Category Archives: Celtic

Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice, or Midwinter, is celebrated around the world by a variety of cultures.  It marks the shortest day of the year (the longest night), and when the sun is at its lowest on the horizon.  This usually occurs around December 21-22 in the Northern Hemisphere.  From that point onwards, the days continue to grow longer until Midsummer in June.  In Celtic countries, the Winter Solstice was seen as a time of rebirth and renewal, as signified by the return of the light.

The Celtic Midwinter is also known as Meán Geimhridh or Grianstad an Gheimhridh in Irish.  Solstices and equinoxes were thought to be very important to the pre- and early-Celtic people, as seen through the construction of several tombs whose passages align with the solstice sun, such as Newgrange.  These solstices were seen as occurring at the midpoint of each season, hence the name ‘Midwinter’ for the Winter Solstice.

In Druidic traditions, this day is known as Alban Arthan, which means ‘Light of Winter’ in Welsh.  Some also call it Alban Arthuan, or ‘Light of Arthur’, which pays homage to the Welsh legends of King Arthur.  Alban Arthan signifies the time when the archetypal Holly King (who rules from Midsummer to Midwinter) is defeated by the Oak King (who rules from Midwinter to Midsummer) in a great battle.  The Holly King, also seen as a wren bird, signifies the old year and the shortened sun, while the Oak King, also seen as a robin, signifies the new year and growing sun.  Mistletoe is also a symbol of the Winter Solstice, as it was thought that Druids revered the plant as ‘ever green’, which signified continued life over the cold dark winter.  Since mistletoe is thought to be an aphrodisiac, this is where the holiday tradition of ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ could have originated.

In Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, a festival called Lá an Dreoilín, or Wren Day, is celebrated on December 26.  It involves boys dressed in masks or straw suits, called Wrenboys, parading around town accompanied by musicians.  Originally they would hunt and kill a wren, in tribute to the light overcoming the dark, and carry the bird from house to house, stopping for food and good cheer.  Thankfully this tradition now involves using a fake bird.

In Scotland, winter festivities are held on the eve of the New Year, when there is a great celebration called Hogmanay.  It is thought that the Christian church was trying to suppress the pagan solstice celebrations in the 17th century, therefore the festivities moved to the coincide with the new year.  The name Hogmanay could have derived from the Scottish Gaelic word for ‘Yule gifts’.  Hogmanay customs include ‘first-footing’ (trying to get your foot first in a doorway of neighbours houses after midnight), ‘redding’ (spring cleaning), torchlight processions, fireball swinging, as well as giving gifts of coal, shortbread, whisky, or a black bun (fruit pudding).

Wiki – Winter Solstice, Alban Arthan

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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The World of Stonehenge

Neil Oliver, archaeologist and presenter of several BBC documentaries, has created a wonderful series that is highly entertaining and informative.  (It doesn’t hurt that he has a cute Scottish accent!) Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of Great Britain, particularly Celtic history.

A History of Ancient Britain, Series 1, BBC 2 (2011)
aka The World of Stonehenge, Knowledge Network, USA

Image: A-History-of-Ancient-Britain-Series-1-Cover.jpg

Tapping into the latest scientific detective work and experimental archaeology, Neil Oliver uncovers the story of prehistoric Britain in this fascinating four-part series. Investigating famous sites, as well as little known ones (which hold some of the biggest secrets), Neil travels to Brittany to discover Carnac, where farmers and hunter-gathers clashed 7,000 years ago, to Ireland, where he finds the world’s most extensive Stone Age system of fields and walls, and to Stonehenge, the sacred stone circle where the living could commune with the dead.

  • Age of Ice – Neil Oliver travels back to ice age Britain as he begins the epic story of how our land and its people came to be over thousands of years of ancient history. This week sees a struggle for survival in a brutal world of climate change and environmental catastrophe.
  • Age of Ancestors – Neil Oliver continues the story of how today’s Britain and its people were forged over thousands of years of ancient history. It’s 4,000 BC and the first farmers arrive from Europe, with seismic consequences for the local hunter-gatherers.
  • Age of Cosmology – Neil Oliver continues his journey through the world of Ancient Britain as he encounters an age of cosmological priests and some of the greatest monuments of the Stone Age, including Stonehenge itself. This is a time of elite travellers, who were inventing the very idea of Heaven itself.
  • Age of Bronze – Neil Oliver reaches the end of his epic tour of our most distant past with the arrival of metals and the social revolution that ushered in a new age of social mobility, international trade, and village life.

A History of Celtic Britain, Series 2, BBC 2 (2011)
aka The World After Stonehenge, Knowledge Network, USA

Image: A-History-of-Celtic-Britain-Cover.jpg

Neil continues his landmark investigation of how Britain and its peoples came to be. Over the course of four episodes, he tells the story of a developing nation, from a population of self-sufficient farmers in 500 BC through the Iron Age and the Roman conquest. He also addresses one of the greatest mysteries of history: who, what and where were the Celts? They may never have existed as a genetic people, but as a culture the Celts generated extraordinary riches – warriors, druids and the first kings.

