13. Religious Ritual among the Celts

by Francine Nicholson

Ritual is the area where reconstruction becomes most challenging. The evidence may be thin enough to deter many but, from the surviving traces and the collected evidence, we can learn a great deal about how the pre-Christian Celts acknowledged the unseen and ritually promoted cosmic and social balance.

Surveying the Situation

Many who become interested in pre-Christian Celtic religion want to know right away about rituals. This is especially the concern of those who become interested in Celtica after being exposed to Wicca or another path that emphasizes magical workings. Such seekers do not want to hear that the pre-Christian Celts did not leave any descriptions of their rituals, prayer books, or instructions on how to use their ritual objects. Nevertheless, this is indeed the situation.

As repeated throughout this book, the pre-Christian Celts did not write down their rituals and beliefs, although, especially in the Roman era, they used Greek, Latin, and other writing systems to record business transactions and inscribe markers, sculptures, and the occasional statue or prayer request. After all, ritual really cannot be taught through written accounts. Though a book may give you words or describe actions, ritual, like dancing, is best taught one-on-one. In traditional cultures, student follows the example of teacher, imitating word, song, step, and action and learning the meaning and purpose of each. But when Christianity became dominant, many students stopped going to the traditional teachers and sought out those versed in the new literacy. Not all the old lore was lost because some was acceptable to the new tradition or adapted to the new context. The acceptable remainders were reframed within the context of Christian beliefs. However, pre-Christian ritual was never acceptable without substantial change.

Since Celtic religious practices did not survive Christianity for long, we have to evaluate the evidence left behind, along with the descriptions recorded by outsiders, and consider how this relates to the folk customs that survive today. It is from those remnants that we reconstruct our images of Celtic rituals.

What Is Ritual?

The word ritual has many meanings. It can refer to a custom - the set of actions, objects and words employed whenever you encounter a certain set of circumstances. Drinking coffee while reading a newspaper and waiting for the toast to pop up might be a morning ritual in one person's life, while stopping at a donut shop might be the morning ritual for someone else.

A ritual can also be the set of actions, objects and words we humans use to mark an event outside the ordinary daily routine, even if only for a moment, or to commemorate an event that happened in the past. Having a birthday cake and singing a certain song everyone knows - but no one recalls learning - is a ritual. So is a funeral and all the actions and customs associated with it.

While most rituals have a long history or tradition, new rituals can spring up to address the needs of new situations. It almost seems as if they spring from a sort of group consciousness when people respond in the same way in many places at once. An example of this would be the way American flags seemed to blossom simultaneously all over the United States-from car antennas, store windows, jacket lapels, porches-in the days following September 11, 2001.

Unlike other types of ritual, a religious ritual invokes or acknowledges the power or presence of the transcendent or unseen beings or forces, whether one calls them gods, saints, spirits, ancestors, or angels. A religious ritual may be as simple as the blessing said before a meal or as complicated as La Grande Troménie, a 14-mile Breton procession in which thousands of people walk in traditional order and costumes from one site to another until the circuit is complete.

Purposes of Ritual

People of every culture have ways of commemorating or celebrating special moments. Each celebration of a milestone invokes each occasion the community or family marked that milestone in the past. The event being commemorated may be one of public significance or of private meaning. Often a commemorative ritual makes use of words and objects that were part of the original event being commemorated, or it may include the honoring of the people who participated in the original event. For example, a community ceremony marking the completion of a new school often includes commemoration if the school was named after someone in the community. In such cases, the survivors of the one being honored may be invited to attend the ceremony as special guests and representatives, bridging the gap between the achievements of a community ancestor and the present children who will use the school.

Celtic folk rituals seem to have at base a belief that "balance" is what is most necessary for gaining health and prosperity. Balance must come at personal, kin-group, and cosmic levels. One can visualize how this must have expressed itself in pre-Christian times. By assembling together and participating in the ritual with the guidance of the religious leader, the community as a whole achieved balance in itself and with the universe. What the participants did in a ritual had significance for themselves, for their community, and for the world around them.

