A Celtic cross on Iona
A number of years ago I heard about a house a friend was intending to build – an eco house with a green oak frame, oak cladding, sheepswool insulation, turbine in the burn etc – on the west coast.
He was particularly enthralled with the siting of his new house and the view from it, over the sea-loch to Eigg, the Rum Cuillin and beyond – and how the weather, light and perspective played on and between the islands.
He went on to suggest there was something about the geometry that draws you in. “When the sun sets behind the conical peak of Trolleval it’s hard not to get all poetic,” he said.
But he did. He went on to say that he’s been watching a television documentary about one of ancient Egypt’s Pharaohs, Akhenaten, and how he rebuilt his capital at Amarna specifically because the setting sun made poetic geometry with a conical mountain. Could the ancient Celts have held similar views, he asked?
He asked me that question I suspect because he knew I had a fascination for the ancient Celtic people, and in answer to his question I said they might have done. Certainly the ancient Celtic people looked to the west as their eternal resting place,most probably because the sun rises in the east and dies in the west. Over that distant western horizon lay Tir nan Og, the land of the ever-young.
On a broader theme the Celts tended to build their temples or cells, sited in such a way as to exploit the energies of the earth. For example, a shrine to Manannan, the lord of the waters, might be built near a river. Certain places held certain kinds of power, depending on factors such as the stone underlying them, the kinds of vegetation that grew and the positioning of nearby hills or waterways. Some places were for healing, some for energizing, some conducive to contemplation while others may simply have had an uncomfortable or uncanny atmosphere.
Certainly, the ancient Celts knew little of cities or towns, and their landscapes were generally those of forests, woods, mountains or sea shores. The natural world was vitally important to them – spiritually so, for the sky and the unspoiled land provided a relationship between man and the cosmos, a relationship that is almost unknown to us today, a relationship – not unknown to other ancient belief systems – that our modern society has allowed to wither and atrophy.
I find it fascinating that the Celts recognized nature as a divine mirror of the cycles and power of the universe and saw animals, lakes, trees, stones, the sun, moon, and seasons as reflections of a sovereign God. It’s not surprising then, that the early Christians missionaries were attracted by Celtic beliefs and the early religions were often intermingled, as I discovered last year on my 250-mile Pilgrims’ Trail across the Scottish Highlands.
My friend’s thoughts about the ancient Egyptions were probably on the right lines – such ancient belief systems appear to be almost universal, which probably indicate that these early people traveled widely, and the ancient Egyptians and ancient Celtcs probably shared many beliefs, but my own interest in Celtic history stems from the fact that so many of these early belief systems held the land in much more reverence that we do today.
It’s perhaps fair to say that our ancestors relied on the land more than we currently do for food, fuel and building materials, but something within me can’t help think we have lost something essential.
The Celts, curiously, saw various features of the landscape as reflections of corresponding human parts, which I think indicates the belief that humankind is merely part and parcel of the whole web of creation. This is explained quite nicely by the writer Nigel Pennick as he quotes from The Book of Llanrwst:
“The first is the earth, which is inert and heavy, and from it proceeds the flesh; the second are the stones, which are hard, and the substance of bones; the third is water, which is moist and cold, and is the substance of the blood; the fourth is salt, which is briny and sharp, and from it are the nerves, and the temperament of feelings, as regards bodily sense and faculty; the fifth is the firmament or wind, out of which proceeds the breathing; the sixth is the sun, which is clear and fair, and from it proceed the fire, or bodily heat, the light and colour; the seventh is the Holy Ghost, from whom issues the soul and life; and eighth is Christ, that is, the intellect, wisdom and the light of soul and life.”