Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he meets before his entrance into the region
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites and Votive Offerings
Summoning the rituals from the Celtic past requires a wand to piece it together. Accounts of rituals were recorded through the biased eyes of classical Greek and Roman writers. Although Irish Christian monks wrote about Celtic legends, their manuscripts were subject to redaction and filtration. Monastic scribes rejected any notion that the supernatural beings in these tales were worthy of worship, so they represented these gods as heroes whose magical powers were an echo of their one-time divinity. Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of myth, provides no direct evidence to the Celtic religion.
As the Celts were unwilling to write their rites and beliefs in writing, the historical accounts and Irish myths must be filled in with archaeology, which can provide evidence of cult centers, sacred images, and ritual offerings. What it cannot provide is the meaning a worshiper attached to a sacred image or the intention of a votive offering.
Sites of Rituals
It was believed a ritual, properly conducted, led to the result which was sought—a successful harvest or outcome in battle, for example. Ceremonies were held before rather than after the desired event. Ritual was woven into all aspects of life, for there was an everyday need to appease the deities.
Although there were ritual centers, every mountain, spring, marsh, tree and outcrop was endowed with divinity and thus ritual enactments could be performed any place. Lakes, rivers, and springs had special appeal as seen from the votive deposits in Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales and the rivers Thames and Witham in England.
Groves were held in high regard. The Roman historian, Tacitus (56-117 AD), wrote of the groves at Anglesey where Briton Druids performed their sacrificial rituals. The Roman poet, Lucan (39–65 AD), described sacred woods near Massalia (Marseille, France) which was destroyed by Caesar’s soldiers.
Rivers, lakes, springs or wells were focal points for Celtic rituals. Coins, metalwork and animal remains were among the votive offerings frequently found at these sites. Within the context of a pastoral, cattle-based culture that typified much of the pagan Celtic world, it makes sense that these water sites would acquire nurturing and maternal connotations.
Significantly, rivers were often personified as female divinities in the Celtic world. In one myth, a noble Dagda had a well where nine hazel trees overhung and dropped their crimson nuts in the water, causing bubbles of mystic inspiration. Only the Dagda or his three cup-bearers were allowed to draw water from the well. But a young woman, Boann, disobeyed the taboo and the waters rose up, pursued and drowned her. The well’s water formed a river named after her—the Boann or Boyne.
Wells or springs were also closely associated with goddesses in the Celtic world and were often symbolic totems of desire. In the Welsh tale, Mabinogion, a warrior at Arthur’s court, Owain, sets out to revenge Cymon who has been slain by the Black Warrior. During his quest, Owain comes to a magical well that is connected to thunder, rain and fertility of the surrounding land. A mysterious Druidess helps Owain to overcome and slay the Black Warrior who is a defender of this well. Owain claims the warrior’s widow, ‘The Lady of the Fountain,’ as his wife. In a later Arthurian saga, there is another tale of ‘The Lady of the Lake’ that suggests another indwelling water spirit.
Publius Terentius Varro, a Narbonese Gaul (82-36 B.C), writes that with the aid of certain ointments the Druids put on their feet, the Celts would walk over a bed of burning coals at some of their festivals. John Toland said in The Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning that it was customary for a noble of distinction to walk barefoot over hot coals trice while carrying a sacrificial animal’s entrails in his hands. Then he would take this offering to the Druid who waited in a white skin at the altar. If the nobleman escaped unharmed, it was reckoned a good omen, but if he was hurt, it was deemed unlucky for both the community and himself.
Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1220 AD) in Expurgatio Hibernica, gives an account of the ritual slaughter of a mare. The king-elect eats its flesh, and drinks and bathes in a broth made from the carcass. This was considered a ritual union through which the king seeks fertility for himself and his kingdom.
The most famous Druidic ritual, thanks to the writings of Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) is the cutting of mistletoe from a sacred oak with a sickle on the sixth day of the moon followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. He reports, “They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fertility to barren animals and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”
One divination ritual was connected with the election of the High King of Ireland. A Druid would eat the flesh of a slain bull and drink its blood. He was then put to sleep by four other Druids, and the person of whom he dreamt would be the future High King. If he lied about his dream then the gods would destroy him.
Votive offerings included torcs, coins, jewelry, and weapons from defeated enemy. For the Celts, the reverence held for objects was an extension of their belief in the sacredness of places. Le Tene art was infused with a sense of the divine. The possessions of a dead person were sacred to the departed, which explains why grave goods were often broken.
The design of a torc gave magical powers to its wearer and the motifs on swords and shields gave potency to their users. Music must have played a role in ritual, and the extraordinary craftsmanship employed in the construction of musical instruments suggests they were sacred.
Among the most highly venerated objects were cauldrons, symbols not only of abundance but also of regeneration and rebirth. According to Greek Historian, Strabo (64/63 BC–c. AD 24), cauldrons held sacrificial blood of victims from Celtic raids. In Irish mythology, the Dagda’s cauldron provided sustenance for the tribe and enabled warriors to return from the dead. The cauldron’s ability to restore life is also featured in Welsh literature. Stories and poem associated with Taliesin describes a tale where Caridwen boiled a cauldron of magic potion for almost one year so her grotesque son would acquire knowledge of the future world by tasting three drops.
In addition to the above rituals, annual ceremonies were held throughout the year.
- Imbolc (February) was the feast of Brigit that celebrated the lactation of ewes. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
- Beltane (May 1) marked the beginning of summer when stock was driven to higher pastures and ceremonies related to fire were held. Special bond fires were believed to have protective powers. The Celts and their cattle would walk around the bonfire and sometimes leap over flames or embers. Houses and livestock would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked the image of fire.
- Lughnasa (August) was a festival named after the god Lugh that was celebrated to ensure a good harvest. It included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, matchmaking and trading.
- Samain (November 1) was associated with the early winter cull of stock. In Irish myths, this is when the Dagda, the protector of the tribe, mated with the goddess, usually identified as Morrigan—the intercourse ensuring the well-being of the tribe. The date represented the break between the old year and the new, when the world was overrun by the forces of magic. This provided an opportunity for spirits of the dead to mingle with the living, a tradition which survives in Halloween.
No Celt left a record of his faith and practice, and the unwritten poems of the Druids died with them. Yet the Celtic culture dominated Europe for over 500 years and there is no doubt this culture had a profound, long-lasting impact through its mythology and lore.
The evidence for Celtic rituals provide both horrific and constructive images. On one hand, there is a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess based on the Celtic predilection for sacred lake, rivers, springs, and wells. Yet there is also historical and archaeological evidence of human sacrifice (discussed previously) and Celtic warriors cutting off their enemies’ heads to retain them as trophies of wars.
To Be Continued
The Celtic belief in the immortal soul and the cult of the head will be discussed in the next article.
- John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
- Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
- Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
- Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
- John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning; 2013; AlbaCraft Publishing, Scotland.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008; Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA