Celtic Tarot Card Meanings

Introduction D.N. Frost

It is a great pleasure to reintroduce D.N. Frost who has graciously agreed to provide another guest post about the rich symbolism of nature used in Celtic tarot cards. She is a talented fantasy author, cartographer, and world builder with a passion for Celtic mythology and traditions. I’ve had the privilege of working with her to create a map and world for my current project on Apollo’s Raven.

Welcome D. N. Frost! I encourage everyone to learn more about her ongoing projects on mapping and world-building and her epic saga Tales of the Known World which you can download electronically from her site.

Guest Post: D.N. Frost |Celtic Tarot Card Meaning | Apollo’s Raven

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Hello there! My name is D.N.Frost, and I’m the fantasy author, cartographer, and world-builder behind the epic saga Tales of the Known World. I love delving into the mythology and traditions of different cultures, and this guest post for Linnea Tanner was inspired by my love of Celtic mysticism. Enjoy!

The world of the ancient Celts is teemed with layers of meaning and symbols drawn from nature. Many of these assorted myths and traditions were amassed in detail by Anna Franklin, a well-known Celtic Pagan authority in the British Isles. One of her books accompanied a Celtic-themed tarot deck, and though tarot only dates back to the 15th century, the book and cards are steeped in ancient Celtic heritage.

This Celtic Tarot card depicts a Celtic shaman, alone in the forest with his familiar, the wolf.

Celtic Tarot Card: The Shaman

Celtic Tarot Card: The Shaman

Wearing deerskin, this shaman sits at his cauldron, beating his bodhran drum to call to the spirits. He brews a potion that helps him engage the spirit world, and a few of the potion’s ingredients surround him, notably the sacred herb vervain.

The path of the Celtic shaman was strongly tied to the land and the cycle of the seasons. By honoring the spirits of nature and learning their wisdom, a shaman sought to transform himself and expand his awareness. Conscious of the subtle connection between all things, Celtic shamans recognized the sacredness within everything, allowing them to form a bridge between the spirit world and the human world.

This shaman is shown brewing a sacred potion called the Cauldron of Ceridwen, which was believed to inspire eloquence and prophesy in those who drank it. This magic potion contained a number of ingredients, including rowan berries, sea foam, “Taliesin’s cresses, Gwion’s silver, flixweed, and vervain” picked on moonless nights (Franklin, 83). This potion was also used to create the Gwin or Bragwod drink used in sacred initiations, though the initiates drank it mixed with wine and barley meal.

The Celtic goddess Ceridwen is said to have captured the wisdom of the Three Realms in her potion. She charged the youth Gwion to keep the fire going beneath her cauldron, and one day he splashed three drops onto his finger. When he put his finger into his mouth to soothe the burn, Gwion instantly became one with the past, present, and future of all things. The knowledge frightened him, and Ceridwen decided to test his worthiness by appearing as a terrifying beast. Gwion fled, taking on the forms of different animal familiars, and these animal spirits helped him integrate his new knowledge. The goddess continued chasing him until Gwion took the form of a grain of wheat, and Ceridwen ate him. Nine months later, she gave birth to him as Taliesin, meaning “radiant brow.”

This legend of consumption and rebirth symbolized how shamanic initiates had to be absorbed into the womb of the goddess before emerging wiser and forever changed. The harvest festival of Samhain celebrated the two aspects of this divine womb, both the dormant seed that lies within, and the wisdom shared from the spirit world. This celebration used the herb vervain, an ingredient in Ceridwen’s potion and one of the most sacred herbs for the Celtic druids. Vervain was only gathered on moonless nights when the “dog star” Sirius was rising, and Celtic lore associates the wisdom of this herb with the wisdom of the wolf.

Ancient Celts viewed the wolf with awe and respect. Considered very wise, the wolf only chose to share its wisdom with certain people, and many shamans sought the wolf as their familiar. The wizard Merlin was said to have an old wolf companion during his years as a forest hermit. The white wolf Emhain Abhlac once met the druid Bobaran, who threw three rowan berries at the wolf, three into the air, and three into his own mouth to receive the wolf’s wisdom. The Gundestrup cauldron shows a wolf beside the horned god Cernunnos, and the goddess Brighid is often shown with a wolf nearby. The wolf was a totem guardian of Britain, and one of Brighid’s four sacred animals.

According to the ancient Celts, the winter quarter of the year was ruled by the wolf. Winter was a dead time, a time of purification while the earth rested in darkness and grew ready for the rebirth of spring. This period stretched from Samhain in October to the Imbolc festival in February, which celebrated the goddess Brighid with a giant feast. In ancient Gaelic, the month of February was known as Faoilleach, which can translate to “the wolf month,” “the storm month,” or “the month of bleak death.” For the Celtic shaman, the wolf taught about instincts and psychic intuition, as well as the cyclical powers of the moon. The wolf’s wisdom guided shamans to trust their inner voice and to seek their answers within.

This Celtic Tarot card depicts the warrior queen Boudicca of the equestrian Iceni people.

Celtic Tariot Card: The Chariot

Celtic Tarot Card: The Chariot

Boudicca led the Iceni tribe to fight the ancient Romans as they sought to conquer Britain. With woad spirals on her face, she cracks a whip from atop her chariot, drawn by one black horse and one white horse.

