Ancient Warriors, Celtic Peace

by Alison Leigh Lilly


There is no going back. We consent to our own destruction, with the passing of time, with the changing seasons, with the restless intensity of living and breathing. Above the cold concrete and glass of the city skyline, sharp-wedged forms of birds wheel and tip in the dark, blustering sky. I find myself thinking again that it takes an awful lot of courage to live in this world sometimes, knowing that winter is coming, the dark is coming, and death, too, will eventually arrive to claim us. It takes courage to release ourselves, to enter willingly into the wild dance that whirls in this liminal space between life and death, creation and destruction. In my mind, the image of birds crashing through wind currents and swift-driven clouds commingles with the image of the warrior, poised in grace on the edge of chaos. The face of that warrior is not violence, but fearlessness. And the culmination of fearlessness, the height of its realization, is peace.

On Violence and Control

We live in a modern world, a world that has known the power of peace as well as the force of violence and war. A world that has known King and his dreams of the mountaintop. That witnessed Gandhi leading hundreds to the shore, stooping to gather the sea salt forbidden to them by law but offered freely and ceaselessly by something far greater and older than empire. And it is no less true for being trite: these days we have the capacity for obscene violence as well. This world we live in has seen the invention of atomic weapons by men cloistered away in sterile laboratories, and the use of those weapons to intimidate and threaten, to bring whole cities broken and poisoned to the ground. I share this world with you, and together we have watched our modern culture grow bloated and listless with propagandistic marketing trends and diet fast food. Yet alongside these we’ve felt a dawning common understanding that can no longer excuse violence against women and the marginalized, nor accept the callous mechanizations that would treat nature as fuel to burn for turning a profit. These times are unique, with their contradictions and global communications networks. There is no going back. We live in a world in tension, a culture brought precariously to the brink of tremendous violence again and again. How can we live, fully and freely, in such a world?

In modern society, war and advertising, factory-farming and imperial political bullying all share a common assumption about the nature of uncertainty and how we ought to respond. When equated with insecurity, our lack of certainty can be frightening, a fundamental threat to our survival; even at best, it is an inconvenience keeping our ambitions in check and jeopardizing our plans for the future. Society teaches us that the unknown should be excised, that mystery is dangerous and our uncertainty irresponsible. In its place, we strive for the security and efficiency of control. We fight back against the whims of weather and ecology by spraying down our genetically-modified monoculture crops with petrochemical fertilizers and insecticides. We ensure the success of our new plastic-cased microtechnology fad with the right marketing aimed at the most vulnerable demographics. We protect the borders of our nations through threat as well as force, seeking a dominant role in world politics so that we do not feel ourselves at the mercy of the unknown lurking behind foreign eyes. In the face of uncertainty, we lock down, prepared to exercise all our power to keep ourselves safe and whole.

This obsession with security and control which largely defines our modern society inevitably leads to wide-spread systemic violence on all levels of community life. The word “violence??? comes from the Latin violentia, which translates as vehemence or impetuosity, both words that well describe our culture’s brash, forceful pursuit of certainty and mastery. Related is the verb violare, which gives rise to the English “violate??? and means “to treat with violence or irreverence, to dishonor.??? Violence is not merely an act of destruction or harm; it is a rejection or denial of the unique and meaningful individuality of another being, a violation of our sacred relationship with the other. Such rejection of the other is a fundamental characteristic of a cultural system based on a need to control, for to honor other-ness as meaningful we must acknowledge that others are greater than our attempts to explain and define them and, thus, they remain essentially beyond our control. The Other remains a mystery.

The irony is that, as systemic violence runs rampant on a large scale seeking to impose order on uncertainty, our daily lives have grown increasingly safe and predictable, with much of the degradation and harm occurring behind a veil of propriety and sanitized professionalism. This makes the violence of the modern world harder to identify and resist, but it also opens up a space of calm in which ordinary individuals can begin the work of living peacefully. In this cultural space, we have grown more receptive to the lessons of diversity and interconnection, giving birth to environmental and civil rights movements alike. Modern science and innovations in technology reveal a global ecology that is both biological and social in nature, and we cannot escape or ignore the growing awareness that what happens on the other side of the world has ramifications that reach all the way to our own doorsteps, and vice versa. Of course, this burgeoning ecological sense can itself be a source of uncertainty and stress, especially when we begin to perceive our own participation in systemic violence and experience the helplessness that often follows. Add to this the din and flashing lights of constant advertisement bombardment, and the fear-mongering of sensationalist media, and we may still find ourselves living in a state of artificially-inflated anxiety and insecurity despite our fairly mundane, domesticated lives.

