If It’s “Celtic,” It’s Syncretistic—and Especially If It’s Celtic Reconstructionist

If It’s “Celtic,” It’s Syncretistic—and Especially If It’s Celtic Reconstructionist

If one is a Roman reconstructionist, a Gaulish reconstructionist, or a Gallo-Roman reconstructionist, then one is probably aware that December 18th is a festival known as the Eponalia, in honor of the Gaulish horse- and mother-goddess Epona. The irony of this festival, of course, is that we only know about it because the Romans held this festival when their Legionary cavalries adopted the Goddess in the post-Gallic Wars period—there are no Gaulish calendars or other records which note this festival, or that of any other particular Deity.

I begin with this little tidbit of information not simply because this is a festival that is relevant to our current temporal context in mid-December, but also because Epona’s example highlights something that is so endemic to the modern Celtic reconstructionist methodology (and, let’s remember, reconstructionism is a methodology, and not a religion) that it is entirely taken for granted and ignored, despite it being excoriated in other contexts: namely, syncretism is part of that methodology. One rarely hears discussions of the horse-related Goddesses one finds in Ireland or Wales, especially when these are connected to the concept of sovereignty, without mention of the Gaulish Epona. The Welsh had Rhiannon, and she does seem to function as a sovereignty Goddess in relation to Pwyll, and to a lesser extent Manawydan, in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi, respectively, with a connection to horses in the First Branch and to donkeys in the Third Branch; and in the Second Branch, the “Birds of Rhiannon” entertain Bran’s men when they are feasting with his severed head after the invasion of Ireland, which also matches some of Epona’s iconography. In Ireland, the story of Macha, who marries Cruinniuc, races faster than his horses, and then is forced to race against the King of Ulster’s horses, and then dies in childbirth while giving birth to twins and cursing the Ulaid to have birth-pangs like hers when they are most in need (with the exceptions to this curse being women, children, and Cú Chulainn—i.e. all “non-men”!), and giving the name Emain Macha (“Twins of Macha”) to the territorial capital of Ulster, also seems to have a horse- and mother-Goddess connection; but it is another Macha (amongst several others which exist in Irish myth) that seems to have a more direct sovereignty function. There is also the eponymous figure who is the mother of Fergus and Sualtaim, Roích, whose name seems to etymologize as Ro-ech, which some scholars render as “super-horse.” Fergus mac Roích is a king of Ulster before Conchobor mac Nessa, and is also “hung like a horse” in superlative fashion, as well as meeting his death in a manner very similar to the Vedic horse sacrifice ritual of regal inauguration known as the asvamedha. His brother Sualtaim is Cú Chulainn’s final “earthly/mortal” father, giving him his third conception, and he also seems to have a way with horses.

But, does this allow us to assume a sovereignty connection for Epona? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t; but because in the inter-Celtic comparative methodology that has been de rigeur in Celtic Studies since its beginnings in the 19th century, often with the underlying assumption that all of these Deities are “the same” and are mere “reflexes” of Common Celtic Deities, these sorts of comparisons are unquestioned. The existence of a Celtic “horse/sovereignty goddess” called *Rigantona (which means “Queen-Goddess,” and seems to be a likely protoform of Rhiannon’s name), thus, is not only posited but is accepted as factual. The details of one Goddess’ cultus or mythos is freely borrowed and adapted into another Celtic culture without any question of there being anything like cultural appropriation, or even what the reality is, which is use of syncretism as a “filling-in-the-blanks” method. Yet, many Celtic reconstructionists are the first to decry syncretism, and to accuse those who practice it in any form that mixes what is “legitimately Celtic” with what is “non-Celtic” is derided as eclecticism, and often gets accused (in some cases) with cultural appropriation.

