THE WISDOM OF THE CELTS
Proud, spiritual, artistic, scholarly—the ancient Celts were people ahead of their time, and the Celtic world, which stretched from the British Isles to Gallatia, was one of the most highly advanced in history. The Celts were the first people in Northern Europe to use and work with iron, and their art remains glorious. Theirs was a truly democratic and progressive society in which scholarship was held in the highest regard, sexuality was free and open, and women were fierce warriors.
This absorbing, comprehensive guide brings to life one of history’s most progressive, vibrant societies and explores the Celts’ far-reaching impact on Western culture. Using a variety of authentic sources—ancient Celtic texts, folklore, legends, and literature from Ireland, Scotland, France, and Wales— The Wisdom of the Celts details the Celtic world from its expansion and decline to its modern revival, revealing a wealth of wisdom on all areas of life, including war, the Otherworld, King Arthur, nature, sexuality, freedom, spirituality, animals, the role of women, family, and beauty. A glorious and learned look at a remarkable civilization, this is a fascinating introduction to a people whose wisdom is more relevant today than ever.
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About the Author
GINA SIGILLITO has studied Celtic mythology, art, philosophy, and Christianity since 1990 at a variety of schools, including the Irish Arts Centre, Ireland House at New York University, and Trinity College, Dublin. She attended Columbia and Fordham Universities in New York City and holds a B.A. in English and Journalism. She has lectured in New York City on women in Irish history at a number of venues including New York City Hall, Fordham University, the Irish Arts Center, and Hunter College, and has traveled extensively throughout Ireland. She currently works for a major publisher in New York City.
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"When clouds of locusts invade their country and damage the crops, the Celts invoke certain prayers and offer sacrifices which charm birds — and the birds hear these prayers, come in flocks, and destroy the locusts. If however, one of them should capture one of these birds, his punishment according the laws of the country is death. If he is pardoned and released, this throws the birds into a rage, and to revenge the captured bird they do not respond if they are called on again."
— Aelian, on the sacredness of animals in the Celtic world
Throughout Celtic literature, there is an almost divine reverence for the animal world. From the La Tène period to the Middle Ages, birds, horses, oxen, boars, and fish hold an especially powerful place in Celtic mythology. In Irish, Scottish, and Welsh storytelling, ancient gods and heroes transform themselves into animals, and often seek their help in rescuing fellow warriors. For example, in The Mabinogion, Arthur's knights ask the Salmon of Llyn Llyw for help in rescuing Mabon, son of Modron, from a prisoner's enclosure. In the Scottish poems from The Dean of Lismore, Caoilte Mac Ronan uses animals to save Finn from Cormac McArt, King of Ireland. In The Táin, the bull figures prominently, and represents wealth, strength, and virility. According to James McKillop's The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Finnbenach (the white bull) and Donn Cuailnge (the brown bull) are the most celebrated in Celtic literature and are believed to have possessed divine powers. In Celtic ritual, Druids, the religious leaders of ancient Ireland, participated in a "bull sleep," a rite in which men killed the bull, ate his flesh, and drank his blood in order to achieve clairvoyant powers.
In the mythology of all the Celtic countries, animals are portrayed as majestic messengers of God. Even when they are killed, their death is seen as imparting a higher spiritual knowledge to the men who consume them.
From The Two Bulls:
The story of The Two Bulls from Táin Bó Cuailnge is one of the most renowned in ancient Irish literature, and best embodies the Celtic belief that animals have extraordinary magical powers. Like the horse, the bull is pervasive in Celtic mythology. It is in this selection that we are introduced to the most famous — the White–horned and the Brown bull, mythical beasts thought to have originally been fairy swineherds. It is also fascinating — and typical — in this story that Medb, queen of Connacht, is willing to wage war over these beasts, and that she takes advice from a shape–changing eel without question.
One day Medb went out to the spring, with a small bronze vessel in her hand, and she dipped it in the water, and the little eel went into it, and every colour was to be seen on him. And she was a long time looking at him, she thought the colours were so beautiful. Then the water went away, and the eel was alone in the vessel. "It is a pity you cannot speak to me," said Medb. "What is it you want to know?" said the eel. "I would like to know what way it is with you in the shape of a beast," she said, "and I would like to know what will happen to me after I get the sway over Connacht." "Indeed it is a tormented beast I am," he said, "and it is in many shapes I have been. And as to yourself," he said, "handsome as you are, you should take a good man to be with you in your sway." "I have no wish," said Medb, "to let a man of Connacht get the upper hand over me." And with that she went home again. But she married Ailill after that, and as for the eel, he was swallowed down by one of Medb's cows that came to drink at the spring.
And it was from that cow, and from the cow that belonged to Daire, son of Fachna, the two bulls were born, the White–horned and the Brown. They were the finest ever seen in Ireland, and gold and silver were put on their horns by the men of Connacht. In Connacht, no bull dared bellow before the White–horned, and in Ulster, no boar dare bellow before the Brown.
