5. Chaos and Tripartite Order: Celtic Worldview


by Francine Nicholson


The previous chapter shows how recent scientific research reveals the natural environment in which the ancient and medieval Celts lived. In this chapter, we'll see how they looked at the world around them, how they interpreted everyday reality, and how they applied religious and mythological meaning to their world.

Much in early pre-Christian Celtic religion was a response to the physical world in which the Celts lived. The deities were first conceived of as forces of nature. When druids chanted incantations or curses, they ritually invoked the power of parts of the cosmos, and humans were believed to be made from the elements of the cosmos. Seasonal feasts marked the essential points of the farming and herding cycles, and the rhythms of the natural world governed the lives and ritual behavior of the ancient Celts.

By clearing plains and keeping them clear, the ancient Celts created order out of a fertile, natural chaos, an order that made their settled way of life possible. Taming the wilderness and keeping it tame were not easy tasks, and they never ended. Despite their intimacy with nature, however, they were unaware of many processes and factors involved in successfully raising crops and animals, so their explanations of why disease occurred or crops failed differ from our modern, more scientific approach. To keep hostile forces in check, Celts made offerings to appease the natural forces, and they offered prayers to enlist assistance and protection from beings who had the power and knowledge needed to channel the fertile energy for human benefit. Awareness of human dependence on the cooperation of natural forces permeated all of pre-Christian Celtic religion and persisted into the Christian era when they were transformed into the Trinity and the saints. However, the attitude remains consistent. Humans must learn to live in balance with natural forces instead of trying to control them. Some of the crop must be paid to the unseen powers as their due. Not all the wilderness should be tamed; some should be left wild so that the wild creatures will have their place, and the routes to the Otherworld remain unmolested.

Sacred Kingship as Channel and Balance Point

Similar issues and attitudes are reflected in the ancient Celtic institution of sacral kingship. This social institution was intended to ensure the favorable natural and social conditions necessary for prosperity in each tribe or tribal group. When the king of a tribe was inaugurated, he was understood to be mated to the goddess of the land, thereby establishing a link and channel through which creative energy would flow from the goddess to the tribe's land, its people, and its animals. So long as the king ruled wisely and the land prospered, the king was regarded as being "right." However, if he failed, it was believed that the weather would become unfavorable, crops and animals would die, and lawlessness would ensue. If such conditions prevailed, it was a sign that the king was no longer "right."

The Mythic Dimension

Unlike most people today, a pre-Christian Celt looking over the surrounding land saw not just the physical reality, but also its mythic dimension. Hills were mounds of earth and also the breasts of the kin-group's goddess. The river was formed when a goddess looked into an Otherworldly well and, at her glance, a wave rose up and flowed out of the well across the land until it reached the sea. Tall stones marked places where the tribal heroes fell defending the land against enemies. A spring well did not just give water. Circling it sunwise and leaving an offering might cure disease.

Creatures, too, might not be what they seemed. Many animals were thought to have inherent magical power or wisdom. One Scottish ortha invokes the power of the raven. Some cranes were thought to be able to speak with humans. Seals, if they cast off their skins, might mate with humans and from such encounters would come a dark-eyed family that told each generation: "we are not allowed to hunt seals for they are our kin." And sometimes animals and birds could be the shifted forms of deities.

The Tripartite World

The tripartite image of the world-land, sea, sky-can be found associated with Celtic-speaking people in some of the earliest materials that mention Celts. When Alexander the Great was in the Balkans (about 335 BCE) he encountered several Celtic warriors sent as emissaries of their people.

"Whom do you fear?" Alexander asked impressively.

"Only that the sky should fall on us or the sea rise up and overwhelm us," replied the leaders.

Apparently, considering that it was probably good to be diplomatic, they reportedly added, "but we appreciate having the friendship of a man like yourself." What Alexander and the historians who retold the story failed to appreciate was that the Celts were saying they feared only the destruction of the world, physical and social, and that both were intertwined. So long as social balance prevailed, physical balance would too. The theme is encapsulated on a passage from a story in the Ulster Cycle. In the wake of a successful raid on Ulster, a panicky warrior tries to urge Conchobhar the king into hasty revenge, but the king rebukes him:

"A little too loud is that cry," said Conchobhar, "for the sky is above us, the earth beneath us and the sea all around us, but unless the sky with its showers of stars fall upon the surface of the earth or unless the ground burst open in an earthquake, or unless the fish-abounding, blue-bordered sea come over the surface of existence, I shall bring back every cow to its byre and enclosure, every woman to her own abode and dwelling, after victory in battle and combat and contest."

