Q is for Queens in the Celtic World

I love this image of Boudicca because I think she looks like Rachelle Lefevre.

“I am woman, hear me roar” may have been spoken out loud for the first time in the 1970s, but it may as well have been the mantra of Celtic women. Compared to their contemporaries in the Roman Empire, Greece and just about every other civilization, Celtic women had amazing rights and freedoms. I’ll go into more detail in the future, but suffice for now that they could own land, marry and divorce at will and were well represented under the law.

But yet, scholars disagree on whether or not Celtic Queens were the exception or the norm. Recent thought (in the books I’ve read) seems to show a disfavor for the idea of many historical queens, dismissing the ideal of the now mythologized matrilineal society/succession as unlikely, if not impossible. Personally, I think more women ruled than those we have records for. Do I have evidence for this? Absolutely not. But the Celts weren’t big on writing things down, so who is to say there weren’t more that are lost in history? I find it hard to believe that a society that was so supportive of women didn’t also have more women rulers. Since history is written by the victors (in this case, men), we’re lucky to know about the few we do.

But I digress. Here are two Celtic women from history who fought for and against the Romans, doing what they thought was best for their people.

  1. Cartimandua – Cartimandua was Queen of the Brigantes, a large tribe in northern Britain (around modern Yorkshire). According to the evidence we have to date, she was the first hereditary queen to rule any part of Britain. Unlike Boudicca, who married into her Queenship, Cartimandua was born to rule and her husbands held the role of consorts. It is likely that she was already Queen and married to her first husband, Venutius, before the Romans came in 43 AD. The Romans needed her help and protection if they were to extend their rule in Britain and Cartimandua was a wise woman, so she made a treaty with Emperor Claudius. However, her pro-Roman leanings were not popular and she had to quell a series of revolts among her subjects. In 48 AD, Roman forces helped her end these revolts. Three years later, her warriors captured the leader of the resistance, Caratacus, and turned him over to the Romans, winning their continued support. Twice during 52 – 57 AD, her husband attempted to overthrow her by allying with the anti-Roman Celts, but Cartimandua’s Roman allies intervened. During this time, some sources say she divorced her husband in favor of his cup-bearer (or armor-bearer, depending on the source), Vellocatus, while others say that eventually, Cartimandua and her husband came to an accord and reigned together until 69, when she then divorced him for Vellocatus. In 69, Venutius rebelled again and was successful in ousting Cartimandua from the throne. What happened to her after that is unknown, but her legacy is that during her entire reign, she kept her lands free from Roman occupation. Fun side note: Cartimandua is even said by some to be the model for the Arthurian character of Guinevere, thanks to the love triangle she created with her husband and lover.

  2. Boudicca – Boudicca (also spelled Boadicea) was of the Icini tribe in Southeast Britain in the early first century AD. Her husband, Prasutagus, saw advantage in allying with Rome, and this decision brought them many years of peace. When Prasutagus died, the Romans discovered he had named the Emperor co-heir with his two daughters. The Romans couldn’t bear the thought of sharing power – much less with two women – so they attacked the Icini villages. Boudicca, now Queen, was publicly flogged and her two daughters raped. Enraged, she rallied the people and they revolted, destroying several large Roman cities during the years 60-61 AD, including Camulodunum, Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium. Pursuing the Romans even further, she met Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and his forces in the Battle of Waltling Street. Although the Romans were vastly outnumbered, their military discipline and precision resulted in their victory. Thousands of Celts died. No one knows for sure what happened to Boudicca. She is believed to have survived the battle and either died from illness or taken poison (possibly along with her daughters) to avoid capture, public humiliation and eventual execution by Rome.

I was going to cover some mythological Queens, too, but I think this is enough for one day.

What do you think? Did the Celts have more Queens than these two? Have you  ever heard of Boudicca or Cartimandua before this? (Cartimandua was new to me, but I find her fascinating.)