  • Age of Iron – Diving for 3,000-year-old treasure and pot-holing through an ancient copper mine he discovers how a golden age of bronze collapsed into social and economic crisis set against a period of sharp climate change… eventually to be replaced by a new era, of iron.
  • Age of Warriors – Neil Oliver explores the age of Celtic Britain – a time of warriors, druids, and kings of unimaginable wealth. Neil encounters a celebrated warrior from 300 BC, owner of the finest Iron Age sword ever discovered. He tries his hand at divination in an effort to discover the power of Celtic priests and searches into his own DNA for clues to Celtic identity.
  • Age of Invasion – Neil Oliver explores the remains of brutal Iron Age battles and Celtic rebellion as he reaches the moment when Celtic Britain was ripped apart by the world’s great empire – the Roman army.
  • Age of Romans – Neil Oliver completes his epic journey through thousands of years of ancient history with the modern marvels of Rome. Digging beneath a London tower block, discovering building work from a massive stadium, and encountering the remains of an African woman who lived in York 1800 years ago – all evidence of the extraordinary multicultural modern world of Rome.

DocuWiki – A History of Ancient Britain Series 1, A History of Celtic Britain
Knowledge Network – The World of Stonehenge, The World After Stonehenge

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Triskele

The triskele, or triskelion, is an ancient symbol consisting of three interlocking spirals, or sometimes three bent human legs.  The name is Greek for ‘three legged’ or ‘three times’.  The triskele can be found at several Megalithic and Neolithic sites around Europe, and has strong connections to the pre-Celtic art of the La Tène culture.

File:Celtic Bronze Disc, Longban Island, Derry.jpg

The triskele can be found on a number of pre-Celtic megalithic sites, including Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne), the ancient astrological passage tomb dated to around 3,200 BCE.  Here, the triple spiral motif is found carved on the passage and entrance stones as well as several of its surrounding curbstones.

TripleSpiral_Newgrange

Later, the triple spiral was incorporated into the Insular art of illuminated manuscripts from Ireland, such as the Book of Kells, resulting in a connection with Celtic culture that still is still seen today.

The triskelion appears in many other cultures and regions, such as Sicily (called ‘trinacria’), the Isle of Man, Brittany, and some parts of Germany.  It is also found on Mycenaean vessels, Lycaean coins, and on warrior’s shields on Greek pottery.

File:Flag of Sicily.svg File:Flag of the Isle of Man.svg

The spiral triskele is also a symbol of several polytheistic reconstructionist and Neopagan groups.  Celtic Reconstructionists use the triskele to represent the triplicities in their cosmology and theology, such as the connection between Land, Sea and Sky.  The triskele is also associated with the Celtic sea god Manannán mac Lir and the triple goddess Brigid.

File:Triple-Spiral-Symbol-filled.svg

The triple spiral is also called the ‘spiral of life’, symbolizing life, death and afterlife.  The Celts believed that all things moved in eternal cycles, and the triskele reminds us of the cycle of life.

Wiki – Triskelion, Triple Spiral

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Located in Wiltshire, England, it consists of a ring of standing stones within a variety of earthworks.  Stonehenge is found within one of the most dense collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, which includes the nearby site of Avebury.

File:Stonehenge2007 07 30.jpg

Stonehenge is thought to have been constructed over several stages between 3,000 to 2,000 BCE, however the site has been found to contain much older archeological evidence.  Initial Mesolithic post holes have been found and dated to around 8,000 BCE.

The first stage of construction at Stonehenge began around 3,100 BCE, consisting of banks, ditches and a circle of pits known as the Aubrey holes.  Cremated remains were found with these pits and experts suggest they are associated with some sort of religious ceremony.  Analysis of teeth found near the nearby Durrington Walls suggests that as many as 4,000 people had gathered at the site.

stonehenge_aerial

The second stage of construction at Stonehenge occurred around 3,000 BCE and consisted of earthworks and timber postholes.  Additional cremated remains have been dated to this time, suggesting that Stonehenge was one of the earliest cremation cemeteries in the British Isles.

The next stage of construction began around 2,600 BCE, marking the transition from timber to stone. It is during this time that about 80 bluestones were erected to form a double circle.  The origins of the dolerite bluestones is thought to be from southwest Wales, however a glacial origin of the stones has also been postulated.  The northeastern entrance of Stonehenge was also widened and more precisely aligned with the mid-summer sunrise and mid-winter sunset.

From about 2,600 to 2,400 BCE, several sarsen stones were erected to form an outer ring and hanging lintels.  The final configuration was completed between 2,280 to 1,600 BCE, where the stones were rearranged to form the horseshoe and circle shape seen at Stonehenge today.