Ritual embodies tradition, commemoration, symbolism, and performance. Therefore, large or small, ritual helps to affirm and strengthen the bond among the participants. Evidence from myths and classical writers suggests that each assembly of Celts, whether kin-group, regional gathering, or larger assembly, was arranged to re-affirm each participant's status in the group.

Community unity engendered by such ritual also extended into the past. Within the sacred space defined by tradition or the performer, the people present at that particular moment became one with all the generations who, before them, had performed the same or similar rituals at that place and time. The process of assembling and performing a ritual together would re-invoke memories of all the other similar rituals performed by that group. Although long since passed, the spirits of the group's ancestors were re-invoked by memory and ritual. Friends might be lost or far away, but thought and memory would bring them close. The presence of children would assure the community of its future, just as the presence of elders recalled its connection with the past. All who participated would share the experience and recall it to each other in other meetings. Perhaps there was also a sense of joining with those who would perform it in generations to come.

Ritual Components and Functions

Anthropologists use many terms to describe ritual, its components, and its functions. Some of particular relevance to this chapter are: decorum, ceremony, liturgy, magic, and celebration. In adition, ritual often concerns the use of power.


Old Irish had a number of words for power: bríg, commus, cumachtae, nert, treise. Although distance from early medieval Ireland makes it difficult for us to be sure what each word specifically meant and how their shades of meaning and use differed, we can be reasonably confident about some. Bríg meant "strength" and "mightiness" and its origin can be traced to the Indo-European languages. Bríg was also associated with high places and those that held high office and merited respect in society. It is probably not coincidental that names of some territorial goddesses derive from this root because all these qualities were associated with such figures.

Scottish neart (from earlier Irish nert) meant the strength inherent in nature and the elements (the cosmic paradigm), as shown by one of the Ortha in Carmina Gadelica:

Neart fithich dhuit, Neart fiolair dhuit, Neart Fèinne.

Neart gaillinn dhuit, Neart gealaich dhuit, Neart grèine.

Neart mara dhuit, Neart talamh dhuit, Neart nèimhe.

Power of raven be thine, Power of eagle be thine, Power of the Fianna.

Power of storm be thine, Power of moon be thine, Power of sun.

Power of sea be thine, Power of land be thine, Power of heaven.

Even in the Christian framework of these blessings, we see an emphasis on invoking the power inherent in the cosmos. This emphasis runs like a theme through the remnants of Celtic religious ritual.


Decorum refers to the use of customary actions and objects, formal language, and exaggerated courtesy to mark an occasion. Some Celtic rituals provide examples of decorum, such as the formal welcome offered to each noble visitor to a household or the way that messengers were required to address the king's intermediary instead of speaking first to the king. This latter may also have had a magical function since it protected the king from releasing power to those who did not deserve to receive it.


Ceremony refers to the exaggeration of actions to make a point or to mark an occasion as a community or group event. You may walk a certain route every day but it becomes a ceremony when several hundred people walk it together to commemorate a holiday or protest a government action. Washing hands is done countless times, but it becomes a ceremonial action when done with decorum using a special pitcher and basin, accompanying words, and the purpose of not just washing but also symbolically purifying the person in their role as ritual leader. Irish myths present a good example of ceremony in the awarding of the hero's portion to their most prominent warrior present.


Few examples of liturgy - the movements and words used in ritual - have survived in the sources for pre-Christian Celtic religion, probably because liturgical rituals were those most likely to have been replaced by Christian equivalents. Thus, while we have references to druids lighting fires at Uisneach on the evening of Bealtaine, we lack any details of the actions performed or words used. We cannot even be certain of the purpose of the fire ritual. However, based on the context - the first day of summer - and the universal use of fire to symbolize activating life, we can assume that the action was related to encouraging growth. We can only guess at what myth or other signficant event was being recalled and possibly re-enacted on the hill of Uisneach, or exactly what happened there in the dusk before the fires were lit.