This is reminiscent of the ninteenth century Scottish ortha, quoted in Chapter 1, that wished the "power" or "virtue" of sea, land and sky on the recipient. That use of this cosmic paradigm survived in Irish folk tradition into the twentieth century is shown by an Irish story written in 1904 describing a king as the one on whom "the sky and the ground are depending to keep them from falling together."

Association between deities and Cosmic elements

Did the ancient Celts associate deities with each part of the cosmos? Goddesses seem to be associated with the land/earth and watery places, while gods seem more associated with weather and the elements of the sky. In Irish myth, the Túatha Dé Danann appear to come from the sky and darken the sun for three days. The Dagda stops the sun for the length of time needed for his son Óengus to develop in his mother's womb and be born. Lugh wields a lightning bolt as a weapon. A number of Continental and British deities were equated with Jupiter and Apollo, both sky deities. Probably, weather is the key to envisioning the connection between many gods and the sky. The elements of the sky were thought to be ruled by gods who rolled across the sky in chariots and whose weapons were bolts of lightning. With their power to control wind and weather, these gods were thought to play a crucial role in crop cultivation and harvest. However, it may be that the Christianization of the Celtic concept of sky was so thorough that we cannot be sure if there were such divisions among the deities.

i) Land

To the pre-Christian Celts, the Land was connected with the goddess who could bless or curse the lives of those who owed her tribute. As one of the three components of the cosmos, it was the stabilizing force between the sky above and the sea below and around. Harmony in the Land somehow kept the whole cosmos balanced. It was the part of the universe that nurtured, fed, and housed the Celts. It was home.

The early Irish thought of their land as having divisions that they conceptualized and used in ritual and myth. Firstly, there was the upper half and lower half, Leth Cuinn and Leth Moga. Secondly, they associated various aspects of activity with the geographic directions: west with lore, north with battle, east with treasure, south with music, and center with sovereignty. The Welsh may have had similar ritual associations for the divisions of their land. While some scholars think that these ritual associations with the directions represent a late medieval innovation, others contend that the directions' ritual role dates back to the origins of Indo-European religion. Whatever their origin, the imagery of directions is consistent with the general purposes of pre-Christian Celtic ritual which was to promote and, if necessary, to re-create balance among the parts of this world and re-establish the free flow of energy between this world and the Otherworld.

Tribal territories had their protector deities. The land itself was thought to be imbued with power. Each landmark had its own energy, identity, and mythical associations. Indeed, according to folklore, humans sometimes encountered deities at such places, especially late at night or when fog shrouded the area. Some places were thought to be so powerful and sacred that they should not be used for ordinary human purposes. Instead, they were set aside for use as ritual places where the deities were addressed and venerated and where rituals of protection, prosperity and fertility were offered on behalf of the tribe.

Early Irish tales depict goddesses clearing the plains for farming and later dying and being buried in the plain to make it fertile but, as a goddess, her death is not neccesarily permanent. Some goddesses reappear in later stories. Rivers, too, might be created from her body, bringing the flooding, fertile force of the Otherworld into this one. Whatever the precise image employed, the mythos persisted in seeing the Land as inextricably bound to its goddess.

Each territory apparently had its own goddess, a force that might take the form of animals, fertile woman or aging crone. She might be encountered on mountain tops or by lakes. She belonged to her people, and they to her. So long as they honored her, she would bless their activities with prosperity. If the territory were attacked, the Land, like a mother protecting her young, would turn fierce and enflame her warriors, guiding them in battle, terrifying their enemies with visions of her fury, mourning the losses. Folk legends and "official" genealogies alike often named such goddesses as the ultimate ancestors of the people most prominently associated with the territory. When the leader was approaching death, the patron goddess appeared to herald his passing and ritually mourn.

Each territorial goddess - the Land - gave her alliance, devotion and power to the chosen ruler in an inaugural ceremony called (in Ireland) the banfeis, a wedding. Although chosen by the kin-group, in mythic terms the king was the choice of the goddess. Thus, in Tochmarc Étaine, Étain Echraide seeks out the king and tells him that she has come to be his bride. In the first branch of the Mabinogi, Rhiannon rides past Pwyll; he cannot catch her but eventually she stops and tells him she has come for him.

