Our Knowledge of Celtic Mysticism
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
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
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.
J. Pyatt, 2001. All rights reserved.
LAST UPDATE: October 1, 2001