Symbolism

Animal Allies

wolf-3363696_640
All images: Public domain

A wise wolf hides his fangs.” -Welsh proverb

According to Celtic mythology, animals were mostly seen as allies or helpers. Many clans celebrated and displayed a particular animal to represent them or that had qualities they wished to exemplify. These were what is today known as someone’s spirit animal. They were also called totem animals or guides in many other cultures. Animals were sometimes seen as friendly companions like they are today. There is historical evidence the Celts kept dogs, ducks and geese as pets to name a few. Wild animals would still have been seen as allies to some capacity even though not tame. Adversaries like the bear, wolf or boar that might have posed a threat were highly respected for their tenacity and ferociousness. In all the various relationship possibilities with wild animals, the underlying thread is one of respect and admiration of the qualities representative of them. Celtic clans may have had a patron animal much like they had a patron god or goddess that represented them. They would have displayed this proudly by any means appropriate possibly on banners, flags, shields or in the colored patterns on their body when going into battle. Most likely, this was a means to manifest in themselves whatever admirable qualities they saw in that specific animal. Animals were frequently written in mythology as being a human, god or goddess in animal form. Interpreting Celtic belief points to some form of animism belief, that animals and the landscape each had a sort of spirit or essence. In mythology, they often changed form in many consecutive lives into various natural objects or animals, but the spirit remained.

Animals that were white seemed to be representative of the purity of spirit and deity and were considered extra sacred. White deer particularly were said to be “fairy deer” and many of their mythological deities kept various white animals as companions or could change into a white animal themselves. Cerridwen could change into a white sow and a white stag occurs frequently in Arthurian legends seen in essence as a spirit guide. The “hounds of Annwyn”, later dubbed “the hounds of hell” by Christians were white hounds with red ears led by Welsh king Annwn who represented the hunt or death capturing its victims and the journey to the Otherworld.  The connectedness and veneration they found in animals is very clear. This respect continued well into the present day and there is an old blessing in Scotland that highlights this simply called “Hunting Blessing”. “He is not to take life wantonly. He was not to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down, and he was not to kill the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling. Nor was he to kill an unfledged bird nor a suckling beast, unless it might be the young of a bird, or of a beast, of prey.” It was permissible to destroy certain birds and beasts of prey and “evil” reptiles as well as their young.

Another variation of the spirit animal was the “geis”. This was a rule put upon a person, usually by a deity or druid that forbid them to eat or interact with a particular animal. They were usually done in an effort to prevent a curse or fated prophecy. As I will get into, there were common taboos in general like eating the hare and certain birds but likely many other animals as well, unique to each tribe. Pausanias writes about this as far back as the 1st century when he highlights an interesting taboo of the Tolistobogii tribe in Gaul. “The Galatians who live around the city of Pessinus will not consume pork.” He claimed this was because of a local legend in which the Asiatic god Attis was killed by a wild boar. In one of the stories in The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, a curse was placed on one of Fionn’s men Diarmaid that he should die by a boar. Angus Og, in an effort to protect Diarmaid placed a geis on him that he should never hunt boar. Ultimately, he was eventually gored and killed by a giant boar. Diarmaid is said to be the founder of the Scottish Clan Campbell. Their crest illustrates a boar’s head, representative of Diarmaid’s geis and death.

cat-3169476_640The final variation of spirit animals is that of the “familiar”, another form of spiritual helper. For hundreds of years, cats have been known as the familiars of witches, particularly black cats. Cats were killed in the masses or outlawed (by Pope Gregory IX) for this very reason during the late medieval ages which may have exacerbated the large outbreak of the bubonic plague. Less cats equated to more rats and more fleas spreading the disease. When we make the connections that Druids were the precursor to witches, at least in the British isles, we can see ancient Celtic culture was still being condemned in various form, just called by another name.


When we bring these idealisms into the modern world, it’s quite simply and similarly a deeper way to connect to nature and the beautiful array of animals that inhabit our planet. Spirit animals would be any animal that has qualities you can relate to or that inspires you. Many people wonder how we can know what our spirit animal is. The best answer is most times you “just know”. Sometimes you will have or had a particular unique experience with a specific animal. If that hasn’t happened, it may just be as simple as taking some time alone to think about it at length. It’s usually going to be one of the first animals that comes to mind. Many people believe that seeing a specific animal in person or in a dream can be some sort of sign. Of course there isn’t any evidence to support that seeing a specific animal truly has any significant meaning although it can be fun to think about and entertain the possibilities. I wouldn’t personally make any large decisions based on having seen a particular animal cross my path. Overall, I see the idea of spirit animals as simply a way to have fun and get closer to nature in the meantime.


