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Teachings from the Ancient Celts: Community

Teachings from the Ancient Celts: Community

With this post, Christian author Mark Fisher starts looking at the mores and principles that the ancient Celts held dear. In a world where the average person didn’t live past forty, where people were often engaged in a struggle for life and death, what did people value most? How does this differ from today?

We’ll start with community.

We’ve Lost the Community of the Ancient World

Today, many of us live lives separated from the kind of community that once characterized the ancient world. We live in isolated apartments or houses, interacting with our neighbors on only rare occasions. Health clubs and coffee houses offer places to meet, but then we disperse and go back to our dwellings.

Often, we travel to jobs at great distances from our homes. There, we enter a weird kind of community ruled by a foreign institutional ethos, populated by individuals just as isolated as we. Giant corporations or governments rule from afar, handing down dictates and memorandums without regard for the denizens of their far flung enterprises. Such remote rulers know not our names. They care little or nothing for our welfare. We become simply figures on a page, and if the numbers don’t add up, with a few keystrokes, a distant caesar can upend our worlds and destroy our livelihoods, feeling no sense of loyalty or fair play to those who keep their coffers full or their papers flowing.

Oh, to live in a simpler time, where everyone knew your name and cared about your welfare. Our world today has lost its sense of community, something once taken for granted in the ancient world.

Celtic Community: An Extended Family

A Celtic Roundhouse

Imagine a world where your mother and father, your brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all live in the same house?—a roundhouse perhaps thirty to fifty feet in diameter, where twenty to forty people sleep. This was your fine, your extended family unit. You breathe in the smells of the deer and wolf skins covering the thatched walls. Mixed with this is the ever present pine smoke, the sweat of many bodies, and the savory smells from the giant cauldron that’s been simmering day and night over the central fire—a pottage of cabbage, onions, and carrots, rabbit and venison.

At night, you lay down under furs beside your brothers and sisters and listen to your grandfather’s snores, your aunt’s scolding voice as she chides your whispering cousins to be quiet, and your father as he starts another night of coughing. Later, you might hear the sounds of your oldest cousin coupling with his new wife from another fine. Before you fall asleep you remember a month ago when everyone stood around the hole laid with stones as the fine buried your grandmother. This is your family, your home, your community.

Working, Eating, Sleeping Together

Upon waking, if you are a man, your task might be take your spear on a hunt with the other men. You might track the boar who is digging up the clan’s gardens, or follow a herd of deer someone spotted. If you make a kill, tonight, the fine will have a grand feast. Or you might help raising the spiked poles for the wooden palisade that will eventually surround the clan’s two or three roundhouses and its cluster of outbuildings—long-needed protection against wolves and roving bands of marauders. Or you might be assigned to lead your fine’s cattle to better pasture, there to guard them with sword and spear and lead them home by nightfall.

If you are a woman, you might spend your day tending the garden, or watching the children—yours, your cousins, and your fine’s. Or you might help digging a hole, building a fire, and burying a pig on top of hot stones for the evening’s meal. If you are a youth, perhaps your elders have assigned you to plug holes in the thatch, daubing them all day from a mud paste—if you can keep from fighting with your sister.

Tales Around the Fire

And at night, when the day’s activities have finished, everyone gathers around a fire outside. Then, as the men pass around a bottomless horn of ale, someone begins one of the ancient tales, one you’ve heard before, but long to hear again. Ah, ’tis the one about the daughter of the clan’s king who fell in love with a prince from a neighboring clan. But the two clans are at war, and the young lovers are prohibited from seeing each other. Desperate to rendezvous, they beg a druid who turns the boy into a buck and the girl into a doe, all so they can run far into the woods and meet as lovers. But you shake your head when you hear, once again, how a hunting party from her clan shoots him dead, and an archer from his clan shoots her dead, while the druid looks on from afar with a grin. And when the tale concludes, everyone sighs, as it’s understood that all tales involving druids end badly.

Such was the community of the ancient Celts, the life of the clan, where family and community meld into one, where everyone sleeps, eats, plays, and works together. It’s a life lost forever from an age long gone.

Next time we’ll look at Celtic honor.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. You can learn more about his book by clicking on the link.