Celtic Mythology and Celtic Religion
When we consider ancient Celtic myths and Celtic legends, we are confronted with two rather conflicting mental images. On the one hand, there is the mighty, ferocious Celtic warrior, famed and feared throughout the Roman empire, fighting naked or painted blue, screaming like a Berserker, and cutting off the heads of the enemy.
The Irish epics replace headhunting with cattle raiding. Warriors sit around a smoky hall, feasting and drinking and telling tales - who is the mightiest? The most famous story, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, tells of such a cattle raid. The Scottish Highlanders made their living and took their entertainment from stealing their neighbors' cattle for well over a thousand years.
On the other hand, Celtic mythology is incorporated into the popular image of the druids. Merlin in his tall hat turning Wat into a fish or a squirrel. A powerful nature religion peopled with druids and bards who spent as long learning their craft as Buddha spent under the banyan tree seeking nirvana. A religion of magic and wonder with one foot in our world and the other in the land of faery. This "Disney" version of druidism ignores the bloodthirstiness of the Celtic pantheon and the human sacrifice involved in their propitiation, often by fire and, possibly, by boiling alive. In ancient Gaul, until Roman Christianization, the Celts decorated their homes with the heads of the enemy.
There is a lot of academic confusion and debate about the origins of druidism, some feeling it spread west as the Celts themselves migrated over hundreds of years from the eastern steppes into Europe and, eventually, the British Isles (via Spain for the Irish). On the other hand, at the time of the Roman empire it seems as though the Isles were the stronghold of the religion, training druids and sending them back to Europe. So, did the "classic" Celtic religion originate in the British Isles and slowly replace the older, bloodier, more pantheistic and less refined religious beliefs the Celts had originally brought to Europe? We don't know.
We do know that the Celtic religion was nature based (trees, water, etc.), what neopagans now call "earth spirituality". It is thought that there were three classes of "clergy", druid, bard and ovate, with differing functions, though it's difficult to pinpoint these differences. Some feel it was a question of degree and level of training. Seership was a highly developed and a very important function. Druids not only led spiritually, but functioned as arbiters and judges. There is some evidence to suggest that the druid hierarchy spanned Celtic Europe with some archdruids having ultimate jurisdiction over large areas.
It is very difficult to interpret the archeological and historical evidence since the Celts had no written language. Aside from digging in the ground and trying to make sense of what they find, scholars must rely on the Greek and Roman historians and the myths as they were finally written, centuries later. These manuscripts were Irish and Welsh, with the Irish being earlier. Since this site deals with Scotland, it the Irish tradition we will discuss, as that is the mythology that went to Dalriada along with fledging Christianity and that informs Highland folklore and customs to this day (as well as many of our own).
The Celtic Wheel of the Year - Festivals
The Celtic calendar was lunar based, with thirteen months. Extra days as needed were added at new year's as a "time between times." The wheel of the year was divided into eight segments, each with a corresponding festival. The four fire festivals take place on the last evening of a month and the following day because the Celts, like the Jews, count a day from sunset to sunset. That's why we celebrate All Hallow's Eve, Midsummer's Eve, and so on.
These four fire festivals are tied to the agricultural cycle as follows:
Samhain is celebrated on October 31-November 1 (our Halloween). It is the end of the harvest, the beginning of winter and once marked the Celtic new year. At Samhain, the barrier between our world and the Otherworld thins, allowing contacts between the spirits (faeries) and humans. Normal rules of human conduct do not apply and one may "run wild". Great bonfires are lit and participants join hands and circle the fire, or young men take blazing torches and circle (sunwise) their homes and lands to protect them from evil spirits. This was also a festival of the dead and the church was easily able to transform these holidays into All Saint's Day (November 1) and All Soul's Day (November 2).
Imbolc is celebrated February 1-2 (later transformed into Candlemas by the church, and popular now as Groundhog Day). Imbolc marked the beginning of Spring (hard to imagine where we live!), the beginning of new life (in Britain the beginning of lambing season). Dedicated to the ancient mother goddess in her maiden aspect, it was later transformed into a feast day for the Irish saint of the same name (and attributes), St. Brigid.