Fear drives us to make excuses, for ourselves as well as for others. Rather than acknowledge the violence underlying a social philosophy of control, we excuse each instance of state or corporate violence as a forced hand that, with the proper knowledge and power in play, can surely be avoided in the future. Confronted with uncertainty in our own lives, we worry that we as individuals are not strong enough or capable of enough, that we will fall victim to chance or malice or our own impetuousness. We cite every lame, ineffectual excuse that comes to mind, rather than commit to a philosophy of engaged, creative peace-making. Not because we believe that violence is inherent or unavoidable; after all, most of us live every day without acting violently towards others, and examples of effective peaceful cooperation are literally everywhere, so ubiquitous that at times they are almost as invisible as water is to a fish. No, we reject pacifism, we turn away from an active commitment to peace, because we are afraid. We fear what such a commitment might demand of us, and we doubt our ability to live up to these standards. We worry that our commitment would leave us vulnerable, would ask us to give up our attempts to control others and instead respect them as sacred in the very difference and mystery that leaves us at the mercy of chance. We reject out-of-hand the notion that we might find peace and prosperity if we relinquish our hold. In short, we are afraid because ending our violence against others means that we must face the possibility of our own destruction.

But there is no going back. We have already consented to our own destruction, with the passing of time, with the changing seasons. To live is to face the risk of death, and today’s Pagan, joyfully and reverently immersed in the cycles of change and revolution, knows this better than most. As Pagans, and as people, we cannot ignore the need for fearlessness in our modern world, a call that resounds off every hillside and parking garage. Faced with systemic violence, it is no longer enough to hunker down and concern ourselves with the private struggles so often seen as the realm of the religious life. Ours is a social path as well as an individual one, with a sense of community and shared ritual embedded at its very core. We look back to the spiritual ways of our ancestors, but we cannot pretend to live in a pre-modern world any more than we can stop another winter from coming on. We find this world of ours, here and now, saturated with violence and dishonor on many levels. We must find ways that we can respond meaningfully to this reality, or we risk acquiescing to and perpetuating a schizophrenic culture of insecurity and violence.

Peace in the Celtic Past

The world today demands an active commitment to peace and preservation, to creative pacifism in the face of systemic violence. Our spiritual lives take root in this world, in the reality of the here and now, but they dig deep, seeking out the sustenance of ancient wisdom, the myths and rituals of our ancestors. Modern Paganism often upholds the ideal of fierce and noble warriorship, with its mythic heroes and unfathomable gods shaping landscapes with their battles, bringing art and wisdom and life itself into being with each clash of their numinous power. On the other hand, Revival Druidry in particular sometimes evokes the image of stodgy old men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries declaring peace to the four quarters while their own imperial government sought the false peace of “civilizing the savages??? through colonization. But we no longer live in a world where tribal loyalties and blood oaths alone, nor the motives and methods of empire, can offer all the meaningful guidance we need. Our identities have expanded; we live now as members of a world community as well as of our families, local neighborhoods and nations. If Paganism is to remain a vibrant and relevant spiritual path, we need to begin the work of exploring our roots with a mind to peace. We must seek out the seeds of pacifism, a mythology of creative, engaged peace-making rather than of brute force and glorified war.

This is not to say that we should willfully re-imagine our past as idyllic, or else abandon it completely. We cannot learn from our ancestors and their struggles if we do not first seek to understand the complex cultures of the past in their own right, shaped by people who were responding to times of war and hardship as well as times of prosperity and tranquility. But this does not mean we should limit ourselves or attempt to restrict or deny a living engagement with our traditions. When we endeavor to take our heritage seriously, we approach its stories and art as people living in the modern world, drawing new meanings and understandings that may not have occurred to those who lived millennia ago. This is what it means to have a living tradition, a thriving practical spiritual heritage rather than merely an academic interest. We acknowledge and respect our ancestors when we live complex, meaningful lives of our own, engaged as they were in the very real daily struggles of honor and justice, love and gratitude.

The ancient Celtic past gives us many examples of war and warriorship in image and story. Some of the most well-known and widely-read myths of Ireland and Wales — the Book of Invasions and the Tain Bo Cuailnge, as well as the Second and Fourth Branches of the Mabinogion, to name just a few — center on great battles, sometimes between the gods, sometimes among leaders of local tribes over possession of some sacred object of power or status. Icons and idols of gods and goddesses of war, destruction and death were common enough, archeological research tells us, and often dwelt alongside deities of fertility, prosperity and healing. It can be difficult to see our way to the kind of philosophy of peace that the modern world compels us to adopt, when our roots soon reach the tough bedrock of individual glory in battle and petty disputes between kin over the trophies of war.

