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Ancient Legends & Myths

Celtic

This is a brief overview of the Celts and their spiritual beliefs.  Most people think of Ireland when they hear the word “Celtic”.  However, the Celts were groups of tribal people who inhabited not only Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England but also Europe and Asia Minor.  They had complex and varied groups of societies and religious customs which varied widely from group to group.

Because the ancient Celts did not leave many written records, much of our knowledge comes from second hand sources.  These include the writings of Greek and Roman observers and Christian sources.  These sources brought their own understandings, beliefs, prejudices and explanations to the information they provided.  Seen as “barbarians” by many of these of observers, the Celts were fierce warriors.  They were known as “quarrelsome”, “high-spirited” “proud” and “insolent” by some of their observers.  This they may have been, but they were also highly skilled artisans, miners, builders, farmers and merchants. 

Much of their knowledge was passed down through the oral tradition but they also used many alphabets, such as Phoenician (Iberian), Etruscan, Greek, Latin and Ogham (a native Irish alphabet which started around the Christian era).  Archaeology is finding many inscriptions and artifacts that show that the Celts were a literate society.

Celtic religion and mythology intertwined.  There are over 400 names for Celtic deities (both gods and goddesses).  Most were local and tribal names but there are many which were found throughout the Celtic world.  Again, much of what we know has been filtered through Greek, Roman and Christian sources. 

The Celts had many gods and goddesses associated with warfare, hunting, fertility, healing, good harvests and other important aspects of life.  Some gods were associated with places.  Lakes, rivers, mountains and groves were sacred sites.  Animals were held in reverence by the Celts because they displayed many of the attributes such as strength, fertility, etc. that the Celts prized. 

Rituals reflected their belief in the sanctity of the natural world.  They rarely enclosed their places of worship in temples of stone.  This usually only happened if they lived in areas heavily influenced by the Classical world.  If they did build structures, they were usually open to the sky or built of wood and thatch.

The Celts did not differentiate between the practice of medicine and healing by supernatural means.  They placed a great deal of faith in the curative powers of water and springs, wells and lakes were important for rituals.

Groves of trees were considered “hallowed ground”.  The word for “sacred grove” was “nemeton” which is found in some place names and god/goddess names. 

The main Celtic religious festivals were Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. They were usually associated with the cycles of the sun, moon and pastoral and agricultural cycles of the year.  They were also magical times when the boundaries between the real and supernatural worlds were believed to be at their weakest. 

Imbolc (an old Irish word) (February 1-2 (also known as the Festival of Lights) was sacred to the fertility goddess. The goddess usually associated with Imbolc was Brigid (Bridget, Brighid, Bringindo, Brigantia, Brigandu, Bride,) Imbolc placed emphasis on the quickening of the year, the strengthening of Light that was beginning to pierce the winter’s bleakness and associated with the coming into milk of the ewes. 

Beltaine, May 1 was to honor the god Bel (Belenus, Belinos, Beli Mawr).  He was a god of life and death, cattle, crops, fire, healing, hot springs and prosperity and the festival was seen as a purification.  It was a way of visualizing the Great Father who impregnates the Great Mother.  The May Eve/May Day festival celebrated fertility and fire.  This festival was also to encourage the sun in its annual cycle and to persuade it to return from its seasonal death.

Lugnasa, August 1 was also known as Lughnasadh and Lammas.  It honored the sun god Lugh (Llew, Lug, Lugus, Lugh Lamhfada, Lug Samildanach).  As autumn begins, the Sun God enters his old age, but is not yet dead.  The God symbolically loses some of his strength as the Sun rises farther in the South each day and nights grow longer. Plants are “setting their seed” already for the next year and young animals are now almost fully grown.

Samhain, Oct 31.  The eve of November 1, when the Celtic Winter begins, is the dark counterpart of May Eve which greets the summer.  More than that, November 1st was the beginning of the Celtic year itself.  The feast of Samhain was their New Year’s Eve, the mysterious moment, which belonged to neither past nor present, to neither this world nor the other.  It was believed that the veil between worlds was at its thinnest and this allowed communication between the two worlds.

Some of the other principal gods and goddesses were:

Anu was the Irish goddess of plenty and Mother Earth as well as the deity of cattle, health, fertility, prosperity and comfort.

Arianrhod was the Welsh goddess of beauty, fertility and reincarnation.  She was also known as a sky goddess, Keeper of the Silver Wheel of Stars and her ship carried dead warriors to Emania (Moon-land).

Badb was the Irish goddess of enlightenment, inspiration, life, wisdom and sister of Macha, the Morrigan and Anu.  Her name means “boiling,” “battle raven” and “scald-cow”.  Her cauldron boiled with the ever-producing mixture that produced all life.  Variants of her name were Badhbh and Badb Catha.

