“Our DNA does not fade like an ancient parchment. It does not rust in the ground like the sword of a warrior long dead. It is not eroded by wind or rain, nor reduced to ruin by fire and earthquake. It is the traveller from an antique land that lives within us all”.1
The English are, through our Celtic ancestors, a far more ancient people ─ with far greater intellectual, spiritual and architectural achievements to our credit ─ than historians have until now acknowledged. Part of the reason for this is that only recently have scientists discovered techniques that enable us to learn far more from historical artefacts than the rather basic archaeology that was at their disposal thirty or so years ago. Early Georgians travelling through Wiltshire in the eighteenth century speculated that Stonehenge was a crumbling Roman Theatre, rather than the structure that we now know is older than the Pyramids, and that the astrological findings of our ancestors more than four thousand years ago, as demonstrated by New Grange in Co. Meath, Ireland, were comparable to those of the Babylonians2. It’s just that the Celts lacked the ability to write things down or, if they did, our damp climate rotted them away long ago.
A well-preserved male skeleton discovered in a cave near Cheddar in Somerset has been shown by carbon 14 dating to be some nine thousand years old. With the new technology for extracting mitochondria DNA from such ancient skeletons Professor Bryan Sykes found, to his own and everybody else’s amazement, that three of the present inhabitants of the village of Cheddar have virtually identical mitochondria to that man of nine thousand years ago; that means that they are, on the female side, almost direct descendants of that man all those thousands of years ago3. It is Sykes who sees this as being the ability now to give substance to those antique travellers from our distant history. The rewriting of history books has now begun. Invading peoples, such as the Danes, the Saxons and even the Romans who were so quick to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, woad-encrusted, pike-wielding illiterate farmers, never did wipe out the existing cultures. The old cultures most likely changed slightly by the addition of a few new ideas. To mate with the attractive daughter of the conquered race was much more fun than killing her. The bloodline largely stays the same.
Our knowledge of the Celts comes mainly from their artwork, jewellery and metalwork which is all of outstanding beauty, and then translating the significance of their megalithic monuments4. Much of this oral tradition disappeared mainly because the Romans saw in the authority that the Druid priests held over their people a potential threat to their military superiority, and systematically set about exterminating them, especially in the Island of Anglesey5. Because Caesar did not understand the Celts he was quick to write them off as superstitious, particularly because the Druids “instructed their scholars with the firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul”. That offended Roman agnosticism. The Celts saw man as part of the natural world, unlike the Jews, the Romans or the Greeks, the Celts did not think that they had the right to exploit the natural world. Theirs was a mighty inter-dependent cosmos; they believed in reincarnation, they were peacemakers and philosophers6. They did not share the Roman belief in an angry god, or eternal damnation. The elaborate knot work designs on their carvings and pottery symbolises the interconnectiveness of all aspects of life. The education of children was, as were the Jews, taken very seriously but was largely within the family. Old age was greatly honoured and respected, and old people regarded as the best teachers because they had time to pass on their knowledge. Death, to the Celts, was only one end of the spiral of life for it was also the beginning of a new birth.
When, in the sixth century, missionaries came from Rome to attempt to convert the descendants of these Druids to Christianity they found considerable sympathy for this new religion. In a vivid incident, recorded by the Venerable Bede two centuries later, a nobleman addressed a hall full of his countrymen. “It seems to me”, he said, “that the life of man is like that of a sparrow which flies in at one end of this hall from the dark outside. He is here for a few minutes all in light and warmth, but then the sparrow will fly out again into the dark night. So the life of man here appeareth for a little season, but what followeth on or what has gone before that surely we know not? Wherefore if this new learning hath brought us any better assurity (?), methinks it is worthy to be followed”7.
In that homely anecdote from some fifteen hundred years ago the Celtic tradition started to draw together around its own sense of self the other great traditions of the Greeks, the Romans and the Jews, and so embarked on the creation of the English mind.
Thesis 23: 24th August 2006