On the surface, this is the very character of sacred mythological texts and traditions from other ancient spiritual paths. In Hinduism, we find the Bhagavad-Gita, a story of the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, avatar of the god Vishnu, faced to battle Arjuna’s kin in order to claim the throne. Yet within the Gita, Gandhi and others have found spiritual truths of fearlessness and self-discipline essential to the path of creative nonviolence (or satyagraha). Likewise, the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa draws on the old Tibetan legend of the warrior-kings of Shambhala to seek out the rich and fruitful path of the sacred warrior living in the modern Western world. In both of these cases, the insights gained from such inherited wisdom are not restricted to literal interpretations of glorified violence and obedience to cultural hierarchies, but grow and evolve organically into a meaningful and powerful philosophy creative peace-making and practical loving-kindness. With these role models before us, we can set about the task of approaching the cultural traditions of our Celtic ancestry with a similar intent, teasing out themes of wisdom that can provide context and guidance for our modern lives.

To begin this work, we turn to the archeological evidence for the religious practices and institutions of the Celtic past, including the aesthetics of its religious art and architecture. Supplementing this research are the few texts preserved and passed on relating the mythology and folk traditions of the Celtic peoples, as well as modern reinterpretations and the work of historians to sift out authentic pre-Christian paganism from the glosses of later Christianity. With all of this information at our disposal — though much of it is controversial or obscure — the simplest approach can sometimes be the most effective. Three themes immediately present themselves as vital to the Celtic worldview when we approach our sources with an eye and heart attuned to peace: the themes of individuality, vulnerability and the interdependence of creation and destruction. These concepts are expressed time and again in both the mythology and the archeological evidence of ancient Celtic culture, through reverence for the head, depictions of warrior nakedness, and the iconography of the sky-warrior in particular.

Vulnerability, Individuality and Interdependence

Contemporaries of the Celts reported them as being strongly independent, and many of the heroic tales passed down to current day describe courageous individuals who choose a life of glory and accomplishment to be remembered down the ages, rather than an unremarkable life of longevity and quiet. Cu Chulainn, the quintessential Celtic warrior-hero, makes just this choice when he overhears a prophecy that the young man to take up arms that day would become the most famous hero in Erin; the eager young hero then proceeds to test out, and break, every piece of weaponry in the land until the king himself must offer him his own spear and war chariot.[6] At first glance, such stories might seem to support the notion that the ancient Celts were hungry for conflict and the accolades that could be earned, that they were downright scornful of peace and “easy living.??? But other well-documented aspects of Celtic culture suggest another interpretation, perhaps no more true than this first but more relevant to today’s world.

The emphasis that the Celts put on the head, as the seat of the individual soul, is evidenced both in myths (such as the prophesying heads of Sualtam and Conall Cernach, and the severed head of Bran the Blessed which brought comfort to his comrades and protection to his land) and in archeological finds of skulls kept in places of reverence or display. Celtic warriors did not collect the heads of slain enemies merely as trophies to exhibit their battle-prowess; rather, it seems they preserved only the heads of those fellow warriors for whom they had respect and admiration, friends and enemies alike.[7] This practice suggests that the reverence for the head is tied intimately to the honor or value of the individual, the other. Myth supports this interpretation with stories of enemies meeting and exchanging compliments about the weaponry and skills of the other, and of brothers or old friends who must face each other on the battlefield, often sorrowing over their conflict brought about by some misunderstanding. The story of how Cu Chulainn comes to kill his son Connla through the tragedy of mistaken identity is especially curious, and may communicate a lesson about the importance of individuality and the uncertainty of otherness.[6] In a society that valued face-to-face honor so highly,[5, 7] reverence and respect for the individual played a clear role in what it meant to be a warrior, and yet we understand today that violence itself rejects or negates this reverence — leaving us with the challenge of how to reconcile such violence with a genuine commitment to honor.