Two genuine first hand examples of how spirit animals were discovered are as follows:

While going for a walk in the woods, a man came across a fox in a snare struggling and flailing around. The fox was quite exhausted from fighting against the snare. The man sat down quietly next to the fox and after a few minutes, he gently placed his hand on the fox’s head to hold it in place. The fox resigned to his fate, relaxed and went limp. The man was able to retract the snare so that it was big enough for the fox’s head to slide out. The fox slipped out of the snare, took a few steps, then stopped and turned around to stare at the man for a few seconds before finally walking off. The man had a natural affinity towards foxes, although he never quite realized it until he sat down and thought about his collective experiences. His dog was a fox type looking dog, and his favorite animal was the fennec fox.

In our second story, a woman and her fiancee were going on a long camping and hiking trip. It was supposed to be a very special trip, but they had been fighting and bickering almost the entire time. She began realizing that her fiancee may not have been the man she thought he was. She ended up spending a lot of the trip thinking about the relationship and if she wanted to continue it. While they were hiking back out of the woods on their last day, her fiancee purposefully separated from her on the trail by falling back and then taking a different route. While he was familiar with the trails and knew where he was going, she did not. She only knew the trail would eventually lead out so she kept walking. With tears streaming down her face looking down at the ground, and while wondering if she should call off the wedding, four hooves suddenly appeared in her view, not more than 6 feet away. There in front of her was the largest deer she had ever seen, a 14 point buck. She scanned up, up, up until their eyes met. The way he looked at her took her breath away and it was like he was seeing completely through her. She felt as if he knew she was the fearful one and was not a threat to him. After a few seconds he turned his back to her and slowly meandered off. It was surprising to her that he didn’t run, even if he didn’t think she was a threat but also that he turned his back to her as if a sign of trust. In the years that followed, she thought back over her life and all the times she’d had a connection with a story or a picture related to a deer. It could all be connected back to watching Bambi as a child or the time her parents took her into an antique store covered in wall to wall buck and doe heads and she felt sorry for them. Either way, she had found her animal and meeting that deer in the forest gave her strength in the coming year.

I must note that both of these situations could have ended very badly. I do not condone purposefully interacting with animals in the wild and these examples happened purely by chance. It was luck to not have been bitten or trampled. With great respect for animals and their wild nature comes a necessity to keep our distance and let them live their lives in peace without human interference unless it’s to save their life.


Animal Symbolism

The following summaries give my best interpretation of the symbolism of animals the Celts came in contact with based on mythology, folklore, artifacts, archaeology and historical references:


natural-3240063_640Wren

The wren symbolized efficiency, activity, cunningness and alertness. The wren was thought to be the bird most revered by the Druids. This bird often gives off the energy of being tiny and humble but also resourceful and proud. There is a famous story from Western Scotland which tells us that when a tribe was deciding who their banner bird would be, they declared it would be the bird who could fly the highest. Of course many birds flew into the air including the great eagle which was a popular choice. Then, suddenly when the eagle had reached its greatest height, a wren appeared that had been hiding in its feathers. He flew a few inches above the eagle and declared that he was king of the sky. Wren’s feathers were considered lucky charms and sailors often took them on journeys. The wren also may have symbolized working together as they were highly social and the male and female both helped build their nest and care for their young. Wren hunting became a tradition and had to have been quite difficult considering the size of the birds. Consuming the birds would have represented consuming their qualities they represented. The wren was sacred to the thunder bull-god Taranis and the wren’s nest was thought to be protected by lightning. The Druid’s house became then known as the “wren’s house” so that it too would be protected by lightning.

Raven

The raven symbolized intelligence, protection, magic as well as prophecy and death. The raven was specifically symbolic of the goddess Morrigan or Badb, the triple goddess. The Morrigan was said to be able to take the form of a raven and fly over battlefields during war, scaring and distracting the enemy with her war cries. The Morrigan in raven form and ravens or black birds in general often appeared when a character was transitioning to death such as in the story of Cu Chulainn when The Morrigan came to rest on his shoulder as he passed away. The Irish god Lugh and English hero Beowulf are both associated with ravens as they served both of these heroes in warning them of impending enemies and danger. The Welsh giant and king, Bran the Blessed (who’s name means raven) asked to be buried with his head facing France under the tower of London so that he will protect the country from invasion. To have “raven’s knowledge” was to mean having a seer’s supernatural powers. “I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech.” -Taliesin The tower of London famously still keeps six ravens as a form of magical protection. There is a superstition that “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the crown will fall and Britain with it.”

