This is third in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.
We can thank the Celts this one, who revered mistletoe for its healing and fertility properties and believed it could bring luck and ward off evil. It grows at the top of many trees, including the Celts’ beloved apple and sacred oak. (It also is a symbol of peace and could be used to broker a truce during war.)
Some say the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began with the Greeks, who also held it sacred, while others say we do it because the Norse associated it with love and friendship (it was sacred to the goddess Freya). I’ve also seen claims that the tradition really dates to the Victorian era and was once believed to be a promise of marriage.
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?
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?
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
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:
Also called Second Sight, this is basic psychic ability. It was usually a trait of women and was thought to be passed in the female bloodline from mother to daughter. It was also developed among the prophetic class (Ovates) of Druids. The visions seen and prophecy uttered by those with the sight, though often cryptic and filled with symbolism, were taken very seriously.
Forms of premonition, some of which we still joke about today, were also thought to tell the future in the body. Hence, if you mouth was itching, you’d soon be kissed, or if your ears were hot, someone was talking about your character.
Sometimes a dream is just a dream, but sometimes it is much more. As a means of divination, they could come unsolicited, be expected, or even induced. Occasionally, their meaning was interpreted by Druid, but not as often as you’d think. If the dream was intentionally sought, the dreamer prepared by meditation, some kind of ritual purification (fasting was common) and animal sacrifice. In the case of the famous Bull Dream, the dreamer also slept in the hide of a sacred animal – a practice common to many shamanistic religions, including the Native Americans. (The Bull Dream was how the ancient kings of Tara in Ireland were selected.) In addition, some locations were thought to induce prophecy due to the presence of the supernatural, especially areas near water or sacred groves, so the location in which the dreamer slept could play an important role. Lastly, induced dreams were usually precipitated by the use of mind-altering herbs (something I don’t recommend to anyone, just for the record), many of which are now considered poisonous.
Shoulder Blade Reading
We’ve all heard the tales of Druids reading entrails, but one distinctly Celtic form of divination is the reading of the marks in the shoulder blade of an animal, usually an ox, bear, fox or sheep. It was especially common in the Highlands of Scotland. This was an actual profession that consisted of boiling the bone, preparing it and reading the marks, which could indicate those people to be met in the future, while holes and indentations could mean death or prosperity depending on their size and location.
Omens were sought for nearly every activity, but were especially important when setting out on a journey. The first animal you saw, its posture and actions, as well as the gender, clothing and actions of the first person you meet on your way all foretold the success or failure of your quest. Birds were a special subset of animals known to foretell the future. Certain birds were sacred to the Celts and their flight patterns, calls and other behavior were used to divine the future. For the Irish, the raven and the wren were especially strong portents of the future. Depending on the type of cry the bird gave and where it was positioned when it called, it could mean anything from the imminent arrival of visitors to death and doom for the household. (If you want details, read pages 144-146 of John Matthews’s Secrets of the Druids. He gives an astonishing number of meanings.)
Similar to the modern casting of ruins, the Celts would toss a group of sticks (some say made from the nine sacred woods), bones or stones and read the resulting pattern to see if a sick person would get well, to identify a future mate, or tell the positive or negative fortune of a person.
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.
Brigid is perhaps the most well-known Celtic goddess whose gift is the fire of inspiration
Last week’s guest post on inspiration got me thinking more about the source of all our artistic endeavors and how that relates to Arthur, Guinevere, and the rest of the Celts.
Did you know the word inspiration comes from the Latin inspiratus, meaning “to be breathed upon?” It’s little wonder then, that we as humans have always looked outside ourselves for inspiration. And no matter the time or place, inspiration almost always leads back to a higher power. The Greeks had their nine Muses. The Hebrews considered poetry and prophecy of divine origin, as did the Norse. And and from the first Pentecost, Christians have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.
But what about the Celts? The most commonly invoked goddess of inspiration was Brigid. Worshiped on the Celtic holy festival of Imbolc, Brigid is the patroness of poetry, inspiration, fire, metalworkers and childbirth. She’s most commonly associated with Ireland in modern thought (thanks in large part to St. Brigid, her Christian counterpart) but she was worshiped throughout most of the Celtic world, including the areas we know as England, France and Spain. Other Celtic goddesses associated with inspiration include Druantia, a Gaulic goddess who is sometimes called “Queen of Druids” and is associated with fir and oak trees; Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess of death and the Underworld who tends the cauldron of knowledge; Canola, the Irish goddess of music and dance; and Cebhfhionn, who guards the well of knowledge and intelligence.
