Proinsias Mac Cana, The Cult of the Sacred Centre. Essays on Celtic Ideology



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Proinsias Mac Cana, The Cult of the Sacred Centre. Essays on Celtic Ideology. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2011. viii + 344p.
In its scope and achievement, the work by late Proinsias Mac Cana continues the vein of thought developed in The Celts and the Hindu, the last major publication of Professor Mac Cana’s senior colleague in the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies – late Professor Myles Dillon, which, similarly to The Cult of the Sacred Centre, was published by the Institute after its author had passed away.

Both scholars aimed beyond early medieval Ireland as an immediate boundary of their studies, both leant on Indian material to balance any of their far-reaching conclusions, and both drew upon their unprecedented knowledge of Celtic and Indo-European comparanda to enrich the tapestry of presented arguments.

The nineteen chapters of the book under review present a nuanced and polyphonic argument, various aspects of which had been previously dealt with in Professor Mac Cana’s earlier publications.

In the Introduction, he admits that “the following essay, or series of essays, is based upon a short article ‘Notes on the early Irish concept of unity’ published a quarter of a century ago in The Crane Bag” (2.1-2, 1978, pp. 57-71). It is true that his ideas expressed towards the end of the second and throughout the third part of the book owe much to the vein of argument that was developed more than twenty years ago.1 Such paraphrases should not mislead the reader to look at Mac Cana’s book as the piece of scholarship devoid of new findings and insights.2 Mac Cana was not just repeating his own work. Contrariwise, revision made by the author had a certain impact on the whole argument presented in the book and, as a consequence of it, its importance for the study of Celtic heritage in comparative perspective cannot be underestimated.


Part 1: The Paradox of Irish History
Searching for the meaning of the word ‘nation’ in the Introduction, which he defines through the unity of pre-existing ethnic heritage, and in terms of such attributes as shared ancestry, common language and common custom, in Chapter 1, ‘Myth and History in Modern Irish Revisionism’, Mac Cana targets the twentieth century scholars and attempts to separate two academic terms from each other – ‘history’ and ‘myth’. Understood as “a false report, story or belief”,
‘myth’… has had a long innings, beginning with the Greek rationalists who from the sixth century B.C. onwards sought to empty the whole genre of its religious and metaphysical significance, and continuing through many centuries of Christian commentators who equated myth with the falsehood of pagan belief before passing into the common coinage of present-day speech with the simplified meaning ‘a fiction, a figment, something that is palpably or by definition untrue’ (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, p. 25).
For Mac Cana, it is ‘myth’ or rather “mythic complex… common to the Irish and the other Celtic peoples” (id., p. 30) that is most important for his discussion. What are the constituents of the Irish myth?

In Chapter 2, ‘The Consciousness of Nationality’, Mac Cana sets the tone of the line of thought he develops throughout the book:


I would hope to show that there is in fact a substantial body of evidence, indigenous and comparative, to demonstrate the ‘antiquity and endurance’ of a consciousness of Irish nationality based on such cultural constituents as ‘religion and language’, with religion… referring principally to the system that preceded Christianity and subsequently achieved a workable symbiosis with it (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, p. 43).
Having touched upon a difficult issue of cultural symbiosis and synthesis that the indigenous Irish mythic system experienced with the coming of Christianity, in Chapter 3, ‘Cultural Diglossia: the Irish Perception’, he goes on to examine what impact the introduction of Latin learning had on early medieval Ireland: “the disparity in the cultural provenance of the two languages” (id., p. 46) – of Latin, that “embodied a culture and patterns of thought foreign to those inherited from pre-Christian Irish society” (id., p. 47), the latter, according to Mac Cana, expressing itself through the medium of Irish, safeguarded by “fairly numerous yet exclusive corporation of priests, poets and lawmen [who] controlled the whole range of sacred tradition – myth and ritual, epic, onomastics, genealogy, origin legend and law” (ibid.). Primarily pre-occupied with myth and ritual in the second part of the book, Mac Cana deals with epic, onomastics, and others in the third part.


