Party Like a Celt: Festivals in Celtic Spirituality

Party Like a Celt: Festivals in Celtic Spirituality


Contributed Post

This post, Party Like a Celt: Festivals in Celtic Spirituality, was contributed by Jane Johnson, a freelance writer and editor. She has written for both digital and print across a wide variety of fields. Her main interest is exploring how people can improve their health and well being in their everyday life. And when she isn’t writing, Jane can often be found with her nose in a good book, at the gym or just spending quality time with her family.

Also check out Jane’s previous post, Exploring Magical Powers of the Celts, which was posted on this site.

Introduction

Like many other early civilizations, the Celts had their own myths and legends to describe how the world was created and run. They told stories of mythical creatures and wrote folk stories about their culture, which ultimately translated into many different popular fiction and movies. However, one of the most important things that the Celts  did was celebrate their heritage. There are many celebrations throughout the Celtic calendar that embrace myths, spirituality, and what it truly means to be Celtic.

The Imbolc Festival

The first festival celebrated in the Celtic year is known as Imbolc. Held in February, the event marks the ending of winter and the resuming of the normal life that the winter had once put on hold. The name “Imbolc” comes from the Gaelic word, “Imbolg”, which translates to “in the belly”. This refers to the pregnancy of ewes and the Goddess that is celebrated during the festival. Brigid is a goddess associated with poetry and fertility. To entice her to enter their homes, Celts offered gifts such as food or tokens outside the door. If she came to visit, Brigid would bless the family with good spiritual health and physical wellbeing through her healing and fertility powers.

The Bealtaine Festival

Also known by some people as Gaelic May Day and Beltane, Bealtaine is held on the first day of May. The festival is held in honor of the God, Bel, and marks the beginning of summer and warmth. The most important aspect of this festival is the lighting of the Bealtaine fires that is meant to be a symbol of purification. Bealtaine is also a day in which otherworldly denizens can more easily cross into our world.

Beltane Fire Festival Red Men Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Lughnasa Festival

Lughnasa is the next festival in the calendar year and is held on August 1st. The main reason for this event is to appease the Sun God, Lugh. It all started as a day to honor his deceased mother, Taitlin, who had cleared Ireland’s fields to promote agriculture. During Lughnasa, the Celts worshiped Lugh and ensured a rich and prosperous crop for the upcoming season. The festival utilizes the first feast of crops gathered that year and also has matchmaking and athletic games for everyone to enjoy.

1905 illustration of Lugh’s bloodthirsty magical spear by H. R. Millar

Samhain Festival

The last Festival, Samhain, marks the beginning of winter. The festival is a time when the animals need to be brought back in from the pastures or slaughtered to provide for the rest of winter. It shares a few similarities with Bealtaine, as it involves special flames with purifying and protective powers. Samhain, much like Halloween in other cultures, is also a day when spirits and fairies can cross into our world.

Every culture has festivals that celebrate its traditions, myths, and spirits. Now that you know about the Celtic’s special events, why not expand your spiritual health and celebrate one this year?

Best wishes,
Linnea

Linnea Tanner, Author, Apollo’s Raven

 

Ancient Celtic Religion: Apollo, God of Sun

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind…the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth—Joseph Campbell


Ancient Celtic Religion: Apollo, God of Sun

Historical and archaeological evidence provide both utopian and horrific images of Ancient Celtic Religion.The Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves. The Ancient Druids believed the human soul was indestructible and was a continuation of a person’s existence that included all the functions of personality. Warriors kept their enemies’ heads as trophies after battle based on their belief that the skull was the temple of the soul. Possessing an enemies’ skull was the same as capturing his soul and retaining his power.

The Celtic belief in the immortal soul was similar to that of Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who thought the soul transmigrates from one body to another (metempsychosis) and could include the bodies of animals and plants (reincarnation). Perhaps, this belief in reincarnation accounts for the Celtic mythology of shape shifting—the ability of an entity to physically transform into another being or form.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

There were other religious and philosophical similarities between the Celts and Greeks, both of whom were world travelers and traders. Some of the Greek fables of Hyperborea may be based on accounts from those who explored France and the British Isles. Further, there is evidence suggesting the Greek rituals of Apollo may be based on Celtic festivities to their sun god. Stonehenge was known as Apollo’s Temple in classical antiquity.

 

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Celtic Trading Connections 

The Phoenicians traded extensively within Gaul (France) and the British Isles. They discovered Ireland when they sailed to trade with natives in Britain. Ireland was always a great place to trade and for this reason, the Roman Historian Tacitus said, “Its ports are better known for trade, and more frequented by merchants, than those of Britain.”

The Phoenicians undoubtedly imported their language, bartered their commodities, and exchanged their religious beliefs with the Celts.

Most geographical accounts of Celtic regions came from the Greeks, which the Romans later adopted. At the time of Alexander the Great, Pytheas, a citizen of the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille, France), published accounts of his voyages entitled, “Tour of the Earth.” Commissioned by the Senate to explore the north, Pytheas landed in Britain and Ireland, the German and Scandinavian coasts, and possibly beyond Iceland.

Coastline Marseille, France

Marseille Coastline

 

In his accounts, Pytheas describes a frozen sea. The oldest Irish books refer to this as the foggy or coagulated sea. In both Greek and Celtic mythology, this northern sea is where departed souls go before they come to the icy part. The coagulated sea may refer to the contrary tides around the British Isles that could impede a ship’s travel, whirling it around and swallowing it up. These tides were formidable forces which destroyed several of Julius Caesar’s warships when he invaded Britain in 55 – 54 B.C. (see previous posts in APOLLO’S RAVEN).

