Celtic Traditions and the Summer Solstice

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.

Solstices and Equinoxes: Celtic Season Midpoints

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

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, 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?

Samhain: The Celtic New Year (Part 2)

Image is public domain via wikimedia commons

Some of you may remember that last year I did a post on the Celtic feast of Samhain that was a sort of experiential fiction. It was a nice experiment, but I’m not sure it conveyed information the way I would have liked, so this year I’m going to talk about the holiday in a more straightforward fashion.

Samhain (October 31 or November 1, depending on your source), was the beginning of the Celtic new year. It was also the Celtic feast of the dead. (You may see similarities between the modern Day of the Dead and even Catholic All Souls and All Saints celebrations.) It was the day when the veil between the worlds was thinnest (Beltane, May 1, is the second) and it was believed we could touch the spirit world and it could touch us. Ancestors were revered and remembered. To this day, people in the Celtic world still follow the same ritual they did 1,000 years ago: doors are left unlocked, meals are prepared for those who have passed and a light is left burning to guide the spirits to a place of warmth and welcome at the hearth fire.

But ancestors were not the only spirits abroad on Samhain. The Sidhe (also called the faerie) rode out from their hill forts, searching for mortals to beguile and lead back to their kingdom. The Pooka (or Puca) roamed the forest. This strange creature could shape-shift, but most often appeared as a black stallion with fiery golden eyes, or a hybrid animal that was part goat, horse and bull. The shake of its mane struck fear into the hearts of the Celts. All fruits or crops still on the vine on Samhain were property of the Pooka, and to disobey this unspoken agreement was to risk a great curse.

Due to the nearness of the spirits, divination was a common practice. There were many types, but apples, apple seeds, and hazelnuts were commonly used on this day, especially when asking about the all-important topics of love and health. Another common practice was for each member of the household to cast a white stone into the hearth fire. If it was moved in the ashes when the family arose the following morning, whoever cast it would not live to see the next Samhain (kind of morbid, no?).

Samhain marked the beginning of the darkest part of the year, the beginning of winter. Just as the earth went dormant, so too, did the tribe, hunkering down in the ice and cold and praying they would survive the lean days to come. Agriculturally, it was the end of the growing season. The full moon nearest to the feast was (and still is) called the “blood moon” because this is the time of year when shepherds/ranchers would slaughter part of the herd to be able to feed the animals through the sparse nights of winter. This was the last time most families would eat well until the summer harvest.

The god Cernunnos as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Image is public domain via wikimedia commons.

The symbol of Samhain is undoubtedly the bonfire. Not only did it dispel the evil spirits, it united the tribe. In some areas, every single fire in the whole tribe/village was rekindled from the bonfire (although the same has been said about the bonfire at Imbolc as well.) If nothing else, the bonfire served as a rallying point for the party, during which men and women ate seasonal foods and danced to keep the dark spirits at bay. Sacrifices and wishes were often thrown into the fire in the hopes of swaying the gods. Some go so far as to say animals or humans were part of this, but as you can imagine, this a subject of great controversy.

In its religious aspect, Samhain memorialized the death of the God (commonly called Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter). He is often symbolized in the King Stag, the deer whose horns would either fall off with the coming of winter or be wrenched from his head when the young stag takes over (i.e. the old year giving way to the new, just as the generations do). It was also the day of the Crone aspect of the Goddess (commonly called Cerridwen or Hecate). She is the symbol of death, she to whom all return in the end, but she is also the bringer of rebirth through her cauldron of life (do you see where the traditional image of the witch came from?). She is not to be feared, as much as venerated for her wisdom. On this day, all made their peace with the inevitability of meeting her at their death.

Here’s a Samhain meditation I think captures the Celtic nature of the feast quite well, even though it’s geared toward modern neo-pagans: “Harken Now, the Darkness Comes,” by Lark. (I’m waiting to get her permission to post in full. Until then, I’m linking to it.)

Sources:
The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Golden Bough by James Frazer

What about you: have you ever heard of Samhain? Seen it written about in fiction set in Celtic or Arthurian times? Have you ever celebrated it? If so, how?