Golden Eagle

The eagle symbolized intelligence, courage, nobility and death. In Welsh mythology, the god Llew (Lugh) was turned into an eagle at the moment of his murder. In old Manx, the name for the eagle is Drein which means “Druid’s bird”. Only the wren was held to higher esteem than the eagle. In The Death of Arthur (1485), two eagles were to stand guard over Arthur’s grave until a time came when he was to awaken and bring a new golden age to Britain. One of the most famous striking Celtic helmet artifacts has a bird on the top of it with moveable wings that could be an eagle or raven. Scotland clan chiefs used to wear three eagle feathers on their bonnet as a symbol of their high rank.

Owl

The owl symbolized wisdom, discernment and clairvoyance. Because owls are active at night, they were representative of the protection of the Otherworld, death and likely, the Goddess. More specifically, the owl may have represented the hag, crone or “cailleach”. In the Welsh story of Math Son of Mathonwy, Blodeuedd betrays Lleu and attempts to have him killed by her new love interest. Gwydion places a curse on her, “I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done until Llew Llaw Gyffes, thou shalt never show thy face in the light of day henceforth; and that through fear of all the other birds. For it shall be their nature to attack thee, and to chase thee from wheresoever they may find thee. And thou shalt not lose thy name, but shalt be always called Blodeuwedd.” Blodeuwedd, of course means owl.

swan-2077219_1920Swan

The swan symbolized the soul, peace, longevity and love. They were often thought of as fairy women in disguise. At certain times of the year such as Samhain or Bealtaine, they were able to turn themselves back into a human. Seeing a swan in particular was thought to be a good omen and especially when there was a sacred number of them seen together, likely in groups of three, seven or nine. There is tale in Scotland that survived up into the 18th century recorded in the Carmina Gadelica. “A woman found a wounded swan on a frozen lake near her house, and took it home, and fed the starving bird with lintseed and water. The woman had an ailing child, and as the wounds of the swan healed, the health of the child improved, and the woman believed that her treatment of the swan caused the recovery of her child, and she rejoiced accordingly and composed a famous lullaby in honor of her restored child.“ In one of the most famous love stories regarding the deity Angus mac Og, he fell in love with a beautiful woman named Caer who was under a spell where she took swan form and could only change into human form at certain times of the year. He broke her free by turning into a swan himself and throwing off the enchanted silver chains around her neck. They flew away together as swans and he took her back to his home in Newgrange where they lived happily. It was said that if you heard their song, it was so beautiful you would be lulled to sleep for three days. The “White Swans of the Wilderness” were children of the Tuatha De Danann and in the famous story, The Children of Lir, the sea god Manannan mac Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their jealous step mother Aoife. Lir’s first wife Aoibh was a very beautiful, kind, wonderful woman and mother. She died giving birth to the twins and her children missed her dearly. Lir married Aoife (her sister) hoping to cheer his children up but Aoife was jealous of their love for one another and the time they spent with their father. She wanted all of his attention and in her anger cursed them and turned them into swans. When her father King Bodb (son of The Dagda) heard of her betrayal, he turned her into an air demon for eternity. Endings for the story are varied and Christianized. In the most frequently told version they were swans for 900 years until they heard St. Patrick’s bell, were changed back into human form, were baptized and then died peacefully in one another’s arms.

Crane/Heron

The crane or heron had similar meaning as the swan but also one of knowledge and is the source for the “Druid Crane bag”. This is referenced in an Irish tale that tells us of the sea god Manannan mac Lir having a bag made from the skin of a crane that contained various tools. It  is mostly equivalent to a medicine bag or divination bag and likely Druids would have put their spiritual tools, yews of Ogham or herbs therein. The heron or crane is also referenced in the “Druid stance” of divination in which you stood on one leg, with one arm extended and one eye shut. This stance is mentioned in Irish mythology in the tale of CuChulainn. To have “crane knowledge” was to be very intelligent and of the learned class of Druids or in Christian times, priests. In one of the Irish tales of the hero Fionn, his grandmother saves him when he fell off a cliff by turning him into a crane. The Irish underworld God Midir owned three cranes to guard his home. In some Christianized tales, cranes were people serving a penance for a particular amount of time in bird form.

