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The Role of Paganism and the “Noble Savage” in Modern Pan-Celticism

Daniel Merrier is an instructional designer with a specialty in accessibility and special education.


What is Irish Nationalism?

Irish nationalism cannot exist without the nation's extensive history and acceptance of pagan culture. Celtic paganism and its social artifacts are central to the development of modern Irish nationalism and identity, including the related movement Pan-Celticism. Many foremost scholars in the polymathic field of nationalistic thought, the most well-known being renowned academic Anthony D. Smith, suppose the nation may predate the nationalist in many ways. This can certainly hold true for the Celtic nations. Perhaps more than any other single facet, pagan music, imagery, and traditions are inescapable from the Celtic identity. The association of paganism with the understanding of the concept of the “noble savage” has helped to build a united image in Irish and Celtic nationalism. The shift from cultural suppression to cultural pride bolstered both patriotic and nationalistic ideas amongst those who identified with their ancestors, the ancient Celts. Music and language rife with pagan imagery and symbolism unite modern Celtic-speaking nations even in the most devout Christian circles, Catholic or Protestant. However, this rise of acceptance in Celtic culture in recent years has also led to the appropriation of its social artifacts in an attempt to culturally unite the whole of Europe. This paper examines the historical and cultural relevance of music and paganism in Celtic nationalism, as well as it’s erasure and appropriation in modern European culture.

Anthony D. Smith's Ethnosymbolism

One can gain a greater understanding of the role music and religion as social artifacts play by using an ethnosymbolist approach. This ethnosymbolist approach, as conjectured by Smith, proposes that nationalism itself is modern, but “the myth-symbol complexes, cultural images, and ethnic identities it built upon were much older.” Celtic history is a lengthy chronic, documented both by modern and classical scholars as being a group with a defined culture and social mores. While the modern use may be up to conjecture, the ancients had a definitive idea of those outside of their borders.

The First Evidence of the Celts

The first known use of the word Celt, known then as the Keltois, was by the Greek geographer Hacataeus of Miletus approximately 500 B.C., who used it to describe a strange and foreign people who lived in the hinterland of Marseille in southern France. The first archaeological evidence of these peoples exist even farther back in 700 B.C., with luxury goods such as Roman pottery being found among the burial mounds of chieftains. It is true that it was not common for classical scholars to refer to the inhabitants of modern-day Ireland and Britain as Celts; instead, this title was utilized for many of the occupants of what is now known as France. The occupants of both regions shared a similar dialect, appearance, and religious practices—all key identifying factors of an ethnic group. In addition, both were classified as “barbarian” peoples by outsiders and were ostracized for their perceived uncivilized nature. By the Romantic Era of the nineteenth century, most of Europe continued to understand the Celtic identity through song and story. Published composition books of older, traditional melodies followed by the advent of the printing press allowed knowledge of these customs to spread past the Green Isles. It is through ancient, or at the very least historical, songs and prayers that the modern understanding of Celtic identity has been composed. The word Celtic itself summons the idea of acoustic melodies and hearty folk songs. These anthologies helped to codify many of the core cultural themes of Celtic identity. The themes present especially in Celtic music are deeply spiritual and harken back to druidic and animist practices.

The Noble Savage

Despite the differing perspectives of scholars and laypersons alike, one identifying factor in contemporary perception of the word Celtic is the conjured image of the “noble savage”—the skilled artisan, the proud warrior, the contemplative poet. The noble savage narrative is one of uncorrupted nature and uncivilized goodness, and in modern American thought, often attributed to Native American or African tribesmen. As with most of our tokenized cultural understandings, the roots of these ideas lead back to antiquity. We can thank the Romans for the first documented imaginings of native barbarians as these noble savages. The Arcadian villages of literary merit are likely based on large part of their Celtic neighbors. This noble ideal, however, was not always encouraged. As early as 1367, the English occupation that governed Ireland set forth the Statute of Kilkenny, an oppressive law that effectively segregated the native Irish from their Anglo-Irish neighbors. Whether through ineffectual English governance or some inner truth of Breton tenacity, these laws were seldom followed, and life continued as normal for much of the native Irish population. But the precedent was set. Celtic natives were subject to centuries of cultural subjugation until the “noble savage” once again rose to prominence in the public eye. As the English believed the Gaels effectively conquered, the Romantic period (as much as one could have ever claimed to conquer them) reintroduced this idea to Western thought.

The Advent of Pan-Celticism

This renewed acceptance of Celtic identity, at least within its own ethnic groups, revitalized a generation of those formerly ashamed of their heritage. For much of the century prior, Celtic ties, especially as it relates to language and religion were admonished by their countrymen. Welshmen often “not only anticipated, but earnestly desired, the extinction of the native tongue.” However, this Congress included—and continues to include more than just the Welsh. The regions represented were Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Pan-Celticism grew to international attention at the turn of the twentieth century through organizations like this Pan-Celtic Congress, now known as the International Celtic Congress. It remains to this day the oldest and largest academic congress on Celtic cultural studies, with conferences being held on an annual basis in a rotation of its claimed nation-states. Such organizations were and continue to be devoted to the preservation of a unified Celtic culture, their languages, and history.