Magic refers to any ritual conducted with decorum that has the aim of bringing about a desired effect. The majority of folk customs surviving in Celtic traditions can be classified as magic. As a means of achieving the desired effect, the ritual may act out how things will be when this effect occurs. For example, offering the first fruits of the harvest to the gods would enlist their aid in a successful harvest. Eating heartily together at the beginning of a quarter would help to ensure prosperity throughout the quarter. Thus, as Máire Mac Neill recorded, those who were well-off and able to share would ensure that their poorer neighbors had a chicken in their pot at Lughnasa to bring good luck during the harvest season. And, as Kevin Danaher wrote, housekeepers would put aside some grain to ensure that bread or porridge could be made on Bealtaine as a ritual to help ensure there was enough to eat through "hungry July" before the first crops came in.

Today, when this approach to ritual is called magic or superstition, the implication is often pejorative, a put-down suggesting that a magical ritual is not as good as mainstream Western liturgies. For Celts over the millenia however, magical ritual was an integral part of daily life. They did not pray to a power that existed outside their world in some far-off heaven. For them, power was present in this world. The elements could wield their power to drastically affect human lives. In turn, the deities knew how to control the power of the elements, to balance rain and sun as needed for a good harvest, to hold back rivers from flooding and to bring together all the forces that could bring prosperity to an agricultural people.


Celebration is the most joyous and possibly least inhibited type of ritual. As with liturgy however, celebrations are among the most Christianized of Celtic rituals. Ronald L. Grimes describes celebration as "expressive ritual play" that mark times when people are engaged in activities that emphasize what is most valued in life: births, marriages, wedding anniversaries, victories.


Divination uses a ritual to obtain knowledge not available by ordinary means. Classical writers such as Strabo speak of Gaulish seers taking omens from the death throes of a human victim and seeing messages in the entrails of a sacrificial animal. British leaders were reportedly able to determine the outcome of a forthcoming battle by releasing a hare and watching the way it fled. In medieval Irish and Welsh texts we read of methods named variously as imbas forosnai, díchetal do chennaib, teinm laída, awenyddion, and tarbfheis. Folk tradition suggests that seers sometimes developed their own methods or received them from the Otherworld. The bottle that Biddy Early used as a scrying glass was reputedly received from the Otherworld. The Carmina Gadelica describes the use of holed stones held up to the eye as a lens into the Otherworld. Beyond these hints we don't really know what seers actually did.

Relating to the Deities

Prior to Christianity, the Celts seem to have related to deities just as they related to the nobles that controlled society's policies and wealth. As clients, they entered into contracts with allies capable of protecting and helping them. When the client rendered the agreed-upon goods and services, the noble was obliged to supply protection and help when needed by the client. Similarly, the Celts offered gifts of crafted goods, animal and, in some circumstances, human lives to their protector deities. They believed that this obliged the guardian deities to fulfill their side of the contract.

Evaluating the Evidence for Customs and Feasts

When archaeologists unearth an object, they are not always sure how it was used. Was that staff carried by a king? When was it used? Was this crown worn by priests? What did they wear with the crown? Even when archaeologists are reasonably sure objects were used in ritual, the artifacts provide no evidence of the words and actions that accompanied the ritual. Without additional evidence, such questions remain unanswered.

The writings of classical authors are similarly unhelpful in describing what the Celts did in their rituals. Strabo's description of Gaulish divination practices is typical of the evidence recorded by classical writers. He records in his Geography that they "would strike a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice in the back with a sword, and make prophecies based on his death-spasms." However, he does not tell us what prayers were said to consecrate the victim or how the victim was chosen. Nor does he tell us whether a special sword was used, how often or on what occasions such drastic measures were taken, or how the seers interpreted the death-spasms. All those missing elements are needed to reconstruct a ritual. There are also issues of accuracy. Elsewhere in his Geography, Strabo wrote that the Celts used arrows to execute sacrificial victims, yet it is doubtful that the Celts of his day used arrows.

Evidence from myths and medieval records can be useful provided that the Christian context in which they were recorded is taken into consideration. For example, in the Táin, Cú Chulainn is depicted as inscribing ogham characters on a branchless oak tree, both as notice to invaders and as protective magic. But we are not told what Cú Chulainn said as he inscribed the rod or what he inscribed. Also in the Táin, he magically invokes the river Cronn to rise up against the enemy, but exactly how he did this is not recorded.

