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Manuscripts De-Mystified

Author: Phillupus Doctor Ekklesiae Antinoou
Posted: August 20th. 2006
Times Viewed: 3,601

A great deal of modern Paganism has some interest in, or shows some influence derived from, Celtic religion, ranging from the names of the four quarter-days (Samain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lugnasad) or in concepts of deity, including so-called triple goddesses like Brigid or the Morrígan, to many other smaller features. All of these things may not be universally Celtic, and in fact a great many of them are only attested to by Irish sources; though Irish is a Celtic language, the existence of one element or other in that language or culture does not automatically make it Celtic. But Irish is the best-documented of the various Celtic literatures, with the most surviving manuscripts, and the earliest inscriptions in an Insular Celtic language all originated in that cultural matrix. Thus, things Irish and Celtic are not only of great interest to many Pagans, whether they are Celtic Reconstructionists or not, but the words “Celtic” and “Irish” are often used in titles and descriptions of various Pagan literature to sell books. Whether there is legitimate grounds for calling a number of books and the practices and beliefs described therein Celtic or Irish, though, is not the matter of the present discussion.

Though many folk-beliefs survived in Ireland up until the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the myths and beliefs of early Ireland (those since adapted into modern Paganism) were transmitted primarily through manuscripts, containing everything from poetry and prose narratives and legal material to gnomic texts, saints’ lives and other matters of interest to the monastic literati who produced the manuscripts. There are more medical manuscripts extant from medieval Ireland than any other European country, for example.

While most Pagans don’t have the time to do postgraduate study and become intimately familiar with the history and contents of many of these manuscripts, a better understanding of them would be useful to many people, and the popular pagan literature has not thus far provided this adequately. But a number of misconceptions about these manuscripts should be cleared up before examining a few in more detail. Firstly, the writers of these manuscripts were not heretical crypto-pagans, but were definitely Christian in their outlook; however, this does not mean that their understanding of Christianity excluded or thought poorly of pre-Christian traditions. A great deal of the material transmitted in these writings is certainly from the polytheistic past of the Irish people, and compares closely to some of the details given by classical writers on the Continental Celts, or to inscriptions found in Gaul, Celiberia, and Northern Italy of Celtic origin.

Second, though “Celtic Christianity” is a popular subject now, it is a modern classification; none of the Irish Christians of the sixth and seventh centuries would have recognized themselves as “Celtic.” A distinction was made between the Hibernenses (Irish) and the Romani (Romans) during the Easter Controversy of the seventh century; the two diverged over issues like the proper tonsure (hairstyle) for the religious and the proper calculation of the date of Easter, but there were Romani living and thriving in Ireland before the controversy was supposedly settled by the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Synod’s outcome was in favor of the Romani, but this did not end the divergent practices of the Hibernenses entirely, and the decision was not taken as binding over any areas except for Northumbria (in England) where the decision was made; also, it was not direct influence from Rome which brought about the decision, but rather the local king who, because of the atmosphere of fear created by a recent eclipse and famine, wanted to settle things religiously, and whose wife celebrated the Roman Easter, whereas he celebrated based on the Irish calculation. Overall, these rather small matters were all that separated the Hibernenses from the Romani, and eventually the Hibernenses simply faded away. The Culdees, or Céili Dé as they were known then (meaning “friends of God”) were not a hybrid Christian-druidic order, but rather were a reform movement that started in the late eighth century to put many Irish monasteries more in line with a strict observance of Christianity as practiced on the continent.

