The Sacred Cauldron: Secrets of the Druids

by Tadhg Mac Crossan. Reviewed by Alexei Kondratiev.

The word "Druid" has been appropriated by so many groups who have little or nothing to do with Celtic tradition that it is gratifying to come upon a proponent of "Druidism" who has done his homework - or so it seems at first glance. Tadhg Mac Crossan displays a good basic knowledge of Celtic languages and of the historical development of Celtic cultures, and he has clearly made a close study of the work of the current "post-Dumezil" school of Indo-Europeanists, which has given him a good perspective on the overall nature of religion in Western antiquity. The sketch of Celtic cosmology and theology he presents in the first half of The Sacred Cauldron is based on respectable sources and is generally sound, although one can certainly take issue with some aspects of it. For instance, in his exposition of the Celtic doctrine of the soul, I see no evidence in Celtic tradition that the bukkos was ever conceived of as "the wild side of everyone" (i.e., as a component of the self) rather than as a force external to the individual human consciousness (to say that it is the wild side of every thing, of Nature - including collective human nature, insofar as it is part of Nature as a whole - would probably be closer to the mark). Mac Crossan's model seems to be derived from modern psychological theories, and is viable as such, but its relation to anything the ancient Druids believed and taught is ambiguous. I also personally dislike the "smorgasbord approach" to dealing with gods and goddesses -- long lists of names, each followed by a succinct "job description" -- which he has adopted; although one must admit that it is the favored approach in most Neo-Pagan publications today. Unfortunately, this tends to foster the illusion that all Pagan religions are the same (i.e., a rather amorphous polytheism), with only the names and stage decorations changing from culture to culture. In this case, it obscures the unique structures of Celtic theology, notably the dynamics of the god/goddess pair, which is basic to Celtic religious thought (as M.L. Sjoestedt pointed out back in the 1940s, providing a seminal insight to Celtic Studies). However, Mac Crossan's comments on each divinity are generally accurate and informative (although one should note that the modern Irish cognate of Belenos would be Beileann, not the impossible Bialeann).

The real problems begin in the second half of the book, which details the "Modern Practices" of Druidiactos, Mac Crossan's reconstructed Druidism. Mac Crossan gives precise instructions for organizing sacred space and conducting public ceremonies, including detailed scripts for the four quarterly feasts and for rites of passage (birth, naming, coming of age, marriage, death). These scripts are all Mac Crossan's own compositions, inspired by his research but containing very little that is from ancient sources. The questions that arise, then, are: How accurately do these rituals reflect ancient Celtic religion? How well do they work as rituals? How appropriate are they to a modern Celtic path?

First, note that unique ritual traditions have survived into modern times as part of the heritage of Celtic-language communities, although they have, of course, operated for many centuries in a Christianized context. Perhaps because of this "contamination", Mac Crossan has chosen to pay very little attention to such traditions, even when they are consistent with -- and provide information about -- material in the literary sources (Greco-Roman and early Irish) he prefers to use. Since no precise information on Celtic ritual has survived from pre-Christian times, he interprets the scattered material available from literature and archaeology considering other, better-known Indo-European ritual systems (Vedic, Persian, archaic Roman, to a lesser extent Germanic). This comparative method is not without merit; it can, indeed, provide some illuminating insights, restore some of the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle. But it has its limits. While some elements of a common Indo-European heritage can be restored, the historically attested Indo-European cultures are quite distinct from one another, and their traditions are not interchangeable. Celtic and Vedic culture have a remarkable amount in common, but one cannot simply transpose the rituals of one into the context of another. For instrance, the Indian ceremony of the ashvamedha and the Irish royal horse-sacrifice described by Gerald of Wales are obviously descended from a single prototype, yet they are very different ceremonies, and if one assumed, without Gerald's evidence, that the Celtic ritual was essentially the same as the Indian one, one would be wrong. So we must take into account the uniqueness of the Celtic tradition, not ignoring when the ethos of the living Celtic heritage appears to be at variance with that of the other Indo-European groups.