P is for Pick Your Poison: Alcohol in Post-Roman Celtic Britain

Reconstruction drawing of a Celtic feast in full flight in Iron Age Britain, by Chris Evans (English Heritage Graphics Team).

What would a Celtic feast be without a bit of drink? (Okay, a lot of drink – the Celts knew how to have fun!) Even though distillation and the spirits it produced didn’t come along in Ireland and Scotland until the 1400s (at least as far as written records show), the Celtic people had plenty of alcohol to keep them in a partying (and sometimes fighting) mood. Alcohol played an important role in both feasting (especially after battle) and religious ritual. The following is a brief synopsis, taken primarily from Food in Roman Britain by Joan Alcock, A History of Beer and Brewing by Ian Spencer Hornsey and Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy.

Wine – Perhaps one of the most ancient forms of alcohol, wine was used by the Celts both for cooking and drinking. While the climate of Britain wasn’t hospitable to vineyards, the Celts (southern tribes) were importing wine as early as the Iron Age from places like Italy, Rhodes and Southern Gaul. By the 3rd century, it was coming from North Africa and from the Mediterranean by the 5th and 6th centuries. Remnants of attempted British vineyards have been found in various parts of the country and it is believed that was grown in them was consumed locally, but not fit for export or trade.

Mosaic showing a slave with wine amphorae

Unlike the Romans, the Celts didn’t water their wine and were said by some to get quite drunk and rowdy.The Romans even commented that the long, thick mustaches of the Celtic men acted as strainers as they drank (I know, ewwww!). Duffy says wine was reserved for nobility, while commoners drink mead or beer. Wine quality varied depending on the number of pressings the fruit went through. The lowest quality was the fourth and final press, which was mixed with water and sold to soldiers and slaves. Some wines were flavored with gypsum or lime or had fruit or fruit juice (raisins were popular), herbs (such as wormwood or oil of black myrtle), spices (like pepper) or honey added. The taste of the wine was also affected by the substance used to coat the inside of the amphorae in which it was stored. Common coatings included bitumen, wood pitch and resin. Some wines, especially those sent to forts, were mixed with medication (like horehound) to help cure disease. (See, drinking really can be for medicinal purposes!)

Mead/ale/beer – The wording on this beverage is tricky. Many people call what the Celts drank beer, but others argue that beer is really mead with hops, which weren’t introduced into Britain until the 15th century by the Flemish. However, Roman records note the popularity of Corma, a type of wheat beer prepared with honey that was consumed by the lower classes. They passed around a common cup and drank only a mouthful at a time. And – fun fact – Pliny noted that the froth of beer was used to wash hair, a practice that continues today.


Mead is a different drink, one made from diluted honey that is left to ferment and them flavored with herbs and fruit. Like wine, it can be dry, semi-dry or sweet. It has an alcohol content of 8%-18%.

Ale, on the other hand, is barley left to ferment, converted to malt and steeped in water to produce wort, a sweet, brown liquid that is then boiled with honey, wormwood or herbs (costmany/alecost was popular, introduced to Britain by the Romans). Ale had to be brewed often because it didn’t last long, and was a  good source of income on large villas and farms.

Cider – The Celts were also known to make cider from crushed and fermented apples (3%-7% alcohol content). Pears, although not native to Britain, were cultivated there, so Alcock speculates they could have produced a pear cider as well.

When I was in Ireland, one of our hosts told me about a strong spirit native to Scotland that pre-dates distillation. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was called. I think it started with a “p.” Can anyone help jog my memory?

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to try mead. Have any of you ever had it? I’ve never had alcoholic cider either. What do you think about the Celts’ choices in drink? Have you heard of any others?