Horses were known as the chosen mounts of the gods, particularly the sun and moon deities. They symbolized the virility of the land itself, as well as strength and swiftness. The Iceni tribe derived their name from the word for horse, and Britain’s horse cults predate the arrival of the ancient Celts. Horses were shown on the earliest Celtic coins, and they were common god or totem creatures through the Iron Age and into the Bronze Age. For ancient Celts, horses represented the instinctive aspects of humanity, which often needed to be tamed and controlled. The horse’s master used the bit and bridle to control his horse, and this symbolized the intellect that tempered destructive impulses. While horses symbolized raw life-force, the reigns betokened the willpower and intelligence needed to harness this life-force effectively.

Fal, the Celtic god of horses and hounds, symbolized light within the darkness. In the cycle of the year, the northern quarter was called the Plain of Fal, associated with wisdom and truth. The Stone of Fal was the station of the yearly cycle connected with the winter solstice, when the midwinter sun was reborn. Ancient Celts believed this was when the horse goddess Rhiannon gave birth to her son. White horses represented the sun and were affiliated with the light of spring and summer. Like other white animals, white horses symbolized sky deities to the ancient Celts, while black animals were correlated with Underworld deities. Black horses, generally considered unlucky, were connected with the darkness of autumn and winter, as well as with the Underworld. They were an omen of death, symbolic of funerals and of chaos. A black horse was said to rule the twelve days of midwinter chaos between the old and new year.

Modern Celtic folklore still honors horses, and the horsing ceremonies of midwinter depict a play of death and resurrection. Also, May’s Beltane festival features the Hobby Horses of Padstow and Minehead. A black horse winds through town in a musical parade, and it falls to the ground whenever the music stops. Each time, the horse rises again when the music resumes, until the parade dies down at midnight. Then the sinister horse is considered truly dead, until it is born again in the fall.

This Celtic Tarot card depicts the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, England.

Celtic Tarot Card: Seven of Swords

Celtic Tarot Card: Seven of Swords

The hillsides of Britain are carved with many chalk horses, but this is the oldest carving, dating to around 1400 BCE. Sacred to both the ancient Celts and the earlier peoples of Britain, horses fostered the spread of Celtic civilization with their swiftness and strength.

Though ancient Celts carved the Uffington horse, the site was important to Britain’s Neolithic people. Well before the carving, the hill was part of a ley network said to harness dragon power. In fact, there is some dispute that the Uffington horse is really a dragon, since it looks down on Dragon Hill, where St. George allegedly slew a mighty dragon. It is said that nothing will grow where the dragon’s spilled blood poisoned the ground, and to this day there is a bare patch atop the hill. Near the head of the Uffington horse is a Bronze Age burial mound, and less than a mile away is a Neolithic burial chamber known as Wayland’s Smithy. There, legend has it, a magical blacksmith forged the shoes for the giant Uffington horse.

Ancient Celts believed that dead souls rode to the Underworld on horseback, and that horses carried living souls to and from the spirit world. Gods and shamans traveled through the axis mundi, or World Tree, and they tethered their horses to this tree before making the journey. Famously, the hero Conan traveled to the Otherworld on Aonbharr, the steed of the sea god Manannan. Aonbharr was said to make her rider invulnerable to any attack. According to Celtic lore, the white horse of the elf queen took Thomas the Rhymer to the land of the fairies, and Tam Lin stole a white horse to escape that fairy realm.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of the ancient Celts! For more fun with prophesy and magic, visit me at DNFrost.com, on Twitter @DNFrost13, and on my Facebook page.

My love of cultures and mythology inspired an epic fantasy saga.

Let me send you my free ebook today!

References

  1. Anna Franklin, The Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  2. Paul Mason, The Shaman; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  3. Paul Mason, The Chariot; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  4. Paul Mason, Diplomacy: The Seven of Swords; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Celtic Tarot Cards Meaning from Nature

Introduction D.N. Frost

It is with great pleasure that I introduce D.N. Frost, an exciting fantasy author with a passion for Celtic mythology and traditions. She has graciously provided a guest post about the rich symbolism of nature used in Tarot cards. Welcome D. N. Frost! I encourage everyone to learn more about her and the epic saga Tales of the Known World.

 

DN Frost, Fantasy Author

DN Frost, Fantasy Author

Guest Post: D.N. Frost |Celtic Tarot Cards Meaning | Apollo’s Raven

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Hello there! My name is D.N.Frost, and I’m the fantasy author, cartographer, and world-builder behind the epic saga Tales of the Known World. I love delving into the mythology and traditions of different cultures, and this guest post for Linnea Tanner was inspired by my love of Celtic mysticism. Enjoy!

The world of the ancient Celts teemed with layers of meaning and symbols drawn from nature. Many of these assorted myths and traditions were amassed in detail by Anna Franklin, a well-known Celtic Pagan authority in the British Isles. One of her books accompanied a Celtic-themed tarot deck, and though tarot only dates back to the 15th century, the book and cards are steeped in ancient Celtic heritage.

This card depicts Scathach, a legendary Celtic warrior woman.