Part 2. The Sacred Centre in Comparative Traditions
In Chapter 4, ‘Centre and Circumference: The Comparative View’, he treats with much detail the myth of the sacred centre and its application to the sphere of ideal politics; much of his argument is devoted to the symbolism and importance of the law in the Indian culture. Such treatment is exhibited from a sole perspective of Hindu ideology, which, according to the Sanskrit 2nd c. AD treatise on politics, Arthaśāstra, is distorted by tension of dharma ‘spiritual law’ and artha ‘material profit’. Their conflict is appeased through the application of danda ‘legitimate force’ by the king in his government and the latter’s subordination to the brahminic priest, himself being the embodiment of dharma, the paramount principle of religion of the brahmins.

Mac Cana, outlining the appropriateness of this metaphor for early Irish society from the point of view of “cultural affinities that exist between Ireland and India as members of the Indo-European family” (p. 72), states that “in Ireland it may lack the explicit documentation and elaborate rationale”, failing to recognize that the principle of subordination of the power of the king to the authority of the priest on the basis of the spiritual superiority of the latter has been articulated in the early Irish legal treatise on status, Crith Gablach (ed. D. A. Binchy, lines 604-5), whose tone is not far removed from that of the Arthaśāstra:


Who is nobler, the king or the bishop?... The bishop is nobler, because the king rises up before him on account of the faith (trans. Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, p. 41).
The fifth chapter, ‘The Symbolism of the Centre’ is devoted to discussing the cosmological constructs ranging from the primitive people of the Arctic and North America down to the developed cultures of pre-Hispanic Mexico, Siberia, Scandinavia, China, Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Palestine and eastern Mediterranean, all united by the concept of the centre – “the point at which the cosmic planes intersected, or, at least, the spot which offered most immediate access from the material world to the supernatural realm of heaven” (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, p. 74) – symbolized in various functional equivalents of its vertical or axial aspect. It could include a pillar or a linga, a sacred tree, a cosmic mountain, a cave or a mundus – an entry to the Underworld, as well as a shrine, a temple, a royal residence, a city, “often a capital, [which] became the centre from which supernatural energy was diffused through the wider territory or kingdom” (id., p. 84).

Mac Cana pays particular attention to Indian data, which he treats in much detail. Starting with the corpus of Southern Indian Tamil cosmological myths, he goes on to examine the concept of axis mundi on the basis of Classical Sanskrit mythical-historical purānas, proceeding to the Javanese, Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian Buddhist traditions of South-east Asia. These interwoven cultures conceived the notion of the replication (and subsequent multiplication) of the cosmic centre, or the ‘cosmic circle’, mandala, on every habitable plain, surrounded by the four continents or quarters of the world (“or eight, or more, if the intermediate points are included”, p. 105). On political anthropomorphic level, the cosmic centre correlated with the figure of the World Ruler, the chakravartin or the ‘turner of the wheel’ of dharma, in this context meaning ‘righteousness’. Originating in the Brāhmana-texts of Vedic tradition with its application within the royal ritual of aśvamedha, the ideal of the chakravartin, in the centre, and four directional subordinate kings or guardians, located in the four cosmic ‘corners’ – “the whole arrangement and nomenclature illustrating a quincuncial pattern of organization widespread in Asia” (Wheatley, Paul, The Pivot of the Four Quarters, Edinburgh, 1971, 425) – provide a comparative evidence to the antiquity of various traditional symbols of the Celtic peoples. These include: the figure of the airdri ‘high-king’ (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, Chapter 14, ‘Tara as Centre of Sacred Kingship’, p. 265), the “traditional and widely pervasive concept of the cosmic structure of the island of Ireland, comprised of the centre and four quarters, and its relationship to the sacral kingship of Tara” (Chapter 13, ‘The Five Provinces and the Centre’, p. 261), and the coupling of the Celtic lands with the idea of five/four mountain peaks found in expressions Éire na gcúig mbeann ‘Ireland of the five peaks’ and pedair bannoedd/pedwar ban y byd ‘the four quarters/peaks of the world’ (p. 106).