Major restoration began on the site in 1901, including straightening and moving several large standing stones.  In 1928, Stonehenge was purchased and given to the National Trust in order to preserve the monument and its surrounding land.  Archaeological excavations have also occurred over time, leading to new discoveries and further reconfiguration of the site.

Since Stonehenge was constructed during a time when little written records were kept, not much is known about its original purpose and usage.  Early writers speculated that Stonehenge was built and used by the ancient Druids as part of their ritual practices, however it has since been found that the site is much older.  Many theories have been suggested, such as Stonehenge being a place of healing, ancestor worship, or funerary monument.   However the site is still associated with much myth and legend.  Neopagans flock to the site in celebration, particularly at the solstices and equinoxes.  It is a place of beauty, magic and mystery.

Wiki – Stonehenge
PaganWiccan.About.com – Stonehenge

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Rhiannon

Rhiannon is a Welsh goddess of the earth, fertility, birds and horses.  She appears in the first and third branches of the Mabinogion, as well as the Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen.  Through her marriage to Pwyll pen Annwfn she is also connected to the Otherworld.

Rhiannon is thought to be predecessor of the Brittanic goddess Rigantona (‘Great Queen’), and therefore could have a possible link to the Irish Macha and Morrígan (also ‘Great Queen’).  She is also linked to the Gaulish goddess Epona through their association with horses.

File:MULO-Epona Freyming.jpg

The First Branch of the Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed , tells of how the Demetian king Pwyll sees Rhiannon in a forest riding a shining white horse.  Even though she is already engaged to Gwawl ap Clud, Pwyll and Rhiannon eventually marry.  They produce a son, however the boy disappears on the night of his birth while under the watchful eye of Rhiannon’s ladies-in-waiting.  Fearful of the king’s wrath, the ladies smear dog’s blood on the sleeping Rhiannon, and claim she killed her son by eating him.  Rhiannon was found guilty, and as punishment was forced to stand outside the castle for seven years and offer strangers a ride on her back like a horse.

Meanwhile, the boy is found outside a stable by Teyrnon and his wife, who claim the boy as their own and name him Gwri Wallt Euryn (‘Gwri of the Golden Hair’).  The boy grows quickly, and soon his resemblance to Pwyll grows more obvious.  Teyrnon realizes Gwri’s true identity, and he is eventually reunited with Pwyll and Rhiannon.  Gwri  is renamed Pryderi, meaning ‘loss’.

Rhiannon later marries Manawydan fab Llyr (equivalent to the Irish Manannán), the god of the sea, after Pwyll’s death.  Their adventures, outlined in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, Manawydan fab Llŷr, describe how a magical mist descends over the land of Dyfed, leaving it empty of animals and humans apart from Rhiannon, Manawydan, her son Pryderi and his wife Cigfa.  The group travels to England where they unsuccessfully try to make a living making saddles and shoes.  Pryderi and Rhiannon eventually get trapped in a magical fort and vanish from sight.

Manawydan and Cigfa continue to try to make a living by farming, however their crops are continuously destroyed.  Upon catching one of the mice who had devoured his grain, he finds out that the mice were attendants of the mage Llwyd ap Cil Coed who had been magically transformed.  Llwyd was friend to Gwawl, Rhiannon’s former fiancé, and they find out the trouble which had plagued the group was done out of revenge.

Rhiannon had three magical birds, the Birds of Rhiannon, whose song can wake the dead or lull the living to sleep.  One of the birds was thought to be Badb, the crow, which deepens Rhiannon’s link to the Morrígan.

Rhiannon is a symbol of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Wiki – Rhiannon
Thalia Took – Rhiannon
Celtic Deities – Rhiannon
Mary Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia – Rhiannon

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Celtic Reconstructionism

Neopaganism is a recent movement which is a modern take on ancient practices.  It is an umbrella term that can include a variety of traditions or practices from different cultures, such as Celtic, Norse, Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian.

Definitions of paganism are hard because pagans mostly do not operate within a centralised religious body or follow a standard set of rules.  However a few common threads tie together pagan movements, including the belief that everything is sacred and blessed, and everything is interconnected.  Most pagan traditions are earth-centered, recognize both male and female deities, and stress a connection to and respect for the natural world.  They are also mostly animistic (believing everything in the world has a spiritual presence) and polytheistic (meaning they believe in many gods or deities).

Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism is a polytheistic reconstructionist approach to Celtic Neopaganism.  Celtic Reconstructionism recognizes a number of sub-traditions or denominations, such as Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and even within New World colonies such as Nova Scotia and other parts of North America.

Celtic Reconstructionism is a mix of Celtic Studies with pre-Christian Celtic spiritual practice.  Many Neo-Druid groups follow the Celtic Reconstructionist path, and both groups read similar historical, anthropological and archaeological texts as part of their study.

Some beliefs of Celtic Reconstructionists include:

  • The connection to ancestors and land spirits.
  • Reverence for pre-Christian Celtic deities.
  • Environmental awareness.
  • Respect for women.
  • Strong moral code, stressing truthfulness, honour and personal responsibility.

