Inventing Celtic History, or My Continued Quarrel with “Cosmos”

The TV show Cosmos has managed to not offend me for several weeks, and this last episode certainly didn’t offend, it merely annoyed.  In its introduction to our understanding of the stars, host Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses a variety of myths surrounding constellations, particularly about the Pleiades.

Among the ancient Celts and Druids of the British Isles, the Pleiades were thought to have a haunting significance.  On the day of the year that they reached the highest point in the sky at midnight, the spirits of the dead were thought to wander the earth.  This is believed to be the origin of the holiday once known as Samhain, now called Halloween.

Minor quibble: Druids are Celts.  No need to say both.

Bigger issue:  Halloween comes from the Catholic All Hallows Eve.  It is well documented.  However, unlike sources who also think Christmas is about Mithras, Jesus is based on Horus, and Easter steals a celebration of Eostre, there is no real connection between Samhain and All Hallows Eve.

Another issue:  Connections between Samhain and the dead (and the Otherworld in general) are problematic.  There is some historical commentary on it, but all of it is written by Christian monks centuries later, theoretically working from oral tradition.

Samhain almost certainly didn’t “originate” with beliefs of haunting spirits.  The word Samhain means summer’s end, and it was a harvest festival.  You celebrate Samhain when the crops have been brought in, animals are slaughtered for winter, and there’s an abundance of perishable goods.

If Samhain is timed with the harvest, then the placement of the Pleiades is mere coincidence.  And, really, it’s not even that.  I’m sure something is at its height at any point of the calendar you wish to highlight.  It’s like saying since finals week falls on my birthday, finals must be scheduled according to my birthday.  And if finals fell earlier than my birthday, then we could attribute it to someone else’s birthday.

Jack OLanterns in the Sky, Cosmos

Jack-O-Lanterns in the Sky with Diamonds, from Cosmos

While I hope Cosmos’s use of jack-o-lantern-like faces are merely references to modern Halloween, people often claim jack-o-lanterns are Celtic.  They aren’t.  Pumpkins are a New World crop.

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There is a long tradition in Europe of carving faces into turnips to keep away evil spirits, but records of that folk practice don’t go back nearly as far as the Celts.  And this tradition was not specific to Halloween.

Supposedly Celtic Masks in the Sky on "Cosmos"

I’ve got nothing.  I have no idea what this is.

OK, so the Cosmos writers have fallen prey to common bad history.  But what the hell is that?!?

The above image is part of Tyson’s monologue on Samhain and the Celts.  Presumably that’s their idea of what Celtic art looks like because it has, like, knots and stuff.

That’s not what Celtic art looks like.

Google “celtic knot skulls.”  You will, in fact, find some, mostly as tattoos and art pieces on sites like Elfwood and DeviantArt.  You will also find some nicely cast skulls with knotwork on them.  But all of these are modern, and none of the artists claim their works to be historical.

Moreover, most “Celtic knotwork” is actually what is known as Insular art, which is a Medieval style fusing Celtic and continental (particularly Germanic) styles.  Multiple continental cultures actually produced this type of interlaced patterns earlier than those in the British Isles.

What people think of as Celtic art:

Actual Celtic art:

You may notice a distinct lack of skulls and masks in these examples.  That’s because what Cosmos shows is completely made up.

But, you may say, why is this a deal when the show is about science, not art?  Doesn’t the art convey the concept of Celts to the average viewer?  That’s like showing a painting by Raphael as representative of Michelangelo’s works.  The fact that the average viewer might not know the difference doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong.

If they had shown Insular art, I wouldn’t quibble much.  But this is absolutely modern art.   It’s like showing something steampunk and claiming it’s 19th century Victorian.

And I don’t think the creators of Cosmos would have accepted that sort of gross approximation concerning scientific content.

3 comments

  • Dani

    I agree with you, Cassie, Samhain was simply the end of the harvest which began with Lughnasadh and the coming in of the grain. There was apparently no set day for Samhain either, it was just done after the harvest and the slaughter of animals. I wouldn’t be surprised though, with the connection to death of animals, the coming of winter (when many older people would indeed pass on) that some folks connected death to the rituals of Samhain. But as I’ve often said, we can’t completely reconstruct the past, and in fact as most of us are not peasant farmers living at a subsistence farming level,the best we can do is take older rites and modernize them for today. That’s not the problem, but as you’ve said many times as I’ve followed you around at about.com and your other sites, it’s people thinking “we’re doing it just like they did in the past” that’s problematic. No we’re not. We don’t really how “they did it” and it’s sort of silly for some people in alternate religious paths to think they are.

    -D

  • Great post!!! I found it by an image search on those exact faces. Their style was simply too messed up to make any sense in relation to ancient celts. You are right to point these historical and stylistic inaccuracies out. They don’t fit very well with Cosmos apparent agenda of enlightenment. It is puzzeling that they seem to have had no qualified historians to check up on that. Especially because much of the programs narrative consist in historical context.
    Anyways i don‘t think the faces composition matters much when you are sitting in the ship of imagination, haha.. Remember that it is is the intended point of view from which you looked at them. They do serve well as illustrative elements for pattern recognition.

  • Lou

    I saw that episode and took the images to be some modern idea of the topic, perhaps because I knew it wasn’t actual ancient Celtic artwork. Maybe it’s more about how we view these things than how ancients did. Aren’t we the target audience? And as you said, I didn’t see the show as being aimed at being “scientific”.

    Capitalism is the driving force in our world, rather than survival of the seasons I think. The modern concepts of Celtic artwork is merely what people will buy. We live in a capitalistic society. It always comes back to what the audience will literally buy.

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