Celtic mythology gives us the Salmon of Wisdom/Knowledge, who according to legend, started life as an ordinary salmon. Then he ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Fountain of Wisdom from the nine hazelnut trees that surrounded it. After eating the hazelnuts, the salmon gained all the knowledge in the world. In turn, the first person to eat his flesh would in turn gain all of his knowledge. The legendary warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill was said to have gotten his wisdom this way, as was the poet Taliesin, who is sometimes associated with Merlin in Arthurian legend. (I personally always feel smarter after eating salmon, but that might be the Omega-3s.)
The Druids were said to gain their inspiration through dreams and various forms of divination. Several sources tell of the Druid practice of secluding themselves in a cave or other very dark place to facilitate inspiration. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve tried this one myself, but to a lesser degree. It’s very hard to get a modern room dark, with all of our gadgets and streetlights, but if you use enough black duct tape, you can get close. I’ve found that the darkness and lack of distraction does make it easier to collect my thoughts, but for overall useful plot ideas, I have better luck with meditation.
In Greek thought, inspiration was an otherworldly, ecstatic state (furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness), in which a poet or artist would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses own thoughts to embody. The Celts had the similar concept of Awen, although that word comes from eighth century Wales, which is well beyond the timeframe of the Celts in my books. Call it what you will, I believe every artist has experienced it at one time or another, that feeling of not being in control of what they’re creating. For me, its like the words flow out of my fingertips as though I’m taking dictation. Or sometimes scenes just come to me, especially if I’m doing something with my body I don’t really have to think about, like cleaning my house or driving a familiar route.
I don’t think we’ll ever understand the true nature of inspiration, where it comes from or why it is. But that’s really the point. Inspiration is all about awe and wonder, and the drive to create something out of nothing. If we lose that, life loses its mystery and the creative act, its purpose. For we understand the world through that which we and others create.
Whatever your source, I pray your muse will bide with you and breathe upon you so that you may experience many moments of furor poeticus.
The Celts understood time completely differently than we do. Time was circular, rather than linear. Like the modern Jewish calendar, they reckoned days from sunset to sunset, rather than from dawn to midnight like we do. So in their world, an important feast day would begin at an hour we would today consider the night before. Are you confused yet? This is why I’ve chosen to take artistic licence in my books and count days as we do in the modern world, beginning each day at dawn. Anything else, although technically more accurate, would be too confusing for the reader (and for me!)
Another way the Celts’ sense of time differed from ours was in their calendar. The year was divided into the the dark half of the year (approximately October 31 through April 30) when night was dominant, and the light half of the year (approximately May 1 through October 30) when the sun’s light was at its strongest. They counted 13 lunar months, whereas our Gregorian calendar (adopted in 1582) counts 12 months. Each month began with the full moon and ended right before the next one, whereas if we in the modern world think of the moon at all, the new moon is associated with beginnings, the full moon with the apex of energy and the dark moon with the end of the lunar cycle. In the Celtic calendar, each full moon had its own name/theme based on the agricultural goings on at the time (plow/seed moon, harvest moon, snow moon, etc.) This system worked well until after the feast of Samhain, when there was a period of five days between the festival and the calendrical start of the new year. This was a “time outside of time,” much like our modern leap day, only it held great spiritual significance because it was a time when anything could happen because none of the normal rules applied. Some also say the Celtic zodiac also associated each lunar month with one of 13 sacred trees, but others argue this originated in fiction, but was adopted by modern neopagans as fact.
The seasons were also different for the Celts than we now think of them. Spring began in February, summer in May, autumn in August and winter in October. The Celts, being an agrarian people, divided their year into four great festivals:
1. Samhain (October 31) – The beginning of the year and the festival of death (the Celts believe in reincarnation and were very spiritually connected to their ancestors, so this wasn’t as morbid as it sounds), for both mortals and the God. This day marked the beginning of winter and is where the modern celebration of Halloween and the Catholic holy days of All Saints and All Souls come from.
Imbolc (February 2) – A celebration of the strengthening light of the sun and women’s mysteries, especially childbirth (lambs gave birth around this time of year). This day marked the beginning of spring, plowing and seeding time, and is where the modern Groundhog Day and Catholic feast of Candlemas began.
Beltane (May 1) – This is the festival of life, the exact opposite of Samhain, a sacred fertility festival (for both land and people) dedicated to the sexual union of the Goddess and God. Needless to say, many babies were born nine months later. This day marked the beginning of summer and is where modern May Day festivals and Catholic May crownings evolved from.