It also involves a connection to ancient Celtic culture, mythology and folklore, through both historical accuracy and poetic inspiration.  The Celtic Calendar is often followed, which includes Samhain (Oct 31), Oímealg/Imbolc (Feb 1), Bealtaine (May 1), and Lúnasa/Lúghnasadh (Aug 1).

Given that the Celts themselves left no written record, and the only accounts documenting the Celtic way of life was written by early Roman and Greek sources, it seems reconstructing Celtic culture would be difficult.  However archeological evidence, comparative anthropology, and other historical manuscripts can piece together what little we know about the ancient Celts.

Many Celtic Reconstructionists have Celtic ancestry, however all that is required is an interest in Celtic culture.  And while it might not be the aim of Celtic Reconstructionists to revive all ancient Celtic practices, many wish to preserve the spirit of the ancient Celts along with their mythology and folklore, artwork and symbology, poetry and prayer.

Wiki – Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism
IMBAS – What is CR
Pàganachd agus Págánacht – What is CR

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Pangur Bán

Pangur Bán is a 9th century poem written in Old Irish.  In the poem, the Irish monk compares his work with the antics of his white cat Pangur Bán, ‘white fuller’.  The poem can be found in the Reichenau Primer, which is kept at St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal in Austria.  The Secret of Kells also features a white cat named Pangur Bán who fled the island of Iona with his owner, a white haired monk, during the Viking invasions.

Several translations of the poem exist, with one such translation below.

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

Cat&Mouse

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Anonymous

Wiki – Pangur Bán

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The Everything Celtic Wisdom Book

The Everything Celtic Wisdom Book Jennifer Emick (2009)

The Everything Celtic Wisdom Book: Find Inspiration Through Ancient Traditions, Rituals, and Spirituality

People of many denominations find spiritual meaning and inspiration in the wisdom of the Celtic tribes. The Celtic path of wisdom incorporates Druidism, early Christianity, and ancient Celtic myth and lore. This guide includes discussion of the following topics: The Divine Male and Female; Shamanism; Druidism; Celtic Christianity; Fairies and other creatures of nature; Celtic folklore; and more. This thoughtful look at Celtic spirituality includes Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditions – both familiar and mysterious. With this invaluable guide, readers will walk the path to the Celtic Otherworld through traditional poetry, ritual, and prayer – on a never-ending journey of the soul.

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I found The Everything Celtic Wisdom Book to be a quick and enjoyable read, suited to someone new to the world of Celtic culture or who wants a light-hearted summary of Celtic history and mythology.  The author covers topics such as the Celtic myth cycles, the druids, Celtic religion, art and symbology, faeries, the Wheel of the Year, and Celts in the modern age.

One of the major problems I found with the book, however, was how the author took great liberties with her theories and made connections and inferences without much backup.  I would have appreciated footnotes or examples of why she was drawing connections in some instances.

If you’re looking for factual reference and an academic review of the Celtic people, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.  However if you’re looking for an enjoyable introductory read about Celtic history, culture, religion and mythology, this is a good book to have on your shelf.

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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The Celts: The Complete Epic Saga

The Celts: The Complete Epic Saga (DVD)

The Celts were the first European people north of the Alps to rise from anonymity. Wild and ferocious, they were also romantics and mystics and they shared a family of languages that are now the oldest living tongues of Europe. Their story is one of survival, defiance and creativity often in the face of oppression.

IN THE BEGINNING
Who were the Celts, and what made their culture so distinctive? The mysteries of the Celts are made more complex by the absence of ancient Celtic written records.

HEROES IN DEFEAT
Celtic culture was to spread to cover an area stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. Soon after 400 B.C. Celtic tribes erupted over the Alps and attacked Rome and Delphi.

THE SACRED GROVES
The Celts are surrounded by an aura of romance and mysticism, and echoes of the past still resonate today. Many of the traditional feast dates of Western Civilization have their roots in the pagan Celtic past.

FROM CAMELOT TO CHRIST
One man, Arthur, succeeded in repelling the Anglo-Saxon advance. But who was he, and did he even exist at all? The mystical Celtic world represented by Arthur is now linked with the Christian missionaries.

LEGEND AND REALITY
The year 1066 marks the coming of the Normans, the new enemies of the Celts. From the eleventh century the Celtic nations faced gradual absorption and assimilation by their powerful neighbors England and France.

A DEAD SONG?
The word ‘Celt’ first appeared in 1707, the year of the union of Scotland with England. Two conflicting forces drove the Celts wherever they settled to be absorbed or to retain their own identity .

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The Celts is a 2-DVD set covering the development of pre-Celtic and proto-Celtic cultures, to the eventual integration of the Celts into Roman, Viking, Norman and Anglo-Saxon cultures.  It discusses the Halstatt and La Tène periods, the religious beliefs of the Celtic people, the Roman invasion, the rise of Christianity, the Viking invasions, the struggle for power in the British Isles, the decline of Celtic culture, and the modern Celtic revival.