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover; Initial Site Where Julius Caesar May Have Tried to Land


Hyperborea and Association with Apollo

In Greek mythology, Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived beyond the North Wind. The Greeks thought Boreas, the God of the North Wind, lived in Thrace and thus, Hyperborea lay north of Thrace. Diodorus Siculus identified the region of Hyperborea as Britain, an island in the ocean no smaller than Sicily. The island was reported to be fertile and have an unusually temperate climate. Hecateaus of Abdera wrote the Hyperboreans had a ‘circular temple’ on their island that some scholars have identified as Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge Britain

Stonehenge; Also Known as Apollo’s Temple

Eratosthenes said an arrow that Apollo used to slay the Cyclops was hidden among the Hyperborians in his Temple made of wings. The Hyperborian high priest, Abaris, traveled to Greece and presented the sun god’s arrow to Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who believed the soul was immortal. It is of interest that inhabitants of the British Islands adorned themselves and their buildings with feathers, and many of them paid their rent with plumage. The Isle of Skye is in the native language called Scianach, the winged island.

Diodorus Siculus said that above all other gods, the Hyperboreans worshipped Apollo. Beyond the Gallic regions (France) to the north, the harp which was associated with Apollo was frequently played. Of particular interest was the Beltane Festival held on the eve of May, when Druids kindled prodigious fires on cairns (stacks of stones) to honor the sun god they referred to as Beal, Bealan, or the Latin name of Belenus. Near Edinburgh, there was a stone dug up with the inscription to Apollo Grannus.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of the Sun

During the Beltane Festival, two fires were lit side-by-side in every Celtic village. Men and beasts to be sacrificed passed between these fires, one of which was on a cairn while the other was on the ground. The purpose of the midsummer fires was to obtain the sun god’s blessings on the fruits of the earth.

It is remarkable that certain Greek feasts of Apollo were called Carnea, supposedly based on the killing of the prophet Carnus—the son of Jupiter and Eruope, and Apollo’s lover. Ancient Greeks, by their own confession, learned some of their philosophy and many of their sacred fables from the Gauls (Celts in France) and other ancient civilizations. It is highly probable they learned of the Beltane rituals either from travelers from Gaul or from citizens of the Phoenician colony of Massilia.

Even today, the Beltane Festival is wildly celebrated in certain locations on the British Isles.

 

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly


Immortal Soul

As discussed above, Abaris was a legendary Hyperborean healer, seer, and priest of Apollo. He traveled over Greece and into Italy where he discussed philosophy with Pythagoras and presented him with Apollo’s sacred arrow. It has been suggested by scholars that the doctrine of transmigration taught by Pythagoras may have actually been the Druidic philosophy that he learned from Abaris.

Pythagoras believed the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations. He believed humans could reincarnate into either animals or plant forms. Pythagoras was reported to have said, “Once, they say, he was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: ‘Stop, do not beat it; it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it [i.e., the soul’s voice.]’” Obviously, Pythagoras believed his friend’s soul was actually doing the yelping.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron

Diodorus Siculus, a 1st Century Greek historian, wrote: “The Druids studied the nature of moral philosophy, asserting the human soul is indestructible, and also the universe, but that some time or other, fire and water will prevail.”

According to Caesar, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die. Certainly, the abundant evidence of grave goods is ample proof of faith in the existence of an afterlife. The Druids taught souls move between this world and the world of the dead—the Otherworld. Death in the physical world results in a soul moving to the Otherworld, whereas death in the Otherworld brings a soul back to this world.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Cult of the Head

There is a prevalence of images of the human head at cult sites in virtually all regions believed to have been inhabited by the Celts. Similar to the Greek world, the Celts viewed humans as consisting of a body, soul, and spirit; the world they inhabited as earth, sea, and area; the divisions of nature as animal, vegetable, and mineral; the cardinal colors as red, yellow and blue and so forth.

The Celts venerated the human head above all else because it was the temple of the soul—the center of emotions as well as of life itself and a symbol of divinity and the powers of the Otherworld, the world of the spirits. To possess the enemy’s head was to possess his soul. As with so many aspects of the warrior’s life, the taking of an opponent’s head in battle, preferably by single combat, had a mystical significance. The head of the fallen enemy became an important prestige object for the warrior, as it revealed a deep bond between the victor and the vanquished.

The importance and extent of the cult of the severed head among the Celts is demonstrated by their display in shrines, either mounted in stonework as at La Roquepertuse in southern Gaul (France), or on wooden poles at the Bredon hill fort in western Britain. In both instances the heads were set up at the entrances. Perhaps the souls of these unfortunate warriors were now being used to provide symbolic protection for these fortresses.

 

Stonework at La Roquepertuse Cult of Head

La Roquepertuse Doorway

In Welsh and Irish myth, the severed head is believed to be imbued with supernatural power. When Bendigeitfran, one of the principal heroes in the cycle of Welsh legends called the Mabinogion is mortally wounded in battle, he commands his own men to cut off his head and bury it in London facing the east to guard Britain again foreign invasion. There are many other examples of talking heads of slain heroes found in Celtic mythology.

Conclusions

There are universal beliefs in the Ancient Celtic Religion which are similar to other religions, most notably the Greeks. Some of these similarities may be result of these ancient civilizations interacting with each other and adopting each other’s philosophies and gods. Based on Greek accounts, some of their mythology and gods (e.g. Apollo) may have been adopted from the Celts in addition to other ancient civilizations such as Egypt.

The next post will discuss the pantheon of Celtic gods and their association to Greek and Romans Gods.

References

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
  5. John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning; 2013; AlbaCraft Publishing, Scotland.
  6. Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
  7. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA