scholars that fall under this heading, Kuno Meyer has given perhaps the greatest legacy to the field of Celtic Studies, being the founder of both the School of Irish Learning in Dublin, which opened in 1903, and the journal Ériu, which was first published in 1904.

Nativists and Folklorists

From the 1930s to around the 1960s, scholars began taking a more “nativist” approach, seeing the literature as containing remnants of a pagan world, preserving old customs and so on. Writers such as Nora Chadwick, Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, Myles Dillon, Anne Ross, Thomas O’ Rahilly, Alwyn and Brinley Rees, and Proinsias MacCana fall into this category.4

First used by James Carney as a derogatory term in Celtic Studies, a key concept for the ‘natvists’ was the idea of a continuing oral tradition, where tales had been told and retold through the ages without being changed or distorted very much.5 It was seen that Ireland in particular was a very conservative and largely oral society, where the tales were told and retold, passed on from one filid to another virtually unchanged over the course of centuries since their original inception. This required discipline and strict training, which the traditions of the druids and then the filid could provide.

While the tales were being written down as early as the sixth or seventh century, it wasn’t until outside threats such as the Vikings and then the Normans in the twelfth century that the Irish were spurred on to make a concerted effort to get them all down on paper (or vellum, as the case may be…), and it is from this period onwards that most manuscripts date. Two factors were seen to affect their transmission in a written context: firstly, the monks doing the writing were largely untrained in the ways of the filid, and so were not as disciplined in keeping the tales in their original form; secondly, as they were being recorded in a Christian context, the changes in the religion and the adoption of a markedly different theology contributed to changes being made, and elements being censored to conform with the moral climate of the time.

Overall, though, it was considered that the monasteries who spent the time and effort to record the tales were scrabbling to preserve a rich tradition as best they could, and as conservatively as they could. Where changes had occurred, these were seen (especially by Jackson) as adding a veneer of modernisation/Christianisation onto an authentically pre-Christian body of literature, rather than changing them into something completely different.6

Kenneth Jackson recorded and published the tales told by one of the last remaining Gaelic storytellers, Reg Seyers, and worked to explain the differences between Seyers’ tales and those found in the manuscripts written down centuries before. Where Christian glosses and elements had found their way into the tales, Jackson believed these could be pared back to reveal the original, pagan content. From druid to storyteller, the tales were seen as being remnants of a pagan past – “a window on the Iron Age,” as Jackson called it.7

Tied in with this was the interest in Indo-European studies and the emphasis on similarities between language and tales across the cultures. In this respect, scholars like Myles Dillon, and Alwyn and Brinley Rees in their work Celtic Heritage, in particular emphasised the similarities between motifs found in Indian and Irish tales, directly because Ireland was considered to be so culturally conservative.8

Reformers and Godslayers

The reformers or ‘anti-nativists’ are perhaps the most outspoken group, refuting the ideas that had been put forward in the past, and keen to hammer home the Christian content in the manuscripts. Here, the literature was seen as being intrinsically a product of the time it was written in. Therefore, since the tales had been written down by Christians, even the most pagan-seeming stuff had been written by Christians and can not be separated from this context.

Kim McCone, one of the most outspoken critics of the nativist approach, has described early medieval Irish literature as being ‘textual omelettes’9 – the pagan and Christian ingredients becoming so mixed up that they are essentially inseparable. Unlike Jackson’s enthusiastic announcement that the literature could be seen as being “a window to the Iron Age,” reformers have been keen to point out that the pagan past cannot be completely salvaged; there will always be something missing. They questioned how authentic the pagan elements in the tales could be, when the people recording them were unlikely to understand them – how do we know they didn’t misinterpret the meaning of something? Or if they did understand them and decided to consciously change them, how can we tell if the changes are very subtle?

The focus for many of the nativists was not so much on the fine details found within the tales, but on the bigger picture – how elements of Irish literature shared many commonalities with other cultures in the Indo-European umbrella, or in Celtic cultures as a whole. This meant authors like Anne Ross could write about Pagan Celtic Britain, drawing in elements from Gaul and Ireland and mixing it in with British evidence to create something that isn’t exactly talking about what the title says it should be, and becoming something entirely different…

The reformers focused much more on the individual details found in the literature, emphasising the particular ‘Irishness’ of the tales and suggesting the best starting point for studying Irish literature was as Irish literature, not Indo-European or Celtic. At the same time, studies have increasingly focused on the more foreign elements found within the literature, with scholars such as James Carney suggesting that the compilation of the Táin was a conscious effort on the part of the medieval monks to give Ireland a ‘national epic’ in direct imitation of the Iliad (an idea John Koch finds debatable).10

Increasingly, there was a focus on the differences, not the similarities, and as a result the pan-Celtic approach to Celtic Studies began to fall out of favour within Celtic Studies. While the Celts shared many linguistic and cultural similarities, it was argued that their differences were just as important.

Beyond the Godslayers

Gaelic Polytheists also rely on archaeological evidence to inform practices, and books by popular authors within the archaeological field have been very influential in Gaelic Polytheist, Celtic Reconstructionist, and reconstructionist circles as a whole. As with Celtic Studies, the field has evolved through a variety of different approaches and methods of interpretation, which can be useful to know about.

These approaches towards study and practice can largely be divided into three groups:

In broad terms, the early archaeologists were antiquarians, both interested in archaeology and anthropology and full of ideas of the noble savages and primitive barbarians, and stone circles and henge monuments being the work of druids. They weren’t so interested in context and what the bigger picture was, but rather went for the big finds. Large pits of charcoal or midden were ignored in favour of the nice pots, Venus figurines and rich hoards of gold and silver, and so on, because obviously these looked better in museums, like Augustus Pitt Rivers’ museum in Oxford.

