Please help me welcome our guest today, John Cunningham, owner of Celtic Cross Online, which sells jewelry handmade in Ireland. He’s here with a wonderful infographic to help us celebrate the Summer Solstice, which is today in the northern hemisphere.
Did you know that this year the Summer Solstice will be celebrated on June 20? What is the Summer Solstice exactly? It occurs when the axial tilt of the earth is at its closest to the sun. This means it has more daylight hours than any other day of the year and it is known by many as the longest day of the year!
The Celtic people considered it a very special day and celebrated it in many ways. The Celts used ‘Natural Time’ which they took from Solstices and Equinoxes so that they could determine the seasons. It was their belief that it was a time to honor their Goddess who has many different names depending on which Celtic region they were in. For example, in France she was Epona, but in Ireland she was Etain.
The Celts believed that evil spirits would be banished during this time and that as a result their harvest would be in abundance. They celebrated with great bonfires, feasts and dancing. For a visual depiction of Celtic Traditions around the Summer Solstice, have a look at this infographic produced by Celtic Cross Online.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been taking a class on medieval female mystics at a local retreat center. While none of these saints lived near the time that I study, the earliest one, St. Hildegard of Bigen (1098-1179) had a very nature-centered theology that struck me as being in tune with the theology of the Celts.
I wanted to explore that a little here, knowing that it may just be me reading things in where they don’t belong, based on my area of study. Then again, there well could be some echoes of an older belief system present in Hildegard’s visions (remember that the Celts at one time lived in Austria and parts of Germany and France before being driven to the British Isles). Food for thought if nothing else.
Image is public domain from Wikimedia commons
A Little Background on Hildegard Hildegard was born in Germany and began having visions at the age of five. She was given to the church the tender age of eight as an anchoress, an extreme type of cloistered nun who lived walled up in two rooms for the rest of her life. Anchoresses had only two windows, a small one to the outside, which usually didn’t afford much of a view, and another that faced into the church to which their cells were attached (sometimes this was the only window), through which they could view Mass, receive their food and speak with pilgrims who often came for their blessing.
Hildegard lived with another anchoress, Jutta, for 30 years, eventually being joined by two other young girls. When Jutta died, she received permission to allow them to live as regular cloistered nuns. She eventually founded her own convent, which became known for it’s beautiful singing, which was done at Hildegard’s direction. She was herself an accomplished singer and songwriter, penning an opera on the virtues, as well as more than 70 songs, plus books on science, cosmology, healing herbs and two theology books. Her writings weren’t translated into English until 1982. She was named a Doctor of the Church (only the fourth woman to receive that title) in 2012.
If you want a great historical fiction book on Hildegard, read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations. It’s an excellent book, and from what I learned in this class, highly accurate.
Hildegard’s Visions and Spirituality Hildegard did not draw the illustrations of her visions. She dictated them and it is believed that one of her fellow sisters, or maybe a monk from the abbey, drew them based on her descriptions. The four elements were very common in all of her visions, as was a sense of balance between light and dark, night and day, winter and summer, which is consistent with a Celtic worldview.
The Cosmic Tree By Hildegard von Bingen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In one of her visions, called the Cosmic Tree, she saw nature, the seasons and the interdependence of man and nature reflected in a circular pattern. The outermost ring of fire represents God. The water and air of the next layer represent healing. Then we have earth, represented by the trees. Interestingly, both the trees and the division of the inner circle reflect the seasons, much like Celtic drawings of the Tree of Life.
Hildegard is quoted as having written, “humans are dependent on creation and creation is dependent on humans.” Also, “The high and the low, all of creation God gives to humankind to use. But if the privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.”
The Cosmic Egg The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Another famous vision of hers is The Cosmic Egg. Personally, I see a strong image of the universe here. The orange star at the top is supposed to represent Christ. The outer ring of fire is God holding the cosmos together. The blue is said to be the zeal of God. (I see the night sky in it.) The moon and sun are in this sky. In the innermost circle is a wave (we weren’t told what that represents). She is quoted as saying, “The universe is created, nurtured and held in the womb of God,” which is what I see in this image. While this doesn’t have a direct Celtic connection, I see a bit of the Druid concern with the stars and the planets, the moon and the sun in their religion reflected here.
