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.

Top 10 Fun Facts: the Roman Celts


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following last week’s post on the Celts, I decided that the Celts during the Roman occupation deserved their own Top 10 List. (BTW for those who care about this kind of thing, I referred to the Celts as Roman in the title because that will be the easiest for SEO, but the proper term is Romano-British.)

  1. Part of the Empire –  After the Romans conquered Britain, the native rulers became what we would call “client kings.” This meant they had the same allies and enemies as Rome and couldn’t form new ones without the sanction of Rome. Usually tribal leaders sought this status (rather than being compelled into it) because it meant Roman protection and trading rights. In return, the king/chieftain supplied men, money and supplies for the Roman army, but the people didn’t have to pay taxes until the kingdom was annexed.  (Southern)
  2. Your job is what? – Slaves were a sign of extra wealth that could be wasted on trivial tasks. While they could be used in the home, fields, or mines, slaves could also be things as silly as a lamp bearer, scavenger or even employed to call out the time, point out obstacles in the road or greet their master’s friends for him/her. (Alcock)
  3. Moving day – After the conquest, some people who lived in hill forts were forced to relocate to a new town so that Roman authorities could keep an eye on them. This also served to help introduce them to Roman ways. (Alcock)
  4. The mines were no joke – Being a miner was a punishment because it was so dangerous. One in eight miners died each year. (Lawrence)
  5. Place your bets…or not –  Gambling was illegal except on Saturnalia, but many people did it anyway. They placed bets on sporting events big and small, even a coin toss where the sides were called “heads” and “ships.” (Lawrence)
  6. In the army now – The Romans conscripted conquered people from across the empire to serve in their army as a way of subduing hostile tribes. They were auxiliaries (non-citizen soldiers). They were often sent outside their home country or tribal boundary so they couldn’t raise rebellion in their homeland. (Lawrence)
  7. Before the Magic 8-ball – Romans practiced a form of divination called haruspicy, which was the reading of animal entrails to foretell the future. (Rupke)
  8. Crime and punishment – Capital offenses for soldiers included running away from battle, striking or wounding and officer, insubordination and inciting mutiny. The punishment for rape was to cut off the nose of the perpetrator. (Southern)
  9. Weights and measures – Rome brought an organized system of measure to British trade. The basic unit was the libra (pound) which was equal to 327 grams. One libra equaled 12 unicae or ounces. (Lawrence)
  10. On the road again – The Romans built 8,000 miles of roads during their first 60 years in Britain. Roman roads were straight unless there was a major obstacle in the way. They even leveled small hills and built causeways over wet land. The military maintained them near the forts, but in other areas it was the responsibility of the town and local leaders. (Lawrence)

Alcock, Joan. Life in Roman Britain.
Lawrence, Richard Russel. Roman Britain.
Rupke, Jorg. A Companion to Roman Religion
Southern, Patricia. Roman Britain: New History 55 BC – 450 AD

What do you know about Britain under Roman rule? What questions do you have?

Celtic Burial and Funeral Rites

Portal Tomb byBy KHoffmanDC via Wikimedia Commons

Portal Tomb (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Roman Britain
I believe 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.

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:

  1. Portal tomb: A number of upright stones covered by one or two capstones and sometimes placed in a long or round mound.
  2. Passage tomb: Round mounds with burial chambers in the center which were reached by a passage leading in from the edge of the mound.
  3. 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.

Compared to other areas, there is less evidence of Pictish burial customs. There are four main types of graves:

  1. Cairns – Burial mounds
  2. Cists – Stone lined burial chambers
  3. Barrows – Mounds of earth or stone built up over bodies
  4. 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.

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?

Dinogad’s Smock, an Ancient Celtic Cradle Song

Thank you all for staying with me through a few weeks of writer-related posts. I promised you something special, so here it is.

When I was researching for my third Guinevere book, I came across an interesting nugget in Tim Clarkson’s book, The Men of the North. He mentions that written in the margin of one copy of the 7th century Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin were the first four lines to an ancient Celtic nursery song called Pais Dinogad or Dinogad’s Smock. At more than 1,400 years old, it is believed to be one of the oldest extant songs of its kind from a Celtic culture.

There are many translations, but since I don’t read any of the languages, I can’t say which is best. Here’s one sung and one written (which likely vary from one another):

Dinogad’s smock, speckled, speckled,
I made from the skins of martens.
Whistle, whistle, whistly
we sing, the eight slaves sing

When your father used to go to hunt,
with his shaft on his shoulder and his club
 in his hand,
he would call his speedy dogs,
‘Giff, Gaff, catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’,
he would kill a fish in a coracle,
as a lion kills an animal.

When your father used to go to the mountain,
he would bring back a roebuck, a wild pig, a stag,
a speckled grouse from the mountain,
a fish from the waterfall of Derwennyd

Whatever your father would hit with his spit,
whether wild pig or lynx or fox,
nothing that was without wings would escape.

Dinogad’s smock, pied, pied,
It was from marten’s skins that I made it.
‘Wheed, wheed, a whistling!’
I would sing, eight slaves sang.
When thy father went a-hunting,
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand,
He would call the nimble hounds,
‘Giff, Gaff; catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’
He would kill a fish in his coracle
As a lion kills its prey.
When thy father went to the mountain
He would bring back a roe-buck, a wild boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain,
A fish from Rhaeadr Derwennydd.
Of all those that thy father reached with his lance,
Wild boar and lynx and fox,
None escaped which was not winged.

Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History gives a better account of the history of the song than I ever could, so please visit her site for all the details. I’ll just give a short summary here. As mentioned, it was found recorded in the margins of Y Gododdin, so it was originally thought to be from the of the Gododdin (today’s southern Scotland) culture, but has since been dated to 6th century Cumbria. However, it could have been sung by mothers for centuries before. Another source identifies the original language as Cumbric, the ancient language of the British Celts, and notes that “the wild cat [in the song] is thought to be the lynx, which became extinct in about 500 AD, so the poem is dated to that time.”

What interests me about this is the intimate nature of this song. Most finds from the time period are military in nature. This is very different; it gives us a glimpse into a very personal moment between mother and child. The lyrics tell us what likely was on the minds of the people who created it. This mother was singing to her child about his father’s heroism, both in feats of strength and providing for his family. We also learn about his weapons and the food the family ate.  Her son’s smock was made from the pelt of a weasel-like animal (you’ll die of cuteness if you Google them) and the family owned slaves (which wasn’t unusual for the Celts, and is to me a possible indication of an earlier time period than the dates above suggest). Her words convey obvious pride in her husband. I can picture her including wild gestures and maybe even funny voices to amuse her child, just as we do with bedtime stories today.

I can’t help but notice that, at least in this translation, the father is referred to in past tense. It makes me wonder what happened to him. Is he dead? Did he die in battle? Was he killed during the hunt? Did he abandon is wife and child? Or is he alive and well, still sharing a happy home with his family? Maybe he is just too old for hunting. And what made the woman compose this song? Or had she grown up with it?

How did the person who wrote the first four lines in the book know the song? How widespread was it? (It could have been commonly known like Rockabye Baby is now, as Esmerelda suggests, or it could have been passed down through generations of a family.) Why was it written down in the margins of Y Gododdin? Was this perhaps a tune stuck in someone’s head or (gasp!) could the writer have been a woman who had recently been singing it to her child?

Little nuggets like this are why I love writing historical fiction. Were I (or anyone else) to novelize these musings, it would be one less bit of ancient lore lost to the amnesia of history. I have no plans to tell this particular story, but Dinogad’s Smock does make a brief appearance in book 3 (I’ve taken some liberties as to why Guinevere would have known it). I hope you’ve enjoyed this little surprise from history as much as I did.

Have you ever heard of Dinogad’s Smock before? Do you know of any other ancient (or even near historical) lullabies? Which ones do you recall from your own childhood? Mine were pretty standard, Itsy-Bitsy Spider and the like.

PS – I’ve found that many times when I embed YouTube videos into posts, they are slammed with spam. If at any point you read this and comments are closed, that’s why. 