Lughnasa: Gathering of the Tribe

We’re taking a break from the A to Z blogging challenge today in honor of the Celtic festival of Lughnasa (August 1). It’s the last of the four major Celtic feasts that I’ve yet to cover (see Samhain, Imbolc, and Beltane for the others). Lughnasa also figures into my first book, so I’ve chosen to give you the facts, rather than try to present a fictionalized account, for fear of accidentally revealing my plot.

Lughnasa (later called Lammas) celebrates the birth of the god Lugh (or Llew), who was popular throughout the Celtic world, but especially so in Ireland, Wales, Britain and among the Votadini tribe of what is now Scotland (you’ll meet them in a future blog post). Lugh’s mythology is complicated and recounting it is beyond my expertise, so I’ll leave that to others. A bull was usually sacrificed in his honor on Lughnasa, and some connect this with the bull-dream ritual the Irish used to elect their kings. (Some also say humans were sacrificed on this day, but that’s up for debate.) It is also the beginning autumn and the beginning of the harvest.

Lughnasa was an important feast for Celtic tribes, a time when they came together to celebrate their identity as a people. (Whether or not this was done among people of the same tribe or among different tribes varies depending on the time, place and source you’re consulting.) Phillip Coppens says that among all of the Celtic peoples, Lughnasa was only celebrated in Britain, Ireland, France and Northern Spain. Other sources aren’t so specific. What everyone agrees on is that these assemblies were very important for securing loyalty and for general socializing, especially in a time when travel was difficult, slow, expensive, and likely dangerous. Sources note that the Lughnasa feast could last anywhere from two to four weeks.

The Sting song “Fields of Gold” is appropriate for Lughnasa

Most historians believe that Lughnasa festivals took place on hilltops. They all involved massive sporting contests (much like the modern Olympics) in honor of the annual games Lugh himself is said to have instituted to commemorate his foster mother, Tailtu. Common sports of the time included horse racing, hurling and weight throwing. It was also common for two opposing tribes or villages to build forts of grasses and roots and battle one another. Whether or not these battles involved real injury or were mock is a matter of speculation. (Judging from the general behavior of the war-like Celts, I doubt if the participants came away unscathed.) Some say these fights were in commemoration and/or imitation of faerie battles. Drinking, dancing, fighting and other unruly behavior also characterized the feast.

Lughnasa was also a popular day for handfastings, trial marriages that – according to some – lasted a year and a day, and could be dissolved the following year with no repercussions. Marriage or no, this feast was second only to Beltane in its sexual promiscuity.

The first stalk of wheat, symbolic of the first harvest, was cut with great solemnity and baked into cakes for the whole assembly, who also partook of the first fruits of the local harvest, both wild and domesticated. In some versions of the mythology behind the feast, the cutting of the first stalk also represented the wounding of the god, who will die at Samhain (this is especially popular among neopagans, but how much emphasis it was given in the past is uncertain.) A woman was chosen from the tribe to represent the harvest goddess or an effigy was created, with offerings laid at her feet.

Unlike Beltane and Samhain, which are fire festivals, Lughnasa is a water festival. Just as cattle were purified by driving them between bonfires on Beltane, so horses were ridden through water (forcing them to swim) to bless them. Other customs included dressing sacred wells with flowers and the burial of flowers to signify the end of summer. Billberries, blueberries and blackberries were included in the ritual feasting.

Lughnasa lives on in the neopagan world today, its chaotic nature captured in the film Wicker Man and the play Dancing at Lughnasa (both historically inaccurate).

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Sources

The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Land of the Gods by Philip Coppens
The Golden Bough by James Frazer

Beltane: Celtic Fertility Festival

“It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May! That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.” Yes, I’m channeling Guinevere in the legendary musical, Camelot. Who better to introduce the festival of Beltane (May 1) than the controversial queen? After all, Lerner and Loewe were right. Beltane is all about sex and fertility. And the Celts, unlike the Victorians, weren’t shy about it.