Hildegard’s Trinity, with Jesus in the center Photo: Public Domain)
In another vision, she saw Christ as a blue man surrounded by two rings of light, the outer circle being the Father and the orange ring of fire being the Spirit. I see a strong resemblance to Celtic mandalas in this image, the repeating concentric circles giving it a labyrinth-like feel. The blue man also reminded me of the Hindu god Vishnu. (Some people say that the Druidic religion has many echoes of Indian beliefs, as well as their system of justice. That’s a complex topic that I may or may not tackle someday. Read The Druids, by Peter Berresford Ellis if you want to know more.) But blue is also generally accepted as a divine color in many religions, including Catholicism and Hindu.
Hildegard also referred to God in terms of the Divine feminine and was known for her skill with herbs, two things the Celts would have regarded her highly for.
Our instructor noted that many native religions around the world held nature in high regard and had symbolism similar to that found in Hildegard’s visions. One of the things that made Hildegard so special is that what she taught from her visions was in direct opposition to the Catholic teachings of her time. In fact, her messages are still applicable to us today, a thousand years later.
What do you think? Could there have been some lingering Celtic connection or do I just have Celts on the brain? What do you see in these images? Have you heard of Hildegard? What do you think of her?
A few weeks ago, a college student from Spain contacted me asking for information on Celtic funeral/burial rites. This student was in luck because I had researched this for a scene that was supposed to be in book 2, but has now been put aside for a future separate book. As with the last student that contacted me, I realized I’ve never done a blog post on this topic, so here we go.
As usual, my research focuses on Britain, but I will include what I’ve found for Ireland and Scotland, too. (Someday, I need to do more research on those two countries.)
Celtic Views of Death and Dying For a warrior people, it’s not surprising that to the Celts, the most honorable death was to die in battle. Depending on the time period and which tribe you were in, you might be buried, cremated or have your ashes buried. In pre-Christian times, many graves contained items needed for the next world, from chariots and weapons to food, wine, money and clothing. There is some evidence that the Celts practiced human sacrifice, but not likely on a large scale.
The Celts believed in reincarnation. Some sources say they only believed you could come back in human form, but others argue you could be reincarnated as an animal or plant, too. Mythology seems to support this later theory (look at the many incarnations of Taliesin). In mythology, the Cauldron of Rebirth was able to revive the dead. Interestingly, some sources day they believed in after death judgment of your actions, while others say no such retribution existed in the Celtic belief system. Pre-Christian Celts believed in an after-death Otherworld (Annwn in Welsh mythology), a resting place between incarnations.It was a heaven-like paradise. There, the dead wore gowns of silver and gold and gold bands around their waists and necks and jeweled circlets on their brows.
Pre-Roman Britain According to the poems of Homer and the accounts of Caesar, on the Continent the Celtic dead were burned on a pyre. Sheep and oxen were slain and their fat was placed on the body, their carcasses around it. Jars of honey and oil placed around the body. Beloved horses, dogs and slaves were slain, their bodies piled on top. The whole was lit on fire. The dead were addressed by name and people wailed in mourning. When the fire was extinguished with wine, the “whitened bones” were taken out and laid in a gold urn. The urn was then buried with a mound over it. There is no record of this practice in the myths of Britain or Ireland.
However, we do know that a body was washed and wrapped in a death shirt, called an Eslene. The body was laid out with burning candles or rushes around it in the home for seven days. People would keen over the dead and/or praise him or her. Three days after the body was laid out, a feast/games was held in his/her honor. The body had a bowl placed on the chest into which people would place food and coins for the dead to use in the next life.
On the morning of burial, a Druid came with a rod called a “fey” or “fe.” It was made of Aspen with Ogham letters and symbols carved into it. It was used to measure the body to ensure a proper fit within the final resting place. It was said that if you looked at the fey, your death was unavoidable because it had already measured you. Some sources also say the Druid would whisper to the dead person, giving him/her instructions on how to get to the next world. If the person was murdered or otherwise died without the presence of a Druid, they would still try to speak to the spirit to guide it.