O is for Old Computer Games, Arthurian and Others

Drawing by AllThingsConsidered

Hi, my name is Niki and apparently I used to be a gamer. (“Hi, Niki”)

I didn’t come to this realization until I watched all five hours (yes, five) of the “Top 100 Computer Games of All Time” on G4. (Don’t judge, you’ve done stuff like that, too.) While none of my favorite PC games made the list (several console games did), it made me realize just how much of an effect some of my favorite games had on me. Being a highly visual person, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that scenes from these games continue to shape my Arthurian world as I write. Without further preamble, here are a few old computer games whose influence is still clear in my writing:

Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur
This primarily text-based game was released for PCs in 1989. It was my second computer game ever. (We’ll get to the first later.) The basic premise is that you’re a young, untested Arthur who has to get the sword that was in the stone back from King Lot, who stole it. It looks cheesy now, but the fact that it had graphics at all was a big deal at the time.

Remember me saying I was fascinated by the peat fire when I went to Ireland? Well, this screenshot (above) is why. You go to a peasant’s house and find out he is sick and dying of cold. So you go outside and dig a brick of peat to put on his fire to warm him. It was the first time I’d heard of anything other than a wood fire, and I’ve been fascinated with peat ever since!

Later, you meet the village idiot. (No, I’m not kidding. That’s really what he was called.) He has one of the funniest lines I’ve ever encountered in a game, “I’m schizophrenic and so am I.” (Sorry if that offends anyone – this is the Internet, I’m sure someone will get upset – but I have always found it funny, especially seeing as I’m a writer whose characters talk to her.)

Playing this game, I learned that the holy thorn on Glastonbury supposedly planted by Joseph of Arimathea only blooms on Christmas Day. I can’t find a screenshot of it, but the image of when you are walking through the bog to get to the holy thorn was a major influence on how I imagine the mists that surround the isle of Avalon. The game also came with a short version of the Book of Hours, which was used in play, and I’ve been fascinated with the real Book of Hours ever since.

If you’re interested, you can play or download the game here. (I can’t vouch for the safety of this site, so download at your own risk.)

Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero
Released in 1992, this is still one of my all-time favorite games. It has nothing to do with Arthurian legend, but it’s a high fantasy game, so it still fits. In it, you pick whether you want to be a warrior, mage or thief (I could only beat the game if I was the thief. Plus, it was fun to sneak into people’s houses and steal things.) in order to complete your quest (which involves lots of wandering around, fighting strange creatures and finding treasure).  I probably logged more hours on this game than any other.

The orchard ended up playing into how I imagine parts of Avalon.

Erana’s Peace, as this meadow is called, also influenced Avalon, particularly the Beltane bower (you’ll understand when you read the book)

King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
This was my very first computer game, and while it didn’t influence my Guinevere books directly, it certainly opened my mind to fantasy. The graphics from the original are so sad by today’s standards, but the wonderful folks over at Unicorn Tales are remaking it. Here’s an old and new shot to show you the difference:

This is the original screen of the pool where Rosella encounters Cupid.

And this is the updated version. So much more like how it is in my brain. Can’t wait for them to finish this!

I also briefly owned Stronghold: Legends, which features an Arthurian gameplay option, but I couldn’t get the hang of the controls and the camera, so after only completing one campaign, I gave up. I did, however, get to hear Bedivere’s name pronounced, and found out I’ve been saying incorrectly all this time (which is the case with many other Arthurian character names which I’ve never heard spoken, only read.)

In case anyone was wondering, my top two favorite PC games of all time are Realms of the Haunting (THE. BEST. ENDING. EVER. I have plans for a related book someday.) and Lords of the Realm 2, which to this day influences every battle scene I write. Thank goodness I don’t have any games anymore…or I’d never get my novels written!

Have you played any of these games? Do you know of any other Arthurian-related games? Are you a gamer? Which games are your favorites? What influences your creativity?

N is for Names, or the Identity Crisis in Arthurian Legend

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt

According to some legends, the Celts believed that to know a person’s true name was to hold power over them. Some tribes even named their children one thing and then gave them another, permanent name when they reached adulthood. That’s why in many myths, a hero doesn’t learn his true name until he is armed by a goddess-like woman. In some versions of Arthurian legend, Guinevere asks Lancelot his name, but he is unable to tell her (because he doesn’t know) until after he completes a quest.

