For the Celts, time took on a more circular form. This is reflected in how their days started at dusk rather than dawn. Time may have been kept using the moon (darkness) rather than the sun (light). Their year was split into two halves, the light and the dark as well. The dark half started at Samhain which is thought to have marked the beginning of the new year. It’s thought that ultimately, the Celts understood that from darkness springs life and light and so naturally, beginnings were dark. The earliest known Celtic calendar is the Gaulish Coligny calendar, located in the Palais Des Arts, Lyon in France. It dates from the 2nd century and is made of bronze fragments, once a single huge sheet. It is inscribed in Latin, but in Gaulish. Each month begins with a full moon and covers a 30 year cycle made of five cycles of 62 lunar months, and one of 61. Each month is divided into fortnights rather than weeks, with sections of time designated as “MAT” (light/good/lucky) or ANMAT (dark/bad/unlucky) depending on the time of year. The calendar is both a lunar and solar calendar and incredibly accurate. This arrangement of time may have distantly represented what we all still know to be true today, that we’re going to have good days and bad days. When we accept this, the bad days become easier to bear and we’re more in tune with the reality of our existence. Rather than clinging to unrealistic and false expectations, we simply become more appreciative of the good days.
The earliest Irish texts show us that they also used a lunar calendar of sorts and it contained three, five, ten and fifteen day units. Classical writers including Caesar, Strabo, Diodorus, Cicero and Pliny have all alluded to a rich Celtic and Druidic knowledge of the natural world including things like astronomy, science and herbal medicine. We can assume they were very in tune with the changing of the seasons, moon phases and the effects of those changes on their life. The celebration of nature’s natural cycles and how they related to their agricultural growing seasons must have brought comfort and a sense of order and balance to their life.
For the Celts, there is evidence to believe they held “in-between” places, or times as sacred. In these liminal places, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore was interpreted as any number of things depending on the local folklore, from magical and healing to dangerous and mysterious. When you look at the calendar you will notice that each festival likely took place at the beginning of each season. For example, in today’s calendar the summer solstice marks the beginning of summer but the beginning of summer was most likely Beltane, so Beltane was neither spring nor summer. The same for Lughnasadh being the beginning of fall, Samhain as winter and Imbolc as spring. Therefore these were in-between times and especially magical. Samhain was considered to be the time when the veil was at its most thinnest. There is not much historical evidence the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes in their mythology but we know that certain standing stones aligned with these events built by their predecessors. We know they had knowledge of the stars and celestial body movements and from conjecture we assume, at minimum, recognized the solstices and equinoxes to some degree. Furthermore, the Coligny Calendar marks the winter and summer solstice dates. The four Celtic celebrations of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh are all mentioned in the Irish mythological tales as well as Irish historical and political documents and literature. The main characters in the Irish Mythological Cycle share parallels with other Celtic deities like the Gaulish Belenos and Ogmios. Many academics speculate that the holidays and their related deities as well as tales are much older and were likely celebrated by other groups of Celts such as the Gauls and Iberians in one form or another. Of course, this is speculation.
There are legends in Ireland that say a central fire for each festival was lit on the King’s hill of Tara that could be seen for miles. Each district would then light their own fire once the main one was lit and the next one and so forth as they became visible. These were known as the “need fires” and each person’s hearth would have likely been ritually put out and re-lit by the need fire’s flame at each festival. In Scotland and Wales, there was a common practice passed down through the generations of using wood from nine sacred trees to build the fires and they were each lit by three or nine men. This practice is referenced as late as the 18th century. Many herbs would likely have been collected during the festivals, solstices or equinoxes and considered extra lucky or powerful. Each festival was often celebrated multiple days, probably three days, and had similar celebratory traditions including typical food, drink, music and dancing. Offerings would have been made to the land or gods and goddesses, typically of ale, bread or milk. Bowls of milk were specifically left out at Samhain to appease the passing Aos Sidhe, banshees or spirits. Milk and mead were left out during Imbolc for the goddess Brigid. Alexander Carmichael tells us that as late as the 18th century, special bread was made at each festival and pieces were thrown about the farmland given as an offering and blessing.
“No man may travel there who has not gone without sleep from Samhain to the lambing time at Imbolc, from Imbolc to the fires of Beltain, and from Beltain to the harvest time of Lughnasadh, and from then to Samhain.” -Emer to CuChulainn, Tochmarc Emire, Ulster Cycle (10th century)
“Now the Fian used to be quartered on the men of Ireland from Samhain to Bealltaine; and it was their duty to uphold justice, and to prevent injustice, for the kings and the lords of Ireland; and also to guard and preserve the harbours of the country from the violence of foreigners; and from Bealltaine to Samhain to be engaged in hunting, and the chase, and in every other duty the king of Ireland might impose upon them, such as putting a stop to robbery, exacting the payment of tribute, putting down malefactors, and so of every other evil in the country.” -Geoffrey Keating, (1569 – 1644) The History of Ireland
“Throughout the Highlands and Islands special cakes were made on the first day of the quarter. As in the case of the ‘struan’ a large cake was made for the family and smaller cakes for individual family members. So far s can now be ascertained, these cakes were round in form. They were named after their dedications. That baked for the first day of spring was called ‘bonnach Bride’, that for the first day of summer, ‘bonnach Bealltain’, and for the first day of autumn ‘bonnach Lunastain’ and for the first day of winter, ‘bonnach Samhthain’. The people repaired to the fields, glens and carries to eat their quarter cakes. When eating them, they threw a piece over each shoulder alternately, saying: ‘Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee raven, spare my kids; here to thee, marten, spare ray fowls; there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.’” -Alexander Carmichael, (1860 – 1909) Carmina Gadelica
“The Ministry shall receive whatever money it needs, by vote of the Dáil. The Ministry shall be answerable to the Dáil for such moneys, and the accounts shall be audited with regard to the spending of money for the Dáil twice yearly, viz. at Samhain and Bealtaine (November and May). The auditing shall be carried out by an auditor or auditors chosen by the Dáil. No member of the Dáil shall be chosen as auditor.” –Constitution of Dáil Éireann, (1919 – 1922)
For more information check out Kindling the Celtic Spirit by Mara Freeman!
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.