Geese/Ducks/Chickens

Wild ducks and geese were migratory and may have symbolized loyalty returning to the same locations each year.  As tame companion pets, ducks and geese played the same similar roles. Chickens were not raised and eaten until after Roman occupation. Julius Caesar wrote, “They think it is wrong to eat hares, or chickens or geese but they breed them as pets.” In several modern Celtic legends, the cock chases away ghosts or other night terrors by crowing at dawn. This suggests a representation of luck, protection and the power to dispel negativity.

All birds seemed to have had some connection to the otherworld via death or as messengers to impart mystical secrets. There is a common thread of being symbols of protection and divination. Many druids or chieftains would make predictions or conduct rituals surrounding bird song or the flight patterns of a flock of birds called augury. This also may have been the origination of the saying “A little birdie told me…”

Boar/Sow

The boar symbolized masculine power and ferocity as well as being associated with war and conflict. This animal wielded great power and “darkness” that needed to be channeled when the occasion was appropriate. The meat of the boar was served above all else at Celtic festivals and likely, heroes welcomes, in large amounts. It was arguably their favorite meal and food and a common motif of coinage, helmets, shields and swords. Many carved boar figures and swine bones have been discovered in ancient burials. Many carnyx horn instruments were made using the boar’s head. In Celtic mythology, Cian, Lugh’s father turns himself into a pig in order to blend in with a herd grazing nearby to escape his enemies. The Tuatha De Danann also had a magical swine that sprang back to life after being eaten. In the Irish book of Invasions, there was a huge and terrifying boar named Orc Triath. In the Irish Fenian Cycle, the Boar of Ben Bulbain was another vicious boar that killed fifty soldiers. Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of Fionn’s faithful warriors died from being gored by the same boar which was fated by a spell by an enemy of Diarmuid’s father Donn. His foster father, Angus Og tried to assuage this by placing a geis on Diarmaid that he should never hunt boar but it was to no avail. In some versions, Diarmuid died from the prick of the boar’s poisonous bristle. The Welsh goddess Cerridwen and the Irish goddess Boand, who was responsible for creating the River Boyne were both known as the “white sow”. The sow was likely equally a symbol of power and fertility in its own right, simply being the feminine counterpart. The wild boar was hunted to extinction in approx. the 13th century in Britain and the 17th century in Ireland.

highland-cow-1576118_640Bull/Cow

Cattle symbolized virility, fertility and wealth as well as provided for daily needs, survival and contentedness. The meat of cows and bulls was also heavily consumed by Celts as was milk. By all accounts they seemed to have been the most highly valued animals the Celts owned. The Roman Polybius illustrates their worth for early Celts by saying that “Each man’s property, moreover, consisted in cattle and gold; as they were the only things that could be easily carried with them”. The cow was sacred and representative of Brigid, one of the most popular Celtic goddesses.  The famous Irish legend, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, surrounded the taking of a famous bull. Also, a tabhfheis, or a “feast of a bull” always preceded the crowning of a new high king. One of the few surviving accounts of a Druid ritual ends in a celebration where they feast on two white bulls. The cow was once so important to the Celts that it was considered a form of currency in and of itself and ancient Irish Lords were known as “bo-aire” or cow-lord. Cow’s milk has been referenced frequently as a healing agent and a common offering to their deities. Both of these practices in particular survived through the ages until at least the last century. The cow is also very sacred in India which harkens us back to the Vedic and Celtic connections and again, a possible cultural, pastoral and spiritual ancestor of both.

Goat/Sheep/Ram

Goats and sheep symbolized peace, purification and compassion. Sheep in particular could make affectionate and gentle companion pets. They were used for meat, milk, clothing materials and companionship. They were kept alive to produce milk or wool until they became elderly at which point they were killed for their meat. Lambs in particular were celebrated as a symbol of Brigid during Imbolc as that was “lambing” season, and when new baby lambs were born.

