As mentioned earlier, various Celtic groups branched off over time and created their own strikingly similar but unique culture, art, language and mythology. Separated geographically, they are all still considered to be Celtic and many of their stories and deities share clear similarities. Even if this wasn’t the case, neighboring tribes may have had differing deities and origination stories celebrating their own history and ancestral heroic figures. All of these inconsistencies and variations further attests what we already know about Celtic culture, that each region and nation was somewhat autonomous. In fact, one of the oldest Irish oaths is “I swear by the gods my people swear by” alluding to a tradition in which each person’s clan worshipped various divine forms unique to their clan and more specifically, their land. Mythology is still most certainly one of the most important resources we have to learn from. The known Celtic pantheon of deities, gods and goddesses is relatively large. There are approximately 800 unique Celtic god or goddess inscriptions throughout the landscape that was the Roman empire alone.
There were many local deities unique to their specific geographical region based on landforms, rivers or other physical landmarks. Most Celtic tribes also had a patron god or goddess that represented them and what they stood for. Usually patron gods or goddesses represented on a linguistic level the ideas of victory or prosperity. One of the aspects of Celtic culture that set them apart was a tendency to see the “divine” in the very literal earth forms rather than in the heavens and somewhat out of reach. There is a strong impression in artifacts, art and carvings that deity was much apart of the world we see around us and there were no firm boundaries between the landscape, humans, animals and even objects. In early Irish literature, even weapons sometimes had their own ideas and capabilities to fight and speak. Deities often shape shifted back and forth into particular animals. Very few, if any stories concerning deities have been recorded aside from the British Isles tales written down by the first Christian monks starting around the 6th century in Ireland and a few hundred years later in Wales. However, these stories are thought to have been told orally for much longer. These first monks are also speculated to have been the last Druids from any genuine lineage of unbroken training. Although still subject to Christian bias, their writings show us a somewhat direct mirror into the Celtic tradition and belief system when we read between the lines.
Land and Water Spirits
Everything was thought to be divine as animists and pantheists today believe but this “infinite source” manifested itself in individual gods and goddesses in such a way that they were often seen as spiritual representations for a physical landform or body of water. The island of Ireland itself was thought to be the Goddess Eriu along with her sisters and is named after her. Two particular hills in County Kerry, Ireland are said to be the “Paps of Anu”, the breasts of the mother Goddess Danu. The examples are endless of place names in connection with gods and goddesses across the British Isles. Often, in mythology the death of a god or goddess led to the creation of that particular landform such as the River Boyne being created as the goddess Boand was swept out to sea and killed in the process. If not representing a physical landform or general idea regarding the land such as agriculture, they were representative of another more emotional facet of daily life like love, fertility, skills or creativity. In Gaul, it is thought they may not have given gods or goddesses human shape or form at all. In very simple terms, they seemingly worshipped the physical aspects of nature and everything simply had a divine “essence”. In later times, after deities were given somewhat human attributes, they believed they could freely visit our world on earth and sometimes changed form as an animal or into another human form. The Celtic pantheon if one could even call it that is filled with countless deities, many only known by one inscription. There are countless references to particular deities on hammered lead, bronze or other metal curse and blessing tablets. The recorded mythological tales always seemed to have some sort of symbology and lesson to take from it; a hidden meaning and message left for the reader to translate, alluding to an allegorical representation.
One thing that holds true at least in Irish Celtic mythology is that it’s easiest to think of the deities as a family tree of gods and goddesses. They intermingled with one another, shared relationships, had children, went on quests, quarreled, loved, fought, were born and died. Etc. They seem in many ways like typical humans with human imperfections except they had magical qualities and gifts. There is a pattern of the Goddess being representative of the moon, land, earth, agriculture and water. The Gods typically represented the sun, skills, war, the hunt and the underworld. One story that was retold in many versions throughout Irish mythology was the King becoming wed to the land Goddess, signifying a need to stay close to the earth and nature in order to maintain power and a successful kingship. This is exhibited in multiple couplings of various deities and in the very literal sense when the kings of Ireland were crowned, in ceremony, they officially married the land. As mentioned earlier, often their death resulted in the creation of a land form or other important aspect of life. This echoes the Celtic belief that everything is of one energy, that death is simply a beginning and there is an unseen spiritual side to everything. They lived in the Otherworld but could visit us on this plane and intermingle with humans if they chose. Portals to the Otherworld could possibly be found anywhere but especially in liminal places. The Otherworld was thought to be all around us, simply in another dimension. It was a place of perpetual summer, youth, health and beauty where flowers and food continued to grow all year round. It’s known as Tir na nOg, Summerlands, Plain of Honey, Land of Youth, Land of Light or simply the Otherworld.