In Mac Cana’s view, such amalgamation of cosmology and politics that pervaded social and religious structures of the Buddhist South Asian world can be matched by the principles that once operated in the Celtic lands that can neither be distinguished nor disaggregated from one another. Following S. Tambiah, Mac Cana maintains that “religion, economy, politics may have… more likely constituted a single interpenetrating totality” (Stanley Tambiah, Culture, Thought, and Social Action: an Anthropological Perspective, Cambridge MA, 1985, 257).
Part 3: The Ideology of Cultural Unity in Ireland
The central idea of Mac Cana’s argument in the third part of his book had already been long formulated in his 1978 article: “a subtle equilibrium between cultural cohesion and political segmentation… was, it would seem, already old when the Celtic People were born” (‘Notes on... unity’, p. 70). Drawing on comparative evidence from Indian tradition, in Chapters 10-11, ‘Wales and the Unity of Britain’ and ‘Ireland as a Unity’, he maintains that the cultural unity existing in Celtic lands was supported and chiefly maintained by the learned tradition, the class of poets, lawyers and historians, whereas the political framework was such that “the Celtic peoples lacked centralized, unified political structure” (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, Chapter 11, p. 226). “There is the sense that what counted most for the Welsh people was not so much their political unity as their cultural and ideological integrity” (Chapter 10, p. 195) and similar statements are expressed in relation to Ireland.

The concluding chapters of the book are devoted to his treatment of the learned classes of the insular Celtic traditions, including the poets (Chapter 15, ‘The Literary Language of Medieval Ireland’), the lawyers (Chapter 16, ‘The Laws of the Irish’) and the historians: in Chapter 17, ‘The Onomastics of Unity’, Mac Cana dealt with the dindshenchas tradition and its importance as a “kind of catalogue raisonné of the important place-names of Ireland”, compiled in the wake of turbulent eleventh-twelfth centuries that brought the church reform and Anglo-Norman invasion to Ireland. He looked at developments within poetic tradition between the twefth and seventeenth centuries to highlight the importance of the burgeoning genre of praise-poetry, which, in Mac Cana’s view, was not conveyed through the written medium in the earlier medieval period, and became so in the early modern one, converging with the harsh reality of political decline and despair.


Part IV: Reflections
Part IV is comprised of two short essays that bring the volume to its conclusion. In Chapter 18, ‘Medieval Irish Nationality and Modern Irish Historiography’, Mac Cana re-iterates a number of opinions that echo one of his own. He refers to the works of Eoin Mac Neill “the scholar [who] was convinced of the precedence of culture over politics in creating the unity and shaping the nationality of early medieval Ireland” (p. 315), and follows Donnchadh Ó Corráin that the sense of Irish national identity existed as early as the seventh century, if not before. For Mac Cana, with the introduction of Christianity the learned class continued to promote the sense of cultural unity “and it is only reasonable to suppose that its professional philosophy … was at least as vigorous before the intrusion of the Christianity” (p. 321).

Finally, I would like to stress the methodological importance of Mac Cana’s argument. Since the rise of revisionist method in Celtic Studies that epitomized in the 1990 publication of Kim McCone’s influential Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, it has become a cliché to seek (and explain) the origin of any phenomenon central to early Irish cultural, religious and political paradigm in the models propagated by biblical and patristic literature which infused early medieval Irish learned tradition with the adoption of Christianity.

Contrary to the revisionist methodology, Mac Cana attempted to make an alternative methodological approach available – the comparativist paradigm, supported by manifold and abundant evidence from cultures, distant in time (e.g. classical Roman, Mezoamerican, Egyptian and Mesopotamian) and space (Buddhist traditions of South Asia, Chinese and African cosmologies). Such evidence was invoked to place the secular Irish learned tradition heritage and the multiplicity of its aspects (toponymic, genealogical, pseudo-historical, etiological, narrative, mythopoetic, propagandistic, ritualistic, political, educational etc.) in a wider and richer context. Mac Cana stands firm in his approach that
Despite the inevitable revision, selection and suppression of elements of the integral pre-Christian tradition during the process of creating the written text within an ecclesiastical ethos there still remains a great deal of material bearing on native institutions and ideology – sacral kingship, of course, the Otherworld, cosmic division and the partition of the provinces, origin tales, the function of druids and filid, the body of legal precept and precedent, the social sanction of satire and ritual fasting, and so on – which presupposes the former existence of a complex system of socio-religious doctrine and ritual, the former doubtless propagated to a large extent in the form of exemplary myth as in India (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, p. 61).
One may ask as to why Indian comparanda plays such an important role in his work? Why does the Irish scholar seek to find parallels to complex Irish native institutions and systems of beliefs in this vast tradition of which India is?

