The role of the anam cara or ‘soul friend’ in Celtic pre-Christian religion appears to have been that of a spiritual advisor. I say ‘appears’ because I’m not sure that the position isn’t the product of a neo-pagan/new age spiritual tradition.
This post is a product of a long discussion with a hospital chaplain (waiting for my husband’s colonoscopy–all is well). We shared an interest in history and Celtic people, and he brought up the existence of the ‘anam cara’. He stated that within the pre-Christian tradition among the Celts, the ‘anam cara’ was a spirituall leader or ‘soul friend’ who saw a person through birth (even perhaps, as a midwife), maturity, and death. ‘Anam cara’ were true spiritual advisors.
With the coming of Christianity, the Catholic church encountered significant resistance against conformity to Rome and one way to co-opt the Celtic church was through priests taking on the role of the ‘anam cara’ in their parishes. This kind of syncretism was standard for the Catholic Church (and still is to a certain degree) at that time, and was one way that they brought the Celtic Church back into the fold. It’s perfectly believable. In addition, women could hold the role of ‘aman cara’, and frequently did, and the narrative is part and parcel of the way that Christianity suppressed and lowered the status and role of women.
The problem is that I can trace the identification of the ‘anam cara’ as a Celtic ‘soul friend’ to only one source: a 1998 book by John O’Donnell called “Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom“. Otherwise, every link on the internet is to a relatively ‘new age’ or spiritualist site and/or a World of Warcraft guild (seriously).
Another spelling is ‘Anamchairde’ or ‘Anamchara’ in the singular. This leads to more pages, more heavily Catholic, lending credence to the notion that whatever the historical truth of the Celtic ‘anamchara’, the use of the word has been adopted by the modern Catholic Church. One page states: “I believe it has its origin in medieval times when (younger) monks sought advice from older more spiritually mature monks.” Another says: “The anamchairde (plural of anamchara) were guardian angels of the ancient Celts. They have a special interest in people who are developing spiritually but are willing to help anyone when necessary.”
I’d love a scholarly or academic reference, or even an ‘official’ Catholic church resource.