Celtic Tarot Card The Warrior

Scathach, Celtic warrior woman of legend

At her feet, a badger appears as the warrior’s familiar, and from the corner grows the magical herb borage. The name for this plant arose from the ancient Gaelic word borrach, meaning “a brave or courageous person.” Celts often soaked borage leaves in wine, which elevated adrenaline levels to evoke power and courage.

Renowned for her skills and strength, Scathach ran a school for warriors in her fortress on the Isle of Skye. Her name meant “the shadowy one,” and her fortress was known as Dun Scaith, the “Castle of Shadows.” Scathach only trained the adept few who were brave enough to invade her fortress and entreat her tutelage within.

She was most renowned for training Cuchulain, the hero of the Irish Ulster saga. Though she is pictured with a sword while preparing for the Lughnasa games, Scathach is best known for the barbed spear Gae Bulg, which she gave to Cuchulain after he completed his training. Some tales accredit Scathach with the power of prophesy, a gift often attributed to ravens.

For ancient Celts, the badger was regarded as the best familiar for the warrior’s intrepid spirit. Seen as unshakable and grounded, the indomitable badger inspired the path of a warrior with its courage and ferocity. The Celts believed that the badger knew all the secrets of Albion, and that its knowledge arose from the depths of the earth in which it dwelt. The badger taught many lessons to the ancient Celts, including the importance of seeking inner solitude.

This card depicts a raven circling the cloudy sky over a youth lost in thought.

Page of Swords

The Omen of a Circling Raven

In the surrounding mountains, tall pines stand as the tree of heroes and warriors, and swaths of bright daffodils paint the springtime valley. This flower symbolized the instinctive sexual energies of spring, sweeping the earth in magical regeneration.

In the Celtic tradition, pine trees symbolized fertility and rebirth, representing the vivacious spring rather than the desolate winter. Pine was one of the chieftain trees in the ancient Ogham alphabet, and its sturdy spirit especially resonated with Northern Celts and heroes like the warrior Scathach.

Ravens were messengers from the Celtic gods, bringers of wisdom and guidance from another plane. For the Celts, ravens were teachers and protectors, especially for seers and spirit warriors. Because they often circled in storm clouds, ravens were said to be thunderbirds that could herald coming squalls. Ancient Celts viewed ravens as prophetic, and their behavior was often used to auger the outcome of battles.

According to legend, the foresight of ravens warned the Irish god Lugh of the Formorian invasion. The head of the Celtic god Bran, whose name means “raven,” was said to prophesy from White Mount, the future site of the Tower of London. Bran’s head protected Britain from invasion until King Arthur removed it to demonstrate his own dominion over the land, but ravens still roost in the tower. Legend has it that Britain will fall to invaders should Bran’s ravens ever disperse.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of the ancient Celts! For more fun with prophesy and magic, visit me at DNFrost.com, on Twitter @DNFrost13, and on my Facebook page.

My love of cultures and mythology inspired an epic fantasy saga.

Let me send you my free ebook today!

References

  1. Anna Franklin, The Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  2. Paul Mason, The Warrior; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  3. Paul Mason, The Page of Swords; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Celtic Gods and Goddesses

Below is an article that was originally posted on APOLLO’S RAVEN Website: http://www.linneatanner.com/blog/celtic-gods-goddesses/

The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World—Joseph Campbell

Introduction

Previous posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN have provided an overview of Ancient Celtic religion and the pantheon of gods and goddesses. Although there are approximately 400 names of Celtic gods and goddesses which have been found throughout the vast area once inhabited by the Celts in Europe, from Ireland to Turkey, 305 of these names were inscribed only once. These were probably names of local deities. Only twenty names occurred with greater frequency and many of the Celtic gods and goddesses can be associated with Roman’s. The Celtic polyvalent deity did not have exclusive functions, but they were adept in all things. They also appeared in many polymorphic guises that included zoomorphic forms which combined human and animal attributes.

Below in an overview of Celtic gods and goddesses who were more widely accepted by the ancient Celts across all regions.


Celtic Gods and Goddesses

Belenus

Equated with Apollo, Belenus was the most widely venerated of the Celtic gods. The previous two posts in APOLLO’S RAVEN detail the mythology and festivals associated with Belenus.

Lycian_Apollo_Louvre

Belenus Equated with Apollo, God of the Sun and Healing


Cernunnos

Another popular god is the antler-god referred to as Cernunnos. He is the patron of the chase and the lord of the forest. Holed antlers discovered in Herfordshire UK appear to have been used as a human headdress, a practice widely presented in ancient cultures. Cernunnos was one of many zoomorphic (animal-like) gods. He is depicted on one of the plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Antler-God, Cernunnos; Panel on Gundestrup Cauldron


Epona

A zoomorphic goddess who is represented by a mare is Epona. Monuments to Epona are found all over from Wales through France and into the Rhinelands. Her popularity with the Celts demonstrates their high regard for the horse. Epona was also popular with the Roman cavalrymen. Associated with fertility, Epona is the epitome of the mother goddess. In studies of Welsh mythology, she may have been equated with Rhiannon—the divine queen. In Irish studies, Epona might be associated with Maeve, the queen of the Connacht and Macha of Ulstur.