Other types of medieval documents are also important sources. Sanas Cormaic, a sort of medieval encyclopedia, contains statements that are known today to be inaccurate but, in many cases, what Cormac and his scribes wrote is the only evidence we have. For example, the manuscript contains a description of methods of divination known only by name in other documents and tales. The following is Kuno Meyer's translation of a difficult text:

The Imbas Forosnai sets forth whatever seems good to the seer (file) and what he desires to make known. It is done thus. The seer chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and then places it on a flagstone behind the door. He sings an incantation over it, offers it to the false gods, and then calls them to him. And he leaves them not on the next day, and chants then on his two hands, and again calls his false gods to him, lest they should disturb his sleep. And he puts his two hands over his two cheeks till he falls asleep. And they watch by him lest no one overturn him and disturb him till everything he wants to know is revealed to him, to the end of nine days, or of twice or thrice that time, or, however long he was judged at the offering.

Unfortunately, the text is unclear, and scholars debate exactly how the passage should be translated. For example, in an alternate translation, Whitley Stokes suggests that companions, not "false gods," watch over the seer during the time of vision. Even so, we are left with the general impression of a ritual somewhat similar to modern instances of shamanic practices among tribal peoples. However, we can also see that important details are missing. Where does the poet go to perform this ritual? What preparation is involved? How many years of training qualified a seer to use this ritual? Which gods did the seer invoke? What does the poet say when chanting? How is the "red flesh" prepared and why does the poet eat it? Unfortunately, these details have been lost. Nora Chadwick suggests that the words imbas forosnai began the chant traditionally sung by the seer but, if this was the case, the rest of the chant has been lost.

In many ways, modern folk traditions of Celtic countries are our best source of ritual, provided we remember their limitations. Customs evolved and changed over the years, reflecting the changes in society and religion. Another fact often overlooked is that customs varied from village to village and region to region. Many customs have undoubtedly been lost, and only remnants of others remain. Thus, while objects may still be used in folk ritual, their original symbolism is no longer understood.

Our earliest references to folk customs are often early-modern or modern sources such as laws, journals, and travelogues that refer to earlier practices incorporated into Catholic customs. Often these works mention the time and location where celebrations were held. For example, some of the Penal Laws that restricted religious practices of Catholics in Ireland specifically mention devotions at St. Patrick's Purgatory and saints-day celebrations at spring-wells. Laws against taking time off work on saints' days tell us that this was once a common practice.

What, then, can we gain from studying the surviving evidence? Some customs are still performed and we can help to ensure that they continue to be performed in their current state. Through study of the evidence, we can hope to better understand the meaning of objects, symbols, and actions in the customs that have come down to us, rather than simply performing actions without understanding.

The following is a late example of how ritual continued to be part of Celtic life into the modern period. In his notes to Ortha 114 of the Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael wrote:

A young man was consecrated before he went out to hunt. Oil was put on his head, a bow was placed in his hand, and he was required to stand with bare feet on the bare grassless ground. The dedication of the young hunter was akin to those of the 'maor,' the judge, the chief and the king, on installation. Many conditions were imposed on the young man, which he was required to observe throughout life. He was not to take life wantonly. He was not to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down, and he was not to kill the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling. Nor was he to kill an unfledged bird nor a suckling beast, unless it might be the young of a bird or of a beast of prey. It was at all times permissible and laudable to destroy certain clearly defined birds and beasts of prey and evil reptiles, with their young.

Through the vehicle of ritual, the values of the society were impressed on the young.

Let's look at a surviving Gaelic custom, smooring the fire, and examine how it demonstrates characteristics typical of Celtic rituals in general.

Smooring the Fire

In nineteenth-century Ireland and Scotland, the woman of the house always banked the fire before retiring for the night. She brushed the ashes and coals together, then set the blocks of turf in a specific, pyramidal design around the live coals. Her actions were accompanied by words that gave meaning to what she did. One version of the prayer, translated, is this:

I am smooring the fire

As the Son of Mary would smoor;

Blest be the house, blest be the fire,

Blest be the people all.

Who are those down on the floor ?

John and Peter and Paul.

On whom is the vigil to-night ?

