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Ancient Celt Practices

Towering oak trees silohuetted a full moon scudding through charcoal clouds over the midnight forests of northern Europe. A broad lake rippled the moon’s image. Two crackling fires fed on sacred oakwood and offerings jetted skyward from square and round pits set in a spacious rectangle clearing—defined by a water-filled moat. Surrounding the fires in a designated order were lean men called druids, sitting erect, eyes closed or mystically fixed, their long hair-white, blonde, auburn, brunette—stirred by stiff breezes. They wore white and dark blue cowled robes. A hundred yards away—mixed with owl hoots and forest murmurs—their chanting could be heard, a flowing acoustic river: sonorous, metered, slightly musical with alliterated phrases. Out on the lake were boats stacked with huge, gleaming heaps of cauldrons, swords, vases, mirrors, trumpets, lyres, furniture, jewelry—all wrought of gold, silver and copper. At the auspicious apogee astronomically calculated by a druid, the treasure was pushed overboard, sinking like metallic fish to the bottom. It was a forever gift to Lugus, the Celt God of Light, perhaps to use as a conduit of supernatural energy for blessings.

This was a Celt high ceremony, and such treasure offerings—sometimes representing 25% of a Celt tribe’s economy—have been found by archeologists in lakes, ravines and votive wells all over Europe. It is one of dozens of mysteries of a people that are now ghosts of European history, but who were kindred spirits of the Vedic Hindus in India 3,000 to 1,500 years ago. Like giant mirrors set in the Alps and Himalayas, the two societies reflected images ranging from cosmology to civic law.

The Celts were a complex, spiritual, vivacious, artistic, business—smart people speaking an Indo-European language much like Sanskrit , German or Greek, grouped into socially sophisticated tribes that fanned across Europe 3-4 millennia ago and leapt to Britain and Ireland—from eire, a Celtic Goddess overlighting land. Eventually, they even made Turkey their home, and came very close to turning Rome into a Celtic eire. The Celts were a handsome people, tall and muscular—no fat allowed by law. The men sported burly mustaches and elaborate gold torcs banded their necks. The women wore colorful chequered skirts, blouses and cloaks. The druids were a mystical order, trained for 20 years in memory, oration, law, metaphysics, ritual, magic, meditation, science, medicine. They roamed like free spiritual stallions among all the Celt tribes, and annually a grand council of all the druids was held on a broad hill or deep glen.

The Celts weren’t the only Indo-Europeans settling the European idyll. Balts, Slavs, Germans and Nordics nestled in—all the way north to the frozen scrags of Iceland. They each radiated a language, spiritual mindset and culture that tracks that of the early Vedic. At dawn, Germans daily slipped into cold, sacred rivers for ablution, chanting and wearing loose-flowing robes and a topknot in their long hair “so emblematic of the brahmins.” So recorded Tacitus, the adventurer Greek historian. The Slavs took seven steps around a holy fire in marriage. The Icelander saga—the Edda contains creation passages that are Upanishadic in tone.

Imagine a wide swath from Iceland, Ireland, the European west coast across southern Russia, the Caucus mountains, through Afghanistan and into India; that is the common ground for this unnamed mutual spiritual/cultural system. But there is more. The early Persians, the Hittites in ancient Turkey, and Greeks and Romans also spoke Indo-European language branches, and practiced parallel religions. The European, Asia Minor and Indian geography was blanketed by peoples speaking shared languages and following a single, multi-faceted mosaic of religions. Only Hinduism survived in India, though it mutated, and was nearly eclipsed by Buddhism. The Celtic religion survived most apparently in the ancient Irish faith and culture. Like the Vedas, the extant Old Irish literatures—memorized and transmitted through a 12-year training by an Irish bard/priest class who were the inheritors of the druids—are a window into Celtic thought and lifestyle. Again, like the early Vedas, the Old Irish sagas and hymns are at times locked in metaphor that we don’t hold the keys to. There are also vast gulfs of knowledge missing from the Old Irish literature, for the only existing material is that put into writing—for the first time—by Irish Christian monks in the 7th century ce. By that time, 700 years of Roman warfare and punitive politics (all the way to Britain) followed by Holy Roman Church hegemony (including Ireland) virtually extinguished the flames of the European pagan religions. What remained was a Europe brightly misted in folk wisdom and sagas and inlaid with thousands of temple sites, holy groves and springs, stoneworks, fortresses, towns, cremation and burial grounds, sacred rivers, mountain eeries, seaside grottoes and treasure lakes all bearing names, artifacts and wisdom of the Celtic Gods, druids and culture, and other Indo-European pantheons. Most of what is considered Christian Europe is actually pagan Europe. Christmas day (December 25th) was usurped and inaccurately fixed by Christians from the Roman festival of Mithra. It came in turn from the Celt festival of the winter solstice, an astronomical event the druids observed to set the exact beginning of the new solar year-the same calculation brahmins made in India.

The connections between Celtism and Vedism are dazzlingly profuse, but they aren’t entirely dead branchings. They arch right into a hotel in County Kerry, Ireland, where historian Bryan McMahon plays a telling game with every Indian guest he meets. He hums some Irish folk music and asks them to complete the tune however they like. He says almost every time they will sing it like they already knew the song. “For me that is an indication that Indians and Irishmen have a common past.” A Celt/ druid renaissance is brewing in Europe and the US.

Part II next month.

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