Epona Flanked by Horses

Epona Flanked by Horses


Lug

Among the names of the Celtic gods that appear more frequently on inscriptions is Lug—the Irish Lugh,  the Welsh Llew, and the Gaulish Lugus. It is generally accepted that when Caesar spoke of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’, he was referring to Lugus—the inventor of the arts and crafts. Yet, there are elements of Lug’s character  that are also similar with Jupiter, Mars, and Hercules. He is associated with the spear as a Magical Weapon brought from the Otherworld.

Lug's Bloodthirsty Magical Spear

Lug’s Bloodthirsty Magical Spear

At Lugdunum (modern day Lyons, France), the Gaulish Celts celebrated the ancient feast of Lugus. Following the Roman conquest, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the feast was dedicated to the emperor. The same feast occurs in insular Celtic tradition on August 1st. In Ireland, the ritual is known as Lughnasadh, an agrarian feast in honor of harvesting crops.

The Irish Lugh was considered the greatest of all Celtic gods. The Dagda yielded command to him in the second battle of Magh Tuireadh. He is commonly known as Lugh of the Long arm or Hand. Of note, the Hindu perception of the sun rising, with its beams of light and its setting, was also likened to a great hand: “The god with the great hand stretches up his arms so that all obey.”  The Hindu solar deity, Savitar, also stretches out his hands to command day and night, suggesting a common Indo-European link.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda on Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron


Teutates, Taranis, and Esus

The 1st Century Roman poet, Lucan , writes the Celts had predominantly three gods: Teutates, Taranis, and Esus. Teutates was associated with the Roman god of trade, Mercury. The Celtic god of thunder, Taranis, is often equated with Jupiter; the Welsh word Taran means  ‘thunderer’. Esus was equivalent to the Roman god of war, Mars. His popularity among the Celts is evidenced by the number of Celtic names of gods joined to Mars on inscriptions.

God of Thunder, Taranis with Wheel and Thunderbolt, Equivalent to Jupiter

God of Thunder, Taranis with Wheel and Thunderbolt, Equivalent to Jupiter

The method of killing human victims in sacrifices depended on which god the offering was made to. Victims sacrificed to Teutates were drowned, to Taranis were burned, and to Esus were hanged. On the Gundestrup Cauldron, there is a figure held upside-down over what appears to be a pail of water, perhaps a sacrifice to Teutates. It should be noted that the names of these three gods were not widely found on inscriptions.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Victim Sacrificed by Drowning as Offering to Teutates; One Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron


Triplicate Goddesses

The concept of triplicate forms has roots in Indo-European mythology and philosophy. In Hindu belief, the Trimurti consisted of Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Maintainer or Preserver; and Shiva the Destroyer or Transformer. Pythagoras saw three as the perfect number of the philosophers: the beginning, middle and end. The ancient Greeks believed the world was ruled by three gods: Zeus (heavens), Poseidon (sea), and Pluto/Hades (underworld).  The Fates, the Furies and the Graces are example of triplicate goddesses who were found in Greek mythology.

Three Graces Greek Mythology

Three Graces Greek Mythology

As in the Greek religion, the Celts viewed humans as body, soul and spirit; the world they inhabited as earth, sea, and air; and the division in nature as animal, vegetable, and mineral. Celtic goddesses were also often portrayed in triplicate forms as described below.

Mother Goddesses

Mother symbols were worshipped in triplicate from. In Gaul the title matres or matronae was used. Mother Earth was the symbol of fertility and figures of children, baskets of fruitm and horns of plenty were found all over the Celtic world. From Vertault in Burgundy was a triple mother goddess sculpture with a baby held by one hand while the other holds a towel. A triad of mother goddesses are carved on a plaque that is displayed at the Romans Baths (Bath, UK).

Triplicate Mother Goddesses Displayed at Bath UK Roman Baths

Triplicate Mother Goddesses Displayed at Bath UK Roman Baths


War Goddesses

The most famous war goddess, Morrigan is  interchangeable with Macha, Babd and Neiman. She embodies all that is perverse and horrible among the supernatural powers. In Irish literature, the story of Cu Chulainn features three goddesses—Morrigan, Macha and Babd— battle furies with an uncanny resemblance to Mcbeth’s three witches.

Babd is one of the triple-aspect goddess of war who would fly over warriors in battle and give out terrible screams, both to frighten and to incite them to even braver and mightier deeds. In this role, she is known as Badhbh Catha, the ‘battle raven’. It is claimed that she appeared above the head of the warriors during the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 A.D., when Brian Boramha defeated the Vikings. Babd is associated with sexual desire and fulfillment, as are all of the deities of war and battles. She is often guised as a beautiful young woman, but  can also take the form of a raven or a hideous hag. When Babd appears in the Ulster cycle and incites Cu Chulainn to his last battle, she takes the form of the raven and waits to pick his corpse clean.

Mythological Raven

Celtic Goddesses of War Can Take Shape of Raven


Macha
is the second aspect of the triple goddess of war who is featured in the Ulster cycle. One legend states that she was forced to race the King of Ulster’s horses while she was pregnant. She wins the race, but gives birth to twins as soon as she crosses the finish line. In her shame and anger, she curses the men of Ulster that, whenever they needed their strength most, such as on the eve of battle, they would be as weak as a woman in childbirth for nine days and nights. Like her sisters, she is associated with war and sexual gratification. She is closely connected with battle trophies of the goriest nature, especially severed heads, which were known as Macha’ s Acorn Crop.