Why am I mentioning this?

  1. You’ll do great if it ever comes up at trivia night.
  2. There are lots of names in Arthurian legend.

Depending on the author and/or translation you read, the same Arthurian character could go by many different names. I’ve only included a few common ones here, but thought you might find it interesting to see who is who:

What’s My Name Again?
(Keep in mind that depending on the author, those listed below as the same character, might in fact be separate characters.)

  1. Guinevere/Gwenhwyfar (Welsh)/Gvenhvyuar (Welsh)/Ganhumara (from Geoffry of Monmouth) – There are about a million more. If you want to see all of them, check out this site. Some legends say there were two or three Guineveres.
  2. Morgan/Morgause/Morganna/Morgaine/Morgan Le Fey/Morgane – Traditionally Arthur’s half sister, she’s also sometimes called Anna.
  3. Galahad/Gwalchavad (Welsh)/Galeas/Galath – Son of Lancelot, he is one of three who find the Holy Grail.
  4. Perceval/Percival/Peredur (Welsh) – Knight who sees the Grail and also meets the Fisher King.
  5. Igraine/Iggraine/Eigyr (Welsh)/Igerne (French)/Ygerne (French)/Ygrayne/Arnive – Arthur’s mother.
  6. Isolde/Iseult/Iseo/Yseult/Isode/Isoude/Esyllt/Isotta – There are three Isoldes, 1) a princess from Ireland who marries Mark even though she’s in love with Tristan, 2) the Irish Isolde’s mother, and 3) a princess from Brittany who marries Tristan after he’s banished from Britain.
  7. Tristan/Drustanus/Drystan/Tristran/Tristram – One of Arthur’s knights, he loved Isolde.
  8. Gawain/Gwalchmei/Gawan/Gawaine/Gwaine/Gavan/Gavin/Walewein/Waweyn – Knight and Arthur’s nephew.

Are you confused yet? I know I am!

Do you think names have special power or significance? What does your name mean? Do you use a special spelling? Can you think of any other Arthurian characters that you’ve seen with different spellings of their names? Which ones do you prefer?

M is for Magic: How I Handle it in My Books

“A Magic Circle” by J. W. Waterhouse

When we get into the realm of historical fantasy, and especially Arthurian legend, magic can mean many different things. So, without spoiling the plot, I wanted to give you a little insight on how I’ve chosen to use magic in my series of books.

I’ve never been a big fan of the really high fantasy sword and sorcery stuff where people conjure blue flame out of thin air and play magical dodgeball, so you won’t be seeing that in my work. I decided to go with a more natural approach, one that felt true to the beliefs of the Celts. We don’t know exactly what magic they used, but we know they believed in it from Roman accounts of the battle of Mona where the priestesses were said to keen and cast spells upon the wind as the Roman army advanced and slaughtered them. We also know that they were very in tune with nature. So, I chose to combine the two and make their magic very elemental.

What you will see (mainly from the Druids and priestesses of Avalon):

  • Use of the Sight and divination to see into the past, present and future
  • Invocation of the goddesses/gods and prophecy
  • Weather magic (calling the rain, fog, clouds, etc.)
  • Rituals based in Celtic religious belief
  • Herbalism and healing/poisonous potions
  • Mentions of nature spirits
  • Use of geasa (taboos) to place restrictions on someone

What you won’t see:

  • Smiting with lightning bolts or fireballs
  • Spell casting
  • Mythical creatures as characters (sorry, no dragons or faeries)
  • Shape-shifting

You’ll notice that I don’t use magic as a form of control (spell casting). That’s because I find it far more intriguing to explore the very human ways we manipulate one another through power (political, familial, religious, etc.), emotion (love, lust, hatred, fear) and our own personal beliefs/biases/bigotry.