It was also thought that the king needed to prove he was worthy of the title. In an often-told story, the goddess herself tests the sons of Eochaid Mugmedón. In the shape of an ancient woman, she approaches the sons in turn, eldest to youngest, asking each to sleep with her. All but one refuse. Niall, recognizing the value of her gift, accepts her invitation and embraces the goddess. And, so the story goes, the kingship was granted to Niall and his descendants because of his clear-sighted choice.

Harmony and balance were maintained through the relationship between the goddess of the Land and the king who led the kin-group associated with the territory. Through the figure of the king, the goddess channeled her energy into the people, plants, trees, and animals to make everything fertile and prosperous. So long as the king acted "rightly" the Land and people would live in peace and plenty. This adherence to the "right" ways of a king was called the ruler's truth, fírinne flátha. It was a basic concept of Celtic society that there were proper behaviors for a king, as for anyone else.

ii) Sea

The cosmic part usually identified as sea actually includes all bodies of water: rivers, lakes, seas, springs and wells. Water mediated between the other realms, traveling from the sky as rain and returning as dew after making the land fertile. Water also connected humans with the Otherworld. According to Irish stories, at least some rivers were thought to originate in wells in the Otherworld and then flow into this world. Such rivers, as well as holy wells and springs, were thought to carry the power and knowledge of the Otherworld to this one. The knowledge could be acquired by eating special salmon that lived in certain wells or rivers, by drinking from certain places, or by inhaling the bubbles that floated upon the river at certain times and places.

Yet, although watery places have fascinated people and have been used by them for work and pleasure for millennia, the attraction is deeper, more essential, for some. Two medieval Irish poems express the love of the sea's beauty and fascination:


Fégaid úaib

Look you out

sair fo thúaid


in muir múaid

over mighty ocean,


teeming with sea-life;

adba rón

home of seals,

rebach, rán,

sporting, splendid

ro-gab lán

its tide has reached







Is lán ler, is lomnán muir, The ocean is in flood, the sea is full,

is álaind inn ethat-bruig, delightful is the home of ships,

ro-lá curu in gaeth ganmech the sandy wind has made whirls

im Inber na dá Ainmech. around the River-mouth of the Two Showers

is luath luí re lethanmuir. swift the rudder against the broad sea.

Despite their association with productivity, bodies of water are highly unpredictable. Though necessary for life, water can be an extremely destructive force. In Ireland and Scotland, numerous charms and prayers sought to appease the sea and persuade it to grant safety to fisher-folk and travelers. On the European continent, shrines to Nehalennia, a sea goddess, sought protection and guidance to the next life. In the Scottish Highlands, even in the Christian period, offerings were made to Shony, master of the sea. Irish poems speak of the waves as the hair of goddesses. The attention of a goddess might guide you to safety, but she might also pull you under the waves if you caught her fancy or displeased her.

Farming the sea has always been a hard life and a risky one, and it remains so today. Those who work the sea, especially fishermen, are subject to its whims and rightly regard it with respect, fear, and a love not understood by all. In parts of Britain and Ireland, the sea was often the only means to make a living, but it just as often took life. In a modern Irish play, J.M. Synge's Maurya mourns:

They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me . . . I'll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I'll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.

Springs and rivers were thought to have their origins in the Otherworld, and to bring with them the possibility of acquiring Otherworldly knowledge. Perhaps the most memorable tale of knowledge and water is that associated with the goddess of the river Boyne. Boánn wished to obtain knowledge from the well that was under the protection of her husband Nechtán. As she approached the well, seeking to learn from its depths, a wave gushed forth, carrying her across the land. The wave rushed to the sea, causing her to lose an arm and a leg. Along with the wave, those body parts were transformed into the river Boyne.

Wells had their guardian spirits or they served as access to the territorial protector. Even today, spring-wells serve as sites of devotions to seek healing or other blessings. Many territories had spring-wells where people went to seek favors and make offerings, especially at the start of each season or when they needed healing. These devotions have survived in Christian contexts, but still they preserve objects and actions whose origin is obviously not Christian, such as sitting in megalithic stone "chairs" or lying on larger stone "beds" to encourage child-bearing. Nowadays, wells are commonly devoted to patron saints, but the rituals performed at them may preserve a tradition of seeking the blessings of the territorial goddess.

