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.