Fertility Religion and the Celtic Spread

On one important subject, average opinion never seems to be able to grasp the facts. This subject is that of communication by travel in the Ancient World. The ordinary man either overestimates the facility with which our remote ancestors moved about their world or - more commonly - the opinion is that, like the cottagers of Gray's Elegy, those ancestors were born, lived out their unadventurous existences, died and were buried in the same obscure plot.

Only in the exceptional cases of some mass migration of peoples or of some vast incursion of savage killers under some even more bloodthirsty Leader - an Attila, say, or an Alaric or a Genghis Khan — does the average man concede that the man of olden times might have moved more widely about their world than is implied in a half-yearly visit to the local market-town.

Contacts between all points of the known - and many of the 'unknown' - world had been made, reciprocal trading arrangements worked out and established trade-routes surveyed and opened up for regular commerce, in prehistoric times. With the beginning of the historical record, we find a world in which trade between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, between Greece and Phoenicia and Egypt and the British Isles, between Ireland and Troy, is conducted on a regular basis.

Egyptian beads of blue faience, of a type able to be accurately dated to about 1,350 BC have been found buried under one of the great uprights of Stonehenge; Celtic gold-work of 'British' type was found by Schliemann in Troy; a Trojan cup was found in Billingsgate, London, and another not far from Reading, where also, in the River Kennet, was dredged up an arrowhead of bronze bearing the name of Queen Berenike of Pergamum (third century BC).

The all-powerful dynamic to set travellers travelling in the Old World was the search for metals. In those far-off times, the amount of surface metal must have been calculable, in millions of tons, and it was worth going far afield to find, since (though the Persians seem to have had electric light by the fifth century BC) for ordinary illumination only crude oil-lamps were available, and deep mining, with such illumination was almost an impossibility.

The Bronze Age began about 2000 BC, with the discovery - perhaps accidental - that copper, alloyed with tin, would produce a metal with qualities superior to those of either of the constituent metals. It is clear that 'Britain' - or whatever it was called in 3000 BC - had already been 'opened up for trade with prospecting parties from the Mediterranean, hunting copper. The discovery of bronze must have increased the trade multiplied the contacts between the cultured men of the Middle East and the still Neolithic inhabitants of 'Britain'. Cornwall supplied the searchers with both copper and tin, but that they looked elsewhere throughout the British Isles is evident from the stone erections - menhirs, dolmens, etc. that they left behind them, from most westerly Ireland to the northernmost tip of the Orkneys.

Besides the essential metals - iron was yet to be smelted into what is still the world's most useful metal - the men from the Middle East sought amber, jet, gold, and those shaggy woollen cloaks which, many centuries later, as saga, were to form an essential part of the Roman military officer's uniform. In 'Britain' they found them all; something of what they traded in exchange has been found -

though little, since our damp climate does not lend itself to the preservation of much. But did they bring with them ideas? Certainly. And did those ideas include those of a religious nature? In all probability, yes. And did the Fertility Religion come in with these shrewd traders, who had come so far for what they sought? In the sense that the Fertility Religion that we are considering in this book came from another source, that I am about to de-scribe, no.

The Fertility Religion, in its more primitive aspects, had already become an oecumenical faith long before the first ship of the metal-hunters touched in at some early Sennen or Porthcurno or Treen or Mousehole, and when the metal-hunters arrived, those who had come to 'reform' and 'codify' the ancient universal Fertility Faith had already displaced -or, at least, come to dominate - the earlier ethnic stock. Fortunately, just as the name, 'Hartland Point', tells us that we have here another promontory named - as is the promontory of Monaco (Herakles Monoichos) — after Hercules, we can say that the same people who originally called a Mediterranean promontory after the wonder-working, wandering God to whom all promontories were sacred, gave 'Hartland Point' the designation which lies behind the present name.

They were Greeks - and many peoples had preceded them before they passed through the Pillars of Hercules and rounded Carthaginian and Iberian Spain and Brittany and the Channel Isles before making landfall in Cornwall. Etymology has helped us to identify the people who named 'Hartland Point' with those who named 'Monaco' - and we shall have to rely strongly on etymology to tell us, not only who settled (at least Southern) Britain before the Celts arrived, but what they brought with them in the way of speech and ideas - especially religious ideas.

Opinion seems to be hardening in favour of a return to the nineteenth century theory that the Celts, arriving in Britain in several invasions or immigrations, first appeared on British soil in about 1800 BC - or, roughly, about the time of the building of Stonehenge I. (Whether or not they built it has yet to be determined.) If the date is even approximately correct, then it means that the last wave of immigrants before the Celts arrived must have settled here by at the latest 2000 BC. Who were they, and which language did they speak?

I shall answer those questions completely in a later chapter, but their place of origin was guessed by Professor J. Morris-Jones, who explained his reasoning in his now famous Appendix to Sir John Rhys's The Welsh Language, published just before the First World War.

Briefly described, Professor Morris-Jones's theory of the origin of the Welsh language is that it is a tongue having a preponderantly Celtic vocabulary (we shall disregard the 800 or so words of Latin origin), but with a non-Celtic syntax.