Burial customs varied by tribe. Animal sacrifice and grave goods are both mentioned in British and Irish mythology and supported by archaeological finds, so it’s likely this was at one time part of the ritual.
Ibelieve it’s a safe assumption that under Roman rule, the Britons adopted Roman burial practices. Roman graveyards were usually located outside of the city. Romans practiced inhumation (burial) rather than cremation. They set up memorial stones (kind of like our headstones) to mark the resting place of the dead, but these weren’t always done of out love; sometimes they served to warn passersby of plague or other ways they could die in a nearby town. (Pleasant thought, isn’t it?)
These memorial markers usually followed a prescribed pattern: They always began by addressing the god of the shades/death, then talked about the life of the dead person, and ended with the name of the person to commissioned the marker. Some were very elaborate in their stories of the dead, while others were simple memorials.
The Romans are thought to have been a major influence on Christianity coming to Britain. There is some evidence of continuity of burial sites from pagan to Christian. This may have been due to paying respect to ancestors or the areas may simply have been well-known. By the fourth century, many pagan and Christian burials were found side by side in Britain.
Post-Roman Britain With the fall of the Roman Empire, burial practices took on what we would come to see as a distinctly Christian tone. Cemeteries were allowed inside of cities, and became a communal meeting place, with churches springing up in their midst, as we think of today. Some churchyards had special areas in the northern corner reserved for murder victims and soldiers who died in battle, none of whom would have received last rites.
Graves were oriented west-east. West was the direction of the Otherworld and also Christians believed that this positioning allowed the dead to face Christ when he raised them on Resurrection Day. Single person burials were the norm, with the dead person’s head facing west. Sometimes a mother and child were buried together, but mass graves were not common. Grave goods were not found during this time. Bodies could have been laid in the bare earth, in a stone coffin or a hollowed out log, but coffins were rare.
I can’t find any evidence that details a Celtic Christian funeral rite (if you know of any sources, please tell me!), but from context it appears they were very similar to what takes place in the Roman Catholic religion today, which isn’t too surprising given how little liturgy has changed in its basic components within the Catholic Church.
Ireland There was a very early (pre-history) practice of piling stones over the dead person’s body rather than digging a grave. Later in time, the Irish buried their dead in three types of tombs:
Portal tomb: A number of upright stones covered by one or two capstones and sometimes placed in a long or round mound.
Passage tomb: Round mounds with burial chambers in the center which were reached by a passage leading in from the edge of the mound.
Wedge tombs (found in area of Munster): A type of chamber tomb where the chamber narrows at one end.
These could hold either bodies or ashes from cremation. When the body was buried, the arms of the dead person could be loose at the sides or placed over the pubic area. The Irish did not use a burial shroud until around the 700s.
Scotland Compared to other areas, there is less evidence of Pictish burial customs. There are four main types of graves:
Cairns – Burial mounds
Cists – Stone lined burial chambers
Barrows – Mounds of earth or stone built up over bodies
Platform graves – A flat, wide circular mound (sometimes surrounded by a ditch).
The Picts buried their dead in a supine position. Scottish graves have been found with scattered small white stones (quartz), believed to ease the passage to the afterlife.
Sources Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy Pre-Christian Ireland by Peter Harbison The Everything Guide to Evidence of the Afterlife by Joseph M. Higgins, Chuck Bergman A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland: C.AD 400 – 1200 by Lloyd Laing
Untitled article, S. McSkimming, Dalriada Magazine, 1992 Celtic Burial Rites by Alexander MacBain The Britons by Christopher A Synder Celtic Daily Life by Victor Walkley
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 18, p 286-291 Burial Customs Life in the First Millennium A.D. Roman Death Monuments
Do you have questions about Celtic burial practices? If so, please share them in the comments. What do you know about Celtic burial customs? Have you seen any of the types of graves mentioned above?
Well, this is my last post on my Arthurian Legends tour of southern England. It’s kind of appropriate that it’s on two biggies: the impressive stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, which we saw on the same day, our last day in England.
We were fortunate enough to get on the list to watch the sunrise inside the circle at Stonehenge. This meant a 3:30 a.m. wake up call, which came all too quickly. We all looked at each other with one eye open and then napped in the car. Unfortunately, no one told the weather gods to make it a nice day. It was overcast, which dulled out the sunrise and it was also very, very windy.
Linda, Maureen, “King Arthur,” me, and Tres inside Stonehenge.
We had as our guide a modern Druid who calls himself Arthur Pendragon and claims to be the incarnation of said king. (I know an author on Twitter who claims to be the incarnation of Guinevere. I keep thinking I should introduce the two and see if they remember each other.) He was very kind, told us all about the structure and led us in a Druid prayer called “the Druid’s Oath:”
By peace and love to stand
Heart to Heart and Hand in Hand
Mark O Spirit, and hear us now,
confirming this, our Sacred Vow.
I visited Stonehenge years ago when I was in college and I have to say, it is much more impressive inside the stones. They are so huge – at least 3 – 4 times the height of a man. Arthur told us that at least 1/3 of each stone is underground, so they are even larger than they appear. And still no one knows how they got to Salisbury Plane from Wales, where they were mined. Arthurian legend would have you believe Merlin brought them by magic, but I bet there was another explanation.
Jaime made the interesting statement that despite it’s age, Stonehenge is younger than a lot of the circles we visited and was clearly built as some sort of display of power, and likely only used by an elite few. Its energy is very masculine, whereas many of the other circles have a more feminine energy and were built for use by all, regardless of rank. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been less interested in it than the others. It could also be that it feels more touristy. That’s no fault of the people who work there or how it’s maintained. I think it’s just a natural offshoot of it’s popularity and all the hype built up around it in pop culture.
A small part of Avebury
After breakfast, we visited Avebury. It’s a completely different site, both in terms of energy and geographic layout. Avebury is so huge, there’s no way you can take it all in at once. That’s why it’s usually photographed from the air; it’s the only way to get it all in one shot.
Jamie told us there were four places the ancient people of the area visited, each at a different season, a quarterly gathering of the tribes. The Sanctuary, a timber circle that is no longer standing, was the location for spring (Imbolc/Candlemas). Avebury was summer (Beltane). Silbury Hill was autumn (Lughnasa). West Kennet Long Borough, with its repository of the dead, was the gathering place in winter (Samhain).
We started out walking the processional way or avenue, which is a series of stones that act almost like guideposts or pillars, welcoming you to the site. It is very impressive and must have been even more so in ancient times when there wasn’t as much around as there is today. Nearby (across the street, actually) is a hewn stone several times the size of a person. It is said that is where the high priestess sat to welcome the tribes as they gathered, walking up the avenue. I sat there and can testify that is has both the sight lines and the power to be a very commanding throne.
Me sitting on the “high priestess’ seat” at Avebury.
One of the very interesting things about Avebury is that it’s actually three stone circles, one of which is the largest in Europe. The stones are considered either male or female, based on their shape and location. Today, the at least some of the land is owned by a herdsman, so there are sheep everywhere. They must be used to tourists, because they didn’t pay us any mind. The shepherd was actually out checking his flock while we were exploring the circles and he told us all about the white chalk that naturally occurs in the ground and how his family came to own the land and their agreement with the National Trust to keep it sacred for those who visit.
Tolkein’s beech trees.
An unexpected surprise for me on the site was getting to see the beech trees that J.R.R. Tolkein sat under when he wrote his books. Supposedly, they were the inspiration for the talking, moving trees in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had to get my picture taken under them and pray that some of the inspiration would rub off on me! It is a very serene spot and I can see how looking out over the hillside with the trees whispering above him would have made his imagination take flight.
The last place we visited that day (since West Kennet Long Borough was closed) was Silbury Hill. It is very near Avebury. It’s a cone-shaped hill that is said to be around 5,000 years old. Today it’s covered in grass, but it was believed once to be chalk like the earth beneath. It’s the tallest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Like Stonehenge and Avebury, its purpose is unknown, but local folklore calls it the resting place of a King Sil, who was buried on horseback, with the hill raised up around him.