Macha Curses Men of Ulstur

Macha Curses Men of Ulstur


Morrigan
is the third of the triple goddesses of war who appears in both the Mythological Cycle and the Ulster cycles, particularly in  the Cattle Raid of Cooley. She is seen as a weeping woman washing blood-stained shrouds at a ford in a river. This is an omen, particularly to a warrior on the way to battle. In one legend the Dagna encounters her washing blood-stained clothing in a stream. At the end of the legend, she gives a dire prophecy to the fate of humankind and the world. She is associated with war, grief, mutilation, shape shifting, and sexual gratification for its own sake.


Conclusions Ancient Celtic Religion

Ancient Celtic religion conjures both utopian and horrific images. The Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves. Their beliefs and philosophies are similar to the Greeks and Hindu Brahmins. Ancient Druids studied the nature of moral philosophy and believed the human soul is indestructible. Their belief in the immortal soul can be associated with the Greek Philosopher, Pythagoras, who was famous for his philosophy that the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations that included animals and plants.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

The Celtic belief in the soul ties in with their darker side of keeping enemies’ heads as trophies after battle. This practice was based on their belief that the head was the temple of the soul. Possessing an enemy’s skull was the same as capturing his soul and retaining its power. The soul is the continuation of the existence of a person and includes all of the functions of personality.

Stonework at La Roquepertuse Cult of Head

La Roquepertuse Gateway of Skulls

Finally, the Celts viewed the gods as their ancestors and creators who were more like supernatural


Upcoming Next Series

The next series of posts will discuss the rise of rival Celtic tribal dynasties in Britain between the time of Julius Caesar’s invasions in 55 – 54 B.C. and the final Roman conquest in 43 A.D. under Emperor Claudius.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

White Cliffs Near Dover Britain


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. Steve Blamires,Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore & Rituals, 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.
  5. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites, and Offerings

 

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

Introduction

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.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

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.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron Sacrificial Ritual

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.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; Druid derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge”

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.

Soane River Hillside

Soane River Lyon France (Roman Lugdunum Gaul)

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.

Bath Roman Bath

Bath Roman Bath; Originally Sacred Site of the Celtic Goddess Sulis

Rituals

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.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

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.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron; Depiction of Taranis, Celtic God of Thunder with Wheel

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

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.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch

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.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

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.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron;Depiction of Cernunnos, The Horned God of Nature and Fertility


Annual Ceremonies

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.
Celtic Spiritual Warrior in Battle

Celtic Spirit Warrior Ritualistically Prepares for Battle in Forest

Conclusions

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.

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, 1995; William 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. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008; Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals: Human Sacrifice

“The Gauls who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so, employing Druids as ministers…For they believe that unless a man’s life is paid for another’s, the majesty of the gods may not be appeased.”
—Julius Caesar

Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals

Historical and archaeological evidence provide both utopian and horrific images of ancient Celtic religion. The Ancient Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; Druid derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge”

Yet there was also a darker side of Celtic religion in which humans were sacrificed in their rituals. Some of the accounts may have been exaggerated through the biased eyes of classical historians who used human sacrifice as a rationale for the Roman conquest of Celtic lands to get rid of these practices.

Ironically, Rome had also practiced human sacrifice in their beginnings and ceremoniously executed their conquered rulers in triumphs. The great Celtic leader, Vercingetorix, was paraded through the streets of Rome before he was strangulated.

Vercingetorix Memorial

Vercingetorix Statue

As the Celts were unwilling to write their rites and beliefs in writing, historical accounts and myths recorded by the Irish monks must be partly filled with archaeologists who study cult centers, sacred images, and inscriptions which reveal the names of their deities. What these artifacts cannot provide is the meaning a Celt may have attached to a sacred image, the intention of an offering, and the context in which ritual regalia was used.

Human Sacrifice

Classical Accounts

Human sacrifice held a particularly horrid fascination for the Greeks and the Romans. Several classical authors wrote that offerings to the gods included captives taken in battle. The Galatae of Asia Minor were dreaded because of their reputation for sacrificing prisoners of war. Their enemies would prefer suicide rather than fall into their hands. The Greek poet, Sopater of Paphos (285–246 BC), wrote the Celts of Galatia sacrificed their prisoners to their gods by burning them after a victory.

The Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (60–30 BC), speaks of prisoner executions in Galatia: “The Galatian general returning from the pursuit, assembled the prisoners and carried out an act of extreme barbarity and utter insolence. He took those who were most handsome and in the strength and flower of their youth, and have crowned them, sacrificed them to the gods, if indeed any god could receive such offerings.”

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Diodorus says that on great occasions the vates (seers) would nominate a person for sacrifice and, after a dagger was plunged into him, they read the future from the manner of the fall and the twitching of his limbs, and the flow of blood. He added that it was not the custom to make the sacrifice without a Druid, for it was a saying that offerings acceptable to the gods had to be made through those acquainted with their nature. He concludes that in internal wars among the Celts, both sides would obey the Druids. Even when two armies were about to open battle, if a Druid stepped between them, they would be forced to desist.

Another Greek Historian, Strabo (64/63 BC–c. AD 24), described the human sacrificial ritual as follows: “They [Celts] used to strike a man, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a knife, and then divine from his death-throes; but they did not sacrifice without a Druid.”

