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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. The essay in its entirety now appears as a permanent page, and can be accessed at any time by clicking the Pagan Pacifism button just below the header of this blog.
References and Citations
 Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.
 Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2004.
 —. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. London: Routledge, 1989.
 Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Misteltoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. Padstow, Cornwall: Yale University Press, 2009.
 Orr, Emma Restall. Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics. Ropley, Hants: O Books, 2007.
 Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.
 Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Chicago, Illinois: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996.