I hope you all have enjoyed traveling to Arthurian England with me. If I get to go to Scotland next summer like I hope, there will be more blog posts from that trip. It’s my aim to trace the final voyage of the Votadini as memorialized in the poem Y Gododdin. Cross your fingers that the grant I’m applying for (since the trip is research for book 3) comes through!
Have you ever been to Stonehenge, Avebury, or Silbury Hill? If so, what did you think of them? If not, what would you like to know? What have you read/seen about them in popular culture?
Britain is famous for its standing stones, partly because no one knows exactly what they were for. Were they ritual sites? Giant calendars? Something to do with aliens or Atlantis? All of these theories and more have been posed. One that is certain is they marked places that were somehow special to the ancient inhabitants of the land.
I’ll get to Stonehenge and Avebury next week, but this week I wanted to introduce you to some smaller stones and circles you may not have heard about. I didn’t know them before going on the trip, but I am sure glad I had a chance to visit. In many ways, these are even cooler than their more famous counterparts, partly because they still have an air of authenticity to them that’s been worn away by the tourist traffic at the more popular sites.
Linda and me under Lanyon Quoit.
Not far outside of Madron is the dolmen of Lanyon Quoit. It is three vertical stones supporting a horizontal capstone. It’s a little over five feet tall, which I know because I was able to stand under it. Its purpose is unknown, but it was thought to be a burial site. It was destroyed in a storm in the 1800s, but rebuilt, minus one of its vertical stones. Local lore says each of the original stones was aligned with a cardinal direction, leading some to speculate it was a ritual site. Rumor also has it that it was once tall enough for a horse and rider to stand underneath.
The mists were just rolling in when we were there, so it was very picturesque (and cold). I was fascinated by this structure for some reason and my photos of it make me want to go back and spend more time there (we were chased away by a school group). If you want a cool 360 degree view, check out this site.
I wonder if this lonely stone was once part of a circle?
Near Lands End, we were driving along when Jamie suddenly pulled over and got out, proclaiming, “I think I just saw a standing stone!” Sure enough, there it was, all by itself in the middle of a field. Only in Europe would you find such a thing. It makes me wonder what the ancients were marking with it.
This was my favorite stone circle. It’s about 3,000 years old and is still used by the Druids today. It’s a circle of 19 stones unique in several aspects: 1) One of its stones, the Healer’s Stone, is made of pure quartz. 2) The center stone has always been set at an angle (as opposed to other circles where stones have fallen that way) and 3) its center stone lines up with the Beltane (May 1) sunrise and several other nearby standing stones, which are all on a ley line.
The Healer’s Stone, made of pure quartz.
When we got to the circle, we all held hands and silently wove in and out between the stones, which was very powerful, especially when you think we were tracing the footsteps of worshipers who came several thousand years before us. For me, the tip of the center stone is very powerful. When I stood in front of it, it felt like a beam of golden light was passing into my solar plexus and heart chakras. I also sat and meditated beneath it and had some very powerful experiences. When we left, I felt like I had the ancient “fire in the head” – my head was very hot, to the touch and felt that way from the inside, too. I have no doubt it was some kind of inspiration.
If I lived in the area, I’d go to this circle every chance I had.
The Merry Maidens
The Merry Maidens is one of the more well-known smaller stone circles in England. Legend says that a group of 19 women were caught dancing on the Sabbath. As punishment, they were all turned to stone, along with their two pipers, which are two outlying stones not far from the circle. It’s a smaller, quieter, place with a very peaceful energy.
Have you been to any of these stone circles? What were your experiences? What do you think the purpose of stones like these are?
The holy spring at St. Clether’s still dressed as it would have been in Celtic times.
England is dotted with holy wells and peaceful chapels. Many of the holy wells date back to pagan times when they were associated with a local deity or water spirit. There was a tradition of “dressing the wells” on feast days, i.e. decorating them with flowers and leaving simple offerings and/or tying a ribbon to a nearby tree to symbolize a petition, traditions that still take place. When Christianity came, these spots were natural places of contemplation for hermits and other holy people. Today, they are still places of pilgrimage for Christian and pagan alike, and are fiercely protected by the local people.