On the fair gentle Mary and on her Son.

The mouth of God said,

The angel of God spake,

An angel in the door of the house,

To guard and to keep us all

Till comes daylight to-morrow.

Oh! may the angels of the Holy One of God

Environ me all this night,

Oh! may the angels of the Anointed One of God

Encompass me from harm and from evil,

Oh! encompass me from harm this night.

Once the fire had been banked and the blessing had been recited, the woman could go to sleep, knowing she had done all she could to seek protection for her family and ensure that the fire would last through the night. In the morning, she would break apart what was left of the turf and stir up the fire from the coals as she recited a similar chant.

The ceremony of smooring the fire displays all the characteristics typical of Celtic folk rituals. Done every night before retiring, the ritual consisted of traditional acts performed in the "right" way. The woman learned how to perform these rituals from someone else, probably her mother or grandmother who, in turn, had learned the ritual from an elder. The language was formal, a set of actions accompanied the words, and certain objects were always part of the ritual. The purpose and focus of the ritual were religious. The woman asked the powers-in this case, the Trinity and various saints-to protect the house and family through the night and day.

Let's examine these characteristics more closely.

The Characteristics of Celtic Ritual

Celtic rituals have the following characteristics:

o Power

o Liminality

o Rightness

o Tradition

o Acknowledgement of the unseen

o Cosmic or mythic significance

o Symbolic objects and actions

o Formal or heightened language and action

o Pervasiveness

Power: the Creative Spark

Power was the spark or inner fire that gave life to everything. It was neither evil nor good, but could be tapped for evil or good purposes.

The strength of power depended on time and place, and the ability of the performer to wield it or invoke spirits who could control power. For example, the first day of May began the season of greatest growth, but its inherent power could also be harnessed by the malicious to harm their neighbors. So, on quarter days the wise performed rituals of prosperity, and they also sought protection against those who might use power for harm. In the myths, the greatest druids are those who can wield power most effectively and break the spells of others.

Liminality: The Inherent Power of Betwixt and Between

One form of ritual takes place wherever the ritual leader creates a sacred space such as a hearth, an altar, or a clearing in the woods. This space is, by definition, liminal because the leader or performer creates a special place to which the unseen powers are summoned.

Space could be hallowed by the action of the ritual performer, but Celts past and present have assembled on special sites hallowed by generations. A few sacred sites that predated the Celts were adopted by later adopted by them. Archaeological evidence indicates that, for centuries, the Celts worshipping in liminal areas such as forests, on hillsides, by large lakes, and at spring wells. Classical writers confirm the archaeologica evidence. Buildings were minimal, consisting perhaps of an altar stone surrounded by pits or trenches to receive offerings, with a spring-well nearby to provide water. It appears that people from surrounding regions traveled together to celebrate certain occasions such as the quarter-days or to prepare for battle. These customs persisted only in Ireland and Brittany where they were Christianized as "patterns" or "patrons." They were extinguished in Gaul and Britain by the Romans.

Burial places held special power in myth and folklore. Seers slept on burial mounds to gain Otherworldly knowledge. In one tale, a scribe seeks to retrieve the entire text of the Táin by sleeping on the grave of another seer who was said to have known the entire epic. However, the spirit that appears through the sudden, thick fog is that of Fergus mac Roich, a participant in the events of the Táin, and not that of the dead seer.

Brenneman and Brenneman have studied Irish holy wells and determined that there is a common ritual complex with three components: a sacred tree, where offerings of cloth or coin are made, the well itself, and a hill and/or tall rock. Sometimes, the three are very close to each other. In other cases, they form a widespread triangle. Nowadays, processions often begin at a nearby church, thus adding a fourth element.

Those who perform ritual are also liminal since they symbolically define and act in a space where the worlds meet.


The surroundings, circumstances, and timing of ritual actions are crucial. There is a right place for the ritual, a right time, right words, right actions. For example, in Munster, the province of southwest Ireland, people collect reeds and water plants without flowers and bring them into the house on the morning of 1st May, the beginning of summer. In other parts of Ireland, yellow, daisy-shaped flowers are collected on the evening before 1st May and are scattered around the paths to the house and the outbuildings. However, the flowers were not brought into the house, and the arrangements had to be completed before sunrise. Although the two sets of customs are in some ways opposite, the intention of both is to promote the growth of crops during the summer quarter and protect the prosperity of the household from harmful people and forces.