In Mac Crossan's rituals this discrepancy is particularly evident concerning the treatment of women. It is overwhelmingly clear, from a vast range of literary, historical and ethnographic evidence, that the Celts, while continuing to work within the patrilinear system they inherited from their Indo-European forbears, gave women an increased amount of real power in the social sphere, and in the end both their kinship and ritual systems were more bilateral than androcentric. Not a trace of this appears in Mac Crossan's reconstruction. All the rituals are designed for events in male lives, and presented from a male point of view. The ritualists themselves are all described as male [although Mac Crossan remarks at one point that both women and men are eligible for all ritual duties except the role of the ueleda, which is exclusively female... -Bryn], with the one exception of the Ouiameightis (Imbolc) ceremony, where a Ueleda (seeress) appears because there is a goddess-role to be enacted. The bias is also glaringly evident in the coming-of-age initiation although there is a half-hearted attempt to refer to the initiate as both "he" and "she", and as both "Celtos" and "Celta", he is clearly conceived of as a "boy", and in any case the name of the ceremony (Uirolaxton, "manhood") can only apply to a male. Only the father directly relates to his child in the birthing and naming rituals, and in the marriage rite the woman is passively "taken" by the man. How unlike the extant traditions of Celtic communities, where a newborn child's female relatives play a major role in welcoming it into its new family, and where weddings involve a bilateral cup-sharing and oath-taking, as evidenced by a wide array of both literary and folk sources (cf., for instance, the mythologized royal wedding in Baile in Scail)! Of course, what Mac Crossan has done is imitate the better- documented rituals of Oriental and Mediterranean Indo-European groups, whose traditions are extremely patriarchal. He should have been more sensitive to the qualities that make them so jarringly un-Celtic.

Examined in more detail, the rituals disappoint by their prosaism, their lack of poetic fire. [True for a good deal of reconstructionist work being done. -Bryn.] One of the most attractive aspects of Celtic culture is its reverence for language, its wholehearted trust in the power of the spoken word. Surely the bardoi and gutuatres of early Celtic society would have put more imagination, more passion, more verbal ingenuity into their ritual offerings! There are also some appalling lapses of judgement in Mac Crossan's ritual organization: at the opening of the Belotenia ceremony, for instance, the Druis is made to deliver a "theological" homily that reads more like an essay in modern comparative mythology -- discussing theories similar to Jarich Oosten's -- than like anything that could have been spoken in an ancient ritual. Not only is it unlikely that the Druids would ever have expressed themselves in this way but to begin a ritual with such trite intellectualizing has a deadening effect on everything that follows. Finally, one must consider the relevance and viability of Mac Crossan's entire system. In a sense, it falls between two stools, being neither a completely faithful reconstruction (he avoids blood sacrifice, for instance, although it is fundamental to the original theology) nor a modern adaptation (he is thinking in terms of an Iron Age touta, not any community in the Celtic world of today). On the whole, though, the reconstructionist element predominates, and gives the whole enterprise an unreal, play-acting quality. Does the anachronistic recreation of a touta, with its hierarchy of functions that will perforce have little relation to the participants' secular lives, really serve a useful purpose, in spiritual terms? What does the office of a rix mean, in a world where he has no real authority, where he is no more than an SCA king putting on a costume for the weekend wars? Seen in these terms, Druidiactos seems likely to turn into either a purely frivolous entertainment, or a claustrophobic cult obsessed with its hierarchy and internal power struggles.

In conclusion, then, The Sacred Cauldron offers some sound information and some valuable insights, but the author's approach to the ritual implementation of Celtic religion is seriously flawed. Taken as the first draft of a work-in-progress left for future generations to complete, it is not without promise. But if it claims to be a finished product, it will be quickly defeated by its inherent limitations.

[This article appeared in the Lughnasadh 1992 issue of "Keltria: A Journal of Druidism and Keltic Magick", P.O. Box 33284, Minneapolis MN 55433-0284. The Henge of Keltria, a national Neo-Pagan Druid organization, may be reached at the same address.]

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