The holy spring feeds into a lake and a babbling brook below.
We visited four such places on my Arthurian trip to England. By far my favorite was the first, St. Clether’s in Cornwall. The walk to this spring is past an old stone church with an ancient graveyard where bluebells blossom among the headstones. Then you walk along a path with gorse on one side and a barely visible brook below (you can hear it easier than you can see it). There are real cuckco birds in the trees and on a warm summer’s day, the breeze sounds like the trees are talking.
The inside of St. Clether’s as taken through the door. You can go inside. I just like the framing of this shot.
St. Clether’s itself is a small stone chapel. The spring is around the side in a small niche. When we were there it was dressed with offerings of flowers and symbols of fertility. On the inside, the chapel is plain and beautiful. The stone altar looks like a dolmen, and has a simple cross with a candle on either side on top. Benches for contemplation line the walls. The peace and quiet inside was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
I can see how one could grow closer to God there. I really didn’t want to leave. If it got wi-fi service, I could live there. It is lovely maintained by Vonda Inman, who wrote a lovely book called The Guardians of the Well, fictional stories about St. Clether’s over the centuries. I’m currently reading it and loving it. All proceeds from the sale go to the upkeep of the site. There is some video of St. Clether’s on my YouTube page.
St. Nectan’s Faerie Glen
On the way to St. Nectan’s
The second sacred site we visited is St. Nectan’s. This is one place where the journey to get there is just as cool at the site itself. You spend quite a long ways in the woods, walking parallel to (and in some places, over) a babbling brook. There are so many amazing photo opportunities, I can’t even begin to describe them. All the while, you’re surrounded by the sound of the water and the birds calling in the trees. (I kept thinking of the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood. “You take the one on the right.” “Which one’s the one on the right?” “Oh, we’ll just jump out and grab them.”) As you get closer, you start seeing still stone cairns that pilgrims have built in the water.
Stone cairns built by pilgrims.
Then, just when you think you can’t walk any farther, you reach the gift shop/café, where you have to get a ticket to see the faerie pool. That is also where you can view the ancient hermitage (which I forgot to do – you’ll see why in a minute). You go down a slippery set of stairs and then you’re at the most spectacular waterfall, which empties out into the pool.
The holy waterfall at St. Nectan’s
As you approach the waterfall, there are curtains of ribbons on each side, left by pilgrims. Word of warning: the rocks leading into the pool are very slick. I should know. I fell in! (I prefer to think of it as being baptized by the faeries.) I went back up to the café to dry off, but my tour mates stayed and took photos. They all waded into the water, and the photos they took ended up full of orbs. It is crazy to see how many. And my blessing dunk in the water is why I forgot to visit the hermitage. That’s okay, I’m sure I’ll be back someday.
Offerings left at the waterfall by pilgrims.
Next week we’ll explore the holy sites of St. Madron and St. Crede.
Have you ever read about or been to these or any other sacred wells/springs? Have you seen or heard of the tradition of well dressing still taking place today? What do you think it means? Do you think it should continue?
In a comment to last week’s post on children in Celtic law, Cassandra Page asked what satirists are. I started to answer her, but then realized it is far too complex a subject for a comment. Hence, today’s blog post.
In the modern world, when we hear the word “satire,” we may think of a kind of humor that makes fun of politics or culture in general, ala Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report. But in the Celtic word, satire was a much more serious matter.
Poets or bards had two major functions in Celtic society: to praise or blame. If praised, a person would be remembered as a hero or great person down through the centuries. If blamed, they would be infamous forever. It is the satirists who did the blaming. The Celts, particularly the Irish, gave these poets full sacred status. Their words were so powerful they could be considered magic. A person’s reputation could be enhanced through praise, or damaged by satire. Satire was thought to be so powerful, it could kill. Poets were known in myth to “rhyme to death” people and animals (usually rats). There was a poet’s spell called Firt Feled that could cause one’s enemies to die.