This can only mean that modern Welsh is the language derived from one formerly spoken by a people who originally spoke an entirely different tongue, and had the Celtic vocabulary imposed upon them as a result of conquest.

Professor Morris-Jones points out that when, in the past, one people was conquered by another, the conquerors rarely had their women with them, and chose wives out of the subjugated 'locals'. These wives would learn the language of the conquerors only so far as the vocabulary went, putting the new words in their own familiar syntax: the English of the Bombay babu, of the Italian immigrant in New York or Chicago, of the Pakistani in Bradford or Wakefield will sufficiently illustrate Professor Morris-Jones's point.

The children of the marriage between a member of the conquering force and a woman of the conquered people would have learnt the new language from their mother: Celtic vocabulary, the syntax of Language X. Within a generation or two this hybrid tongue would be 'correct' - French (through Latin spoken by Gauls), Haitian patois (through French spoken by West African Negroes), Lowland Scots (through English spoken by Gaels) are all analogous developments.

From these deduced facts one important conclusion must be implied. If we may examine the syntax on which the Celts of - what, 1800 BC? - imposed their conquerors' vocabulary and relate that syntax to existing or recorded congeners elsewhere, then we may be able to say to which group of languages the language spoken by the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain belonged.

There is no space here to quote Professor Morris-Jones's examples of Welsh-type idiom matched in other languages. Let it suffice to say that he shews that the syntax most closely resembling that of Welsh is to be found in a group of North African languages, of which Berber, Tamachek and Tuareg are the most important and the most representative for the purpose of Morris-Jones's argument.

The first wave of Celts, then, found in Britain, and conquered, a people of Neolithic culture, speaking a tongue belonging to the Western North African group.

Well, how did such a people migrate to Britain, and are there traces of them on their journey from Tunisia and Morocco to the extreme limits of north-Western Europe? Yes, says Morris-Jones decisively, there are.

The argument on which he places the most reliance concerns the attested appearance of the name, 'Berber' (or, rather, the root of that reduplicate name) along the route that the North Africans must have taken on their way to 'Britain', whether or not they came wholly by sea.

Beginning at North Africa, the Land of the Berber (Ber-Ber), we come first to Spain, whose ancient, pre-Carthaginian, pre-Greek, pre-Roman name was whatever the Romans pronounced as 'Iberia', and then proceed, either through Spain or along the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula, until we come to Britain, having stopped off, if names are anything to go by, at Ireland - Ibernia. or Ivernia in the old days. And if we preferred to return - assuming that there were some amongst us who wished not to settle down in the misty greenness of Britain - we might have chosen to return by way of the narrow strait, hardly more then than a wide river's crossing, between what would one day be Dover and Calais; and here, too, we find a trace of the same name in that of former land now sunk beneath the waves: the Feme (Varne) Sands.

The 'Other People': Despite the Church's propaganda, which sought to present the 'Faery' as diabolical, the surviving remnants of the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe continued to be accepted by the ordinary people, as a folk 'different' but not malign. Here is a representation of the 'Elves' Dance', from Olaus Magnus. The 'O' is a stylised representation of a 'fairy ring'.

Well, that is the theory: that the people whom the first wave of tall, blond; blue-eyed Celts conquered were a Neolithic people - we shall come later to their supposed physical characteristics - who spoke a North African language allied to the still extant Berber tongues.

To anticipate the findings of later chapters of this book, there was only a partial abandonment of the ancient tongue displaced in favour of Celtic as the 'official' language (P-Celtic, in the first and possibly the second - Iron Age - incursion; Q-Celts (1) arrived later). What is important to our thesis is the fact that, though the Celtic vocabulary was adopted by all but a few living in remote districts, inaccessible to the central government of the conquering Celts (just as, for counting sheep, a form of Celtic is still used in both Cumberland and Lincolnshire), the old language was retained for religious purposes, becoming the ritual tongue.

The earlier immigrants, who had brought a language and a faith with them - as well as cultural benefits, no doubt - had come from a part of the world where the worship of the Great 'Mother was a dominant religious impulse.

Yet climatic conditions soon modified this worship, as climatic conditions, centuries later, were to change much of the original structure of the religion of Isis. The Mother Goddess retained her importance for these Neolithic worshippers, but, unlike normal Mediterranean practice (as it was in pre-Roman days), the God soon advanced from his subordinate position as consort, 'stud-bull'; and, first gaining equality with the Goddess, eventually overtook her in divine rank. Today, though the religion that the Celts found when they arrived in Britain nearly four thousand years ago has suffered some addition in the matter of belief (an addition possibly acquired from Celtic belief), its main tenets are what we may suppose were found acceptable to priests and laity certainly long before the beginning of our present era.

The unvarying fertility of Britain was a source of constant wonder - and, later, of envy - to the Ancient World. The Triads of the Welsh Barddas (2) state that the second - or it may even have been the third - wave of Celtic immigrants, the Cwmry, arrived in Britain about 450 BC, a date which, as Lethbridge points out, has the support of the fact that it appears to coincide 'in a remarkable way with the immigration of the earliest iron-using peoples ..."