Strabo continues. “We are told of still other kinds of sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in temples, or, having built a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burn offering of the whole thing.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

 

Roman Accounts

Julius Caesar wrote extensively about the Gauls in France and their rituals of human sacrifice. He indicated the Celts in Gaul immolated human victims, or vowed to do so, employing the Druids to conduct these sacrifices. In order to appease the gods, a Celt believed a life must be paid for another’s if the gods were to be appeased. Caesar added the twist that victims were preferably criminals, but if the supply failed, then innocents were used.

Caesar’s writings emphasized the ritualistic nature of the Celtic sacrifice. It was not intended as butchery but rather served a specific purpose for the warrior. The sacrifice represented a gift to the gods. The higher the value of the gift the more powerful was the gods’ favor. If a warrior fulfilled his vow of offering his captive as a sacrifice in the presence of Druids, his status was enhanced in this world and the Otherworld. It was customary for Gauls to cremate the body of a chief along with his prisoners and favorite animals.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Tacitus speaks of human sacrifices in Mona (Anglesey). He says that when Seutonius attacked Anglesey, the Druids “lifting up their hands to heaven, and pour forth maledictions, awed the Romans by the unfamiliar sight.” After the conquest, “A force was next set up over the conquered and their groves devoted to cruel superstitions were cut down. They [British Druids] deemed it a duty, indeed, to cover their altars with the blood of captives, and to consult their deities through human entrails.”

Archaeological Evidence

Archaeological record confirms Celts probably performed human sacrifice. On the Gundestrup Cauldron there is a figure held upside-down over what appears to be a pail of water—the portrayal of perhaps a sacrifice to Teutates, God of War.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

Archaeological evidence suggests willing victims may have been killed to act as a messenger to the Otherworld. One example is of a young man whose preserved remains were recovered from Lindow Moss in Cheshire in 1984. The three-fold manner of his death (head blow, neck garroted, throat cut) followed by the deposition of the body in water suggest this was a human sacrifice possibly performed by Druids.

A bog victim in Gallagh in County Galway was killed with a garrote made of hazel rods, and the stomach of another victim at Lindow was full of hazel nuts, a strong symbol in Celtic mythology. Ingestion of the hazel nuts is proposed to induce visions, heightened awareness and lead to epiphanies.

Conclusions

It is possible that human sacrifice took place only at times of tension and dangers. The Lindow Man was perhaps killed at the time of the Roman attack upon the druidical center of Anglesey, and may have represented an attempt to persuade supernatural forces to circumvent the enemies of the Celtic religion.

Archaeological evidence suggests animal sacrifices were replacing human sacrifices at the time Latin writers wrote about human sacrifices. At ritual and burial sites, animal bones were found of bulls, horses, goats, rams, pigs and dogs.

Sacrifice, human and animal, was part of a body of rituals which was believed to be necessary to perform in order to ensure the smooth running of the universe, fertility of the earth, rising of the sun, and the return of spring. It was believed a ritual, properly conducted, led to the result which was sought—a successful harvest, 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.

References:

Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.

Celtic Mystique: Ancient Druid Philosophy

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 met before his entrance into this region—Joseph Campbell

Ancient Druid Philosophy

The word ‘priest’ was never applied to Druids by any Classical writer. Instead, Greeks and Romans used the term ‘philosopher’ to describe them. According to Diogenes Laertius, a 3rd Century Greek writer, the Druids’ chief maxim was people should “worship the gods, do not evil, and exercise courage.” Druids were taught to live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan and that the only evil is moral weakness. Another interesting doctrine the Druids evolved was the belief in the immortality of the soul which is further discussed below.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron

Immortality of Soul

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.” Julius Caesar remarked that the belief in the immortal soul accounted for the Celts’ bravery in battle.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

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. Flavius Philostratus (170-249 AD) observed that Celts celebrated birth with mourning for a death in the Otherworld while they regarded death with joy for the birth in the Otherworld. Pre-Christian graves throughout the Celtic world are filled with personal belongings, weapons, food and drinks and other items to give the departed a good start in the Otherworld. At Hochdorf in southern Germany is the grave site of a Chieftain who was buried in extravagant clothes, including shoes decorated with gold. Also found at this site were a cauldron that could hold 400 liters of wine, weapons, cooking and eating utensils, and a four-wheeled wagon.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Celtic philosophy is similar to that of the 6th Century BC Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who believed in the soul’s reincarnation or transmigration. The soul, by its actions, determines how it will be reincarnated—in human, animal, or even plant form. A similar philosophy was widely accepted in India where it was believed that due to its karma a soul transmigrates from one life to another in a never-ending cycle which could be broken in Nirvana—a state of supreme bliss which, once achieved, liberates the soul from the repeating circle of death and rebirth. Interestingly, there has been a lot of debate whether Pythagoras adopted his philosophy from the Celts or did he influence them? Most likely, the concept of immortal souls evolved in parallel. Not only did the Celts believe the soul is reborn into human bodies from one world to the other, but their literature reveals that souls could migrate through various births from one form to another. In Irish texts, Fintan survives the Deluge by changing into a salmon while in the Welsh texts Gwion Bach reincarnates as a hare, fish, bird, and a grain which is then swallowed by a chicken before he is eventually reborn as Taliesin.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Death and rebirth is a consistent theme throughout Celtic mythological sagas and tales. The warrior’s resurrection can be found in the story of the battle between the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Fomorii in which bodies cast into magic cauldrons return to life. There is a scene of a god accompanying a group of warriors as he drips one of them in a drinking vessel on the Gundestrup Cauldron. The rest are symbolically carrying a tree – perhaps the crann na beatha or tree of life.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