Horse

The horse symbolized stamina, bounty and strength and was another animal that frequently appeared on coinage or battle gear. They were used for meat, provided labor for farming, hunting, travel and in warfare. The horse was specifically used for the wooden chariot and charioteers were known to be incredibly skilled with horses and were said to walk on their backs while at full speed. The horse is one of the oldest revered animals. It is no surprise they were also one of the most frequently used. Several gods and goddesses are associated with horses, the most well known being the Gaulish Epona and Welsh Rhiannon. The Irish goddess Macha could shapeshift into a horse and the Irish god Manannan Mac Lir had a water-horse. These figures were undoubtedly considered horse and rider protectors. Archaeological depictions of Epona lend her also as a figure of abundance as she is depicted with images of bounty. In another image, she is holding a key suggesting she may have been the gatekeeper from this world to the Otherworld and may have carried souls of the dead on their journey. The Uffington White Horse cut into the ground in Uffington England dates sometime between 1380 and 550 BCE and illustrates a very old horse cult in the British Isles. Horses in some tales such as the famous story of Cu Chulainn had powers of clairvoyance. Bones of horses have also been found frequently among grave goods possibly buried with their owners. Horse skeletons have been found in the foundations of housing structures or as offerings, suggesting they were a symbol of good luck and fortune. This belief was passed down through the generations by way of a horseshoe being representative of luck. Many Irish used to place a horseshoe above their front doorframe for luck. This practice continued well up through the 18th century. It was also thought that “hagstones” or Druid’s eggs tied around a horse’s neck would keep them from being stolen away by witches at night. In Scotland, there is a famous large horse head sculpture called “The Kelpies”.  The kelpie haunts lochs and offers its assistance to travelers. However, once the rider is on its back, it turns into a terrifying creature and takes its rider to the Underworld. In Scotland, it was told in folklore that unicorns existed in magical and beautiful places such as on the Isle of Skye. The unicorn, not coincidentally, is Scotland’s national animal.

borzoi-2841291_640Dog

Dogs symbolized protection, loyalty and selflessness. Dogs were invaluable as hunters and companions. They were herders as well as guard dogs against predators and intruders and made favored pets and loving family members. They were kept by people of all ranks and thought to protect against evil spirits. When a woman was in childbirth, her dog would have kept guard by her side. Many Celtic goddesses are depicted holding a dog or with one by their side and images of dogs are found in the healing temple of the god Nodens in England. Even Strabo tells us of the famous hunting dogs of the Celts that were “sagacious in hunting”. One of the famous Irish triad’s is “Three glories of a gathering. A beautiful wife, a good horse and a swift hound.” In mythology, the Tuatha De Danann held dogs in high regard which speaks volumes to what their meaning could have meant to the common folk. Heroes and kings in legend as well as real life were often given the name of dogs by way of the prefix “Cu” meaning dog. CuChulainn, CuUladh, Cunoglasus, Cunobelinn, Fionn MacCumhal or CuRoi are a few famous examples. Other names simply meant “lover of dogs” like Conchobhar which was later anglicized to Connor. There were 8 famous kings whose name began with Conchobhar. To be sure, there were many others and Connor or O’Connor is a common first or last Celtic name. It was considered a great compliment and honor to be called a dog and many heroes in mythology were accompanied by dogs. King Arthur, the god Lugh and Gwyn Ap Nuad had famous dogs at their sides. Many characters in mythology were turned into dogs, for better or worse. Lugh’s mother was killed when she was transformed into a small dog. Fionn mac Cumhal had many family members turned into dogs including his aunt and his two nephews. In Ireland, there are tribes said to be descended from dogs including the inhabitants of Connaught and the Concheannaich, “dog heads”. In early Celtic history, dogs may have accompanied them into warfare and would have been trained to tear their enemies off their horses. 

Gelert is one of the more famous folktales related to a dog. The legendary wolfhound is associated with the village of Beddgelert (whose name means “Gelert’s Grave”) in Gwynedd, north-west Wales. The story of Gelert is a variation of the well-worn “Faithful Hound” folk-tale motif, which lives on as an urban legend. The dog is alleged to have belonged to Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, a gift from King John of England. In this legend, Llywelyn returned one day from hunting to find his baby missing. The cradle was overturned, and Gelert greeted him in his normal friendly manner but with a blood-smeared mouth. Believing the dog had killed the child, the frantic father plunged his sword into the dog’s side. At the sound of the dog’s dying yelp the baby began crying. Llywelyn found him unharmed under the cradle, along with a dead wolf which had attacked the child and been killed by Gelert. Llywelyn is overcome with grief and remorse and buries the dog with great ceremony. He was haunted by its dying yelp and it’s told that Llywelyn never smiled again.