But, even where common Celtic roots are not explored and exploited to make such points of fleshing out, Celtic cultures themselves are already helplessly syncretistic when they are examined, and they cannot be easily extricated from what “non-Celtic” elements they might contain. This is certainly the case with all Insular Celtic (mainly Irish and Welsh, but also Scottish, Manx, Cornish, and Breton) sources, as they are heavily influenced by both Christianity and classical sources, and often analogues are drawn between these in a very conscious fashion. With medieval Welsh sources, there is also a very deliberate attempt to connect known Roman history in Britain with native mythic figures—Caswallawn, the medieval Welsh rendering of the British historical figure Cassivellaunus, is made the son of Beli Mawr (the father of Aranrhod, as well as Lludd and Llewellys—the latter of whom are cognates of the other Welsh Deities Nudd and Lleu, the Romano-British Nodons and Lugus, as well as the Irish Nuada and Lug—and others), and a usurper who takes over Britain when Bran is in Ireland, and elsewhere in Welsh sources is said to have contended with Julius Caesar himself for the love of a woman named Fflur, and to have obtained his famous horse Meinlas from the Romans in order to allow them to invade Britain. Removing the Roman influence from Welsh sources would take a great deal away from them; and removing the Romans from Romano-British religion would leave almost nothing available to us now.

Ancient Continental Celtic cultures were also inherently syncretistic, as is evidence with Gaul, which is in a similar situation to the Romano-British context: without Roman influence, we’d know much less about the Gauls from properly Gaulish sources (like inscriptions) than we would without their knowledge of Latin. Celtiberian Deities like Endovellicus may not be strictly Celtiberian, but may actually have Phoenician influence, and this exists in other parts of Celtiberian culture. One of the most readily-identified “Celtic” religious artifacts is the Gundestrup Cauldron, which was found disassembled in a Danish bog, thus putting it at very least into Celto-Germanic syncretistic spheres; but, the actual art style on it is not Gaulish, and is not really “diagnostically Celtic” (meaning La Tène), but instead exhibits diagnostically Thracian design elements, and looks like one of their metalwork reliefs, but depicting (likely) Celtic Deities and narrative elements. Such a work could have been commissioned in a place like Tylis, the Gaulish city on the Black Sea in Thracian territory, where some of the Gaulish invasions into Thraco-Grecian areas set themselves up (others ended up founding the area in Asia Minor known as Galatia). None of the ancient or medieval Celtic cultures were opposed to syncretism—all of them were syncretistic already in a variety of ways, even in what a modern perspective would perceive as their “cultural purity.”

And, of course, there is the modern reconstructionist methodology of looking to other cultures to explore aspects of their ritual technologies, their cosmological thinking, and various other aspects of their religious outlooks to see if some of these might be adaptable into a Celtic (or any other) milieu. Even if this goes no further afield than to look at Proto-Indo-European theories (which are often built on Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Indian sources, but can also include Slavic and other elements as well), if these are used as the quarries from which to draw the stones that will be put into the foundations and walls of the new Irish or Welsh or Gaulish forts that people are attempting to build, then it is syncretism that is allowing that process to occur. This is even more the case when non-Indo-European sources are drawn upon for shamanic techniques (and pretty much all modern “Celtic shamans” are using those, not actual indigenously Celtic practices) and a variety of other ritual processes, ideas, and elements.

I would like to point out—and this will surprise precisely no one who knows of my work or of this present column—that there is nothing wrong with syncretism, and it is entirely natural and expectable where human religious activity is concerned. What does bother me, though, and which I invite any readers who are of a Celtic reconstructionist methodological orientation to carefully consider, is the use of the term “syncretism” as a pejorative, and likewise the use of its often-assumed synonym “eclectic” also as a term of derision when any multi-trad practices are concerned (outside of some that are deemed “acceptable,” e.g.: Celto-Heathen practices since the Vikings invaded Ireland and Scotland; Gallo-Roman practices since the former is not exactly possible without the latter though it is a grudging acceptance that such is the case; Gallo-Hellenic if one is attempting to base one’s practices on the colony of Massilia; etc.). No matter how much one might try to remove Christianity from one’s perceptions of medieval Irish conceptions of the world, or how bitterly one might lament that the Irish wrote about something using classical terminology or Deity-names rather than native Irish ones, the fact is one can accept that this is what actual Irish people produced on a particular matter, or one can reject it and possibly lose something very valuable in the process.