The War God Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

Cult of Severed Head

The Druids believed that the dwelling place of the immortal soul was 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. The human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celts the soul, the center of emotions as well as of life itself, and a symbol of divinity and the powers of 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 in single combat, had a mystical significance. But it was this gruesome practice that was regarded as most barbaric by the Greeks and Romans who were apparently appalled at the desecration of the bodies. Diodorus Siculus wrote: “When their enemies fall, they cut off their heads and fasten them to the bridles of their horses; and handing over to their retainers the arms of their opponents all covered with blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a song of victory. These first fruits of victory they nail to the sides of their houses just as men do in certain kinds of hunting with the heads of wild beasts they have killed. They embalm the heads of their most distinguished foes in cedar oil and carefully preserve them. They show them to visitors, proudly stating that they had refused a large sum of money for them.”

Replica Celtic Helmet

Celtic Helmet Replica

It can be concluded from this account that, apart from the tangible proof of the warrior’s courage and prowess, the fallen enemy’s head was an important prestige object. The care in its preservation, the pride in its exhibition and the fact that it was considered of great value not only to the warrior who had taken it but also to others, reveals a deeply felt 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, or on wooden poles as at the Bredon Hill Fort in western Britain. It is interesting to note that in both instances the heads were set up at the entrances. Perhaps the souls of these unfortunate warriors were now being used for symbolic protection of their enemies’ strongholds. In Welsh and Irish myth, the severed head is 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 against foreign invasion.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

To be continued The next posts will continue with the roles of the Druids and their dark ceremonies and rituals. References: Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior 300 BC – AD 100; 2001; Osprey Publishing Ltd, New York. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces—Bollingen Series XVII Third Edition; 2008; Joseph Campbell Foundation; New World Library, Novato.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence


//

“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” – Joseph Campbell.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence

Previous posts in APOLLO’S  RAVEN discussed Boudica’s revolt in 60-61 AD. She was probably the most famous Celtic warrior queen who led men and women warriors in their last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Not only was she a charismatic leader, but she was also a druidess who summoned the Goddess of  War, Andraste, to give her victory. Her spiritual connection and the uniting forces of the Druids were important factors which inspired  warriors who had a penchant for individual glory to unite in this rebellion.

This article will explore the Druid’s influential role in the Celtic culture and their legacy of being magicians, judges, doctors, and diviners who created fear in Ancient Rome.

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

 

Introduction

Unfortunately, most historical accounts of Druids are biased through the foreign eyes of Greek and Roman historians. Irish and Welsh monks who wrote down Celtic mythology, which were based on oral traditions, probably altered some of the stories to be more in line with their Christian beliefs.

Although Rome had precedence for tolerating  religions in their conquered regions, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) wrote that under Tiberius the Druids were suppressed—along with diviners and physicians—by a decree of the Senate. Claudius forbade their rites completely in AD 54. Druids were alleged to have performed human sacrifice, a practice abhorrent to the Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote: “It is beyond calculation how great is the debt owed to the Romans, who swept away the monstrous rites, in which to kill a man was the highest religious duty and for him to be eaten a passport to health.”

The more likely reason for the Roman decrees was the Druids’ influence on various tribes to organize revolt and to foster cultural beliefs that were contradictory to the monolithic structure of the patriarchal empire. The Romans looked upon women as bearers of children and objects of pleasure, while the Druid included women in their political and religious life. The Druids were the intelligentsia of the Celtic tribes who could have more power than kings in making decisions.

Despite Roman efforts to suppress the Druids’ practices, Celtic spiritual beliefs thrived in the form of mythical tales of chivalry, magic, and pantheon of gods and goddesses that showed their connection to nature and their profound philosophy that souls resurrect into other living beings. Their artwork and metal works reflect their philosophy that the physical and spiritual worlds interconnect, as shown in the imagery of a plant’s tendril gently stranding on itself, then spinning out into a pattern of whorls and fanciful animal shapes.

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Through Greek Eyes

Strabo, a Greek geographer (64 BC – 44AD), classified three classes of men and women who held special honor in the Celtic culture: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards were singers and poets while the Vates interpreted sacrificial omens. The Druids studied the science of nature and moral philosophy. Strabo believed the Greek word Druidae was a cognate of the Greek drus, ‘an oak’.  Some etymologists believed the word derived from the word roots drui-wid—’oak knowledge” — the wid meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to see’.

Cork Oak Tree Arundel

Cork Oak Tree

Druids were believed to be the most just of men and were therefore entrusted with making decisions affecting either individuals or the public, often arbitrating between opponents in war. Druids pronounced that men’s souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire or water temporarily prevailed.

Diodorus Siculus (60 BC – 21 BC), a Greek historian, also used the same classification as Strabo’s, pointing out the Druids were held in highest esteem. The Ovates foretold the future by the flight or cries of birds and slaughter of sacred animals.