Brigid was the Irish goddess of agriculture, fire, healing, inspiration, learning divination, occult knowledge, poetry, prophecy and smithcraft.  The Celts often referred to her as a triple goddess.  To the Irish this meant that the Bridgets were all of the same generation and the distinctions between them were based on their domains of responsibilities.  These responsibilities were hearth, forge and inspiration.  Much later when the Christian church came to Ireland, they had little hope of making converts if they were to denounce the beloved goddess of the Celts as a wicked demon.  So, as they did with many pagan beliefs, they incorporated her into their religion.  Christians built a monastery on the site of one of her sacred sites.  She later became St. Brigid and many of the ancient legends surrounding her became the deeds of a saint.

Cerridwen was a Welsh goddess of death, initiation, inspiration, magic and regeneration.  She was known as a moon goddess, Great Mother and grain deity.  Welsh bards once called themselves Cerddorion “sons of Cerridwen” meaning they received their initiation from Cerridwen herself.  Variants of her name are Caridwen and Ceridwen.

Cernunnos, whose name means “Horned One” was the god of nature, animals, agriculture, prosperity, reincarnation, warriors, and the underworld.  He is usually shown with a man’s body, the antlers of a stag on his head and is usually seen sitting in a lotus position.  He was the model in later Christian iconography for the Devil.  Variations on his name were Cerowain, Cernenus, and Herne the Hunter.

The Dagda was the Irish god of the arts, knowledge, magic, music, prophecy, prosperity and regeneration.  He was known as “Lord of the Heavens” and was one of the high kings of Ireland.  His magical cauldron had an inexhaustible supply of food and his oak harp made the season’s change.

Danu was Mother of the Gods in Ireland.  She was the goddess of rivers and wells, magic, plenty and wisdom.  She was the ancestress of the Tuatha De Danann, a race of Irish gods.

Epona was the goddess of horsebreeding, healing, spring, and prosperity in Britain and continental Gaul.  Her name means “Great Mare” and she is usually shown on horseback and accompanied by a bird, a dog or a foal.  Epona was imported to Britain by the Romans and was the only Celtic deity to appear in the Roman pantheon.  In Britain, her cult merged with those of Macha and Rhiannon.

Lugh was the sun god of all crafts and arts in Ireland and Wales.  He was also the god of healing, journeys and prophecy.  In Ireland he is associated with ravens and in Wales he has a white stag by his side.  He had a magic spear and otherworldly hounds.  Lughnasa was his festival.

Macha was the Irish goddess of cunning, death, sheer physical force, war, protectoress in both battle and peace and was known as Crow, Queen of Phantoms and the Mother of Life and Death.  She was honored at Lughnasa.  Variants of her name were Mania, Mana, Mene and Minne.

Morrigan (Ireland, Wales and Britain) was a shapeshifing war goddess of lust, magic, prophecy, revenge and war.   She kept company with Fea (hateful), Badb (fury) and Macha (battle).  Variants of her name were Morrigu, Morrighan and Morgan.

Nuada was god of harpers, healing, historian, magic, poets, warfare and writing in Ireland and Wales.  He was the King of the Tuatha de Danann.  Variants of his name were Lud, lludd, Llaw, Ereing, Nudd, Nodens.

Ogma was the god of eloquence, inspiration, language, magic, music, physical strength, poets and writers.  He was said to have invented the Ogham script alphabet and carried a huge club similar to Hercules’.  Variations of his name are Oghma, Ogimos, Grainainech and Cermait.

Rhiannon was the Welsh counterpart of the horse goddess Epona.  She was known as the Maid of Annwn, Great Queen and Mistress of the Singing Birds.  She was also known as a goddess of movement and change who remains steadfast, comforting us in times of crisis and of loss.

Taliesin was the Welsh god of magic, music, poety, wisdom and writing.  He was known as the Prince of Song, Chief of the Bards of the West and Patron of Druids.  He was a great magician, bard and shapeshifter who gained his knowledge directly from Cerridwen.

Animals in Celtic Mythology

Animals in Celtic and Welsh mythology are usually tied in with fertility anf vitality as well as a connection to the realm of spirits and the gods. Below is a brief list of some of the animals in Celtic mythology

Birds were associated with prophetic messages and death transitions. Birds, especially ravens and crows, usually presage bloodshed and battle. Morrigan came in the shape of a bird to warn the Brown Bull. Deirdre's dream of three birds drawing blood foreshadowed death and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was shedding rotting flesh and maggots while in the form of an eagle. The Irish war goddess were said to call the ravens down to battle field to feast on the flesh of the slain. Birds can also be used to demonstrate a warrior's prowess by their method of capture. Lleu Llaw Gyffes was so skilled he could hit birds with a stone without killing them outright. Cuchulainn demonstrated even more prowess capturing birds skillfully, but his son, Connla was still more skilled. He could not only stun them with a stone, but also with only his voice.

The boar is a symbol of masculine power. Its meat was served at Otherworld feasts for the deities. The sow is associateed with some Crone/Mother Goddesses, such as Ceridwen and wi9th Otherworldly feasts. The pig is the archetypal symbol of plenty, healing and shapeshifting.