I have come to the position recently that even when we’re talking about Christianity in medieval Ireland, we’re talking less about “Christianity” and more about “being Irish,” for even on this material, the Irish made it their own in various ways. They made one of their saints, who is historically said to be from about the fifth or early sixth century, the midwife and wet-nurse of Jesus. They preserved apocryphal traditions in their homiletic texts that derive not only from potentially heretical Gnostic sources, but contain cosmological notions demonstrably deriving from ancient Egyptian texts on the afterlife. They made Jesus’ mother Mary conceive him not at the Annunciation with the angel Gabriel, but instead when Mary spoke the Magnificat in the presence of her sister Elizabeth. They even made one of their greatest druids, Mog Ruith, the student of Simon Magus and the slayer of John the Baptist. In classical terms, they made the Gorgons, the Fates, and the Furies one set of three Goddesses who were the daughers of Orcus, with different names in the heavens, on the earth, and in the underworld respectively. They made the maenadic raging of Dido into the madness of a geilt. They turned Herakles’ labor of bringing Cerberus to the surface of the earth his vanquishing of a dog-eared Fomoiri giant. They said that Ailill and Medb’s druids sacrificed the blood of various animals for divinatory purposes to the Gods Apaill, Mairt, Iobh, and Os—Apollo, Mars, Jove, and Osiris! They turned whatever narrative materials they could lay their hands on, from whatever sources, into something thoroughly and distinctively Irish. It is not that Irish sources are “infected” with Christianity or classical influences, it’s that classical and Christian sources in Ireland have been mutated—and positively!—into something else which can only be described as Irish. And it is a thoroughly syncretistic mindset which has allowed this to happen.



  1. I did quite a bit of handwringing over the fact that two Irish and one AngloSaxon deities butted their ways into my largely Welsh-focused practice.

    Then I got over myself and lit the altar candles in their names.

  2. Love this. Every word of it true.

  3. Indeed…And, there is a very heavy, direct and demonstrable, Irish influence on all the major Middle Welsh (and contemporary Latin) texts as well, from which much of our knowledge of Welsh Deities emerges. So, it isn’t surprising…

  4. That last comment by me was in response to Catriona…

  5. I’m curious – do you think Christianity can STILL be mutated in a positive way by modern Pagans? I’ve found myself drawn to streams within both traditions, which is somewhat difficult to articulate to others without causing some stir. The Christianity I practice is animistic, mystical, communal, and personally fulfilling, and I came to appreciate it because of my experiences in Paganism, but I worry that my openness about that fact is somehow percieved as disrespectful.

  6. This is absolutely glorious, and I’ve been waiting for ages for someone of note to start talking sense about the natural evolution and syncretism of religions. For these reasons it seems to me perfectly natural to accept even the oft-derided Romantic and Revivalist writers (Yeats, Morganwg) as modern developments of the Celtic spiritual tradition, as they were–as you put it–actual Irish [or Welsh] people producing new material inspired by the ancient body of their culture. Something needn’t be ancient to be valid, and much of what we work with as polytheists (particularly of a Celtic or Norse bent) is either untraceable or flatly didn’t exist in a pre-Christian world, so really there’s no reason to try to pretend otherwise.

    I’m also particularly delighted to recall Medb and Ailill making sacrifice to Osiris, as my wife is a Shemsu of the House of Netjer.