Cat

Cats symbolized guardianship, independence, prowess and sensuality. They mostly seemed to serve the same guardian function as they do in many other cultures in being some sort of gatekeepers of the Otherworld or related to the process of crossing over after death. It’s unclear if they were kept as pets or not although they most certainly were in later years. It’s thought that the cat may have been an ancient symbol of the goddess and therefore one of persecution in later years after Celtic lands became Christianized. The folklore surrounding the cat henceforth took on a more negative tone. The Cat Sidhe, Cat Sith or Cat Si is a fairy creature that evolved some point in Scottish folklore. It’s said to resemble a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. Legend has it that the spectral cat haunts the Scottish highlands. They also appear in many Irish tales. Some folklore suggested that the Cat Sith was not a fairy, but a witch that could transform into a cat nine times. It’s believed this may have been where the myth that cats have nine lives originated from and also why its considered unlucky for a black cat to cross your path. The Cat Sith may have been inspired by the Scottish wildcat itself or Kellas cats which are a distinctive hybrid between the wildcats and domestic cats only found in Scotland. Typical Kellas cats resemble large black wildcats, but with some peculiar features to domestic cats and have been present in Scotland for centuries, most likely since the introduction of domestic cats used for mousing. The Cat Sith is not generally trusted and thought that it could steal a person’s soul before it passed over. Watches called the Feill Fadalach (Late Wake) were performed at night and sometimes the day to keep the cat away from the corpse before burial. Methods of distraction were used such as games of wrestling, riddles, fire, music and even catnip to keep the Cat Sith away from the room in which the corpse lay. On Samhain, it was believed that the Cat Sith would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out for it to drink. If you didn’t leave out milk, your house could be cursed and your cows’ milk could run dry. An early Irish poem written on the margin’s of a 9th century scribe describes a man’s loving relationship with his white cat called Pangur Ban.

Deer/Stag

The deer and stag symbolized the hunt, wisdom and fertility. The stag is one of the oldest Celtic symbols and really one of the oldest symbols in the world, even appearing on ancient neolithic cave drawings from various cultures around the world. The deer has been heavily relied on throughout history. The antlers were used as a tool, the meat to eat and their hides to make clothing and other items. The antlers are shed and regrow which may also have been a symbol of fertility. Horns were thought to be sometimes attached to ancient Gaulish helmets as a way to look more ferocious either as real shed horns or as carved bronze versions. Very old archaeological findings of antlers with various holes in them have alluded to their use as head pieces and other ritual attire for thousands of years. These practices were passed down from generation to generation and there are references in literature to this occurring during deer rutting season as recent as the 7th century. The Celtic Gaulish god appearing on the Gundestrup Cauldron, renamed Cernunnos and Herne in modern times had deer antlers. The “Green Man” is sometimes depicted as having antlers. The doe is associated with goddesses such as the Irish Flidais or Sadb. The stag as an animal itself appears in many stories throughout Celtic mythology and is mostly thought of as the king of the forest. In many British Isles tales, deer are seen as “fairy cattle”. Fairies, again, were the Aos Sidhe or other worldly gods and goddesses; the Tuatha De Danann that had retired to live in the countryside hills. White deer were very special, considered to be from the Otherworld and their appearance heralded some profound change in the lives of those in myth. One particular Celtic leader by the name of Sertorius is said to have kept a white doe as a pet which he thought enabled him to communicate with the divine Otherworld. In the Vita Merlini written around 1150, Merlin led a herd of deer riding on a stag.

Snake

The snake symbolized the endless cycle of nature (phallic/fertility/life and death) due to its ability to turn on itself in a circle and essentially eat its tail as well as wisdom, cunning and intelligence. It may have represented more specifically, shedding something old to make room for something new or rebirth because of its ability to shed skin. It has frequently appeared in conjunction with the representation of a god or goddess. For example, a serpent appears in Cernunnos’s hand on the Gundestrup Cauldron. The serpent is also associated with Brigid, one of the most famous Irish goddesses. Biologists believe there were no real snakes in Ireland. They often wonder if they weren’t also referring to any other snake like creatures living in the earth or in the sea like worms or eels. Or, they simply may have been harkening legends and mythology left over from when the Celts or Druids lived in an area that did have snakes, in the British Isles or mainland Gaul and Celtiberia. Archaeologists also wonder if some of the more rudimentary carved snakes on some ancient structures were not snakes at all, but were instead, winding rivers. The Druids were in particular associated with snakes. They supposedly often kept “serpent eggs” as a talisman with stories regarding them to be actual hardened serpent eggs. These eggs were naturally occurring stones that came to be called adder stones with a hole in the middle worn away by water, probably found laying on the beach. When St. Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland”, he was likely referring to the Druids or Pagans.