Thirdly, none of these manuscripts is a “book of shadows” as these are known today. Several spells do exist in various manuscripts, but these books are all definitely Christian in character. The Codex Sancti Pauli contains a spell, and several exist in a manuscript from St. Gall in Switzerland, all of which were meant to be used by clerics. However, these are small marginal glosses and interlinear notes, and the remainder of the manuscripts are devoted to thoroughly Christian topics. The early Irish monks loved to tell stories about literacy, and in order to invest their literary activities with authority, they often told stories which put eyewitnesses to the past’s lore into direct contact with Irish Christians. One story tells how the shapeshifting reincarnating character Túan mac Cairell, who was present during the early invasions of Ireland, and changed into many animals over time and between floods and disasters, at last assumed human shape once again, and remembering all of his past lives, transmitted all of his knowledge to Christian monks, accepted baptism, and died, going to heaven directly. Similar stories are told of several other characters, all with the intent of putting the genuine and authentic historical, literary and genealogical lore of Ireland into the hands of monks rather than the druids or any non-Christian scholarly holdovers. One should also be careful of thinking that “religious” texts like saints’ lives and theological treatises contain nothing useful to pagans, whereas “secular” tales of heroes, gods, and the Otherworld are all that are worthwhile to study. Some aspects of “secular” tales are directly parallel to biblical and classical narrative, and in fact are probably drawn from them specifically; and some elements in “religious” texts involve direct observation of non-Christians and their practices, and tell us much more about late Irish paganism than tales of pagan heroes written by Christians with a Christian viewpoint.

The dating of manuscripts is likewise a difficult matter. The oldest extant Irish manuscripts are from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, and yet the material in them is often much older. The dates of the language used in the manuscripts are determined by comparing the verbal forms to known sound changes and grammatical shifts that are visible in Irish glosses on manuscripts from the continent—primarily the collections in Würzburg, Milan, and St. Gall—which are datable, or by comparison to entries in various Irish annals. For example, the neuter gender in Old Irish was phased out and the language became an exclusively two-gender tongue (with other changes as well, thus becoming Middle Irish) in the early tenth century, which is known because of an entry in the Annals of Ulster in 912, when the neuter definite article was used for the last time. So, though a manuscript may date from the twelfth to sixteenth century, the language of a text in it may be from as early as the seventh or eighth century. The twelfth-century Book of Armagh contains some writings believed to be by Saint Patrick himself, which date to the fifth century!

One of the oldest and most important manuscripts is one which has been lost, but we know of its existence by quotations in later manuscripts; it was called Cín Dromma Snechtai (The Book of Drumsnat, a monastery in County Leitrim) and dated to the eighth century. Some of the oldest Irish narratives were once found in it, including Compert Con Culainn (The Birth of Cú Chulainn) , Togail Bruidne Da Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) , parts of Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) , the voyage-tales Echtra Chonnlai (The Adventure of Connla) and Immram Brain (The Voyage of Bran), as well as several texts relating to the historical-but-mythologized king Mongán mac Fiachna, who in one tale was said to be the reincarnation of the Irish poet-warrior Finn mac Cumhaill. Many of these tales share a concern with the Otherworld and the supernatural, which is quite noteworthy for such early examples of Old Irish literature. Unfortunately, we know of the wherabouts of Cín Dromma Snechtai up until the seventeenth century, but it disappeared at some point during the fall of the Old Gaelic order. One can only hope that it was spirited away and hidden in some monastery or library on the continent, waiting to be rediscovered one day.

One manuscript from the late eleventh century, currently the oldest surviving Irish manuscript, has become somewhat famous in its own right amongst pagans. Known as Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) , I have heard people in search of it ask about “The Book of Duncau” and other such variations. A diplomatic edition (a rendering of it into Roman script published exactly as it is in the manuscript, letter-for-letter, mistakes and all, with no translation) is still in print and quite reasonably-priced from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. However, I would advise against buying it, unless one is thoroughly familiar with Old Irish and Latin. It was compiled from a number of sources (with some sections from Cín Dromma Snechtai) by antiquarians interested in preserving the traditions of Irish literature for future study, and many of the writings therein show evidence of this intended usage: the narratorial interjection of “But other versions say…” is frequent in a number of texts. The voyage tale which Caitlin Matthew’s Celtic Book of the Dead is based upon, Immram Curaig Maíle Dúin (the Voyage of the Curragh of Mael Dúin) , is contained in this manuscript; though we should note that it is demonstrably directly based upon the eighth-century Irish Latin text known in English as the Voyage of St Brendan, rather than the reverse, as suggested by Matthews. Among the more important tales found in this book are many from the Ulster Cycle, including Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) , Tochmarc Emere (the Wooing of Emer) , and several cattle-raid stories (Tána) , including the first recension of the most important epic of early Irish literature, Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-Raid of Cooley) , which is the story of Queen Medb’s attempt to steal the Donn Cúailnge (Brown Bull of Cooley) from the Ulstermen, and the hero Cú Chulainn’s single-handed defense of his province against all the armies of Ireland. The core of the text of Táin Bó Cúailnge is dated by scholars to the eighth or ninth century.