  7. Without definitive records and unbroken lore, all anyone has to go on is secondary and tertiary sources. Epic poetry was transcribed by Christian monks. Ancient texts do come down to us but there is more unknown than known. Religious practices certainly change over time. Nothing is frozen in place. A question then… Do our Deities change over time? Do their natures change as their devotees change? People change as they grow older… why not the Gods? What is to say that they are immutable? They exists on a different plane yet have agency here. Perhaps they exist here. How does an ancient Deity cope with and understand a modern world? If they have agency here then they must have an evolving nature. They are independent beings. Who is to say that they do not form alliances over issues that concern them? What can’t an ancient Goddess from prehistoric Gaul/Germania form an alliance with a Celtic Goddess? Why can’t this prehistoric Deity, whose very name is lost for all time, have changed over the centuries? Does an ancient clan Goddess from Gaul morph into Artio? If so (and here is a doozy), does she do this because of OUR agency in their world? How much of our worship reshapes our Gods? Syncretistic is not a dirty word. Eclectic is not wrong. Our relationship with our Gods will be dictated by many things. Do we pick them or do they pick us? There is Worship, Devotion and Dedication. Worship, we choose. Devotion… the choice was accepted. Dedication… Much more complicated. However, these multiple Deities with multiple identities are choosing their Dedicants from a modern world. Look, I am meandering… the points are: 1) Without definitive information, almost anything goes. 2) Unless they tell us themselves, all we have to go on is instinct and ancient, third party writing (if anything at all). 3) They must evolve over time to be able to understand our complicated world. 4) While I don’t advocate “cherry picking”, I believe that one can choose to pay homage and worship deities from different pantheons (unless their natures are diametrically opposed to each other). Thank you for allowing my inquiring yet wandering mind to pose these questions.

    • The Gods certainly change, and new ones are born on the regular. For instance, there is no evidence whatsoever that Manannan mac Lir was worshipped much before the 7th century CE, implying that he arose as a God in part to help ease the transition between the older Celtic religious practices and the Catholicism that was becoming gradually more dominant. I think also that there is ample evidence that the Gods are somewhat fluid, and will ‘split’–the Pan that is worshiped by modern Neopagans seems (largely) different from the ‘Green Jesus-y’ one reverenced by 18th century Romantics, which in turn seems quite different from the Pan worshiped in ancient Arcadia.

      At the same time, the Gods exist in mythic time, and may be dealt with at any point along that continuum (at least all the points that exist to date–dealing with future myth seems a bit beyond the capacity of human imagination!). Hence a Lokean could for instance interact with her God in one ritual as he helps in the construction of the walls of Asgard, and another during his period of pain and captivity as he is tended by Sigyn. Or a devotee of Bast can legitimately interact with her in her early Kemetic form of the devouring lion, or her later Greco-Roman syncretic incarnations (really inter/intra-deity syncretism in Kemetic Orthodoxy is a wholly different can of worms!). Really about the only thing I’d rule out would be such things as making Bast ‘the Goddess of lesbians and pot’ (which…happens), because a) it’s so far removed from the established lore and personality of the God that it really has nothing approaching a claim to legitimacy, and b) it comes from a place lacking respect for Bast -as a God-, and so really can’t contribute to her continuing body of mythology.

      • I find your concept of the Gods living in “Non-linear” time fascinating. This is a whole different facet. One may worship their chosen (or who they were chosen by) Deities in any place upon that time-line. For myself, I think that I will choose to worship as my time-line flows from point A to point B (from birth to my eventual death) and where she is on that continuum. Otherwise… I fear my head would explode with the possibilities. Like most humans, I like to compartmentalize things. While I am learning enough that one cannot fit our Deities into neat little categories (oh, she is the Goddess of cats, he is the God of victory, etc…) I would like to perceive that what is past for them is past. Though to honor their earlier forms is to honor them in their entirety. If not then we would all be putting shrines to “Saints” within our homes as Christianity coopted quite a few of these Deities and made them “Saints” to ease the transition from Proto-Pagan to Christian. I don’t hate the early Christians but I lament at their single minded focus on the destruction of any other God. I do not know much about my Lady Goddess. Indeed, I may never know. Her nature is primitive and primal. I wonder what she makes of this modern world. She reaches through me for agency in our world. I cannot “make” her anything. I have to wait till she chooses (if at all) to reveal her nature. In the meantime, it seems to me safest to worship her on an emotional level… Mad, Sad, Glad… these things are the same over time. It matters not (perhaps) whether one give her a prayer of thanks (Glad) for the end of a successful hunt and food through a long winter or thanks (Glad) for a successful sales quarter and a place in the top of my bonus report. Perhaps all she cares about it the intent and not the why’s and wherefores. Yet, I still wonder what they make of us now. The last 100 years has seen us, clever little monkeys, delve into the tiniest subatomic events, reaching out to the beginning of all things, peering into the immune system, the very DNA that makes us, all our technological toys… benevolent and not so. Do they scratch their heads or do they look on us, their children with pride?