Another rather remarkable aspect of Celtic warriorship is the depiction of warriors and war gods — both in myth and iconography — as naked and exposed, engaging in battle equipped only with sword and shield, and sometimes helmet.[2, 3, 7] In our modern world, the very idea of waging war without the complicated trappings of tanks and armor, “smart bombs??? and satellite surveillance is simply bizarre, self-defeating. Even metaphorical nakedness or exposure is considered impractical, almost blasphemous. In ancient Celtic society, however, it seems more emphasis was placed on the terrifying demeanor of each opposing army — complete with painted or tattooed bodies, dyed hair or horned helmets, whirling spears, shimmering shields, and screaming, chanting and the blaring of horns — than on the efficacy of their weaponry alone. War gods were depicted nude, an erect phallus evocative of this animated battle frenzy and the thriving life-force from which it sprang.[3] Even contemporaries of the ancient Celts found their wild nakedness baffling, an example of their basic savagery.[1, 4] In myth, the nakedness of warriors is rarely a central theme, though several stories tell of warriors who dilate to enormous size or burn with the physical heart of battle fury and must be doused in cold water to restore them to themselves.[6] It is easy to imagine why, with such images of the warrior, clothes might be considered a restriction to be burst through or even burned off.

Yet even in ancient society, nudity must have also evoked a kind of vulnerability, the bareness of skin exposed to the elements as well as the blade of the sword. Without armor or even tunic to clothe each warrior in visual uniformity, their bodies displayed their individual physical strengths, but also were unable to hide potential weaknesses. Here we see that essential relationship between individuality and vulnerability, where the experience of unique other-ness is also an experience of risk, and the expression of difference also a potential revelation of weakness or uncertainty. Hand in hand with the Celts’ emphasis on individual honor and reverence for other-ness in foe and friend, is the acknowledgement that to do so leaves us vulnerable. But rather than deny this vulnerability or seek to escape it, the Celtic warrior puts it on display and revels in its, embracing it as a powerful revelation of fearlessness. This relationship between vulnerability and fearlessness rears its head again, so to speak, in the ithyphallic iconography of war gods, where the sensitive penis is also a symbol of vitality and fertility, the life-force pushing its way into manifestation despite potentially difficult or hostile environments. The fact that the Roman war god Mars adopted by the Celts in later times was often adapted to or associated with gods of wilderness and forests, such as Cocidius and Esus, seems to support this view.[2, 7]

Perhaps the most fascinating, and pertinent, of these nude war gods is the Sky-Warrior, a figure found throughout the Romano-Celtic world. The deity depicted was usually a Celtic version of the Roman ruler-god Jupiter, king of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Wielding a lightning-like weapon and placed atop high columns as though reaching up towards his proper celestial realm, his iconography differs from the classic Roman depiction, however, in that he is portrayed as a warrior on horseback and very often (though not always) as naked and ithyphallic.[2, 3] Horses were themselves strongly associated with the sun, the realm of the sky and the heavens, as well as with warfare, and sometimes the Sky-Warrior is portrayed along with a spoked wheel evocative of solar associations.[3] In many of these depictions, the Sky-Warrior, proudly astride his rearing steed, rides down some kind of monster or giant with exaggerated, grotesque features and serpents for arms.

Encapsulated in this iconography is an incredibly interesting pairing of animals associated with the solar/celestial and the telluric/underworld realms, as well as anthropomorphic figures evoking the same duality. At first glance, the iconography of the Sky-Warrior looks to be that of the powers of order and light overcoming the powers of chaos and darkness.[2, 3] This in itself tells us something about the Celtic notion of warriorship, with its emphasis on honor, individuality and vulnerability expressing itself through images of protection and victory over forces of destruction and irreverent violence. But closer examination, of a few specific examples of Sky-Warrior figures in particular, suggests that the horse-riding deity is not merely trampling down the monster/giant, but is also in some ways upheld or supported by him.[3] Certainly, the serpent did not have purely negative connotations in the ancient Celtic world, but also represented earthy wisdom and energies and was even at times connected to the protection of warriors.[3,7] It is just possible that the Sky-Warrior figures were meant to evoke a more complex, intimate relationship of interconnection between life and death, creation and destruction. Such an interpretation makes sense in light of Julius Caesar’s report that the Gauls went so recklessly into battle because they did not fear death, believing instead in a very real reincarnation or rebirth of the soul.[1, 4] Whether this rebirth occurred in this world or some Otherworld is not exactly clear; but regardless, the interweaving of light and dark, order and chaos, life and death is an important theme found both in ancient Celtic society as well as modern Druidry today.

A Celtic Model for Practical Pacifism

With only this brief look at Celtic mythology and iconography, we can already see the beginnings of a viable philosophy of practical peaceful warriorship, rooted in ancestral wisdom but also responsive to the needs of today. When we draw on these three elements of the Celtic worldview — vulnerability, individuality and interdependence — to guide our understanding of pacifism and its potential role in our everyday lives, we see several definite themes emerge. Honesty, gentleness and creativity, among others, all take on deeper meanings when we view them not merely as moral qualities or personality quirks, but as vital manifestations of fearlessness.

The Celtic emphasis on nakedness, for instance, may serve as a reminder of the value of making oneself naked, not only physically in intimate or sacred contexts, but also metaphorically in quite ordinary situations. By revealing our nakedness, we accept our own essential fragility, the delicate beauty of our being. With this vulnerability in mind, we can learn to relinquish our clinging need to construct elaborate defenses, accepting our eventual bodily destruction as a natural and fitting dissolution back into the receptive earth. This willingness to embrace death and cessation is itself perhaps the biggest and most important step we can take towards remedying a culture of control. The challenge of learning to be vulnerable with each other demands a daily commitment, always asking us to strive for honesty and flexibility but also teaching us to respect the natural boundaries of others and treat one another with gentleness. We can begin this process immediately, in our daily interactions with coworkers, family members and friends. Practical pacifism takes root in our everyday lives long before it begins to manifest on the larger social and political level. But eventually, remembering our nakedness and honoring the nakedness of others, we find ourselves moving through our lives with grace in harmony with the currents of peace.

Remembering our nakedness is also a way of revealing ourselves to ourselves — shedding our self-justifications and excuses and cultivating an attitude of fearlessness towards ourselves as well as towards the world. When we seek our naked selves, we are also seeking our individuality — the sacred spirit the Celts located in the head — in all its flaws and weaknesses as well as its strengths and skills. We learn to acknowledge places of resistance that keep us from living up to our ideals of peace-making. Even when we understand, for instance, that eating animal flesh can be done honorably and with reverence in theory, we can also admit when we are simply making excuses for our appetites, laziness or even our sense of helplessness by indulging in that fastfood burger in spite of our knowledge that it is the product of the abusive, environmentally-devastating meat industry. Rather than turn our backs on these limits and failings, we can face them in our nakedness and learn to work to overcome them. We can watch ourselves with sharp insight and honesty, and learn to judge our motives, to know better when we are dishonoring or showing irreverence (that is, doing violence) to others. In this way, we cultivate a deep-seated integrity that strengthens us in our resolve as well as giving us the self-knowledge that will render our efforts at peace-making more practical, grounded in the reality of our individual needs and abilities.

Our individuality also leads us to appreciate Awen, or inspiration, as the “fire in the head??? which can aid us in finding peaceful, honorable alternatives to violence. When we feel helpless or overwhelmed, caught between two bad choices, we can strive to cultivate our sense of that divine creativity, standing strong in our vulnerable integrity and commitment. We can make new paths, create new options and opportunities where none existed before. Rather than settling for “the lesser of two evils,??? our inspiration sheds light on the world around us and illuminates new possibilities. We can sing, make art, tell stories and express our individuality in many ways that serve as peaceful protests against the mainstream values of our violent, controlling culture, but that also create new meanings and make new myths about our place in the world. Awen, that gift of divine inspiration and creativity, that “fire in the head??? that illumines and animates as well as inspires, is also a reminder that, like the Sky-Warrior and the monster who supports him, we are all interconnected through our story-telling and peace-making. Our destruction of the old mythologies of control and fear make room for new stories about who we are and how we can live together in reverence, and these new stories can embrace both dark and light, life and death, as valuable and beautiful when they support each other in a cyclical dance between the celestial and the earthly.

When we apply the same passionate fearlessness to our commitments to peace and nonviolence that our ancestors brought to the literal wars they waged, we work to create not only a more livable world for all of us, but a world in which our ancient spiritual ways can find new relevance and meaning. We can embrace mystery and uncertainty as holding within them the potential for true creativity and infinite opportunities for courage and beauty as well as strength and grace. We can celebrate the coming darkness, the winter’s wandering fingers reaching chill over the hills and rooftops, as a reminder that order and life must always give way again to entropy and death, and that we can participate willingly in this dance, lighting our own lights in the darkness. We can respond to destruction with new creativity, and to violence with a fearless peace rooted deeply in the present moment.

This essay originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality, Winter 2009. Many thanks to my editors, Paige Varner and Bob Patrick, for their encouragement and feedback.

References and Citations

[1] Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

[2] Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2004.

[3] —. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. London: Routledge, 1989.

[4] Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Misteltoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. Padstow, Cornwall: Yale University Press, 2009.

[5] Orr, Emma Restall. Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics. Ropley, Hants: O Books, 2007.

[6] Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

[7] Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Chicago, Illinois: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.
Posted on Apr 1, 2011 in Featured, Peace & Justice