Soaring Raven

Eagle’s Flight

Through Roman Eyes

Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), who had personal dealings with Celts in his conquest of Gaul, said there was three classes: the intellectuals (Druids), the military caste (Equites), and the common people (Plebs). Druids officiated at the worship of the gods, regulated public and private sacrifices, and gave  rulings on all religious questions. Young people sought their instruction, as they were held in great honor by all of the people.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The Druids were ruled under one head, whom they held in highest respect. On his death, another outstanding individual replaced him if there was consensus. If not, an election would be held to select the head or the final choice would be left to the winner of a final fight. Druids served as judges in most disputes, whether  between tribes or between individuals, and adjudicated any compensation to be paid in final judgments. Their decisions were final in all public and private matters. Anyone failing to accept their decision was banned from taking part in any sacrifice—the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Caesar asserted Druid doctrine was exported from Britain into Gaul. The Druids believed their religion forbade them to commit their teachings to writing as these could not be made public. Students had to memorize volumes of verse—many of them spending twenty years at their studies. It should be noted the Celts maintained written public and private accounts by using the Greek and Latin alphabets.

The most profound philosophy that Caesar highlighted was the belief that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another. According to him, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die but is reincarnated after death.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), who came from a family of Roman colonists in Gaul, described the Druids as natural scientists, doctors of medicine, and magicians. Perhaps it was Pliny’s fascination with magic that he recounted the anguinam, the ‘Druid’s eggs’ or ‘serpent’s eggs’. He said he possessed one of these eggs that looked like a crystal about the size of a moderately sized apple. The eggs were reportedly made by hissing snakes put together, the foam from their mouths producing a viscous slime which became a ball when tossed in the air and caught by a Druid who then used it to counteract incantations. The egg is a powerful image used in Celtic and other mythology.

To be Continued

The next posts will further explore Celtic mythology and religious believes.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; Published in USA by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI; 1995.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.

Quest for Catrin: Photographic Adventure—Celtic Spiritual Warrior (Part 3)


//

 

 

I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech —Taliesin’s Song of his Origins, 6th century

Raven Tattoo

One of the challenges in the photo shoot was to transform my eleven-year-old granddaughter, Maylin, into the adolescent Celtic warrior princess, Catrin—the heroine in APOLLO’S RAVEN. Isabelle Kai, a makeup artist from Boulder, worked with Rebekah West (Rebekah West Photography), and myself to design a raven tattoo for placement on Maylin’s forehead. The raven is the protector animal that guides Catrin and helps her prophesy.

Isabelle created a unique stencil template that was used to spray paint the raven on Maylin’s head. The British Celts were known for tattooing their bodies by using the leaves of the Woad plant to create a viscous blue dye. The indigo paste was tapped into the skin with needles to force the stain under the skin layers. In addition, feathers were pasted on Maylin’s face to highlight the strength she garners from her raven spirit.

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Catrin, Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Mythological Raven

The mythology of ravens is widespread throughout the world, including North America, Europe, and Asia. Ravens have been associated with prophesy and wisdom, but they also conjure dark images of bad luck and death (discussed below).

Raven Animal Protector

A spiritual warrior society, the Celts revered animals as protectors and teachers. They believed the physical world is one level of existence. Overlaying this mortal world is the Otherworld, the world of spirits and forces which can guide and help us. Ravens, in particular, were revered for their ability to bridge these two worlds. They served as messengers from the Otherworld and acted as guardians and protectors.

Celtic Warrior Princess

Catrin, Celtic Spiritual Warrior Summons Raven

Raven Light Symbolism

In Greek and Roman mythology, the raven was associated with both Athena (Roman: Minerva) and Apollo—deities closely affiliated with the sun and the light of wisdom. Apollo was an oracular god, and thus, the association between the conversational raven and the god of divination made sense.

Mythological Raven

Apollo’s Raven

In Norse mythology, the god, Odin, was pictured with two ravens on his shoulders: Hugin representing the power of thought and active search for information; Mugin, representing wisdom and its ability to understand by intuition. Odin would send these two ravens out each day to spy upon the lands. They would return to tell him what they learned on their journeys.

Raven Dark Symbolism

Ravens are associated with predators, particularly wolves, which kill prey for ravens to scavenge. As human civilization became more war-like, fostering conflict and the spread of disease, ravens often picked at the bloody remains of fallen warriors in battle. People interpreted this predictable biological response as a supernatural sign and came to view ravens as omens of bad luck and harbingers of death. The sight of elongated beaks pecking into corpses reinforced the nightmarish images of ravens.

The Morrigan was the shape-shifting Celtic Goddess of war, fate, and death. She soared over battlefields in the form of a raven and frequently foretold or influenced the outcome of the conflict.

Soaring Raven

Raven Over Battlefield

The Norse god, Odin, was also known as the Raven God. His daughters, Valkyries, would transform into ravens and whisper to the souls of fallen Norse warriors to follow them to Valhalla in the sky.

My next series of posts will continue to unfold how Rebekah West prepared for the photo shoot that transformed Maylin into a Celtic warrior princess based on historical accounts in Ancient Britain.

(To be continued—Quest for Catrin: Photographic Adventure)