Archaeologists have discovered many sites where extraordinary items-wondrously crafted swords, cauldrons and jewelry-were apparently deposited in watery places as ritual offerings. In medieval stories, it seems that water, the world of the dead and the Otherworld, are connected. Iron Age bodies found in bogs, apparent human sacrifices, raise questions that relate to these possible associations. Bogs are liminal areas, combinations of land and water. Were these people offered to fertility gods, watery patrons, or rulers of the dead? Or did the same deities cover all these functions? We may never know the answers but it is clear that, even well into the Christian period, people who dealt with the sea regularly made offerings and petitions to the spirits and powers who might protect them, and not all these powers were saints.

iii) Sky

In many ways, the sky was the part of the cosmos that was most mysterious and inaccessible to pre-Christian Celts. Land was the natural realm of humans. Though they might venture on the sea, it was a risky act and their stay could be only temporary. They could not venture into the sky at all. The closest they could get was to climb a mountain or travel in dream or vision. Thus, the sky was exclusively the realm of deities and birds. Sky deities often took the form of birds. Occasionally, workers of magic could assume the form of birds and travel in the sky. For this purpose, druids were said to wear feathered cloaks.

Mountaintops, being closest to the sky, were sometimes the site of ritual. In Ireland and Brittany, celebrations to mark the beginning of harvest included ceremonial processions to the tops of mountains, probably to seek protection from destructive storms. Among the deities honored by these ceremonies may have been Lugh who, in Irish mythology, wrested the secrets of crop husbandry from the Fomoire. His signature weapon was a lightning spear, sometimes seen during late summer thunderstorms.

The sun and, by extension, fire were sources of healing and protective energy. The appearance of sun on water was thought to be powerful, especially the first sun on 1 May, the beginning of summer. Circling sunwise-imitating the motion of the sun-has long been an important part of Celtic ceremonial actions, both secular and religious. People were greeted by three sunwise circlings and bid farewell with a similar action. Kings asserted control over their realms and abbots over their monastic precincts by circling sunwise. Ordinary people took possession of new homes by first circling the new place sunwise. The focus of many holy well rituals even today is sunwise circling. While the symbolic meaning of the act has been lost, it must trace back to a long-established custom associated with the sun.


These days fertility is almost always associated with human reproduction, and there is no doubt that sexuality and sexual imagery were indeed vital components of early Celtic theology and ritual. The iconography of ancient Celtic ritual was full of imagery emphasizing the sexuality of deities; the statues of some gods even sported three phalluses. Ritual sites typically contained fixtures symbolic of male and female genitalia. Ritual ceremonies-what we know of them-often incorporated sexual imagery. But in ancient thought as portrayed in the myths, fertility also applied to numerous other aspects of daily life, including health, growth of crops, justice in law, success in trade, and harmony among people. Most of the known rituals were designed to ensure the favorable natural and social conditions necessary to bring about fertility throughout the kin-group.

Although modern Western concepts of sex see it as something quite separate from religion or at least from the divine, the imagery of sex between designated male and female figures-mortal and immortal-underlies some of the most important ritual behaviors of which we have knowledge, such as kingship inauguration, battle magic, and fertility rites. Indeed sexual imagery is implicit in many of the folklore practices designed to promote the fertility of land, people, and animals. This imagery makes it clear that the energy transfer between man and woman was thought to be mirrored by similar events throughout the cosmos.

The transfer of fertile energy was thought to contribute to success in battle too. Before the second battle at Mag Tuired, the goddess Morrígan trysted with the Dagda, protector deity of the Tuatha Dé Danann. This act may have been intended to transfer her energy to the tribe's warriors. Such a purpose also may be implied by Cú Chulainn leaving the battlefield to spend the night with a woman just before the Connachta invaded Ulster in the Táin. Both these incidents suggest that similar rituals may have been performed between a tribal representative and a goddess figure before some battles to ensure victory.

Farming Rituals

The pre-Christian Celts knew that the bounty of the land could nourish them but they also understood that their own hard work was necessary. Maintaining the balance that brought prosperity to the community was not simply the responsibility of the king. Everyone in the community had some role to play. Each phase of farming had corresponding rituals to ensure that the energy of the land was channeled properly.

Preparing the seed for planting, like so many tasks, was a combination of ritual and proven method. Both were passed down together as essential to successful harvest. Such beliefs and practices remained alive when Christianity became dominant. Alexander Carmichael noted of the Scottish Highlands in the nineteenth century:

The corn is prepared at certain seasons of the year, which are seldom deviated from. The rye is threshed to allow gaoth bhog nan Duldachd, the soft wind of November and December, to winnow the seed; the oats to allow gaoth fhuar nam Faoilleach, the cold winds of January and February, to winnow the seed; and the bere to allow gaoth gheur nam Mart, the sharp winds of March and April, to winnow the seed. All these preparations are made to assist Nature in the coming Spring. Three days before being sown the seed is sprinkled with clear cold water, in the name of Father, and of Son, and of Spirit, the person sprinkling the seed walking sunwise the while.

. . . The moistening of the seed has the effect of hastening its growth when committed to the ground, which is generally begun on a Friday, that day being auspicious for all operations not necessitating the use of iron.

Note the emphasis on right actions and right times as well as belief in the need to acknowledge the forces of the cosmos.

Similarly, the first reaping was a ceremonial act, as Carmichael describes: "The day the people began to reap the corn was a day of commotion and ceremonial in the townland. The whole family repaired to the field dressed in their best attire to hail the God of the harvest."

The first cut was a ceremony in itself:

Laying his bonnet on the ground, the father of the family took up his sickle, and facing the sun, he cut a handful of corn. Putting the handful of corn three times sunwise round his head, the man raised the Iolach Buana, reaping salutation. The whole family took up the strain and praised the God of the harvest, who gave them corn and bread, food and flocks, wool and clothing, health and strength, and peace and plenty.

In the pre-Christian era, the first cut was probably offered to the unseen gods of the harvest, the patrons of the kin-groups, or the goddess of the territory.


The pre-Christian Celts recognized that they shared the land and its resources with unseen beings, other human beings, and still other creatures: animals, birds, plants, and trees.

A number of myths and stories depict animals as helpers and guides, especially in liminal areas such as the forest or sea or the entrance to the Otherworld. Celtic artifacts abound with animal imagery. Divination systems were based on animal behavior. Poetry was full of animal images and metaphors.

From our distant perspective, it may be impossible to determine exactly how the ancient Celts related to animals on a mystical or magical level. Like many other hunting peoples, the ancient Celts probably developed intimate knowledge of and identification with their quarry. Evidence suggests that they admired qualities they saw in animals, sought to emulate them, and perhaps even ritually acquired them. Many warrior characters had names that included animal elements: Culann's Hound, Horselips, Horselike. In the Irish myths, Cú Chulainn was forbidden to eat dog-flesh because his patron animal was the hound, and Conaire Mór could not hunt birds because his father's kin-group regularly shifted to that form. In Irish and Welsh poetry, warriors were frequently likened to the animals customarily associated with most Indo-European warrior-cults:

"Like a wild boar he led the men of the hillfort."

"He had the victory-he was a bloody wolf . . ."

". . . a bear who hugged battlefields to death . . ."


This evidence suggests a mystical bonding between warrior and animal, similar to that in warrior cults the world over. In Irish and Welsh mythology, gods and goddesses constantly shape-shift into animal form. Sometimes a deity in animal-form mated with one in human form. Goddesses who mated with humans gave birth to both animals and children. Deities were pictured in sculpture and myth in animal form or with animal characteristics. Professor Bo Almqvist traced an Irish tradition that the soul inhabited the body in the form of a salmon, while other traditions depicted the soul leaving the body in the form of a butterfly.

But the ancient Celts did not hesitate to use animals or their parts. In some cases, animal flesh was regarded as powerful and sacred. Poets and seers chewed on the flesh of dogs and cats for poetic inspiration, and consumed beef before divination. Animal sacrifice seems to have been a regular occurrence. But the Celts also used animals as sources of everyday food and clothing. They ate cows, pigs, sheep, deer, hares, and other animals. Animal skins were used for clothing, and bones and other parts were recycled into useful objects. So the ancient Celtic attitude to animals combined respect, emulation, a sense of the holy, and pragmatism.

Almost everything said about other animals can also be said of the ancient Celtic attitude towards birds. However, as touched on earlier, birds had the added ability of being able to travel in the sky to places inaccessible to humans. Waterfowl that could exist in sky and water as well as on land were thought to be especially magical and to be able to cross into the Otherworld or communicate its messages. Deities frequently shifted into the form of birds or used them as messengers. Also, the behavior of various birds was used in divining. Ravens were always considered birds of omen and unusual intelligence; they were associated with both divination and the field of battle. They and other crows were thought to be especially dear to the battle goddesses and the god Lugos. Ravens with white feathers were good omens.

The pre-Christian Celts had a particular feeling for trees. Classical authors repeatedly spoke of the trees on Celtic sacred sites and they associated forests with Celtic ritual sites in Gaul. The Breton forest of Brocéliande retained its magical reputation into modern times.

In Ireland, a sacred tree or bile stood at the center of each tribe's territory; the tree apparently represented the tribe or its sovereignty. Perhaps the bile had other ritual meaning that was lost in the Christian period. Various trees were thought to have special magical properties. Classical writers associated the druids with the oak in particular, but in Ireland, the yew, rowan, and hawthorn were considered at least as powerful. Laws enacted stiff fines if trees were cut down, the fine varying with the type of tree. In one version of ogham - the alphabet developed by the early medieval Irish - each character was associated with a type of tree.

Time and Seasons

In rural communities, there is little time for contemplation or analysis. Time passes and humans must keep up with their tasks or natural forces will recapture the land and overwhelm the orderliness of the home. As Henry Glassie writes:

Beneath Fermanagh skies, you have not the luxury of pausing to get things in mental order before getting them into physical order . . . All is moving, interdependent, too complicated for the planner who thinks beyond time, contrives to perfection within a circumscribed reality, then jubilantly announces progress while the rest of the world falls apart . . . Living in all seasons, patiently, one must plan while acting. Plan is action. Action is history. Every gesture has precedent and consequence.

Time, then, should be seen as another part of the cosmos, adding a dimension that the ancient Celts considered in achieving cosmic balance. We do not know a great deal about the methods they used to calculate and track time. Most of our ideas are based on a few archaeological finds combined with the comments of medieval scribes and ancient historians, fleshed out by the evidence of folklore. However, one concept clearly persisted through the ages: that some days were right times and some were not. One of the earliest pieces of evidence, the Coligny calendar, separated each month into days that were auspicious and those that were not. As we saw earlier, Scots in the nineteenth century thought of Friday as "auspicious for all operations not necessitating the use of iron."

When considering the characteristics of the ancient Celtic year, it is important to recall that the ancient Celts used a calendar different from that in use today. The evidence for the original Celtic calendar derives chiefly from the inscriptions on bronze plates found at Coligny, Burgundy, in 1897 but dating from the Roman period in Gaul. The plates show a lunar calendar of twelve months, each consisting of 29 or 30 days. To bring this calendar into line with the movements of the sun, an extra month was inserted every 30 months. Months were marked either mat (good or auspicious) or anm (for anmat, inauspicious). Each month was split in two, perhaps according to the waxing and waning of the moon.

The year was thought of in two halves-dark and bright-but had four seasons. Pliny noted that the Celts began their months on the sixth of the moon which suggests that the Celtic feasts originally were movable compared to the fixed, solar-based Julian calendar imposed by the Romans. However, with the adoption of the Julian calendar and the later Gregorian calendar, the Celtic feasts were stabilized, at least nominally, at the so-called quarter days: the first day of November, February, May and August. Even today, rents are paid on these days. In modern practice, as MacNeill notes, the feasts tend to be celebrated on the Sunday closest to the quarter day. Perhaps this trend began when Parliament outlawed giving laborers time off for celebrating saints' days.

Traditionally, the Celtic new year, now modernized as beginning on 1 November, began with winter. The year began with the cold, dark times, just as the Celtic day began at sundown, emphasizing the moon's rising and life starting in the dark of the womb. Although associated with death in some ways, winter was also when the earth rested in preparation for regeneration to new life. Winter thus was the beginning of the agricultural cycle, to be followed by planting (spring), growth (summer), and harvest (fall). Summer (modernized at 1 May) began when all the factors for growth were at their height.

The four seasons of the ancient Celtic year were based more on the perspective and activities of a herding and farming culture than on the astronomical position of the sun. Each season began with a feast and associated customs. Specific agrarian tasks and special customs were associated with each feast. Recent folklore studies have shown that many of the ancient practices survived well into the twentieth century, especially in rural areas. Nerys Patterson notes about early medieval Ireland that "underlying the social organization of time lay the cyclical rhythms of the animals that sustained human life," but the same principles applied also to other Celtic areas in northern Europe.

The rituals at each quarter day were intended to ensure the success of the human and agricultural activities that would occur during the coming season. In the Christian period, the feasts were reassigned to church festivals and various saints became the focus of the rituals. 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.


Although we do not have a surviving Celtic creation myth, Irish and Welsh sources preserve a tradition that describes how human bodies were made from the various parts of the world: flesh from land, blood from sea, breath from wind/sky. Some of this evidence is found in medieval medical texts and some in myths. Bruce Lincoln, an authority on Indo-European traditions and sources, has studied the similarities among the various surviving Indo-European creation myths and compared them with medieval Irish and Welsh traditions. He argues that these ideas derive from a very old Indo-European tradition because they are found preserved, not just in Christian-era manuscripts, but in the pre-Christian myths of some modern Indo-European cultures. From this comparative evidence, Lincoln has reconstructed a story that he thinks incorporates the basic elements of the original Indo-European creation story.