Satirists most often criticized nobility for lack of generosity or hospitality, giving bad advice or dishonorable conduct, but they could also pressure them into obeying their own laws. Satirizing someone without legal cause was a serious crime that carried with it heavy penalties, including loss of sick maintenance (a duty of the tribe to all classes of Druids due to their station) or in the case of women, loss of honor price. Women were dealt with more severely under Brehon law than men, and a vast majority of illegal female satirists appear to have used the power of their words to curse. But women were legally able to satirize under many conditions, including when a person to whom she had made a pledge rendered the pledge invalid. This was one way Celtic society made sure people kept their word.
For an example of the power of satirists, read material from the Ulster Cycle where it is clearly shown that kings sometimes acted against their natural inclinations out of fear of satire. Because Celtic kings could not rule if they were maimed or blemished, it said that all a satirist had to do to depose a king was raise a boil on his skin by means of his satirical words. (I imagine this something like giving him hives from anger or anxiety.) Because of the power of their words, originally poets and satirists were treated with much respect and their requests never refused. But toward the end of the Celtic era, they began to abuse their power, and became so hated that the role of satirist was outlawed.
Have you ever heard of satirists before? Have you read about them in legend? What do you think of the belief that people’s words can hold so much power? Do you have any additional questions about Celtic life?
Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tomorrow (December 21) is Yule, also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice. Have you ever wondered why this day is called Midwinter, yet we refer to it as the first day of winter? That’s because our calendar is messed up. In Celtic times, Midwinter was exactly that, halfway been the start of winter (October 31) and the beginning of spring (February 1).
There’s great debate over whether the Celts actually celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, or whether they only kept the four major holy days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. You’ll find historians on both sides of the argument. Given that the Druids were very attuned to both nature and the movement of the heavenly bodies, I would think they did mark the occasions. After all, even though the Druids had nothing to do with building Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange or the other Neolithic stone circles, they no doubt understood they were there to at least mark the passage of time, if not for some greater purpose.
Let’s assume for a moment that the Celts did celebrate the equinoxes and solstices. If so, why? What did they mean? Well, they certainly would have been important to the cycle of the land, if not in the mythology in which the people believed. Here’s a look at each one, and what it may have meant in the lives of Celtic people:
Midwinter Solstice: This is the longest night of the year. This was a great gathering of the clans, with many symbols of fire and light used to try to encourage the sun to wax stronger once again. Agriculturally, the land lies fallow and covered in snow, waiting for spring. Mythologicaly, it is the rebirth of the god (call him Lugh, Mabon, Mithras, what have you) who died at Samhain. The goddess, by whatever name you call her, pauses from her role as Winter Hag to give birth to her son/Sun, only to return to her dark form thereafter until spring. (Last year I wrote about three possible festivals the Celts may have celebrated on this day.)
Vernal Equinox: Day and night are in equal balance. After this day, the light of day will eclipse the dark of night. The goddess is in her aspect of the maiden, and the god is young, but the two have not yet married and mated (that’s Beltane). She walks across the land, waking it from its winter slumber, leaving flowers where her feet touched. Agriculturally, the ground has thawed and it is time for tilling and planting to begin. Many festivities around this time involve the blessing of tools, seeds and even whole fields to ensure a bountiful harvest – though many of those same things also happened on Imbolc and Beltane.
Midsummer Solstice: The Sun is at the height of its power and so is the god. He is the strong, virile warrior. The goddess is with child, proclaiming her fertility just as the land does. Light and fire are the themes of this festival, including fire wheels being rolled down hills and in to lakes, symbolizing the sun’s strength. This is an auspicious time for gathering herbs, especially magical ones, which the Druids likely would have participated in. Nature spirits were thought to be especially active this night, long before Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Autumnal Equinox: Again, night and day are equal, but this time night will take the upper hand. The god has been wounded at Lughnasa, but will not die until Samhain. His power wanes along with the sun. The goddess, heavy with child, reflects the fruits of the harvest in her swollen belly. All around, the earth is preparing for winter, feeding people and animals alike with bounty to store during the cold, dark nights that lie ahead. Trees blaze a riot of colors while preparing for their winter dormancy. The Celts held especially sacred the cutting of the final sheaf of the harvest (just as they did the first on Lughnasa). This was done by chance, rather than electing a specific person for the honor. The final sheaf would be plaited into a “corn dolly” in the shape of an animal or human, which was kept until the end of the next harvest and burned when a new one was created. The person who cut it was given a special elevated position for the day.