Have you ever been to a place that felt inexplicably magical or divine? These were known and are still known as “in-between or thin” places where the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. They may have been considered portals where Otherworldly creatures or the Aos Sidhe (fairies) may have slipped through to visit mortals. These areas were to be respected and not sullied or disturbed, lest you risked very unfortunate luck or even death. The ancient archaeological structures, dolmens, standing stones and burial cairns were all thought to be magical places as well as rivers and waterfalls, wells, beaches, cliff edges, caves and sometimes bridges to name only a few things. Circles of trees, plants or mushrooms were and still are sometimes called “fairy rings” and are also thought to be particularly magical and not to be disturbed. Approx. 50 species of mushroom are known to cause fairy rings. Even doorways of the home were thought to be liminal as it marked the boundary between the family within and the world without. It was often an old Irish custom to say a blessing at the door when entering someone’s house. Not only were particular places magical but also the in-between times at dusk and dawn, and the four Celtic holidays as each season not coincidentally, falls in-between the seasons. For example, Samhain falls directly in-between fall and winter or was rather the start of winter and therefore not considered winter or fall. Herbs and other commodities harvested during those holidays were likely considered extra magical. Items found or left in liminal places may have been imbued with stronger healing properties because of their connection to the Otherworld which of course, as mentioned before is “The Summerlands”, the land of eternal youth and health. These are also areas or times when the Celts may have meditated or attempted divination, seeking answers from their Otherworldly source for inspiration or knowledge.
The modern idea of a “fairy” as a tiny magical person with wings originated from Celtic mythology. Fairies were thought to be human size up until around the 20th century. Fairies were in essence originally the Tuatha De Dannan, the original gods and goddesses and powers of good in the Irish mythological tales. However, they were eventually beaten by the Milesians who were thought to represent humans coming to inhabit Ireland. When they were defeated, Mananann mac Lir put a magic spell on them called feth fiada in which a magic veil or mist was put over them causing them to be invisible to human eyes. They became known as the Aos Sidhe, the “people of the mounds” and a source of inspiration, fear and superstition in the British Isles even up into the present day. This magical “veil” is what is referred to when we say the veil is thinning during the fire festivals or other in-between times and places considered to be magical. Weaved throughout the folktales of generations, the Aos Sidhe, both male and female have been described as fiercely beautiful warriors, mischievous yet without true ill will, sensual and hauntingly magical. They were sometimes thought to lull young girls away from their homes to dance all night even though they appeared to be sleeping in their bed peacefully. Fairies slowly evolved to mean more than the Aos Sidhe and the variation widened to include a variety of creatures, all different shapes and sizes that lived in various places with stories for them all. Fairies in all their various forms were and still continue to be treated with great respect. Leprechauns were added into the folktale mix around Medieval times and while also originally thought to be human size evolved into being known as tiny mischievous men that made the fairy’s shoes and were paid in gold coins for their services. To catch a leprechaun was good luck and they were said to grant three wishes.
Symbolism within Mythology
Focusing in on Irish mythology because it has the most recorded detail, I’d like to highlight some of the symbolism within the stories. The Tuatha De Danann was a family of Celtic deities and children of their earth goddess Danu and the name literally means “people of Danu”. They represented the “goodness” of the Earth. Their rivals were the Fir Bolg, Fomorians and Milesians over the course of three battles. These groups seemed to have mostly represented the harmful or destructive powers in nature. When they came to Ireland, they brought four magical treasures with them from each of their four cities. They brought (1) The Stone of Fal, (2) The Spear of Lugh, (3) The Sword of Light of Nuada and (4) The Dagda’s Cauldron. They were rumored to have represented the four elements, fire, earth, air and water as well as the human journey within us, our destiny, our direction, our truth and our prosperity. Within these tales we find many embedded stories of origin to explain the “why’s and hows” of the local landscape or other life lessons but also lessons in morality in general, as is common fashion with folktales.
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.