Poets Most Powerful: Celtic Satirists

Siuil a Run by Vassantha on DeviantArt

Siuil a Run by Vassantha on DeviantArt

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?


Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews
 Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore and Rituals by Steve Blamires
Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief by Sharon Paice Macleod

Celtic Divorce

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, we talked about Celtic marriage. Sadly, not all those ended in happily ever after. In fact, divorce was common in the Celtic world, and relatively easy to obtain in comparison with today’s tangled web of courts and lawyers. There was no social stigma against it, since it was simply viewed as the breaking of a contract, like any business agreement.

In the case of a handfasting where no permanent contract had been signed, tradition tell us that at the end of their year and a day, the couple’s hands were symbolically unbound and they were placed back to back. Each gave their consent to the divorce and they walked away from one another. (Modern neo-pagans sometimes copy this tradition.) Easy enough.

But in a contractual marriage, things got a little more complicated, mainly due to the Celtic concern over property rights and alliances. Although Ginnell argues that “divorce was easy and could be obtained on as slight grounds” as some of the current states of the US, Thompson writes that it was more complicated than that. Ginnell generalizes that the law favored women, who took most of their own property, as well as their husband’s with them (212) in cases of divorce, but Thompson shows the opposite.

The law also changes depending on what part of the Celtic world a couple lived in. I haven’t found any sources that speak of Britain directly, so we need to look at her neighbors to get an understanding of what the law may have been.

“Medieval Welsh law allowed either husband or wife to dissolve a marriage at whim, and legal grounds for divorce only affected the division of property. If both parties agreed to the divorce, and the marriage had lasted at least seven years and three nights, joint marriage property was divided equally…If only one party filed for divorce and/or the marriage lasted less than seven years and three nights, Welsh law used a complex formula to decide which properties would be awarded to the husband, which to the wife and which were to be divided proportionally between them. (Thompson 135). Welsh men could divorce their wives for adultery and they would get all of the marriage property. But if the husband was caught, this wasn’t grounds for divorce; he just paid a fine. Women could divorce only her husband had bad breath (you’d think that would be common…), impotency or leprosy. By the way, these laws were in use through at least the 10th century.

In Ireland, things were better. Either party could file for divorce and there were a lot more legally accepted reasons. A man could divorce his wife for not keeping house well, if she stole on a regular basis (wonder how many women were one-time or infrequent offenders?), had an abortion, betrayed him to his enemies (yeah, I’d want a divorce, too!) or dishonored him (not sure how this was defined). A woman could get a divorce for 14 different reasons, including her husband’s failure to provide for her or her family due to unemployment, mental or physical illness or entry into a monastery; emotional or physical abuse; impotency, sterility, bisexuality or homosexuality (Thompson 136).

If both wanted the divorce, they would get their own private property back and the equivalent land and goods they brought to the marriage. Anything acquired during the marriage was divided equally. If either the husband or the wife had committed any of the above offenses, the non-guilty party would claim all profits (Thompson 136).

Other Instances
Perry notes that there are reasons for divorce that would enable a woman to reclaim the bride price (dowry) her father paid for her, including her husband leaving her for another woman, failure to support her, or her husband “telling lies or satirizing her or  seducing her into marriage by trickery or sorcery.” She could also divorce him for being ” indiscreet enough to tell tales about their love life.” In addition, either party could obtain a “no-fault” separation if one wished to enter the priesthood or religious life.

Perry also notes an interesting legal temporary separation I haven’t seen documented elsewhere. The husband of a barren woman could leave for a while to impregnate a woman in a more informal form of marriage and the wife of a sterile husband could leave to get pregnant by another man. In either case, the child was considered the husband’s. (I think this is what Marion Zimmer Bradley may have been going for in The Mists of Avalon during the controversial scene with Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot, but that’s only a guess. There are a million theories out there.) And this is a good segue into next week, when we’ll talk about the rights of children in the Celtic world.


Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell

What about you? What do you think about these laws? Are they any more complicated than ours? Have you read any other information?