When we looked at Samhain and Imbolc, two of the other high holy days on the Celtic calendar (Lughnasa is yet to come), I took you through them in an experiential way through a short piece of fiction. The reason I’ve chosen not to do so with Beltane is that there is a long section of Book 1 that takes place on Beltane and I’m afraid anything I do here would too closely mirror what’s in the book. So I’m going to cover the festival on a more theoretical basis.

Beltane is the second most sacred of Celtic festivals, just behind Samhain (October 31). In some ways you can think of these two festivals like Christmas and Easter for some Christians. Even if you didn’t practice the rest of the year, you celebrated these two holidays. Beltane is on the opposite end of the wheel of the year from Samhain, and celebrates the light half of life, the life-giving, nurturing fertility of this time of year. (It’s actually the first day of summer on the Celtic calendar.) Like Samhain, Beltane was celebrated with great bonfires and revelry (and still is in parts of the world; check out the Beltane Fire Society to learn about modern celebrations in Edinburgh). Cattle were driven between bonfires as a way of blessing and purifying them, and many young couples daringly leapt over the flames or danced among them.

Taking it to its most basic level, you could say Beltane was an excuse to party. It was a celebration of the sexual union of the God and Goddess, and the creative energies born from their love-making. These energies were thought to bless the land, animals and people, bestowing health and fertility on all. And so the people of the Celtic tribes, unencumbered by prudish morals, took the opportunity to emulate the gods and spent Beltane night in feverish coupling. According to many sources, it didn’t matter if the partners knew one another previously or not, for on that night, all women were the Goddess incarnate and all men, the God. But it wasn’t just sex; it was a holy union blessed by the gods. Sometimes, a May Queen and May King were chosen to partake in these erotic roles in an especially sacred way or, in tamer times, to reenact the wedding of the God and Goddess in a non-sexual pageant before the whole village.

Another common Beltane theme, one that mirrors Samhain, is the hunt. At Samhain, you have Herne the Hunter, the dark god who rides the autumn sky with his red-eyed hell hounds in supernatural hunt. But on Beltane you have the image of the Great Hunt, of either a wild boar, or as beautifully depicted in The Mists of Avalon, the King Stag. Similarly, some branches of Celtic belief attach the story of the triumph of the Oak King (summer) over the Holly King (winter) to Beltane (although many neo-pagan groups associate this story with Midsummer, instead). No matter which mythology you choose, the idea is the same. Just as the light overpowers the darkness on Beltane, so does the younger generation topple the old in the hunt, giving reign to the powers of life and fertility once again.

Beltane is the other festival in which the veil between our world and the spirit world is virtually nonexistent. At Samhain, spirits of the dead roamed the lanes, but on Beltane, faeries and other nature spirits rule the day. While some invoked the tamer nature spirits, the Celts knew a dark side to the fey as well, so many used talismans against changelings (faerie babies put in place of stolen human babies) near this festival. Faeries could easily beguile people and animals on this night, taking them under control and leading them away to their mounds, where one day was equivalent to centuries in the mortal realm. To ward off such danger, the bonfires were made of nine sacred woods, and offerings of wine, milk or a pottage of oats were left outside the festival areas to divert and appease any fey who might be attracted to the revelry.

Today, Beltane lives on in Maypole dances (an ancient fertility rite in which the pole is phallic, the ribbons represent its union with the feminine, and the dance the act of intercourse), May Day and Catholic May Crowning ceremonies (which many point to as a form of veiled Goddess worship). Then again, in some parts of the world, it hasn’t changed at all. Check out this article from The Telegraph on the resurgence in popularity of the feast.

Do you celebrate Beltane? If so, how? What traditions live on in your part of the world? Have you read about Beltane festivals in books (fiction or non-fiction)? What are your favorite portrayals?

Imbolc: Herald of Spring

Imbolc (February 2) is the second of four high holy days in the Celtic year. Although it takes place amid cold and snow, it marks the beginning of spring, for the Celts believed all life begins in the darkness of the womb of the earth. It’s also the feast of the goddess Brigid, patroness of fire/forge, poetry/inspiration and the mysteries of hearth and home, including healing and childbirth. Step back in time with me to a cold February morn to get a glimpse of the way this feast may have been celebrated.