This is only a brief overview of what these feasts might have been. If you want more information, I recommend The Apple Branch by Alexi Kondratiev, from which much of the material for this post was taken.
What do you think? Do you think the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes? Why or why not? Do you think they are important? If you lived during that time, would you have celebrated them? Do you celebrate them now?
The Ogham alphabet. Image by de: Benutzer: Filid (German Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chances are you’ve heard that the Celts passed all of their knowledge on orally, which is one of the reasons why we know so little for certain about their beliefs. This is true, but the Celts did have a system of written language, called Ogham.
The earliest inscriptions we have in this language date to somewhere in the 4th century, mostly in Ireland, Wales and Southern Britain. But some historians and archeologists believe it dates back much further than that – even as far back as the Sycthians, who may have been the Gaelic Celts’ ancestors dating to about 1300 BC (Laing 22). Ogham is mentioned often in ancient Irish myth, where it is said to be used for poetry, Druidic spells and even political challenges (Ellis 164-165). There is also evidence that Druidic books existed before Christianity, although we don’t know in what language they were written because they were burned. (Ellis 165). The 4th century evidence we have mostly takes the form of Celtic tombstones (Laing 167-168), or as Matthews theorizes, tribal boundary markers (196). The main source of written knowledge about Ogham is a 14th century manuscript called The Book of Ballymote, now housed in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy.
Why Ogham? Ogham was named after the Celtic god Ogma (Irish) or Ogmia (British), the god of literature and eloquence, who supposedly invented the script (Ellis 126). We know with relative certainty that the Druids corresponded with one another in Greek, and due to the extent of the Roman dominance over their lands, they knew Latin as well. But some people theorize that Ogham was developed as a secret language known only to those they trained (Matthews 196). However, some inscriptions have been found in Wales that include both Latin and Ogham (Alcock 241), so perhaps hiding knowledge from the Romans was not the only intent. Other people believe Ogham was developed by early Christian communities in Ireland as a sort of shorthand to aid in transcription of documents.
Written Ogham can either be written or used as a kind of sign language (you’ll see both in my second book). Written, it appears to the modern eye like a series of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, the number and shape of which indicate the letters (Matthews 198-199). The alphabet had 20 characters, arranged in series of four. Later, five additional characters were added. Explaining what each letter looked like, was called and may have represented is beyond my expertise, so if you’re interested, check out this article on Wikipedia.
Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone (image is public domain via Wikimedia commons)
As Sign Language
The use of Ogham as sign language is very controversial and certainly not accepted by all historians. As hand signals, the fingers of the hand and certain locations on the palm represent letters or phrases. A person signing this way would use the placement of fingers across the shinbone, nose, thigh, foot or on the palm or fingers of the opposite hand to indicate a letter, word or phrase. Matthews even goes so far as to suggest that the sign language may have come first and been written down much later (199-200).
Other Uses You may hear people refer to Ogham as the “Celtic tree alphabet” and call it a form of divination, but there is no historical evidence to back this up. Some modern groups cite Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess (p. 165 – 204) as the basis for these “facts.” While his book is a fascinating look at mythology, it’s not known for its reliability. Graves is the one who aligned the letters of Ogham with the “seasonal calendar of tree magic” and also re-ordered the letters. The divination that is associated with this comes from Tochmarc Étaíne, a tale in the Irish Mythological Cycle. In the story, the Druid Dalan takes four wands of yew, and writes Ogham letters upon them. Then he uses them as tools for divination. Based on this story, Graves associated each letter with a tree or other plant, with meanings are derived from their properties. But again, these ideas (which he says are based in on a 17th century book called Ogygia) first appear in his 1948 work, not in ancient sources.
Have you ever heard of Ogham, in fiction, history or maybe movies? It’s even popular on jewelry. What do you think about it?
Sources Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis The White Goddess by Robert Graves Celtic Britain and Ireland by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews