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.
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.
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.
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.