There were two brothers, probably twins. One was a king, the other a priest. They may have had a sister who was also the wife of one or both. As a result of a battle, dispute, or intentional ritual killing, one brother died. In most cases, the dead brother was the king, the ancestor of his people, who then became the lord of the world of the dead. The surviving brother created the world from the body parts of the dead brother.

In turn, the first humans were made from the parts of the world, reversing the process by which the cosmos was created. This cycle of creation and de-creation never really stopped. Whenever someone died, it was thought that the parts of the body returned to the basic stuff of the cosmos, eventually to be used to create a body for a newborn child or perhaps for their rebirth into the Otherworld. Thus, the world was in a constant state of flux and dynamic tension between creation and de-creation. Proper functioning of all the parts required a balance between creation and de-creation, chaos and order. If the balance was upset, chaos would ensue.

The story, related in Lebor Gabála Érenn, of how Donn and his brother Amergen arrived in Ireland contains some of the essential elements of a creation myth. In that story, Amergen is a priest/poet and Donn is the king leading the forces to invade Ireland. Amergen makes peace with the supernatural forces and is allowed to land safely. Donn insults the goddess of the land for which she curses him. Later he is fatally injured and becomes the lord of Teach Duinn, the island where the Irish dead are said to go. Gaulish tradition, too, apparently had a Donn-like figure, at least according to Julius Caesar, who said that the ancestor of the Gauls was Dis Pater, a Roman figure who was considered the lord of the dead.

Returning to the Irish story, as Amergen leads the forces ashore, he recites a long poem full of creative imagery. In part it reads:

I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler.

Who explains the stones of the mountains?

Who invokes the ages of the moon?

Where lies the setting of the sun?

Who bears cattle from the house of Tethra?

Who are the cattle of Tethra who laugh?

What man, what god forms weapons?


The language of the poem is complex and open to multiple translations. Whatever the correct interpretation, Amergen brings the order of human society to the natural forces of the land, which is itself a creative action.

The foregoing is a synopsis of a system far too complex to be given more than a superficial treatment in these few pages, but here is Lincoln's summary of what we may consider the basic physics of ancient Celtic cosmology:

· Man and the cosmos are alloforms of each other.

· Matter is eternal in its existence, but subject to infinite recombination.

· Time is infinite.

· Change is constant, but the same processes recur cyclically.


The Otherworld and Death

A major feature of Irish and Welsh mythology was the Otherworld. Existing parallel to our world, the Otherworld was the principal home of the ancient Celtic deities. The Underworld is closely related to the Otherworld and sometimes equated with it. Both represent dimensions where mysterious beings and creatures lived.

Humans could enter the Otherworld at certain times under special circumstances. Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his companions frequently crossed over, sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally, in pursuit of prey or a stolen object. Having arrived there, it was not always possible to escape. For example, eating Otherworld food might mean one could never leave.

Conversely, when one actually died, the ancient Celts believed some part of a human survived and proceeded to life in another place. Nicandor of Colophon talked of Celts sleeping near the tombs of their famous dead so as to receive messages in dreams. Offerings sent to the Otherworld on funeral pyres would be received by ancestors on the other side, according to Diodorus Siculus. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dead were venerated and that the earliest Celts believed it was necessary to be buried with one's favorite possessions to furnish the Afterlife. Classical references confirm this. As time passed, however, graves became less elaborate in some areas and sometimes cremation was substituted for burial of the corpse. We don't know the significance of these changes.

It is not clear who, besides humans, inhabited the world where the dead go. Numerous stories in myth and folktale tell of the dead returning to this world to convey messages to the living. Traditionally, it was thought that new year was the customary time when ancestral spirits returned and visited their families. Myths of the Otherworld do not mention humans who have died, but folklore makes no distinction between the fairies (deities and powers) and the spirits of human dead. What is clear is that all Otherworld stories use the same literary images to picture a world much like this one but where beauty and the senses are enhanced.

