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Our Knowledge of Celtic Mysticism

The Problem

    What do we know of Celtic mysticism and religion? Unfortunately, the Celts did NOT leave us a user's manual. Unlike the Greco-Roman and Norse culture, there was not an author who systematically recorded the stories and gods of the Celtic peoples into one "canon." We don't even know what the Celts believed about the creation of the world or the "powers" of the dieties.

    By the time the various Celtic peoples began to leave extensive texts, they had been Christianized for several centuries. The stories had definitely incorporated elements from Christianity and the midieval era, and in very few places are characters called "gods", even if scholars consider them to be gods. There are many obscure references and confusing plotlines in the stories, but worst of all, there are very few stories which are common across ALL the Celtic regions.

    Besides the old stories recorded in the Christian era, the evidence we have include some Gaulish & Celtiberian texts, archaeological artifacts, a few Roman writings and comparison with other Indo-European belief systems, not all of which are completely known either. For instance, there is still much speculation on the nature of the Greek Mystery Cults.

    The point of this dicussion is that if someone tells you they know EXACTLY what the ancient Celts believed and practiced, he or she has not read on the subject enough or is pulling your leg.

Some of What's Known

  • Water Goddessess - The Celts liked to throw unused, valuable objects into bodies of water such as swords and, in one case, a lead tablet in Gaulish. This combined with feminine names of rivers and lakes suggest that Celts recognized a class of water goddessess. Probably the most famous case is the "Lady of the Lake."

  • Lugos - One being who appears in all Celtic regions is *Lugos (*= reconstructed name), who is known as Lugh in Ireland/Scotland and Lleu in Welsh. *Lugos can be found in several place names in Europe including Léon and Lyons and is part of the Irish holiday Lugh-nasadh (or Lúnasa) which takes place on August 1. His powers apprently included knowledge of all crafts (particularly shoemaking) and a connection to the sun, sometimes in form of wheels of fire.

  • Triplism - Based on the large number of three-sided motifs in Celtic art and a few three-headed statues, scholars have assumed that Celts regarded three as a sacred number. In Celtic stories, some figures appear in threes, including three women (Eiru, Banba...) who gave their name to Ireland, and three wives of King Arthur, all named Guenevere. Scholars have speculated that certain gods & goddesses appeared to have three aspects. This may have influenced the Catholic principle of the Holy Trinity.

  • Tuatha de Dannan - Literally the "People of Danu", this is a mythical tribe in Irish lore. They members typically have supernatural powers and are said to be gods. Unlike Greek gods though, the members of Tuatha can be killed or conquered by human forces. In Wales, this tribe is called the Children of the Dôn, and have similar properties, although the Welsh and Irish stories differ significantly.

  • Fairy Mounds - In both Irish and Welsh lore, there is a tradition that supernatural beings live in magical kingdoms under certain hills. In Irish, these beings are called the sidhe (or síd), sometimes identified as members of the Tuatha de Danann. In Wales, these hills were occupied by magic kingdoms, but the inhabitants aren't well-distinguished from "surface dwellers". Scholars typically assume these "fairies" (actually a Germanic term) were originally gods in the Pre-Celtic world (but I personally wonder myself).

  • November 1 - One of the most important times in the Celtic calendar was Gaulish *Samanios or Irish Samhain, which took place on November 1. Since the Celtic day runs from sunset to sunset, it can be timed to start on the evening before or October 31, the date of modern Halloween. Many modern American Halloween customs such as dressing in costume and burining jack-o-lanterns (originally turnips) were brought over directly from the British Isles.

  • May 1 - Called Beltane in Ireland and Calanmai in Welsh, this is also known as May Day. Based on later rural rituals of burning bonfires and bulding a phallic Maypole, it is assumed that this holiday was partly a fertility ritual.

  • February 1 & August 1 - In Ireland, February 1 was Imbolc or modern St. Brigit's day and August 1 was Lughnasadh. Lughnasadh in particular was associated with festival markets, horse racing, and annual council meetings. However, there is little to no evidence for these holidays outside of Ireland.

  • Blood & Guts - Although Celts have a fine love of nature, abstract art, music and poetry, there was also a strong warrior ethic. Many stories feature graphic scenes of death and destruction, and the Celts have a long history of beheading and pillage. The European Celts sacked Rome and Delphi, and the Celts of the British Isles resisted their invaders quite bloodily. The Celts were so fierce that opponents typically take very extreme measures to destroy and utterly subdue the population. Press from their opponents, from the Romans to the Colonial English has never been great.

Here are some suggested books to look at. While some contain interesting speculation, the authors document the research behind the speculation.


© Elizabeth J. Pyatt, 2001. All rights reserved.
LAST UPDATE: October 1, 2001