The Celts were always diverse and never aspired to nation or empire. Their remarkable history still haunts us today through the stories and traditions of countries such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany and others. The Celts have walked this Earth and passed into legend like the heroes of old. They call us now to tell us of their spirit and way of life. At the core of the Celtic spirit is their sense of time.
We are experiencing now yet another wave of resurgent interest in the Celts and Druids. Over hundreds of years, many generations have reached back to Celtic story and legend in an attempt to discover something new about themselves in the images of Celtic life.
The Celt is a fascinating figure, passionate, wild and colourful, enticing yet somehow undefined. We are never quite sure what we are looking at, or what we are looking for, in this mysterious being who seems to switch effortlessly from singing and dancing to fighting, from speaking poetry and wisdom to bragging and lying.
It is that very fascination which has given rise to so many untruths and misconceptions about the Celtic people, for Celtic culture is neither homogeneous nor easily definable. It is the outpouring of a multitude of tribal groups that began to flourish through the medium of a common language a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
The Magic of Celtic Time
The Celts measured time differently from the way we do and therefore understood it differently. For them time was circular and organic, not linear, segmented and disposable. Time was a fluid element, as much a part of the natural world as the forests and the mountains, the rivers and the seas. Time was an organic ingredient in the Celtic cosmos.
The Celtic otherworld, the faerie realm, had its own river of time that constantly intersected with the flow of time in this world, changing the perceptions of the humans who were touched by its spirit. To enter the faerie realm was to step outside of earthly time and enter another stream of existence. For the Celts, time was not just a yardstick used to measure linear progression. Rather it was a part of the living environment through which they moved. Time was a corridor with doorways to past and future.
In Celtic time we would not only experience what we could expect or hope of the future but also relive things that had been part of the past as the river of time flowed again through a place it had travelled to before. The river of time was not only an endless forward moving future, but also an endlessly returning past, moving in circles. We leave only to eventually arrive where we began and it is we ourselves who are changed.
Thus it is that we come to something we see as new that someone else has known before. We might not know what had occurred at this place in the river of time, but, if we listen to traditional tellings, we can discover through the wisdom of our ancestors what will happen for us by hearing what has happened before. Someone who knows the past will always know the future. The druids even called their art of seership 'remembering the future'. On the river of time, all things depart, all things return. This subtle understanding imbues every aspect of Celtic thinking and belief. Those who embrace the belief in a life beyond this one feel differently about death. Consider how differently we would feel about our future if we understood it would inevitably bring us back to the point where we began. In order to get a better feel for Celtic time, let us look at the Celtic day.
The Celtic Day
For the Celts, sunset marked the end of an old day and the beginning of a new one. The evening twilight marked not only the passage of light into darkness, but also of one day into the next. When your day begins with sunset, the first activity of the day is the gathering for the evening meal, underlining the importance the Celtic peoples placed on hospitality. The evening meal was the sacred beginning to the journey of the day, a far cry from the world of takeaways and supermarket quickies at the end of a hectic round of work, school and stress. A convivial gathering for food and talk was thus the beginning of each day's events and entertainment, laughter, storytelling, song and poetry would follow the meal.
The poetic aspect of Celtic life was of enormous importance. There are no men or women in the Celtic pantheon of heroes who are not able to speak their wisdom and their feelings through song or poetry, no matter how great their prowess in battle or their skill in politics and law. For the Celts, song or poetry must touch you to make you complete and enable you to walk the heroic path and be with the gods.
The deep of night, the erotic pleasures of the bed and the gift of dreaming dreams to be made real in the day to come would follow such entertainments. Rather than using the dream state to evacuate the stress of the preceding day, as we do, dreams in Celtic time allowed them to create the world anew for the coming morning. It was the dream-world that set the daytime world in motion for the Celts, just as it was their spirit-world that nourished and restored the world of matter and human activity. So, in the morning, they arose to live the day they had dreamed of, a day that reached its peak at noon when the Sun was overhead, blessing their activities with the fullest strength and vigour. The passing of midday saw the gradual decline of activity as they slipped towards the coming twilight and the sunset world that marked the end of one day and the beginning of the next. Such a pattern may not seem so different from our own until we begin to live in this way, drawing strength from a whole new view of the world. This view of the world was reflected in their sacred ceremonies.
In part two of this fascinating article, Neil discusses the meaning of Samhain, the feast of the Dead, now celebrated as Halloween.
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