Celtic influence

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The folklore of regions where Celtic languages are spoken (or were until recently) is particularly abundant and well documented; this is true of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, and Cornwall. What is uncertain is whether this merely reflects the fact that they were less affected than England by 19th-century economic changes, and hence kept their traditions relatively stable, attracting more attention from folklore collectors; or whether it implies deep-rooted differences in ethnic culture going back to prehistoric times. Most Victorians, steeped in nationalist and racist assumptions, took for granted that Celtic-speaking Iron Age Britons differed sharply from the Germanic Anglo-Saxons in religious and artistic temperament, and that these differences persisted in their descendants. Contrasting stereotypes were established: Celts were mystical, poetic, and ‘superstitious’; Anglo-Saxons pragmatic and unimaginative.

This has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially among non-academic writers, to whom Celts seem mysterious and awe-inspiring in a way that other early peoples do not. Where similarities exist between a fairly localized custom or belief in England and a more widespread one in a Celtic area, many are tempted to see the former as inherited from native Britons rather than incoming Anglo-Saxons, or as due to contact with neighbouring Celts. The problem with this theory is not that the proposed Celtic parallels do not exist, for in most cases they do, but that the true distribution of the item under discussion may be much wider. Irish and Scottish folklore is easily available for comparison, whereas that of France, Germany, or Scandinavia is known only to specialists; what seems ‘Celtic’ when viewed from an English perspective may in fact be due to a wider inheritance of European traditions rather than to direct influence of Britons on Anglo-Saxons.

The calendar custom most commonly claimed as Celtic is Halloween, long celebrated in Ireland, Wales, and Highland Scotland, by a medieval combination of the ancient Irish festival Samhain with the Christian All Saints and All Souls' Days. There are isolated allusions in Lancashire and Derbyshire (see All Souls, Day and Halloween), but its spread in 19th- and 20th-century England was fostered by Scottish, literary, and American influences. Celtic origins are also claimed for May Day and Midsummer, which Bede does not list among Anglo-Saxon festivals; it is true that all Celts celebrated these dates, but so did the medieval French (whose influence on English culture was immense) and most other continental countries.

In the sphere of belief and ritual, it has been argued that holy wells and wishing wells are updated versions of sacred healing waters venerated by the Britons, and their offerings made in shafts, pits, and wells; the similarities are strong, though on the Continent such practices were not limited to Celtic peoples, and could have been familiar to Anglo-Saxons too. Some think that when skulls and stone heads are regarded as luck-bringers, this derives from the way early Celts displayed severed heads and carved stone heads as magical protectors; others, that some bogeys such as Black Annis are related to British divinities. A Celtic origin was long accepted for the Uffington White Horse, which now turns out to be even older; the dating of hill figures at Cerne Abbas and Wilmington is currently under debate. It was long thought that the sheela-na-gig was an archaic fertility charm with strong Irish connections, but modern research shows it belongs to the history of European church art. The idea that circling to the right (sunwise) brings good luck, but circling to the left is linked to witchcraft and curses, is predominantly Scottish and Irish (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 383–6); the fact that it is now well known in England can count as a Celtic influence, albeit a recent one enhanced by popular books and films.


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