Celtic Christianity

Image by Keith Talbot of KT Art

Up until now, I’ve focused mainly on the Druid religion in my posts. That’s because the majority of my characters are pagan. But in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Christianity was gaining a strong foothold in England, so I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Celtic Christianity, the religion to which some of my favorite characters adhere.

At the time of Arthur and Guinevere, there were three main branches of Christianity: Roman, Celtic and Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox)/Oriental. That Britain had its own unique brand of Christianity is perhaps not that surprising, given its relative isolation from the rest of Europe after the departure of the Romans in 410 AD.

I’m not an expert in Celtic Christianity, nor do I aim to be, but I did some research to learn more about the early days of this religion in Britain. It seems to have started sometime around the end of the fourth century and continued until the Synod of Whitby in 644, when the Roman Church prevailed. Here are the main differences between Celtic Christianity and the Roman sect:

  1. The Calculation of Easter – Along with the tonsure  (see #2), the date of Easter was the biggest controversy that kept the Celtic Church divided from the Roman tradition. The calculation of the date of Easter has always been very complicated, involving a lunisolar calendar (time in the solar year as well as the phases of the moon). As time went on, the calculations changed, but the updated information didn’t always reach Britain. So chances are good this controversy arose by accident, with the Britons thinking they were doing the right thing.
  2. The Tonsure – Tonsure refers to the way religious men (monks, ans sometimes priests) shaved their hair to show their religious calling. The Roman Church said the top of the head was to be shaved, with a circle of hair allowed to grow around it (think Friar Tuck). The Celtic custom was to draw a line over the head from ear to ear and shave the hair in front of it (picture a mullet with nothing in the very front). The Roman authorities claimed their style dated back to St. Peter and claimed the Celtic style was modeled on a pagan magus (likely a Druid). I fail to understand why this was such a big deal. And if the story of St. Peter is to be believed, just because he was balding meant all men who followed in his ministry had to be, too? That hardly seems fair!
  3. Baptism – At the time, most people entering the Church were adults (although infant baptism was practiced as well). The Roman and Celtic churches bickered over whether the candidate was to be sprinkled with water (as many churches do today) or immersed, and if immersed, should they be dunked three times or only one? At the time, both conferred First Communion and Confirmation at the time of Baptism. However, oil (chrism) was a scarce resource that had to imported to Britain, so it is said that sometimes Confirmation in the Celtic Church was performed without it, something the Roman authorities didn’t like. The Celtic Church also added on to the Baptism rite a unique, sacred foot washing ceremony, much like Jesus is said to have done at the Last Supper. (I would have love to have seen this. It sounds like it could have been very moving.)
  4. Consecration of Bishops – Bishops held office in Britain as early as 314 AD. In Roman tradition, three bishops were required to consecrate a new bishop, but in the Celtic Church it was less likely for three to be able to get together so they (gasp!) sometimes only had one bishop to consecrate a new one. There was also some quibbling over the proper prayers to be said at this rite.
  5. Naming/Consecrating Churches – In Roman tradition, churches were always named after dead saints, but the Celtic Church often named churches after their living benefactors, which caused quite the scandal.
  6. Differences in the Mass – I won’t bore you with the details (in fact I’m not enough of a theologian to really understand them), but suffice it to say there were regional differences in the prayers said at Mass and even the order in which things were performed. Priests even had latitude to make up their own prayers for many centuries, and chances were very good the Celtic Church incorporated a lot of the pagan traditions of the people. (Yet another reason for the Roman sect to want to suppress it.)

What does this tell me? For one, making a mountain out of a mole hill is a long and venerable tradition in the Church. And so is the desire for conformity. That is probably the thing that comes through the clearest in my Christian characters. They have their rules and they want everyone around them to abide by them. But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of Biblical values. They are also some of the kindest, most merciful people in my stories. Like every other group, you have your good ones and your bad ones – and frankly, the bad ones are most fun to write and read. I can’t wait to introduce all of you to Father Marius, who is the reason I did this research into Celtic Christianity to begin with. If I’ve done my job, you’ll love to hate him.

Do any of you know anything about Celtic Christianity (the ancient religion, not the modern revivals)? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Time in the Celtic World

The Celts understood time completely differently than we do. Time was circular, rather than linear. Like the modern Jewish calendar, they reckoned days from sunset to sunset, rather than from dawn to midnight like we do. So in their world, an important feast day would begin at an hour we would today consider the night before. Are you confused yet? This is why I’ve chosen to take artistic licence in my books and count days as we do in the modern world, beginning each day at dawn. Anything else, although technically more accurate, would be too confusing for the reader (and for me!)

Another way the Celts’ sense of time differed from ours was in their calendar. The year was divided into the the dark half of the year (approximately October 31 through April 30) when night was dominant, and the light half of the year (approximately May 1 through October 30) when the sun’s light was at its strongest. They counted 13 lunar months, whereas our Gregorian calendar (adopted in 1582) counts 12 months. Each month began with the full moon and ended right before the next one, whereas if we in the modern world think of the moon at all, the new moon is associated with beginnings, the full moon with the apex of energy and the dark moon with the end of the lunar cycle. In the Celtic calendar, each full moon had its own name/theme based on the agricultural goings on at the time (plow/seed moon, harvest moon, snow moon, etc.) This system worked well until after the feast of Samhain, when there was a period of five days between the festival and the calendrical start of the new year. This was a “time outside of time,” much like our modern leap day, only it held great spiritual significance because it was a time when anything could happen because none of the normal rules applied. Some also say the Celtic zodiac also associated each lunar month with one of 13 sacred trees, but others argue this originated in fiction, but was adopted by modern neopagans as fact.

The seasons were also different for the Celts than we now think of them. Spring began in February, summer in May, autumn in August and winter in October. The Celts, being an agrarian people, divided their year into four great festivals:

  1. 1. Samhain (October 31) – The beginning of the year and the festival of death (the Celts believe in reincarnation and were very spiritually connected to their ancestors, so this wasn’t as morbid as it sounds), for both mortals and the God. This day marked the beginning of winter and is where the modern celebration of Halloween and the Catholic holy days of All Saints and All Souls come from.
  2. Imbolc (February 2) – A celebration of the strengthening light of the sun and women’s mysteries, especially childbirth (lambs gave birth around this time of year). This day marked the beginning of spring, plowing and seeding time, and is where the modern Groundhog Day and Catholic feast of Candlemas began.
  3. Beltane (May 1) – This is the festival of life, the exact opposite of Samhain, a sacred fertility festival (for both land and people) dedicated to the sexual union of the Goddess and God. Needless to say, many babies were born nine months later. This day marked the beginning of summer and is where modern May Day festivals and Catholic May crownings evolved from.
  4. Lughnasa (August 1) – The first harvest was treated with great reverence, with the first fruits being dedicated to the Goddess and God. In Ireland, the feast centered on the god Lugh and was celebrated by all manner of sport and feats of strength. This day marked the beginning of autumn and is where the modern Christian feast of Lammas has its origins.

Over the next year, as each of these feasts comes around, I’m going to try to show you how they would have been celebrated by the Celts, but not just by telling you as I do here. I want you to experience each one as though you were there. Be on the lookout for the first of these posts on October 31.

It is debatable as to whether the Celts celebrated the winter and summer solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, but I personally believe they did. Sacred sites such as Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Newgrange (not to mention other holy hills and some burial chambers) are precisely aligned with these celestial events, so I find it difficult to believe that the Druids, great astronomers that they were, paid them no heed. In their calendar, these festivals marked the middle of the seasons and correspond perfectly with our modern terms of mid-winter and mid-summer.