Was the world of the dead the final stopping place? A popular assumption nowadays is that the ancient Celts believed in reincarnation, that the soul would repeatedly be reborn. The evidence cited consists of statements by a few classical authors, plus stories from the Irish myths in which characters are depicted moving from one body to another. However, there are two objections to this evidence. While some classical authors specify "migration of the soul," most make statements of the sort: "the soul does not die but crosses over after death from one place to another." This could refer simply to an Afterlife. The other objection is that myths that appear to mention reincarnation actually concern an immortal being who shifts sequentially from one form to another. Some mortal exceptions include Cú Chulainn and Mongan, but their super-human attributes exceed those of mere mortals. Their incarnations and anything associated with them should probably be seen as extraordinary. The question of belief in reincarnation remains open for now.

Eschatology: the End of the World

Many Indo-European myths express a belief that the world as we know it will end as a result of a catastrophic battle between two armies of deities, after which the cosmos will be renewed or reborn. This destruction and recreation is said to recur cyclically. At first glance it seems that, if the ancient Celts had such myths, they were not preserved. However, the Irish myth Cath Maigh Tuired, in which the Túatha Dé Danann battle the Fomoire, actually contains most of the same mythic and plot elements as the story of Ragnarok, the Norse story in which the present world is destroyed and a new one created.

The main theme of Cath Maigh Tuired is about winning the right to the harvest but there may have been more cosmic dimensions to the story in earlier times. Perhaps significantly, the battle is set at the beginning of November, the Celtic New Year, when the cosmos was thought to undergo re-creation as the earth regenerated. Classical authors said that the ritual leaders and philosophers of the Gauls believed that the world would not end completely, though water and fire might prevail at times. This notion of water prevailing and covering the land persisted into the modern folklore of Ireland, Cornwall, and Brittany in tales of drowned cities such as Ys. Erstwhile Irish gods such as Lí Ban and Manannán reminisce about places and plains full of people and animals and crops that are now covered by ocean or lake. The Irish and British Christians readily accepted the tale of Noah and incorporated it into their histories. Perhaps this readiness was because of earlier pre-Christian traditions about floods.

The Inherent Power of Betwixt and Between

In these days of digital electronics, we tend to see life as one thing or another: black or white, on or off, right or wrong. In fact, between these states of being exist shades of gray, the intervals of dawn and dusk, the moments as one year ends and the next begins. Liminality is the quality of these threshold states that can refer to time of day or year, sexual identity, physical location, state of mind, being, weather, or social role. Some areas and personae were obviously liminal, but others may be more difficult to describe since, as Victor Turner writes,

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.

Liminal people included poets, seers, and musicians because it was believed they could contact the Otherworld. Celtic lore is full of liminal places and manifestations such as birds that are really goddesses, bulls that are really pig-herders, burial mounds that are entrances to the Otherworld, and a poor old woman who is the goddess of sovereignty. Those on the borders of society often had the power to bring about change because change was expected to come from them. Seers and poets who crossed to the Otherworld were expected to bring back direction and guidance that might involve change. Traveling musicians and craftspeople gathered new ideas that they incorporated in their work and shared during their stays in each area

Liminal places included forests, seashores, crossroads, territorial boundaries, caves, river fords, wells, bridges, and burial grounds. Such places held inherent power and were likely sites to encounter deities, the dead, and other non-human entities. To this day, many believe that to build on such sites is to invite disaster on the enterprise.

As Henry Glassie writes about the way a rural Irish community viewed life: "Reality is not in the present but between the past and the future." Thus, human beings are

. . . a part of nature . . . [and acting as] mediators between land and sky, they become the land's agents, its means for converting its potential to actuality, its water to fire. Beginning to act, they are compelled to further action. Their being becomes action in time.

Thus, life, too is tripartite in a tripartite cosmos: being-action-time in a world of land-sea-sky.


As we have seen, the worldview of ancient Celtic religion envisioned a cosmos full of creative but chaotic power that required control to make it productive for human survival. To control that power required contracting with the unseen powers and guardians for protection and performing the actions that were likely to gain their cooperation. The leadership of the tribe was invested through ceremonies that wedded the leader to the patron goddess, ensuring that her energy would flow into the land, people, and animals and bring prosperity to all. The knowledge of what to do and when to do it was, to a large extent, a matter of traditional wisdom handed down orally from one generation to another. The original source of that tradition was the Otherworld and it was supplemented by infusions of new wisdom acquired by ongoing contact with the Otherworld. Through long periods of training, the religious leaders and poets cultivated the skills and techniques necessary to communicate with the Otherworld and acquire the knowledge necessary to achieve harmonious living in the present, but everyone in the society had some knowledge of how to live in balance with the forces who shared the world.