People brought up in traditional communities are often puzzled by the way New Agers combine bits of ritual from a variety of sources without consideration for "rightness." Ignoring or changing any of the components may upset the rightness of the ritual as a whole and may defeat its purpose. If someone laid water reeds or greening branches on the path to the house, or brought the May bush inside, traditional people would regard the action with skepticism and puzzlement. Why perform a made-up ritual instead of the ancient tradition that has been handed down for generations?


Tradition teaches the right way to perform the ritual, the right place where the action should happen, right objects that should be involved, and right words or songs to accompany the actions. It is the usual source of ritual. The knowledge of what makes an action right usually comes from the elders. This is not to say that ritual does not change, but rather that change happens gradually and for a reason. Along with the ritual itself, the sense of rightness that intuitively understands what would not be right survives and is passed on.

Customs may survive even when the performers no longer understand the meaning of the objects and symbols. Most performers retain a limited understanding of the purpose, often as simple as bringing good luck or deterring bad luck. However, this limited understanding may be sufficient for the tradition bearers to keep on performing the custom or ritual.

Acknowledging the Unseen

Surviving Celtic rituals uniformly address the Trinity or a saint, thus invoking the power and presence of the unseen. We cannot be sure how the unseen powers were addressed in pre-Christian rituals because our examples are restricted to inscriptions on ritual objects unearthed by archaeologists and scraps of evidence from medieval manuscripts, but it is certain that every ritual, by definition, implicitly acknowledged the presence of unseen powers.

Cosmic or Mythic Significance

Myths or lore may lie behind many of the rituals, though the exact story has now been lost or changed beyond easy recognition. Stories or myths are sometimes associated with holy sites, though often only a Christianized version of the tale survives. Sometimes we are baffled by contradictory tales recorded by medieval scribes. For example, we learn that Lugh established the athletic games held at the beginning of harvest in honor of a goddess associated with a burial mound. But who was the woman and was she truly his foster-mother, as one story says, or one of his wives, as another says, and which hill should be associated with the tale? The answer probably is that at Lughnasa, regional groups customarily assembled at a significant hill or mountain in their region, athletic games were part of the celebration, and the hill was identified with the local goddess. It may be that stories were once re-enacted at ritual sites and perhaps that is how processions like the Wren-Boys originated.

Symbolic Objects and Actions

The actions, words, and objects of a ritual are symbolic, giving the ritual a dimension that is more significant than would appear at first glance. For example, the candles on a birthday cake are not simply there to be blown out. Rather each represents a year in the life of the one being honored, the life-force that is so bright but so easily snuffed out.

The objects and symbols used in Celtic rituals were important ways of recreating mythic action or creating talismans of protection. Unfortunately, today we are not always sure of the exact meaning of some symbols and objects, though we can make reasonable assumptions about many. On the other hand, talismans - objects made holy and protective by ritual action - are often an important part of folk customs. For example, on the eve of the beginning of February, Bridget's cross-a symbol woven from straw-is made, blessed, and hung in the house and barn.


Ritual is a performance, even if the audience consists of only one or two people. Formalized action and words combine to convey meaning, and create enough excitement to engage the participants who are not actively involved in the actions of the ritual. A ritual employs what is sometimes called heightened or symbolic language, words that are not said off-handedly but, instead, have meaning that reaches beyond the current celebration. The words are formal, usually traditional, and magical power is attributed to them, no matter who says or uses them.

Rhythm, rhyme, and other poetic metrics were also crucial parts of ritual language. Imagery employing symbols was part of the ritual chant. For example, the words of the following Scottish blessing from Carmina Gadelica describe when to perform the first ritual cut of the harvest and how to perform the actions that accompany the words:

On Tuesday of the feast at the rise of the sun,

And the back of the ear of corn to the east,

I will go forth with my sickle under my arm,

And I will reap the cut the first act.