This scholarly work features interviews with famous figures in Celtic Studies, such as Barry Cunliffe, Anne Ross, and Miranda Green.  However maintaining its historical accuracy, The Celts is also enjoyable and interesting, featuring scenes of stunning scenery and magnificent artwork.  Although long, this DVD set is definitely recommended.

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Ogham

Ogham (OH-am) is an ancient alphabet used to write Old Irish and other Brythonic/Brittonic languages (such as Pictish, Welsh) from about the 3rd century CE.  The Ogham alphabet is sometimes called the ‘Celtic Tree Alphabet’ as each letter is assigned a tree or plant name.  However, this was probably done after the initial creation of the Ogham script.

After about the 6th century CE, the Roman alphabet was used to write Old Irish, therefore the Ogham alphabet declined in popularity.  However, the 14th century Book of Ballymote (Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta) contains genealogies, mythologies, and histories of Ireland written in Ogham script.

File:Book of Ballymote 170r.jpg

The Book of Ballymote also contains older manuscripts which contain Ogham script, such as the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) and the 7th century Auraicept na n-Éces (The Scholars’ Primer).  Another important document that contains detailed descriptions of Ogham is the 14th century In Lebor Ogaim (The Book of Ogams, The Ogam Tract), which is mentioned in Auraicept na n-Éces.

Several of these manuscripts describe how the Ogham alphabet was invented soon after the Tower of Babel (along with the Gaelic language) by the Scythian king Fenius.  However The Ogam Tract states that the alphabet was created by the Irish god of communication and writing, Ogma/Oghma (Ogmios in Gaul).

File:Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone.JPG

Ogham inscriptions have been found throughout Ireland and western Britain.  Most ancient inscriptions are found along the edges of large stone slabs and consist of personal names, such as ‘X son of Y’, probably as territorial markers or memorials.  It is thought that Ogham letters would have also been inscribed on sticks, stakes and trees.  Bilingual inscriptions have been found which aid in translation, such as Ogham and Latin, or Ogham and Old Norse (written in the Runic alphabet).

Originally there were 20 Ogham characters (feda), divided into four groups (aicmí) of five.  Each aicme was named after its first letter:

Aicme Beithe – “the B Group”
Aicme hÚatha – “the H Group”
Aicme Muine – “the M Group”
Aicme Ailme – “the A Group”

A fifth group, forfeda, was added after the 6th century, probably due to changes in the Irish language.

The Ogham alphabet (vertical)

The alphabet is generally written vertically from bottom to top, mostly found inscribed on stone slabs.  However horizontal script is also found, written from left to right, mostly in manuscripts.  The letters are linked together by a solid line.

In his book The White Goddess, Robert Graves discusses the Ogham alphabet in reference to Celtic religious beliefs and ceremonies.  He proposes that the order of Ogham letters form a calendar of tree magic, with each letter corresponding to a Celtic month.

  1. Beith (Birch)        December 24 to January 20
  2. Luis (Rowan)      January 21 to February 17
  3. Nion (Ash)           February 18 to March 17
  4. Fearn (Alder)      March 18 to April 14
  5. Saille (Willow)    April 15 to May 12
  6. Uath (Hawthorn) May 13 to June 9
  7. Duir (Oak)           June 10 to July 7
  8. Tinne (Holly)      July 8 to August 4
  9. Coll (Hazel)         August 5 to September 1
  10. Muin (Vine)        September 2 to September 29
  11. Gort (Ivy)            September 30 to October 27
  12. Ngetal (Reed)     October 28 to November 24
  13. Ruis (Elder)         November 25 to December 22

December 23 is not ruled by any tree, it is the traditional day in the “Year and a Day” in early courts of law. 

Robert Graves followed the older interpretation of ‘Beith-Luis-Nion’ as the first three Ogham letters.  However most modern scholars place the order of Ogham letters as ‘Beith-Luis-Fearn’.

Oghams are also used by Neopagans as divination tools, as mentioned in the Tochmarc Étaíne, from the Irish Mythological Cycle.  Ogham symbols are written on sticks or other pieces of wood and thrown on the ground, studying the symbolism of where they fell.

Witch of Forest Grove

Witch of Forest Grove

Wiki – Ogham
Omniglot – Ogham
Ancient Scripts – Ogham
Celtic Tree Calendar

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Nuada of the Silver Arm

Nuada Airgetlám, Nuadu, Nodens (Gaulish), Nudd / Ludd / Lludd Llaw Eraint (Welsh)

Nuada was the first king the Tuatha Dé Danann, equivalent to the Gaulish Nodens and Welsh Nudd/Ludd.  He was also called Nuada Airgetlám (Nuada of the Silver Hand/Arm) or Lludd Llaw Eraint (Lludd of the Silver Hand).

Nuada was the god of the sea, healing, and warfare, linked to the Roman gods Mars and Neptune, and also the Norse god Týr/Tir.  He is also associated with the sun, youth, beauty, writing, sorcery and magic.

Nuada is associated with the Invincible Sword, the Sword of Light, one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  It was crafted by the poet (fili) and wizard Uiscias/Uscias in Findias, one of the ancient great cities of the Tuatha Dé.  The sword was thought to only inflict mortal blows when drawn, cleaving its enemies in half.

Nuada was king of the Tuatha Dé Danann before they arrived in Ireland.  Upon reaching the emerald isle, they met the Fir Bolg, and challenged them to battle after unsuccessfully bargaining half the land for themselves.  This was the First Battle of Mag Tuired, in which Nuada lost his hand/arm to the Fir Bolg champion Sreng.  The Tuatha Dé Danann won the battle, and Sreng and the Fir Bolg were granted a quarter of the island, of which he chose Connacht.

Since Nuada lost an arm in battle, he was no longer allowed to rule, as Tuatha Dé Danann kings must be physically perfect and ‘unblemished’.  He was replaced by the half-Formorian Bres, who was quickly found unfit by rule by the Tuatha Dé people for his tyranny.

Nuada’s brother Dian Cecht and the wright Creidhne crafted a beautiful silver arm for Nuada that would allow him to once again be king.  Bres was removed from the throne, which led to the Second Battle of Mag Tuired.  By this time, Lugh had joined Nuada’s court, and was a fierce opponent to the Formorians.  During the battle, Nuada was killed by the Formorian Balor of the Evil Eye, however was avenged by Lugh who then killed Balor.  Lugh then took over as king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and reigned for many years.

Wiki – Nuada
Wiki – Tuatha De Danann
Wiki – Four Treasures
Pantheon – Nuada

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh stories, mostly mythology and folklore, including the earliest Arthurian myths.

the-mabinogion

The stories were originally found in two manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425), however some of the stories are thought to have been written as early as the 11th century.  Lady Charlotte Guest was the first to translate these stories to English in the mid-19th century.  Curiously, the name ‘The Mabinogion’ is thought to have arisen from a translation error of ‘Mabinogi’, meaning ‘tale of a hero’s boyhood’.

The Mabinogion is divided into three categories:

Four Branches of the Mabinogi (“Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi”)

  • Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince/Lord of Dyfed)
  • Branwen ferch Llŷr (Branwen, daughter of Llŷr)
  • Manawydan fab Llŷr (Manawydan, son of Llŷr)
  • Math fab Mathonwy (Math, son of Mathonwy)

Independent Tales from Welsh tradition and legend

  • Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (The Dream of Macsen  Wledig)
  • Lludd a Llefelys  (Lludd and Llefelys)
  • Culhwch ac Olwen (Culhwch and Olwen)
  • Breuddwyd Rhonabwy ( The Dream of Rhonabwy)
  • Hanes Taliesin (The Tale of Taliesin)

Welsh Romances

  • Owain, neu Iarlles y Ffynnon (Owain, the Lady of the Fountain)
  • Peredur fab Efrog (Peredur, son of Efrawg)
  • Geraint ac Enid (Geraint and Enid)

The first four stories, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, all containing a central character, Pryderi.  In the first story, Pwyll, Pryderi grows into a man.  In the second Pryderi is scarcely mentioned, however Branwen marries the King of Ireland.  In the third, Pryderi return home with Manawydan, brother of Branwen.  The fourth involves Math and Gwydion, who come into conflict with Pryderi.

In the Independent Tales, The Dream of Macsen Wledig involves an emperor marrying a maiden he saw in a dream.  Lludd and Llefelys tells the story of Britain suffering from three strange plagues.  The next two, Culhwch and Olwen  and The Dream of Rhonabwy, involve King Arthur and his companions.  A fifth story sometimes included is the Tale of Taliesin, however this story was not found in the earlier manuscripts and is thought to have been included at a later stage.

The Mabinogion - Peredur Son of Efrawg

The Welsh Romances, Owain, Peredur, and Geraint and Enid, are similar to the French Arthurian romances written by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century.

The Mabinogion Alan Lee

The entire collection is set in a magical Welsh landscape with giants, magical creatures, beautiful women, and brave heroes.  They deal with the theme of fall and redemption, loyalty, marriage, love, fidelity, the wronged wife, and incest.

Given that the fantasy fiction genre was practically unknown before its publication, The Mabinogion has had a huge cultural influence.  It introduced literary figures such as King Arthur and Merlin, and has provided a basis for European and world literature that has been published since.

Wiki – Maginogion
Timeless Myths
BBC History

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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The Morrígan, Great Queen

Morrígu, Morríghan, Morrígna, Morgan, Badb, Macha, Nemain, Anand, Fea

The Morrígan is a Celtic goddess of war, death, battle, strife, sovereignty, rebirth, fate, prophecy and magic.   She is also known as The Great Queen, Phantom Queen, Specter Queen, or Supreme War Goddess.  The Morrígan is associated with the sometimes frightening aspects of female energy and is often seen as an omen of death.  She often took the shape of a raven or crow, however her other forms included an eel, wolf, cow and horse.

The Morrígan is commonly seen as a Triple Goddess.  In texts of the Celtic Mythological Cycle, they are seen as sisters, the daughters of Ernmas and granddaughters of Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  They include Badb (‘fury’, ‘crow’) and Macha (‘battle’, ‘raven’), with the third being either Nemain (‘frenzy/fury’), Anand (aka Morrígan), or Fea (‘hateful’).  It is uncertain as to whether the Morrígan represents one or each or these goddesses, or all of them collectively.  Interestingly, Ernmas’ first three daughters are thought to be Ériu, Banba, and Fódla, the patron goddesses of Ireland and wives of the last three Tuatha Dé Danann kings.

The Morrígan appears in both the Ulster and Mythological Cycles of Celtic mythology, where she is found to have relations with the Ulster war hero Cú Chulainn.  She is thought to have helped the Tuatha Dé Danann defeat the Firbolg at the First Battle of Mag Tuireadh and the Fomorians at the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh.  It is said that she mated with the Dagda before the battle with the Formorians in exchange for her battle plans, which led the Tuatha Dé Danann to victory.

Morrigan_JessicaGalbreth

Through her role as war goddess, she is often compared with the Germanic Valkyries.  Her role included being a symbol of imminent death or could influence the outcome of war.  In the form of a crow, she often appeared flying above the battle, inspiring either fear or courage in the hearts of the warriors.  Through her ability to predict the death of warriors, she is sometimes associated with the wailing banshee (bean sídhe) of folklore.

Some have attempted to link the Morrígan with the Morgan le Fay from Welsh mythology, however it is likely that the two names are not related linguistically.

Wiki – Morrigan
Pantheon – Morrigan
Celtic Deities – Morrigan
Thalia Took – Macha

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Lugh, Master of Skills

Lug, Lugus/Lugos (Gaulish), Lugh Lámhfhada (Irish), Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Welsh), Lugaid/Lugaidh, Lonnansclech

Lugh (LOO) is a popular Celtic sun god known for his many skills.  Because of this, he was also called Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the Long Arm), Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Lleu of the Skillful Hand), Samildánach (Skilled in All the Arts), Lonnbeimnech (fierce striker, sword-shouter) or Macnia (boy hero).

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Lugh is thought to be a form of the pan-Celtic/Gaulish god Lugus/Lugos.  The ancient Romans associated Lugh with the Roman god Mercury/Greek Hermes, as well as Apollo through his association with Lugus.  It is also possible that Lugh/Lugus was also a triple god, comprising the Gaulish gods Esus, Toutatis and Taranis.

Lugh was known as a sun god and a fierce warrior.  He is also known as a god of storms, particularly thunderstorms.  He was associated with the raven, crow, and lynx, and had a magic hound.  Lugh possessed several magical weapons, including an invincible Spear, one of the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  It is said that the Spear never missed its target and was so bloodthirsty it would often try to fight without anyone wielding it.

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Lugh’s father was Cian, son of Danu and Dian Cécht of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother was Ethniu/Ethlinn, daughter of Balor of the Fomorians.  It was said that Lugh’s grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, learned that he would one day be murdered by a grandson.  He tried to confine his daughter Ethniu, however Cian released her and she bore him three sons.  Balor arranged for the children to be killed, however Lugh was saved.  Lugh was later given to Tailtiu, a Fir Bolg, who raised him as her foster son.

Lugh had many wives, including Buí and Nás, daughters of Ruadri, King of Britain, as well as Echtach, Englic, and Rosmerta.  Lugh’s most famous son was the Irish war hero Cú Chulainn, some say through the mortal maiden Deichtine/Dechtire.

Lugh_IngridGrayWolf

One story of Lugh explains how he travelled to the Hall of Tara to join the court of Nuada, High King of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  The guard at the door will not grant him access unless he had a skill that was of help to the King.  Lugh said he was a smith, wright, craftsman, swordsman, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer, physician, and champion, however the guard tells him they already have experts with those skills.  Lugh then asks if any one man has all of those skills together, which the guard could not answer, and Lugh was allowed to enter the Hall.

It is during the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh against the Fomorians that King Nuada is killed in battle by Balor. Lugh then faces Balor, who opens his poisonous eye that kills all it looks upon.  Lugh however shoots a stone from a sling-shot that drives his eye out the back of his head, killing Balor.

Lugh later finds Bres, the half-Formorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, beaten and scared.  Bres begs for his life, and Lugh agrees to spare him if he shares his secrets of the land, including when to plough, sow, and reap.  At the end of the war, Lugh becomes High King of Ireland and rules for many years.

Cermait, the son of Dagda, later seduces one of Lugh’s wives.  Lugh kills him in revenge, however Cermait had three sons MacCuill, MacCecht and MacGrené/ Gréine, who avenged their father’s death by killing Lugh at Uisnech in Loch Lugborta.

Lugh held a harvest fair in honour of his foster mother, Tailtiu, which fell around the time of the first harvest in the Northern Hemisphere, August 1.  The festival was named Lughnasadh (“Festival of Lugh”) and celebrated corn, grains, bread and other symbols of the harvest.  Lúnasa is also the Irish name for the month of August.  In Christian England, this festival was known as Lammas (after the Saxon phrase hlaf maesse or “loaf mass”) also celebrating the first harvest of the year.  Even today, many people in Ireland celebrate Lughnasadh and Lammas with dancing, song, and bonfires.

Wiki – Lugh, Lugus
PaganWiccan About.com – Lugh
Timeless Myths – Lugh

© The Celtic Journey (2013)

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Ireland – The Mythology

Although much of pre-Christian mythology in pagan Ireland did not survive the conversion to Christianity, manuscripts written in medieval times attempted to preserve this important history.  Books such as the 12th century Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) and the Book of Leinster helped scholars identify several cycles of Irish history; the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle.

BookOfInvasions

The Mythological Cycle, also known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Irish mythology, is one of the least preserved of the cycles, but I see as one of the most interesting.  The Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabála Érenn, written in the 11th century, tells the story of the ‘taking of Ireland’ with a combination of history, mythology, folklore, and Christian-inspired flair.  It tells of the six successful cycles of invasions in Ireland starting with the Irish creation myth.  The first three invaders were the Cessair, Partholón, and Nemed people.  A group of exiled Nemesians from Greece, called the Fir Bolg, were next to invade.

TuathaDeDanann

After only a short time, a group of exiled Nemesians from the North came to Ireland and challenged the authority of the Fir Bolg.  These fair-haired people were known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, or “children of the Goddess Danu”.  They were known to have great magical knowledge and a priestly class of people called Druids.  They carried with them four magical treasures; the Sword of Nuada, the Spear of Lugh, the Cauldron of Dagda, and the Stone of Fal (Lia Fáil), or the Stone of Destiny.

The Tuatha Dé Danann battled the Fir Bolg, eventually pushing them into exile.  However the Tuatha Dé Danann King, Nuada, lost an arm in battle, deeming him unfit for the throne.  A half Formorian King, Balor the Evil Eye, took the throne, leading to a battle between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann.  This resulted in the death of Nuada by Balor, with Lugh the Long Arm taking the throne.  The Tuatha Dé Danann enjoyed a prosperous reign, which is thought to correspond to the Bronze Age in Ireland.

The Book of Invasions ends with the Milesians, or Sons of Míl Espáine, the first Gaelic speakers and probably the earliest “Celtic” people.  They are thought to have brought iron to Ireland, representing the beginning of the Iron Age.  During their invasion, the wives of the Irish High Kings, and matron Goddesses of Ireland, Banba, Fodla and Ériu, asked that the new land be named in their honour.  The name Éire remains a poetic name for Ireland today.  The Tuatha Dé Danann were exiled underground, where they represent the sidhe, or faery folk, of Ireland.

The next literary cycle, the Ulster Cycle, takes place around the time of Christ in the Ulster and Connacht regions of Ireland.  This is also called the ‘Heroic Age’, as many tales are devoted to the heroic actions of Conchobar mac Nessa and the great hero Cú Chulainn, the son of Lugh.  The main story of the Ulster Cycle is the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Táin.  The Táin tells of the story of Queen Medb (Maeve) and King Ailill of Connacht attempting to steal the prized bull Donn Cuailnge, with the Ulster hero Cú Chulainn saving the day.

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The Fenian Cycle takes place around the 3rd century CE in the Leinster and Munster regions of Ireland.  Mainly from the manuscript Acallam na Senórach (Colloquy of the Old Men), the Fenian Cycle contains stories about the famous Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) and his enemy Goll mac Morna.  Two famous stories from the Fenian Cycle include Oisín in Tír na nÓg and Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, most likely the source of the story of Tristan and Iseult).

The Historical Cycle, or the Cycles of the Kings, records the history of High Kings of Ireland, from the mythical Labraid Loingsech around 431 BC, to the historically accurate High King Brian Boru in the 11th century.

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The Hill of Tara, Cnoc na Teamhrach, was noted in the Book of Invasions as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.  Although it is uncertain whether the hill held the same significance throughout the ages, archaeological evidence prove that the area had been used since Neolithic times.  The Hill of Tara is also the site of the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, one of the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Although the legendary capital of the Tuatha Dé Danann and seat of high-kingship over the ages is not used as a seat of power today, the Irish still seek to preserve this important site.

Pagan’s Path – Celtic History
Pagan’s Path – Lebhar Gabhála Éireann
Wiki – Lebhar Gabhála Éireann
Wiki – Irish Mythology
Wiki – Hill of Tara

© A Year And A Day (2013)

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