hare-field-2246752_640Hare

The hare symbolized speed, intuition, rebirth, fertility and luck. It was strongly associated with the Aos Sidhe. In one tale, a Celtic warrior named Oisin hunted a hare, wounding its leg. He followed it into a large thicket where he found a door leading down into the ground. He came to a large hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a leg wound. Eating them was huge taboo as they were associated with this magical shape shifting and specifically, that of beautiful women. The hare, in a similar way of the cat was associated with the Goddess. The hare’s movements once it was released from capture were also used for divination in ritual. It is said that Boudicca used a hare in this way just before her famous battle with the Romans. The hare being an ancient symbol of good fortune may have been where the tradition of carrying a rabbits foot with you for good luck originated. The hare was also frequently found in ancient burial sites, likely to bring good fortune in the Otherworld. They become quite active in March and really the entirety of spring time during their mating season. This is one of the main reasons they may be integrally connected with the Germanic holiday of Ostara, Christian Easter, Spring Equinox or Bealtaine and Spring in general. Hares are mostly active during at night and are therefore strongly associated with the moon.

Salmon

The salmon symbolized knowledge, wisdom and understanding and was also seen as one of the oldest of creatures. The salmon made a great journey back to it’s spawning grounds from the sea. There may have been a paralleled belief that the salmon brought it’s knowledge from the Otherworld or Underworld (sea). To eat salmon may have been thought to bring knowledge or inspiration. In the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology and the tale of The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, there was a legend that a specific salmon in the River Boyne had gained all the knowledge in the world by eating the hazelnuts from the nine magic hazel-trees that hung over the well of wisdom. The hazel tree was also representative of wisdom and in eating the nuts, you gained their wisdom. Likewise, whoever caught and ate the salmon would then acquire its wisdom. The (Druid) poet Finegas spent many years trying to catch it. When he finally did he gave it to his servant and apprentice Fionn to cook and prepare, giving him specific instructions not to eat it. However, while he was cooking, a drop of hot fish fat burned his thumb. He sucked on the wound and fish oil, instantly receiving the fish’s wisdom. When Finegas returned he could see the aged and wiser look in the boy’s eyes and knew what had happened. The boy explained the accident, Finegas forgave him and allowed him to eat the rest of the salmon assuming it was his destiny. Throughout the rest of his life, he could draw upon all the wisdom of the world or answer any question simply by putting his thumb in his mouth. Fionn would later become the leader of the Fianna, the famed heroes of Irish myth. There is a similar story in Wales involving a boy named Gwion watching over the cauldron of Cerridwen. In the famous story of Cuchulainn, he made a “salmon leap” in combat and astounded his enemies. One of the most famous Pictish stones in Scotland includes a carved salmon.

Wolf

The wolf symbolized intelligence, ferocity and loyalty and likely had many parallels to the dog. The gaze of a wolf is said to reach into your soul. It’s no surprise the wolf was a sacred animal to the Celts and a number of other ancient cultures. They appear on many Celtic carved stones as well as in mythology. The wolf had many names, one of the most common was “mac tire” which means “son of the earth or countryside”. The wolf was one of the four sacred animals of the goddess Brigid. Wolves or dogs are also depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. In Celtic mythology, Cormac mac Airt was raised by wolves and able to communicate with them. In battle, the Morrigan could take the form of the wolf and she would frequently take that form when testing and chasing the Celtic hero CuChulainn. The famous King Cormac of Ireland was taken by a wolf as a baby while his mother was sleeping and he was raised with them for a time. When he became king, a pack of wolves followed him wherever he went. Many clans in Scotland named the wolf their totem animal. The Annals of the Four Masters claims that in 690 CE “It rained a shower of blood in Leinster this year. Butter was there also turned into lumps of gore and blood, so that it was manifest to all in general. The wolf was heard speaking with human voice, which was horrific to all.” There were many folktales created that involved the wolf and evolved over the years to tales of the werewolf, humans that changed to wolf form on the night of the full moon. Many of these horrific tales started as quite innocent versions such as the following tale. “In 1182, a priest traveling from Ulster into Meath encountered a talking wolf which revealed itself to be a man of Ossory, whose ancestors had been cursed to turn into wolves every seven years and return to their human form after another seven years had passed. The wolf explained that his wife was ill and pleaded with the priest to help her. The priest complied and was later put on the right road to Meath.” The last wolf in the British Isles was said to have been killed in 1786 in Ireland, about three hundred years after they were wiped out in England.