  8. [I still can’t respond to individual comments, for some reason, so I’m doing them all in one here…]

    Lizzy: I may not have a useful opinion on this matter, but I think the matter is less “STILL” and more “can.” I know there are some pagans and polytheists who are dead-set against any and all forms of Christianity, and thus think it has no place; i know there are some pagans like Sam Webster who say that one cannot worship Jesus and be a pagan (or the “Abrahamic God”–which is actually at least three different Deities, if not more). But, just because some of those folks don’t like it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, or that it can’t work, in my view. I’ve met some henotheist Jesus-followers who get along splendidly with polytheists and pagans, in any case.

    Cú Meala: while I do agree, I also think it is important to distinguish between poetic license and ancient/medieval lore, which is a vexed and frequent question where both Iolo and Yeats are concerned (and Robert Graves, too, for that matter!). Too many people don’t distinguish these matters, which is a problem; but too many others who are looking for ancient or medieval lore and don’t find it in those sources, or see that innovations have been made on it, then dismiss the entirety as being “fakelore” and so forth, when it may not be as bad as that. (Yes, Iolo did claim more for some of his writings and innovations than was strictly true, but where he got some of his ideas is equally as interesting, and as much in the tradition of medieval Irish and Welsh bricoleurs–to borrow a term often used of the Orphic initiators–as any of the actual medieval texts.)

    Bernie: while I do agree with some of the positions you’ve stated, and have written about these things elsewhere under the rubrics of process theology (which, for polytheists, is I think “syncretism”!), I have to disagree on the statement that Christian monks “transcribed” epic poetry in the case of the Irish. First of all, their epic writings are in prosimetry, and the prose (at very least) is not transcribed, it was written/created/invented by the people who were writing it as authors, not as mere passive recorders. I also don’t agree that “anything goes” as far as what is not known–there are some things that are more in the realm of possibility than others, and our interpretations of what actually does exist then become that much more important in trying to extend out to what has not been preserved.

    • I hear you and understand. However, the question becomes, “What does Go?” If we are operating on a thin level with little information then how to we intuit what is the correct path? Unbroken or nearly unbroken Polytheistic traditions have a frame work. Those that have been broken but have been recorded through the passage of oral tradition to the written word (mythology, epic prose and poetry) have some base to work with. The “but” is what does one do when there is no recorded information? If we believe (faith) that our Gods have agency in this world and that they exists then how does one approach the unknowable? I understand that this is a unique situation that I find myself in but I have little to go on except intuition. However, I have come to believe that “intuition” may not be as simple as the subconscious brain processing life experiences too fast for you to note and turning them into physical reactions/feelings. I believe that intuition can be the voice of the Gods and the subconscious is the “spaces between the raindrops”… hard to access but that is from where their voices come. So, as a matter of “faith” I have to go on nothing but my intuition. This is where all of this diverges… things would have been simpler for me if the Goddess who chose me was Celtic as their are no shortage of sources in which to attempt to piece things together.


      Bernie Rizzo

Trackbacks for this post

  1. The Latest “Speaking of Syncretism” article: “If It’s Celtic, It’s Syncretistic” | Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous