The Religion of the Ancient Celts eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 445 pages of information about The Religion of the Ancient Celts.
epic note—­the warrior’s rage and the warrior’s generosity, dire cruelty yet infinite tenderness, wild lust yet also true love, a world of magic supernaturalism, but an exact copy of things as they were in that far-off age.  The barbarism of the time is in these old tales—­deeds which make one shiver, customs regarding the relations of the sexes now found only among savages, social and domestic arrangements which are somewhat lurid and disgusting.  And yet, withal, the note of bravery, of passion, of authentic life is there; we are held in the grip of genuine manhood and womanhood.  MacPherson gives a picture of the Ossianic age as he conceived it, an age of Celtic history that “never was on sea or land.”  Even his ghosts are un-Celtic, misty and unsubstantial phantasms, unlike the embodied revenants of the saga which are in agreement with the Celtic belief that the soul assumed a body in the other world.  MacPherson makes Fionn invariably successful, but in the saga tales he is often defeated.  He mingles the Cuchulainn and Ossianic cycles, but these, save in a few casual instances, are quite distinct in the old literature.  Yet had not his poem been so great as it is, though so un-Celtic, it could not have influenced all European literature.  But those who care for genuine Celtic literature, the product of a people who loved nature, romance, doughty deeds, the beauty of the world, the music of the sea and the birds, the mountains, valour in men, beauty in women, will find all these in the saga, whether in its literary or its popular forms.  And through it all sounds the undertone of Celtic pathos and melancholy, the distant echo

  “Of old unhappy, far-off things
   And battles long ago.”


[506] See Joyce, OCR 447.

[507] Montelius, Les Temps Prehistoriques, 57, 151; Reinach, RC xxi. 8.

[508] The popular versions of this early part of the saga differ much in detail, but follow the main outlines in much the same way.  See Curtin, HTI 204; Campbell, LF 33 f.; WHT iii. 348.

[509] In a widespread group of tales supernatural knowledge is obtained by eating part of some animal, usually a certain snake.  In many of these tales the food is eaten by another person than he who obtained it, as in the case of Fionn.  Cf. the Welsh story of Gwion, p. 116, and the Scandinavian of Sigurd, and other parallels in Miss Cox, Cinderella, 496; Frazer, Arch.  Rev. i. 172 f.  The story is thus a folk-tale formula applied to Fionn, doubtless because it harmonised with Celtic or pre-Celtic totemistic ideas.  But it is based on ancient ideas regarding the supernatural knowledge possessed by reptiles or fish, and among American Indians, Maoris, Solomon Islanders, and others there are figured representations of a man holding such an animal, its tongue being attached to his tongue.  He is a shaman, and American Indians believe that his inspiration comes from the tongue of a mysterious river otter, caught by him.  See Dall, Bureau of Ethnol. 3rd report; and Miss Buckland, Jour.  Anth.  Inst. xxii. 29.

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The Religion of the Ancient Celts from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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