The third festival of the agricultural year is Beltane (Bealtunn in Scots Gaelic, meaning May Day), celebrated April 30-May 1. The myth surrounding this festival is common to many ancient pagan religions. The god, Bel (or Cernunnos, the horned god of Ireland) dies but is reborn as the goddess' son. He then impregnates her ensuring the neverending cycle of rebirth. This is very basic fertility worship. May Day traditions includes young people picking flowers in the woods (and spending the night there), and the dance around the May Pole, weaving red (for the god) and white (for the goddess) streamers round and round. A great bonfire celebrates the return of the sun. In Ireland, the first bonfire was lit on Tara by the High King followed by all the others. On May Day itself, the Highland tradition has the entire community leading the cattle to summer pasturage, not to return until Samhain.
The final celebration of the agricultural year is Lughnasadh (Lammas in England), the feast of the god Lugh and the first fruits of the harvest (generally wheat or corn). Lughnasadh is celebrated July 31-August 1. In Scotland, the first stalks of corn are called "John Barleycorn", of course, and were used to make the first beer of the fall season. Now, John Barleycorn refers to that greatest of Scots drinks (many distilleries are closed for August, reopening for the fall whisky-making season on September 1). This festival, as celebrated in England, gives me the willies, reminding me of that great horror novel by Thomas Tryon, Harvest Home. At Lammas, the Corn King dies (to be reborn at spring), ensuring plenty for the winter.
The Solar Holidays - Solstice and Equinox
The other four holidays of the Celtic year celebrate the spring and fall equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices. Each name contains the word "Alban" meaning "Light of". The name for ancient Scotland was Alba.
Alban Arthuan (Light of Arthur), like winter solstice celebrations all over the world, celebrates the return of the sun following the shortest day in the year. It's no wonder the church adopted these holidays as the birthdate of the Son. From ancient Celtic and Norse mythology we enjoy such holiday traditions as holly and mistletoe (sacred to the druids), the yule log, Santa Claus in his aspects of Father Christmas or the Holly King. Supposedly, King Arthur was born on the winter solstice (and he, too, will come again). Ireland celebrates Christmas much more enthusiastically than Scotland. Under the Kirk at its strictest, Christmas was viewed as an idolatrous celebration and not observed. Today, the Scots put most of their merry-making efforts into Hogmanay, the New Year's celebration.
The spring (vernal) equinox is celebrated as Alban Eiler (Light of the Earth). The equinoxes were considered a time of balance, not only between dark and light, but between worlds as well and, therefore, a time of high magical potential. More mundanely, this festival signified the time for spring planting and fertility rituals.
Alban Heruin (Light of the Shore) is celebrated as Midsummer's Day with games, picnics, and all manner of light-hearted fun. The antics of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Shakespeare well captures the spirit of this festival, including the interaction between our people and those of the faery world.
Finally, Alban Elued (Light of the Water) is observed at the autumn equinox and, like the spring equinox, is a very sacred time when the line between worlds is thin and magical possibilities abound.
Much more seems to be known about the four fire festivals (which are still celebrated in many traditional ways) than the four solar festivals. Were the solar festivals mainly druidic sacred times in which lay participation was minimal (it would seem that some of the neo-druids have taken this view and make rather more of these dates than the Irish and Gaels do)? Or could the solar celebrations pre-date druidism, belonging to the Stonehenge builders, and falling slowly into disuse? This seems a possibility since the Celtic calendar is lunar based, rather than solar.
In any case, we find in Celtic mythology a strong foundation in ancient goddess (mother earth) and fertility religion (common throughout the ancient world), merged with the peculiar emphasis on the Otherworld and its accessibility to mankind found in the druid religion. More than any other people, perhaps, the Celts live with one foot in this world and one in the other. The druid belief was that we are composed of mind, body and spirit (Christianity likewise believes this), with spirit acting as the bonding agent between body and mind, rather than an elevated or qualitatively different state of being. Thereby, we are enabled to travel between worlds, if we know how, or if we are born with the gift. Combined with the druidic belief in reincarnation, there is little fear of the Otherworld and the faery world is simply an alternate reality, rather than a higher plane.
You might want to visit our Celtic Christianity page or our Pagan Celtic Halloween page. Our Early History of Scotland page has information on the ancient Picts. For related books, see our Celtic Books page.