Royal Mail’s Magical Realm Stamps

I realize that not everyone is as willing to believe in magic as I am, so I’ve also tried to give you a slight hint at possible rational explanations for some of the magic. For example, mystics the world over have found ways to touch hot coals without being burned or walk on glass without being harmed through sheer mental control. If you want to believe that’s what the priestess’ training really is rather than ascribe it to magical ability, you can. What about making it rain? If you want to believe its sheer coincidence, that’s up to you, but my characters most certainly believe in the power of magic.

My characters have certain natural talents, just like you or I, but none of them could perform their magic without serious training. It’s not something they take lightly or do for fun. For them, magic is a gift to be respected and honored, not abused. And if one does abuse it, the consequences are high.

How do you feel about magic in historical fantasy? Do you prefer more or less? What are some books/movies/etc. that you think handled magic well? Which ones didn’t you like? Do you believe in magic?

L is for Laughter, or Celtic Women’s Rules

Boudicca by laiyla (http://laiyla.deviantart.com/)

We all need more laughter, and given this is a Celtic/Arthurian blog, I thought this might do it.

I didn’t write this. I don’t know who did. It was sent to me on a listserc back in 1997 and I haven’t been able to find out where it came from. If you know, please tell me and I’ll give credit. I hope you enjoy this as much as I have.

Celtic Woman’s Rules

  1. Please do not talk to my breasts.  You will not be meeting them.
  2. If you attempt to do so, you will be meeting my sword.
  3. My sexual preference is no. (Whoever wrote this had obviously never heard of Queen Maeve. I think this should be changed to “yes, please!” At least that would be more historically accurate.)
  4. Remember: my people can kick your people’s arse.
  5. Fifty-one percent love goddess. Forty-nine percent bitch. ALL warrior.
  6. Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice – say any differently and I will slice your head off.
  7. If you want to control someone, become a Roman.
  8. Breakfast is on the table. YOU cook it.
  9. It is not the size of your sword that counts, it is- no, wait… size does count.
  10. If you disobey ANY of these rules, you should better pray your horse is FAST.

Eventually, I’ll get around to doing a series of posts on women in the Celtic world: their status, rules on marriage/divorce, children, etc. (the laws are fascinating, but very complex), so keep this funny little post in mind. It’s more accurate than you may think!

K is for Kushiel’s Dart

Forget 50 Shades of Gray. (No, I haven’t read it.) If you want novel that is well written, meticulously plotted and epic in scope, that will also get your blood pumping, read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. I don’t think it’s meant as erotica, and it’s certainly much more than that, but some choose to classify it that way. And that’s shame because they’re missing the bigger picture.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I read this book about six months ago, but it is amazing. I can’t begin to say how much I loved it. If you can get beyond the non-traditional sex scenes (you may not want to try these at home) in the early part of the book (they have mythological and plot purposes in the story, so they’re not gratuitous), you’re in for an amazing ride that will have you questioning who you should be rooting for until the very end.

Jacqueline Carey packs more intrigue and action into this book than most authors would have attempted in a series of three or four books. As such, keeping the players and the politics straight is difficult (people and places have foreign-sounding names that can be challenging to remember) but as long as you remember a few key characters, you’ll be fine. But the more you pick up, the richer the plot will be for you.

As an alternative history, it’s very interesting to see echoes of ancient Rome, the Picts, Irish, Anglo Saxons and others in the geography, history and characters. There are even a few who seemed to me to be veiled versions of mythological heroes such as King Arthur, Tristan and Fionn mac Cumhaill, to name a few. This is not to say Carey lacks in original characterization. On the contrary, she takes these archetypes and raises them to a whole new level, while making you truly care (and perhaps be smitten by) many of her original characters.

