“The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley is a novel; a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the point of view of the women behind king Arthur’s throne. However; its portrayal of the pre-Christian paganism in the British Isles isn’t accurate. My fascination with Celtic paganism lead me to find out that it’s depiction in that novel is different than what it really is.
note: this is in no way a criticism of Marion Zimmer Bradley – as a writer myself, I highly admire her writing skills, and the way she makes the characters so real and complex.
(the nice photos below are from the 2001 movie based on the novel, and no spoilers, so don’t worry and keep on reading)
The differences between Celtic old religion and its portrayal in The Mists of Avalon is in the following aspects:
You think the Celts had female priestesses like in The Mists of Avalon? Only in your dreams. The Druids (class of educated people and priests among them) were all males, and there’s no evidence that suggests otherwise.
However, this is not to say that women had no important role in the Celtic society. Women were warriors (Boudica for example), NOT priestesses.
In “The Mists of Avalon”, Beltane is celebrated by performing a fertility rite where males represent the Horned God and females represent the Goddess; and thus ensuring fertility and the growing of the crops, four times per year.
In Celtic beliefs, the Horned God, aka “Cernunnos” (who is half man and half deer, and symbolizes fertility, animals and hunting) marries one of the Celtic Goddesses at Beltane.
Beltane was, and still is, in some areas, celebrated on May 1st. It is one of the four major Celtic celebrations in a year: Beltane (May 1st), Lughnasa (August 1st), Samhain (November 1st), and Imbolc (February 1st). In Beltane, Celts lighted two Bonfires and made the cattle pass between them to ensure their fertility; because touching the fire flames means being touched by the Sun God. People also passed between the two Bonfires to drive away barrenness and hard luck.
Cernunnos carved on a cauldron…
…and Cernunnos on an album cover of Celtic metal band Eluveitie
The Mists of Avalon gives an impression that the Celts worshiped just one God and one Goddess. However, in reality, they had a huge pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. The saying which frequently appeared in The Mists of Avalon that “all the Goddesses are one Goddess, and all the Gods are one God” is a quote from the esoteric occultist Dion Fortune who wasn’t even alive during the time of this old religion. In short, Celts were polytheists, not duotheists.
What Bradley portrayed in her novel resembles more the neo-pagan religion Wicca than the ancient Celtic paganism. Female priestesses is a Wiccan thing, and so is duotheism. A sect of Wiccans (Dianic Wiccans) even believe only in the Goddess and no God, and those are often associated with radical feminism. As for Beltane, some Wiccans celebrate it by fertility rites the way they did in The Mists of Avalon.
Update: I found out even more info about the Celtic religious beliefs thanks to further research, and again; noticed a difference with how it was presented in that novel:
Sun and Moon: in the novel, the Sun represents the male gender (and the God; the Horned One), and the Moon is female (representing the Goddess/Great Mother). However, according to ancient Celtic beliefs; the Sun and the Moon changed sexes based on the function. The Moon wasn’t always the female and the Sun wasn’t always the male. Again, the “Old Religion” in the novel = Wicca and the permanent Sun/Moon, Male/Female dualities are Wiccan beliefs.
Elements: In the story, it is clear that the followers of the “Old Religion” based their beliefs on the four elements: fire, wind, water and rock, and performed their rites by those elements.
However, Celts divided the elements into three: Land, sea and sky; NOT four! And it actually makes sense because almost everything to them was divided into 3; they had triadic Gods and Goddesses (triadic=having 3 forms), and 3 realms: This World, The OtherWorld and The UnderWorld (which not necessarily evil as a monotheist might think). However, Wiccans divide the elements into fire, wind, water and rock.
Afterlife: I promised that no spoilers; but just a tiny teeny example. In the story a lady meets someone who was her lover in a past life. The thing is, the ancients in the British Isles did not believe in reincarnation and past lives and all that. Their view of the Afterlife was similar to the monotheistic one: good people become happy in the Afterlife and bad ones suffer. Reincarnation is a Wiccan belief which Wiccans themselves most probably borrowed from the Hindu or Buddhist beliefs. But as the religion of the ancients in The Mists of Avalon is Wicca then you see why it goes this way.
I don’t blame Marion Zimmer Bradley for portraying Wicca as the “Old Religion”. After all, no matter how much we research, little do we know about the Celts and their beliefs. I recommend the book because it’s great; just don’t take it as an accurate portrayal of the Celts.