Bear

The bear symbolized protectiveness and prowess. The bear was the totem animal of the legendary Welsh King Arthur and shows up in many archeological carvings. Notice the root word “Art” meaning bear in Celtic. There is evidence through sculptures, jewelry and bear-cult sites that the Celts venerated bear goddesses and gods by various names including Artio, Andarta, Artaois, Ardehe or Arthe. There was even an ancient city named Berne after bears. Bear pelts were likely used for bedding and may have been a favored article of clothing, particularly for chieftains. Multiple bear skins have been found among prestigious archaeological grave sites that may have been warriors or chieftains. There is evidence of a bear cult in Europe as far back as 40,000 years ago in the Chauvet Cave drawings in France. The bear was hunted to extinction in Scotland the British Isles in approx. the 11th century.

bee-3344907_1280Bees

The bee symbolized community, celebration and abundance. The bee is often mentioned in connection with honey and mead. Considering the Celts were well known for their love of celebration and drink, bees and bee keeping was undoubtedly an important part of their daily life and symbol for them. There is evidence of mead drinking for at least 6,000 years. On the famous Irish Hill of Tara, one of the halls was known as the House of Mead Circling. Honey would have been used for cooking and flavoring as well. The bee likely was another goddess symbol given the importance of the queen bee to the hive and honey’s sweetness. Even today, someone’s “honey” was generally a nickname for their wife or sweetheart. Britain at one time became known as Honey Island. In Scotland, the first bee seen in summer was secured and kept for good luck. An entire section of the Irish Brehon Laws entitled “Bee judgements” was dedicated to bees. The bees and their hives were protected and it was a capital offense to steal bees.

Seal/Dolphins/Whales

Sea mammals symbolized love, mystery and magic. Seals were thought to be able to shed their seal skin and turn into humans at will. Stories of “selkes” have been passed down from generation to generation throughout Scotland and Ireland. There are many love stories and legends surrounding the selke. The MacCodrums, a clan in South Uist have been known for centuries as the “Clan of Seals” and were thought to be descendants of seals. Dolphins and whales, like most water animals were considered magical and associated with sea gods and goddesses. They likely all provided meat, oil and skins for local communities that lived near the sea.

Otter

The otter symbolized family, playfulness and the hunting chase. Otters are very playful creatures as well as skillful hunters and dedicated family members. Otter skin was thought to be magical as well as to have healing properties. The otter appears in the Welsh Story of Taliesin and was sacred to the Irish god Manannan mac Lir.

Butterfly

The butterfly symbolized the soul and transmigration. The golden butterfly was especially held sacred. If it was seen in or near the house where a person was dead or dying, it was a good omen. The butterfly also goes through three stages, the caterpillar, pupa and butterfly which was a sacred number to the Celts.

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Image source: artsybeedigital.com

Dragon

The dragon symbolized power, mystery and wisdom. Dragons were often drawn with their tails in their mouths symbolizing the cycle of nature, life and immortality. The dragon has been a creature of myth and legend in almost every culture of the world in some form. In Celtic mythology, dragons were believed to have existed in the Otherworld. Areas where a dragon crossed paths on the other side were said to be more powerful for ritual and known as “ley lines”. There were two dragons, the standard winged version and the sea serpent or worm version and likely dragons for the various elements, earth, wind, fire and water. There were many tales involving earth dragons coiled around an ancient treasure underground or in deep caves that few were brave enough to venture into. There is scant a person who hasn’t heard of the water Loch Ness Monster dragon tale. Whirlpools were often associated with water dragons as well and if you fell in, it was thought you’d be swallowed up instantly by the dragon inhabiting it. Air dragons may have been perceived as naturally occurring phenomenon like tornadoes or exceptionally large storms. Fire dragons may have been responsible for catching forests on fire or other mischievous or mysterious events involving fire. In the Welsh tales of King Arthur, a red and white dragon fought every night causing a tower, the hill fort known as Dinas Emrys to fall down. The red dragon was metaphorically Wales and the white drag was Saxon England.     

For more information check out The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip Carr-Gomm or Animals in Celtic Life and Myth by Miranda Green!


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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.

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