The writing and plotting of this book is superb. Everything happens for a specific reason (as it should in all books, but doesn’t always) and the connections between events is eventually made clear. Carey has a skill for descriptions and world building that makes you never want to leave. I could feel every movement of the journey and I’ll admit to spending a few hours reading when I would have been sleeping. As a writer, I appreciate the work it must have taken to create such an outstanding book. I feel like I will be a better writer in the future just for having read her writing.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that the ending left me wanting, which is natural for the first book in a series, but after all I went through with these characters I wanted more resolution. Carey was heading there, but then changed course and I can’t say I completely believed two of the character’s motivations in how the setup for the second book was accomplished. But, this book is so well-written that I may just have to sign up for the next installment.

Have you read Kushiel’s Dart? What did you think of it? Do you have any ideas for future “K” topics?

J is for Jargon in the Writing and Publishing World

Or, I could have called this post, “seriously, just speak English!” Like every other industry, the book world is full of strange terms few on the outside can understand without a little research. So here’s a list of five (hey, it was 10, I spared you half) common jargon words in the writerly world. Happy translating!

  1. ARC – When written in all caps, ARC stands for Advance Reading Copy. This is a copy of a book that is almost, but not quite ready to be published. It’s often typeset and has the cover art like the final product, but may not have gone through final proofing. These are typically sent out to critics, bloggers, bookstores and given away to fans to create buzz for a book before its official release. These sometimes take over for what used to be called Galley Copies, black and white versions of the book with no art, used in the proofreading process. (When written as “arc” the word refers to the progression of a plot or character throughout a book.)
  2. Character driven vs. plot driven – A character driven story is one in which the characters and their personal journeys (often focused on the  emotional aspect) take precedence over the plot, which is formed by how the characters interact. A plot driven story is one where the plot is the main importance and the characters follow the plot. Most writers are naturally one or the other, but I hear its possible to be good at both. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve been told my writing is character driven.)
  3. Genre – The category your book falls into. Think of the sections of a bookstore: mystery, romance, general fiction, suspense, western, young adult. But in the publishing world it gets more complicated. For example, the general fiction section of a bookstore includes lots of other genres such as women’s fiction (chick lit), historical fiction and classics. Historical fiction has its own subgenres like historical fantasy, time slip (time travel), historical romance, historical mystery and alternate history. And yes, every genre is that complicated. (There are hard-boiled mysteries, cozy mysteries, etc.)
  4. Query letter – This is a letter you write to an agent you’d like to represent you. It’s a lot like a cover letter when you’re applying for a job. You tell the agent what kind of book you’re trying to sell, give them (I hate him/her, so I’m using them) a short one or two paragraph summary of what the book is about (think of it like the copy on the back of the book), and then tell them why you chose them and why they should give you a chance. Usually most agents ask for a synopsis (see below) and/or anywhere from five to 50 pages of your book along with the letter. But not all. Your letter has to be sharp because you can (and will be) rejected just based on it,  unseen. Interestingly, I’ve read that query letters as a first round of selection aren’t the same the world over. In America, they are a must, but I’ve read that in Britain and other parts of the world, they really just serve as an introduction and that agents put more emphasis on the synopsis and sample when making a decision. If anyone can confirm or refute that, please do. I’m interested in learning more.
  5. Synopsis – A synopsis is a two to three page summary of your novel, including the ending. (Yes, you have to give away the ending. I know, I was shocked, too.) Agents and publishers use them when trying to decide whether or not to represent a work, especially if they get bored with your manuscript. Writing a synposis is painful, but necessary. Your goal is to boil your 80,000+ word book down to its basic elements (no subplots) to show what the book is all about. I’ve read they get easier with practice, but I’m not so sure about that.

One that I would love to have someone answer for me: what the heck is literary fiction? No matter how many articles and definitions I read, I still don’t understand what it is. My guess is that if I don’t know what it is, it’s not what I’m writing!

What about you? What writing terms have you heard that you’d like defined? What terms drive your crazy? Do you have ideas for other “J” themed posts?

I is for Insight: Celtic Divination

I thought this was hilarious! Image linked to original source.

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:

The Sight
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.)

Casting Lots
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.

Water gazing

Water scrying

Everyday Divination
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.