Mac Cana’s earliest attempts to bring the Irish data on the par with Indian are well known.3 In The Cult of the Sacred Centre, he put his interest on a solid ground and succeeded in wrapping his comparative approach in yet another, more impressive, packaging. In the second part of the book, he enveloped a myriad of Indian traditions in the multiplicity of its original forms and subsequent derivations, both Dravidian and Vedic, Brahminic and Buddhist, South Asian and Hindu. Such ex cursus to the Orient provided him with a solid foundation to expand his argument regarding the constituents and the essence of the native cosmology of the Irish culture. This system of beliefs, according to Mac Cana, “outlived the druids that propagated it as part of their ideological system, sustained more than a millennium of Christianity, and remained a living force in Irish tradition centuries after the Vikings and Anglo-Normans had shaken the social premises on which it was founded” (Chapter 18, ‘La Recherche du Temps Perdu’, p. 344).



Concluding this review, suffice it to say that the book is a feast for all those familiar with an intricate palimpsest of Indo-European comparanda, and the Board of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, should be truly congratulated in bringing this monograph – that outlived its creator who propagated ideas expressed in it with a convincing tour-de-force – to the reader’s attention.


1 Almost all the parts of Mac Cana’s 1978 article were incorporated into the book. Thus, his musings on the concept of the centre in Gaul presented in Chapter 8, ‘The Cult of the Sacred Centre’ (pp. 135-7), is a near verbatim re-print of his argument from the first two pages of The Crane Bag article. Similarly, a section dealing with the limited effects of warfare in early Ireland and its comparison with an Indian concept of dharmavijāya ‘righteous conquest’ (together with the discussion of the impact of the Viking incursions bringing traditional rules of warfare to extinction in the ninth century Ireland) from Chapter 11, ‘Ireland as a Unity’ (pp. 234-40), is a re-developed version of his remarks presented on pp. 58-60 of the 1978 publication. Furthermore, Chapter 12, ‘The Cycle of Fionn and the Fiana’ (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, pp. 243-5) owes its provenance to the section taken from pp. 60-61 of the 1978 article. Further passages from Chapter 11 on pages 216-18, 228 of the book can be referred to pp. 63-64 of the article, and pp. 61-62 are expounded on pages 250-57 of Chapter 13, ‘The Five Provinces and the Centre’. Our comparison of relevant parts did not result in finding any discrepancies between Mac Cana’s earlier argument and its most recent version.

2 It is to be said that despite the best efforts of the editorial board to bring the critical apparatus of the book in line with the present state of scholarship, in some instances readers should be prepared to seek the most up-to-date discussion of various subjects elsewhere. For instance, Mac Cana’s treatment of the description of the “phallic standing stone” of Fál, “conveying a strong sexual symbolism” (The Cult of the Sacred Centre, p. 268) found in the saga De Shíl Chonairi Móir is due for revision in view of John Carey’s ‘Varia I. Ferp cluiche’, Ériu 50, 1999, 165-68, who argues for the description’s new interpretation devoid of such symbolism.

3 ‘An Archaism in Irish Poetic Tradition’, Celtica 8, 1968, 174-81; Regnum and Sacerdotium: Notes on Irish Tradition, Oxford, 1979; ‘The Poet as Spouse of His Patron’, Ériu 39, 1988, 79-86; ‘Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages, and Things’, in: MacLennann, G., ed., Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies, Ottawa, 1988, 319-41.


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