The Bull was a symbol of virility, sovereignty and walth. The famous Irish legend, The Cattle Raid of Cooley(the Tain Bo Cualnge), surrounds the taking of a famous bull. In Ancient Ireland a highly ritualized "feast of the bull" (Tarbhfhess (bull seleep) always preceded the crowning of a new High King.

The Cat represents guardianship, detachment and sensuality. The Goddess Brighid had a cat as a companion. Because the cat was associated with the Goddess and the feminine, the cat was sometimes perceived as "unholy". The cat's ability to see and work in the spirit-world makes the cat an ideal ally for a magician. The Church's fear of such powers resulted in the torture and death of thousands of cats in Britain and France. However, the cat was used as a family totem in many Scottish clans.

The Crane symbolizes secret knowledg, patience and longevity. "Crane Knowledge" was knowledge of the Ogham and arcane science to the Druids. Three cranes guard the entrance to Annwn (the Underworld).

The Deer/Stag was the principal animal hunted by the Celts for food. The doe was associated with most woodland Goddesses. The stag was often seen as the incarnate form of woodland Gods such as Cernunos. White stags were considered to be from the Otherworld. In mythology their appearance always heralded some profound change in the lives of those in the myth. It was considered to be among the oldest creatures in Celtic Mythology.

The Dog was sacred to the faeries of Ireland and Scotland probably because they were held in high regardby the Tuatha de Danaan. Many Celtic myths involve dogs or dog familiars, which belonged to heroic figures or deities, and wars were often fought for and over them such as the one between Fionn MacCumhal and King Arthur. Examples of the importance of Celtic dogs are found in the myths of Gwyn Ap Nuad, Cuchulain, Amaethaon and Taliesin. Dogs are also the archetypal symbols of shapeshifters.

The Dragon is another might magickal animal that appears in Brisith and Welsh stories. It is, of course, a creature of fire, but is also related to the Power of the Land. Another word for Ley Lines is Dragon Lines. Another name for raising power is to invoke the "Eye of the Dragon". The whole Earth was viewed by the Druids as the body of the Dragon. Menhirs and stone circles were located at grea power nodes. The Celts also called dragons "Fire Drakes".

The Eagle represents intelligence, renewal and courage. Eagles were associated with death Gods such as Beli. In Welsh mythology Llew (Lugh) as turned into an eagle at the moment ofhis murder. It is said that the secret burial place of King Arthur high in the mountains of Wales is guarded by two eagles. In Gaellic the eale was sometimes call Suil-na-Greine, Eye of the Sun. It is one of the four most frequently-mentioned birds of the ancient Irish and British tradition. The other are the raven, swan and crane.

Fish, salmon in particular, are associated with knowledge. Sea creatures llinked the Celts to great knowledge, sacred mysteris and deep emotion.Typically, only deities of great wisdom and temperament ruled the Celtic seas. The myth of Nudons and Fionn is one myth dealing with the salmon. It is said that the salmon acquired its great knowledge by eating the Nine Hazels of Wisdom that fell from the Tree of Knowledge. The salmon is said to be one of the oldest living creatures.

The Horse was sacred to many Goddesses. They were linked to the night, the moon, myster and magick. Nightmares, a name which is derived from that of the female horse, were thought by the Celts to be brought by a visiting horses Goddess such as Epona or Mare. In most Celtic myths the horses are black or white.

The Raven or Crow werelinked with death deities. The Crow is linked to Crone Goddesses such as Badb and the Goddess of war or death, Morrigan. The Raven flew over Celtic battlefields as the deity incarnate. The Celts used the image of the Raven on its armor. The raven is most closely associated with the God Bran.

The Salmon was revered as extremely sacred in the Druid tradition. It is the oldest of all the animals. The salmon is said to have acquired its great knowledge from eating the Nine Hazels of Wisdom that fell from the Tree of Knowledge. The salmon was of such importance to the Druids that it can be found carved on the acient Pictish stones in Scotland. The salmon is the only animal able to lead Culhwch and Olwen to find the Mabon, the Divine Child of Druid Tradition.

The Serpent or Snake represents the cyclic nature of life due to the annual shedding ot its skin. It is a phallic symbol, a symbol of the Triple Goddess and of the earth mysteries. It is important to the Druids, and is found on much old Celtic jewelry. Snakes represented the procreative ability of both genders and the mystery of both physical and metaphysical procreation. Druid's were also known as "Adders" and it's possible that the story of St. Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes refers to the Druids.

The Swan represents the soul, love and beauty. Tir-na n'Og was the name of the Land of Eternal Youth in the Otherworld. The White Swans of the Wilderness were four children of the Tuatha De Danaan. The Dream of Oenghus tells of humans, 151 women, who become swans, who on alternate Samhuinss gather at a lake to transform themselves into swans

There are many books and websites that delve into the Celts.  If you are as intrigued by them as I am, I encourage you to do further research.

 

September 24, 2011

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