They didn’t have tarot cards (which came along in the 1400s), runes (those came later from the Anglo Saxons) or crystal balls (although those may have been in use as early as the year 500), but the Celts, and specifically the Druids, were big into divination – the art of seeing the future. Here are a few of the most common methods they used:
Also called Second Sight, this is basic psychic ability. It was usually a trait of women and was thought to be passed in the female bloodline from mother to daughter. It was also developed among the prophetic class (Ovates) of Druids. The visions seen and prophecy uttered by those with the sight, though often cryptic and filled with symbolism, were taken very seriously.
Forms of premonition, some of which we still joke about today, were also thought to tell the future in the body. Hence, if you mouth was itching, you’d soon be kissed, or if your ears were hot, someone was talking about your character.
Sometimes a dream is just a dream, but sometimes it is much more. As a means of divination, they could come unsolicited, be expected, or even induced. Occasionally, their meaning was interpreted by Druid, but not as often as you’d think. If the dream was intentionally sought, the dreamer prepared by meditation, some kind of ritual purification (fasting was common) and animal sacrifice. In the case of the famous Bull Dream, the dreamer also slept in the hide of a sacred animal – a practice common to many shamanistic religions, including the Native Americans. (The Bull Dream was how the ancient kings of Tara in Ireland were selected.) In addition, some locations were thought to induce prophecy due to the presence of the supernatural, especially areas near water or sacred groves, so the location in which the dreamer slept could play an important role. Lastly, induced dreams were usually precipitated by the use of mind-altering herbs (something I don’t recommend to anyone, just for the record), many of which are now considered poisonous.
Shoulder Blade Reading
We’ve all heard the tales of Druids reading entrails, but one distinctly Celtic form of divination is the reading of the marks in the shoulder blade of an animal, usually an ox, bear, fox or sheep. It was especially common in the Highlands of Scotland. This was an actual profession that consisted of boiling the bone, preparing it and reading the marks, which could indicate those people to be met in the future, while holes and indentations could mean death or prosperity depending on their size and location.
Omens were sought for nearly every activity, but were especially important when setting out on a journey. The first animal you saw, its posture and actions, as well as the gender, clothing and actions of the first person you meet on your way all foretold the success or failure of your quest. Birds were a special subset of animals known to foretell the future. Certain birds were sacred to the Celts and their flight patterns, calls and other behavior were used to divine the future. For the Irish, the raven and the wren were especially strong portents of the future. Depending on the type of cry the bird gave and where it was positioned when it called, it could mean anything from the imminent arrival of visitors to death and doom for the household. (If you want details, read pages 144-146 of John Matthews’s Secrets of the Druids. He gives an astonishing number of meanings.)
Similar to the modern casting of ruins, the Celts would toss a group of sticks (some say made from the nine sacred woods), bones or stones and read the resulting pattern to see if a sick person would get well, to identify a future mate, or tell the positive or negative fortune of a person.
As mentioned in previous posts, there were also various other forms of common divination, usually to help find love, employed by the everyday Celts. These include the dancing of hazelnuts held over the fire at Samhain, the pattern in the ashes of the fire on Imbolc or dreaming of one’s soul mate on Beltane. Scrying, or gazing into pools of water, flames of fire, or finding patterns in the clouds was also common among both Druids and everyday people.
What methods of Celtic divination have you heard of? Which most interest you? Would you want to know the future if you could?
The main source for this post is John Matthews’s Secrets of the Druids, but I’ve also used a few books discovered in Google Books, including Survivals in Belief Among the Celts by George Henderson.