I will let my sickle down

While the fruitful ear is in my grasp,

I will raise mine eye upwards,

I will turn me on my heel quickly,

Rightway as travels the sun

From the airt of the east to the west,

From the airt of the north with motion calm

To the very core of the airt of the south.

I will give thanks to the King of grace

For the growing crops of the ground,

He will give food to ourselves and to the flocks

According as He disposeth to us.


Historians writing during the time of the Roman Empire ridiculed the Continental Celts for what they saw as superstition and a Celtic propensity for invoking the gods for even small, everyday actions. Certainly, the folklore of Celtic cultures suggests that this characteristic survived and accommodated itself to Christianity. Folklore collections are full of words to accompany actions such as consecration of the seed before sowing it to the formal cutting of the first sheaf of oats. Pulling wild carrots became an occasion for taking omens: recite the chant and the first wild carrot you pull will resemble your future spouse. As described earlier, even a ritual like smooring the fire created a talisman of protection that invoked the unseen, and made an offering to the fire.

Christian Adaptations

In the Christian period, the feasts were reassigned to church festivals, and various saints became the focus of the rituals, although remnants of the ancient practices survived well into this century, especially in rural areas. However, as Patterson notes,

The Church could not totally efface the indigenous social calendar because this was linked to important agricultural practices . . . The year's round of human activities followed the overlapping cycles of growth in several living resources---grain, vegetables, fruit, flax, nuts, cattle, sheep, pigs, game, and bees, to name only the most important.

Thus, Imbolc was associated with St. Bridget, Bealtaine acquired references to Mary, Lughnasa was transferred to the feasts of many different local saints, and Samhain customs often moved to Christmas or New Year's Day. But the essential agricultural and pastoral purposes remained, as did the celebrations.

Names of the Feasts

The names of the calendar feasts vary from one Celtic language to another, and their origins are not always clear. Those in Welsh seem to be later and probably reflect Christian influence. Scottish and Manx names derive from Irish, but have some Norse elements.

Some names are not as much in use today. For example, Imbolc is better known in Ireland as Bridget's Day, reflecting the Christian view of the day as the feast of St. Bridget. The following table shows the traditional names for Celtic calendar feasts:

Feast Irish Scottish Manx Welsh Breton

1 November

Samhain Samhuinn Oie Houney Calan Gwaf Kala-Goañv

1 February Imbolc Lá Fhéile Bríde Láa'l Breeshey Gouel Varia ar Gouloù

1 May






Calan Mai,

Calan Haf

Kala Hañv

1 August


Garland Sunday

Well Sunday

Jam Day Lúnasdal

Lammas Láa Luanys Calan Awst Gouel an Eost

Ritual Today

In many cases, the customs have survived in a Christian framework. However, it is not appropriate or authentic simply to take a survivng custom and plug the names of mythological figures in place of Christian Trinity or saints. This practice ignores the fact that rituals and customs did change to suit a Christian worldview. Addressing a prayer to Bridget, the Dagda, and Lugh instead of to the Trinity ignores that these figures are not the equivalent of the Christian Trinity. Most Celts, and even most Irish, did not honor these deities as a triad. We need to understand how Celtic ritual functioned, why it was done, and how the unseen forces were conceived of and addressed in relation to ritual. Then, working from the remnants of the folk tradition, we can reconstruct rituals that reflect the pre-Christian beleif system and worldview.

Some might suggest that it is sufficient to simply gather whatever customs one finds, pull an Irish Bealtaine custom from one book, a Welsh Calan Haf from another, and mix them together as you please. This approach ignores the fact that customs were performed in context and as a group. Within each cultural tradition, customs and objects have or had a symbolic and magical integrity and wholeness that is broken when moderns treat customs from different Celtic cultural traditions as interchangeable parts. It is also essential to recognize the way the local focus of Celtic religious practice affected the ritual actions. For example, earlier in the chapter we saw that Bealtaine customs performed in most parts of Ireland took place the night before and involved placing blooming yellow flowers outside, while the customs of Munster, performed on Bealtaine morning, involved bringing greenery-no flowers-into the house. Since the two traditions almost contradict each another, combining them would make no sense ritually.