A further important manuscript, the early-twelfth century Book of Leinster, contains a version of Táin Bó Cúailnge that is more complete and expanded than the first recension, told in a more literary style. The tale known as De Fhaillsigud Tána Bó Cúailnge (On the Finding of the Cattle-Raid of Cooley) occurs in this manuscript, which tells how the last written copy of the Táin was traded to foreigners for a copy of the Culmen—“the summit of all knowledge, ” which was the Irish nickname for Isidore of Seville’s great encyclopedia, Etymologiae—and the poets of Ireland had to re-discover it by keeping vigil at Fergus mac Roich’s grave, where his ghost re-told the story as an eyewitness to its events. A great deal of the place-name lore (dindshenchas), which generally used Isidore’s methodology of defining words to generate stories of how important locations came to be called what they are, is also contained in the Book of Leinster; dindshenchas as a genre was extremely popular, and dindshenchas elements are part of many Irish tales. Also, a large amount of genealogical material is found in this manuscript, with genealogical lore being one of the essential qualifications of poets in Ireland from the earliest times.

Many pagans are familiar with the earliest written form of Gaelic, known as ogam (or ogham in Modern Irish), because of its popularization in various publications as the basis for divination systems, tree calendars, and other such things. While the use of ogam for these purposes is debatable (and in some cases completely unsupported by the extant evidence), what it was certainly used for was monumental inscriptions, specifically on standing stones used as territorial markers. Ogam stones may have also been used as memorials for the dead, and the cipher may also have been used on wooden objects (though none of the latter have survived) . The ogam alphabet was never “lost” to the literati in Ireland, and in fact it was probably a standard part of education from the fifth century until the late medieval period. Whether it was pre-Christian or Christian is another matter altogether, but the alphabet was certainly developed under Latin influence, probably through the colonies of various Munster tribes in Southern Wales in the sub-Roman period. The “Ogam Tract” is part of the text known as Auraicept na nÉces (The Scholar’s Primer) , which is found in a number of manuscripts, but notably the fourteenth-century Book of Ballymote.

There are many hundreds of other manuscripts of Insular Celtic materials, both in Ireland and Britian as well as on the continent (in libraries in Rennes, St. Gall, Milan, and even the Vatican) , some with impressive or interesting names like the Yellow Book of Lecan, the Leabhar Breacc (Speckled Book) , and the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum, but some with very boring names simply indicating their library shelf number (e.g. TCD H.4.22, Rawlinson B 502, RIA 23 K 37) . Welsh manuscripts containing important writings like the Four Branches of the Mabinogi include books like the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Carmarthen. And many other manuscripts in other medieval languages exist, which are too numerous to even attempt summarizing!

Though many holes in our complete knowledge of early Irish and Welsh narrative exist, and there have been innumerable lamentable losses of books like Cín Dromma Snechtai, scholars estimate that with what has survived, about eighty to ninety percent of the early medieval Irish canon has been preserved. And while this is an embarrassment of riches in comparison to the Welsh material, much of this remains untranslated and unedited, and for that matter perhaps even unread and unknown. Much scholarly work remains to be done on these matters, and for Pagans of all stripes who have an interest in things Celtic, I can suggest three things. First, find out as much as you can or are able, both from reading and from informed discussion and verifiable on-line information, about what the actual words and content of much of this literature is. Two, be patient with the scholars who are working with this material, as many of them have interests that are far from providing modern people with sources upon which to base a practical and living spirituality. And three, if you can’t be patient, but have excellent linguistic skills and a persistent interest in these matters, pursue the study of ancient languages and textual scholarship for yourself; you may find that you not only do a great deal to inform and enlighten yourself and your friends, but you may even end up advancing scholarship in the course of doing so.




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