[1] Celtic is differentiated between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic according to the different treatment of certain original Indo-European sounds.

[2] Quoted by T.C. Lethbridge; Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

There were to be several other waves of Celts before Celtic immigration finally ceased - though, with Irish labourers and barmen still pouring into Britain, may one truthfully say that Celtic immigration has been finally halted?

Now, the reason for the Celts' crossing over to Britain was only partly explained by the fertility of the country and (we may guess) the apparent weakness of its defences. But the migration of the Celts from Europe was due, not so much to a desire for change as to the irresistible pressure being exerted upon the Celtic tribes by Teutonic peoples, themselves being pushed west by a collection of very mixed peoples, set in motion by the gradual drying-up of grazing and arable lands to the far East -what is now the famous Gobi Desert.

At the time, and for long afterwards, the Celts were scattered over an area of several thousand square miles, which stretched from the Crimea (where they were still speaking a Celtic dialect in 1700) to Britain, from northern Italy and Switzerland to northern Spain. In what is now Germany they were very numerous, and some philologists attribute the 'second German sound-shift' to the Germans' having been in contact, for a considerable time, with certain of the Celtic tribes. (3) The Celts, without extirpating, easily contrived to dominate the earlier immigrants into Gaul - modern France: the Ligurians, spanning the coastal area between Marseilles and Toulon, and the borderlands of the Alps from the Franche-Comte to northern Italy, concentrating their density of population along the valley of the Rhone.

[3] It was the 'second sound-shift" of the Germanic group of languages which brought about the division of German into 'High' and 'Low'. In 1925, in his Bine Lautverschiebungstheorie, O. Heinertz suggested that this 'second sound-shift" arose from the influence of Celts on the speakers of German. From about AD 400, the Celts occupied an extensive territory bounded roughly by the Main, Rhine and Danube. When this territory was conquered by Germanic peoples, the Celtic inhabitants adopted the language of the 'Master Race", but kept their own speech habits, thus 'shifting' the Germanic consonantal stops. Following a well-established pattern of conquest, the relatively few conquerors married Celtic women, and their children spoke the 'pidgin' Germanic of the mothers, and not the 'correct' German of the fathers.

The other 'first-comers' - but who had themselves probably erased an earlier population - were the Iberians, who, in about the sixth century BC, moved in from Spain and gradually pushed deeper into Gaul, so that, in no very long time, they had occupied the western part of what is now France from the Pyrenees to the Loire. The Celtic occupation of Gaul - again achieved in several waves, perhaps widely spaced in time - must have brought a number of tribes speaking different forms of the basic Celtic tongue.

Though the majority of the tribes spoke a form of P-Celtic, the Celts of and around the future city of Burdigala (Bordeaux) were speaking a form of Q-Celtic (Irish) as late as the sixth century AD. Had the Celts possessed a sense of solidarity, had they learned to organise themselves into a cohesive mass, they might have founded a great Celtic empire. Their successes in war they owed to their superb - almost monopolistic - mastery, not only of the horse, but of the horse-drawn wheeled vehicle, considered as a unit. Their principal totem, at least at the time when they were frightening Europe and Asia Minor out of their collective wits, was the pig; but the prestige gained through the mastery of the horse and horse-drawn vehicles caused many of the Celtic tribes later to adopt the horse as their totem.

Amongst these was the famous tribe of the Iceni - 'The People of the Horse' - Norfolk Celts whose outraged Queen, Boadicea (Boudicca) still threatens the Romans from her scythed chariot on the Thames Embankment. After the terrible defeat of the Iceni and their allies in AD 61, part of the Iceni moved north to Caledonia, where their descendants still call themselves 'Sons of the Horse' -MacEachern.

Just as the skill of French carriage-designers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was memorialised in the French names of carriages: cabriolet, berline, landau, coupe-de-ville, limousine, etc., so did the Romans use Celtic names to describe the various types of horse-drawn vehicles that the Celts had invented: henna, 'two-wheeled cart with wickerwork body', carpentum, 'two-wheeled covered waggon', carrus, 'four-wheeled waggon', cisium, 'light two-wheeled vehicle', covinnus, 'scythed chariot', essedum, 'war chariot', reda, 'travelling coach', etc. The modern German word for 'horse', pferd, is derived from a Low Latin hybrid word, paraveredus, which is the Greek preposition, para, 'a sort of, and the Celtic word for 'horse', veredus.

This restless people, the Celts, were on the move; and, as I said above, they had no empire. But they were already sufficiently powerful, nearly a hundred years after the wave of circa 450 BC had arrived in Britain, to swoop down from across the Alps and sack Rome in 390 BC.

I have spoken at some length of this extraordinary people, because it is my opinion that their religious beliefs, which they preached with as much enthusiasm and energy as, later, they were to preach their own form of Christianity, had a not inconsiderable effect on the Old Religion that they found in Britain, Gaul and Spain - nor were Celtic beliefs to remain unaffected by close and (it would appear) never hostile contact with the priests and laity of the 'established religion'.

Which brings us, of course, to that most important question: Were the Druids 'witches'? - that is, priests of the Old Religion?

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment