Celebrating Beltane in Edinburgh
Pic: Nat. Geo.
|National Geographic claimed that Outsider status has helped Celtic languages and culture endure. They write: Finding a Celt in 21st-century Europe isn’t that difficult, though you may need a few ferry tickets, a good pair of boots, and a sharp set of ears before your search is done. Go as far west as you can, right up to the cliffs and coves of the Atlantic—it doesn’t matter if it’s France or England or Ireland or the outer islands of Scotland—and turn around.
Odds are you’ll see rocks, plenty of them, piled up in fences, shaped into houses, or lying like bare knuckles in scruffy fields. Probably it’s raining. Your search is getting warm. To get warmer still, find a place like the Cross Inn on the windy, moor-covered Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. If you’re lucky, you might hear a bagpipe or fiddle playing, and if you’re luckier still, you might tune in to an unfamiliar sound: Celts talking.
The conversation might go:
Hullo, Norman, how’s your mother?
Great, she’s visiting her grandchildren and planting flowers in the garden.
Except the speech is rhythmic and guttural, a back-of-the-throat performance, nothing like the rounded slip and slide of English. If there were sound balloons above their heads, they’d look like this:
Hallo, a Thormoid. Ciamar a tha do mhàthair?
Gu dàigheil. Tha i a’ coimhead air a h-ogh-aichean agus a’ cur flàraichean anns a’ ghàrradh.
The Sunday mates in the Cross Inn are speaking Scottish Gaelic. To them it’s no big deal; it’s the first language they learned at home. But to me, an American long intoxicated by Irish roots and curious whether an even wider and deeper kinship might exist, that of a Celtic identity, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a secret society. There was something thrilling, even subversive, about hearing an ancient Celtic language in the land of Shakespeare, where neither the Queen nor the Prime Minister would have the foggiest clue what these locals on Lewis were talking about.
When the men caught me listening, they switched to English. “It’s rude, that’s what we were taught, to speak our language in front of strangers,” said Norman Campbell, a novelist and poet who publishes in Scottish Gaelic. I bought a round, and the men opened up, telling me how in their parents’ time teachers would take a belt to students overheard speaking the native tongue. Now it’s different, they said, and the government is promoting the language.
Ah, the clues are adding up for identifying a Celt: the ancient language, an easily retrieved sense of historical grievance, a resort to song, and this bittersweet sentimentality. Less clear is how a fringe culture like the Celts managed to survive, even flourish, in a rapidly assimilating world. A brief detour into history begins to tell the tale.
A Little Bit of Celtic History
Most of us are unaware that Celts once dominated the breadth of Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic—and for a long time. An early form of Welsh was spoken in Britain 1,500 years before Old English took root. The Celtic languages still spoken in Europe hark back to the Late Bronze Age (1200-800 b.c.) and a civilization of aristocratic warrior tribes. The word “Celtic” comes from the Greek Keltoi, first appearing in the sixth century b.c. to describe “barbarians” living inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Little suggests these people united or called themselves Celts. Yet there is no denying that these far-flung peoples spoke closely related languages and shared beliefs, styles of art and weaponry, and tribal societies. Trade, principally by water, connected them. Calling them Celts makes sense, if only to separate them from what they weren’t: Roman or Greek.
By the end of the Middle Ages, Celtic culture was headed toward extinction, its remnants pushed to the very western edge of Europe. A Breton man said:
No one else wanted to live where the Celts did. Those places were poor and remote, and no one spoke their languages.
Being ostracized to no-man’s-land did not spare the Celts from further depredations. The English and French banned or restricted their languages, their instruments and music, their names, their right to own property, and in the case of the kilt-wearing Scottish Highland clans, even their clothing. It’s a bit miraculous Celtic civilization survived in any form. By clinging to the fringes, geographically and culturally, Celts refused to vanish.
Now, in one of those delectable backward flips of history, Celts and all things Celtic suddenly seem omnipresent. “Europe’s beautiful losers,” as one British writer called them, are commanding attention as one of the new century’s seductive identities: free-spirited, rebellious, poetic, nature-worshipping, magical, self-sufficient.
A similar sleight of hand is happening through- out the Celtic realm, from Scotland to Galicia in northern Spain, where anything goes and the definition of a Celt is as elusive and shifting as the coastal weather. There are “blood Celts,” the several million people who were raised and still live in the surviving Celtic language territories. Then there is the growing tribe of “Celts of the spirit,” who feel touched by the history, myths, and artistic expressions of beautiful losers. J. R. R. Tolkien observed:
Celtic of any sort, is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.
The Gaelic Survival
Learning Gaelic does have economic benefits. In a cafeteria in Stornoway, the only town on the island, I met a dozen college-age islanders who through Comunn na Gàidhlig, a government-funded agency promoting Gaelic, worked at summer jobs using their bilingual skills. They were interning at places like the BBC radio station, which broadcasts 65 hours of Gaelic programming a week, and the local arts council. Most hoped to make a career out of teaching Gaelic, and all vowed to raise Gaelic-speaking children. “But amongst ourselves, we mostly speak English,” confessed one young woman, Jayne Macleod. “Anymore, Gaelic is the language of schools and old people.”
Voyagers long knew the Celtic lands by their native names: Scotland was Alba; the Isle of Man, Ellan Vannin; Ireland, Éireann; Cornwall, Kernow; and Wales, Cymru. “kum-ree, kum-ree,” I softly chanted aboard the Jonathan Swift, a ferry across the Irish Sea to the island of Anglesey in northern Wales.
As a nod toward their native languages, most modern Celtic lands put up bilingual town names. And as a nod toward independence, Celtic vandals just as regularly scratch out the English and French names, creating the sight of tourists standing befuddled beside their cars in places like northwestern Ireland and the western tip of Cornwall, a useless English-language map hanging from their hands. Memorizing a few pronunciation rules is almost mandatory in Wales. Try asking for directions to Machynlleth and Llanfairfechan.
Every Day is a Holy Day
People joke that there aren’t enough seats in heaven for all the Celtic saints. Wherever you are in Celtic lands, every day is a holy day. For the first week or so of September alone, I counted feast days for saints named Macanisius, Ultan, Rhuddlad, Disibod, Kieran, and Finian. The saints’ names date to the time between the fifth and eighth centuries when Celtic Christian missionaries, most from Ireland, scattered along the Atlantic coast and beyond to establish monastic centers. The monks often located their sanctuaries at pre-Christian ceremonial sites, acknowledging their sacred significance.
This entwining of pagan and early Christian traditions today exerts a magnetic pull at the religious sites, luring pilgrims, tourists, spiri-tual groupies, and mystic seekers. Something about Cornwall, its woolly wet weather, its abundance of prehistoric sites, and its ties to the legend of King Arthur (local Arthurians locate his castle at Tintagel), draws the more mystical and pagan of the pilgrims.
One day while looking around the Iron Age village site of Carn Euny, I met Cheryl Straffon, a Cornish goddess worshipper. I first noticed her at the head of a group of American women coming out of an underground chamber. The early Celts may have used such subterranean rooms, called fogous in Cornwall, as ritual sites. “That room has great acoustics,” I overheard Straffon saying. “Chanting sounds good in there.”
To commune with that past, Straffon observes the pre-Christian Celtic calendar, conducting rituals on the season-turning feast days of Imbolc (February 1, to mark the lactation of ewes), Beltane (May 1, when flocks and herds were moved to summer pastures), Lughnasa (August 1, for the first harvest), and Samhain (October 31-November 1, when the world of the dead was believed to briefly open, inspiring the modern Halloween).
On each of these days Straffon and her fellow celebrants invite a Celtic goddess into their midst. Brigid, an Irish deity associated with healing, later absorbed by the church as a saint, is invoked on Imbolc when Straffon visits holy wells like Madron. We tramped one day through woods to the well, a pool of dark water seeping out of the ground. A fungus called stinkhorn gave off a piercing sour smell, and on the surrounding moss-furred trees, shreds of cloth and paper hung like ornaments off every branch. These were offerings, or “clouties,” representing body parts that petitioners, Christians as well as pagans, wished to have healed.
When conducting a ritual here, Straffon said she and her friends decorate the well with candles and call in Brigid using Gaelic chants, just the way she imagines people did for centuries. She said:
This gives us a sense of connecting with our ancestors who lived here. It allows us to relate to the land and give it thanks.
Pagans don’t delight everyone in Cornwall. Some members of a local church have stripped the clouties at well sites, Straffon said, and a fundamentalist Christian farmer knocked down a standing stone on his land. But as we sloshed through mud back to the road and rain began to fall, Straffon remarked that, judging by the number of visitors from afar seeking out the local sacred sites, Celts must be everywhere.
I believe if you feel Celtic, you become Celtic.
In many ways the so-called Celtic spirituality has become as popular and marketable as Celtic music. People are embracing it for its aura of seeking the divine in nature and for treating women as the spiritual equals of men.
You can read the full, amazing story on the National Geographic website.
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