Come the ’60s, it was rapidly being realised that those boring pits of charcoal or midden could yield a lot of information, and with innovations in scientific methods came a more scientific approach to the archaeology. Alongside this came a more scientific approach to interpretation, and models of social behaviour and hierarchy were applied to show how a people lived and how a site came to be. A monument like Stonehenge required a lot of manpower to build, for example, so somebody had to be in charge, and had to have a lot of political influence to employ the number of people necessary to build something so big. Diagrams were all the rage to explain how this would work…

This processualist approach (coinciding with the heyday of the nativists) was soon seen to have its limits. Societies don’t tend to fit neatly into diagrammatical representations, and reducing them down to very simplistic terms in order to make them fit into a neat diagram means that a lot of the society is ignored and overlooked. The rigid scientific approach became too stifling to some archaeologists, who began to favour a more speculative way of interpreting the science of the excavation. If nothing can be proven, nothing can be wrong; any theory could have merit. And so the 1980’s heralded the start of the post-processualists.11

Hand in hand with all this came the increasing view that labels could also be stifling. The idea of Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age could be seen as limiting interpretation because the terms imply that each age is neat and separate from the next, whereas in reality they are messy and overlapping in places during the transitionary phases in ways that aren’t always clear; the start of one Age could be vastly different in technological terms to the middle or end, and so could other aspects of society and culture as a result.12

Likewise cultural terms like ‘Celtic’ could also be limiting because it implies a kind of cultural conformity across a large area and time period that doesn’t exist in reality; Iron Age Ireland’s archaeology is vastly different from Iron Age Gaul, for example, and southern Gaul’s archaeology is vastly different to its northern parts, and so on. These points, along with the romanticism and misconceptions associated with the ‘Celtic’ label has caused some archaeologists to question how useful a term it is, and so some ‘Celtoskeptic’ archaeologists like Simon James have eschewed such cultural terms in favour of the more neutral (but still problematic) label of ‘Iron Age’ instead.13

Notably, however, in spite of this trend of ‘Celtoskepticism’ (as it has been called), the term is still used in the author’s books. With the increase in popularity of Celtic Studies and things just generally Celtic over the past twenty years or so, money is to be made from the subject, both in terms of a popularist history approach as well as Celtic spirituality. Slap the word ‘Celtic’ on a book and it will sell. Even for the skeptics the word is unavoidable.14

Authors like Miranda Green, Anne Ross and Barry Cunliffe have produced a prolific amount of work aimed at a more general audience dealing with Celtic culture that is (generally) solid, although as archaeologists they aren’t Celticists per se and their views don’t always accord with current Celtic Studies research. More often they draw from the nativist approach, since these are generally the most well-known authors, and as such the views can be a little outdated; the insistence on solar gods and earth mothers (see Miranda Green’s work, in particular), and a more pan-Celtic approach towards spiritual practices than is currently favoured in Celtic Studies (see Barry Cunliffe’s work, for example) often colour the work of these authors, and must be worked around.

Also popular, but less solid in academic terms, are authors like Jean Markale and Peter Beresford Ellis, who tend to introduce more personal interpretation into their work and often overlook the smaller details in favour of fitting things into a picture that makes their pet theories look neat and tidy. This makes it attractive to readers but also tends to result in a few misunderstandings (Ellis’ attempt at a Celtic creation myth being taken as historically authentic, for example). These are the kind of authors who inspire confidence in the reader but, when it comes down to it, aren’t accurate enough to rely on.

In recent years the growing popularity of Celtic spirituality has provided the world with gems such as Raymond Buckland’s Scottish Witchcraft, Edain McCoy’s Witta (replete with Ye Anciente Irish Potato Goddess), Douglas Monroe’s 21 Lessons of Merlin, D J Conway’s Celtic Magic, and so on. More recently, John and Caitlin Matthews have made themselves a niche in selling their view of “Celtic Shamanism.” Some of these are just bad, others are outright works of fraud. All of them should be avoided.

Slowly but surely, however, books are becoming available by smaller publishers and self-publishing outlets that are better researched and more relevant to a reconstructionist approach (although with self-publishing avenues, more works of dross are being put out there too…). But whether good books or bad books are published, critical reading will always be necessary, and knowing where an author is coming from can help in interpreting what they’re saying in terms of their own biases and how it all sits with your own. While reading widely will give you a more rounded view of the subject, choosing authors who hold different perspectives will help challenge your own views as well.


1 Maier, The Celts, 2001, p202.

2 Gantz? Kinsella?

3 Maier, The Celts, 2001, p202.

4 See McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, Chapter 1.

5 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2004, p1344.

6 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p8.

7 Jackson, The Earliest Irish Tradition, 1957.

8 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p13.

9 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p54.

10 Koch, ‘Windows on the Iron Age: 1964-1994,’ Ulidia, Mallory and Stockman (ed.), p229.

11 See Greene, Archaeology: An Introduction, 1996, p168-174.

12 For a good overview of the development of the Three Age System with relation to the Celtic Iron Age, see Cunliffe’s Iron Age Comunities in Britain, Chapter 1: The Development of Iron Age Studies, 1974, p1-11.

13 See Simon James’ The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention, 1999, although many of his other books touch on discussing this as well; see my review here.

14 This article offers a fantastic critique of Celtoskepticism.