Lughnasa (August 1) – The first harvest was treated with great reverence, with the first fruits being dedicated to the Goddess and God. In Ireland, the feast centered on the god Lugh and was celebrated by all manner of sport and feats of strength. This day marked the beginning of autumn and is where the modern Christian feast of Lammas has its origins.
Over the next year, as each of these feasts comes around, I’m going to try to show you how they would have been celebrated by the Celts, but not just by telling you as I do here. I want you to experience each one as though you were there. Be on the lookout for the first of these posts on October 31.
It is debatable as to whether the Celts celebrated the winter and summer solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, but I personally believe they did. Sacred sites such as Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Newgrange (not to mention other holy hills and some burial chambers) are precisely aligned with these celestial events, so I find it difficult to believe that the Druids, great astronomers that they were, paid them no heed. In their calendar, these festivals marked the middle of the seasons and correspond perfectly with our modern terms of mid-winter and mid-summer.
Close your eyes and picture a Druid. What do you see? Chances are a white bearded man in a white robe springs to mind, perhaps with a golden sickle and a bough of mistletoe, someone similar to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, right? That’s what we’ve been conditioned to think of by both “historical” accounts from Roman and Greek contemporaries and Hollywood.
A Druidess by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In reality, the Druids were a far more diverse group, young and old, including men (who were called Druids) and women (who were called priestesses). They made up the most powerful class of Celtic society. And unlike in some modern religions, they were free to marry, with Druids often marrying priestesses or either one marrying warrior nobles. There were some who voluntarily chose chastity, such as the virgin priestesses who guarded the sacred fire of the Goddess Brigid in Ireland before the coming of Christianity, but they were an exception, rather than the rule.
There were three groups of Druids:
Priests – Led ritual, taught the young, and persevered the religious tradition of the tribe.
Bards – Composed music and poetry that was believed to have a magical effect. A bard’s song was thought to be able to induce sleep, control mood and cause illness or death. The satire of a bard (also known as the Poet’s Curse) permanently ruined a leader’s reputation and so was often used by warring tribes against one another.
Prophets – Divined the future through the reading of patterns in animal entrails, tracks or flight patterns or by casting of lots of sacred wood (similar to reading runes). Some also received messages from the gods and goddesses.
The head Druid was called the Archdruid and he was elected by his peers.
Power and Function
The Druids held great power. In Ireland, the Druids chose the King through a shamanistic ritual call The Bull Dream. In the Irish court, no one, including the King, could speak before the court Druid had spoken. The word of a Druid was final, even if a more powerful noble disagreed. If you went against a Druid ruling, he or she could strip you of your rights, barring you from religious ceremony and all tribal matters, rendering you an outlaw without tribe or purpose.
Although exempt from taxes and military service, it was not uncommon for a Druid to accompany an army into battle. A Druid could stop a fight with a single word, even if the local noble or warrior leading the fight disagreed. There was also a custom that solider would always yield his or her weapon to a Druid if they asked for it, even in the middle of a battle.
Becoming a Druid
Almost all Druids were recruited from the nobility. It is believed that training took nearly 20 years for a priest or prophet and 7 – 12 years for a bard (and this in an age when the life span was pretty short – probably no longer than 35-40). It is said that at one time there were 13 Druid colleges (yes, that’s what they called them) or centers of learning in Britain alone. All religious learning was done orally and so the Druids became known for their astounding feats of memorization (which are even more amazing viewed through our modern, writing-dependant, ADD mindset). But that also meant much of their tradition was lost over time (I’ll go in-depth on their religious beliefs in a future post). It is known that the Druids had a secret written language known only to them called Ogham. Its letter were named for the sacred Celtic trees, but its purpose remains a mystery (theories name it everything from a method of accounting to a secret code for communicating with non-Latin speakers).
But not all who studied with them stayed for the long haul. Many children of nobility were there only to learn from the gifted mathematicians, astrologers and healers among them. It is also probable that they were great linguists, considering there were dozens of tribes at any given time in Britain alone, each with their own language (or at least dialect) and the Druids were known to communicate internationally with one another in Latin and Greek.
The Druids underwent severe persecution by the Romans in Britain, because the Romans both feared and were jealous of their judicial power, ability to incite rebellion and religious sway. They routinely attacked Druid centers, cutting down their sacred oak groves and slaughtering the Druids. The most famous attack was on the Isle of Anglesey (then called the Isle of Mona) in 6o AD, which was so brutal that the event became known as the Rape of Mona. Still, the religion perservered until the late sixth century, when Christianity finally took over.