Pagan Ritual in Modern Celtic Christians

This early congress emphasized the importance of preserving language through their bards and clergy, something that was socially forbidden and often legally criminalized in secular culture of the time. These congresses were held in the bright courtyards of Carnarvon Castle, invoking the rich natural scenery of their ethnic homelands alongside these cherished traditions, and whether these were invented or real, they were almost alarmingly effective. Attendees of all religious affiliations made their way to operas and parades, competitions of might and merit in the traditions of their ancestors. Everything from archery to literature to architectural design to embroidery became the subject of these competitions. The congress homed in on something essential to any nationalistic movement—the emphasis on the community and the shared culture, traditions, and lifestyles of the people within it. These processions were done in the Gorsedd tradition and were led by druidic leaders. The music was in native Welsh and the leaders, both spiritual and secular, were in religious regalia or national costume. This was a celebration of the noble savage and all its trappings, made even more palatable for modern consumption by its patriotic nature and beautiful venue. It was a celebration of paganism by those who were, for all the papers and onlookers, were regular Christian folk in trouser and cap during the rest of the year. It was even said that “as far as the Welsh are concerned, all the ancient druids have turned Baptists and Methodists." Despite this declaration, the association in the minds of onlookers and participants alike were cemented. This formal marriage of old and new, in all its finery and prayers, led the way to contemporary understanding of Celtic nationalism through cultural acceptance and religious preservation.

The use of triskeles in Celtic pottery dates back to at least 2nd century AD.

The use of triskeles in Celtic pottery dates back to at least 2nd century AD.

La Prima Europa

However effective these strategies have been at nation-building within their own communities, they are not without their controversies and setbacks. The mid-twentieth century led to dynamic global shifts in economy and culture—one that left most of Eastern Europe behind. It was locked in a stalemate after World War Two with so many of its countries scrambling to return to pre-war industry and so many of its nationalistic roots crumbling under the onslaught of dictatorships and war. Unable to keep up the pace with the production or market values of their economic competitors, Europe begin to look back in time yet again to their own favored ideal: the noble savage of the Celts. Cultural production went into full swing, with Europe re-producing “traditional” Celtic music for the international masses. It was designed to show that all of Europe shared these noble roots, this ingenious spirit that united them in cultural competition to the hyper-productive markets of the United States, the Far East, and even the Soviet Union. A United Europe—this La Prima Europa, was intended to embody a similar regional sentiment of its competitors. It seemed in the late twentieth century that everything had embodied this new “Celtic craze,” done so at the expense of historical accuracy and the preservation of an older, more solidified ethnic minority. While most of Europe saw the Scots (and to a smaller extent, the Manx and the Welsh) as “effectively British,” their own constituents did not contend so. Centuries of ostracization, subjugation, and perhaps even erasure seemingly overnight with an intense international fervor for bardic tunes and brass jewelry in foreign styles. This wrongful, and occasionally insidious appropriation has been compared by some as the German acquisition of the word “Aryan” for their own political purposes. As mentioned above, only a few generations earlier the British ideal of the “noble savage” is one that was put on display, only to be put away when it became inconvenient or disruptive to a cohesive national culture.

Who is Celtic?

As one may imagine, this new invented tradition of ethnic and cultural singularity posed a problem for those who had been claiming their ethnic heritage since its newfound capitalistic boom. With economic and social gain to be had with adopting the moniker of Celt, who truly had the right to claim it—if anyone at all? Some scholars contend, and to which this paper agrees, it is those with a historical tie to their Celtic identities, ones whose ancestral and therefore ethnic lineage traces back to the nations officially recognized by the Celtic Congress over a century ago. To these scholars, it is language— specifically the languages of those whose ancestors occupied what is now Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, is what makes the Celt. In fact, the awareness of the connection between the Celt and the Celtic language has its roots at least to the sixteenth century. The scholar George Buchannan published his famous Rerum Scoticarum historia, which detailed not only a history of folklore and politics, but a great symposium of native Scottish itself.


The “noble savage” as it exists in the Celt has changed over history and time. To the earliest Romans, it symbolized a terroristic foe, a barbarian to be conquered in defeated. To the British, the Celt was a man unworthy of civilization and his culture—if they would call it, that subjugated to nothing short of segregation and his people relegated to the lowest rungs of society. In more modern times, the European perception of the Celt is one of Europe itself. The question remains, however: what is Celtic to the Celt? Ancient animistic cultural practices are seen in modern paganism, still practiced by those whose ancestors called the Green Isles home before the Romans put quill to paper. Their language, although perhaps not as ancient, unites the modern Celtic nations every year.

Works Cited

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Daniel Merrier

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