As to the Brown, he that had been Friuch, the Munster swineherd, his lowing when he would be coming home every evening to his yard was good music to the people of the whole of Cuailnge. And wherever he was, neither Bocanachs nor Bananachs nor witches of the valley, could come into the one place with him. And it was on account of him the great war broke out.
Now, when Medb saw at Ilgaireth that the battle was going against her, she sent eight of her own messengers to bring away the Brown Bull, and his heifers. "For whoever goes back or does not go back," she said, "the Brown Bull must go to Cruachan."
Now, when the Brown Bull came into Connacht, and saw the beautiful trackless country before him, he let three great loud bellowings out of him. As soon as the White–horned heard that, he set out for the place those bellowings came from, with his head high in the air. Then Medb said that the men of her army must not go to their homes till they would see the fight between the two bulls. And they all said someone must be put to watch the fight, and to give a fair report of it afterwards. And it is what they agreed, that Bricriu should be sent to watch it, because he had not taken any side in the war; for he had been through the whole length of it under care of physicians at Cruachan, with the dint of the wound he got the day he vexed Fergus, and that Fergus drove the chess–men into his head. "I will go willingly," said Bricriu. So he went out and took his place in a gap, where he could have a good view of the fight.
As soon as the bulls caught sight of one another they pawed the earth so furiously that they sent the sods flying, and their eyes were like balls of fire in their heads; they locked their horns together, and they ploughed up the ground under them and trampled it, and they were trying to crush and to destroy one another through the whole length of the day.
And once the White–horned went back a little way and made a rush at the Brown, and got his horn in his side, and he gave out a great bellow, and they rushed both together through the gap where Bricriu was, the way he was trodden into the earth under their feet. And that is how Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue, son of Cairbre, got his death.
— Ireland, 8th Century
From The Senchus Mor:
In this selection from the Brehon Laws, we see that animals were given their own rights.
The cat is exempt from liability for injuring an idler in catching mice when mousing; and half fine is due from for the profitable worker whom he may injure, and the excitement of his mousing takes the other half off him.
— Ireland, C. A.D. 438
From The Dean Of Lismore:
In this selection, Caoilte Mac Ronan enlists the help of animals to save his friend Finn from the hands of Cormac McArt, King of Ireland.
From Taura I a journey took,
— Scotland, c. 16th century
From The Mabinogion:
In this magical scene from The Mabinogion, animals are once again called upon to rescue their human counterparts. Here, King Arthur entrusts the birds and animals to help him free Mabon, one of the men of his court, from prison, and indeed he is rewarded in his faith, when the Salmon of Llyn Llyw carries Kei and Gwrhyr, two of Arthur's men to the prison where Mabon is being held
So Arthur and the warriors of Britain rose and went forth to seek Eiddoel, and they came to the outer wall of Glini's fortress, where Eiddoel was held prisoner. Glini stood on top of the wall and said, "Arthur, since you will not leave me in peace on this rock, what do you want of me? I have no good and no pleasure here, neither wheat nor oats, and now you come to do me harm." "I have not come to do you harm," Arthur replied, "only to ask for the prisoner you hold." "I did not intend to give him to anyone, but I will give him to you, and you shall have my support and strength as well." Then the men said to Arthur, "Lord, go back, for you ought not to accompany the host on this sort of petty errand." "Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages," said Arthur, "it will be proper for you to go on this errand, for you know all tongues and can speak with some of the birds and animals. Eiddoel, it is right for you to accompany my men in seeking your cousin. Kei and Bedwyr, I hope that you will obtain whatever you seek — go on this errand on my behalf."
These men went on until they found the Ousel of Kilgwri, and Gwrhyr asked, "For God's sake, do you know anything of Mabon son of Modron, who when three nights old was stolen away from between his mother and the wall?" "When I first came here," answered the ousel, "there was a smith's anvil. I was a young bird then, and since that time no work has been done on the anvil except by my beak every night. Today there is not so much as a nut that has not been worn away, and yet God's revenge on me if in all that time I have heard anything of the man you seek. Nevertheless, I will do what is right by Arthur's messengers. There is a kind of creature which God made even before me, and I will guide you to it."
They then went to the Stag of Rhedenvre and said, "Stag of Rhedenvre, we are Arthur's messengers, and we have come to you because we know of no animal which is older. Tell us if you know anything of Mabon son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when three nights old." "When I first came here," said the stag, "there was only a single antler on either side of my head, and no tree here but a single hazel oak which then grew into an oak of one hundred branches; thereafter the tree fell and today there is nothing left but a red stump. I have been here since that day and have heard nothing of the man you seek, but since you are Arthur's messengers, I will guide you to an animal which God made before me."
They came to the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd and said, "Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, these are messengers from Arthur. Do you know anything of Mabon son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when three nights old?" "If I knew I would tell you. When I first came here the great valley which you see before you was a wooded glen; the race of man came and destroyed it, whereupon a second forest grew up, and this forest is the third. As for me, my wings are now nothing but stumps. To this day I have heard nothing of the man you seek, but I will guide Arthur's messengers to the oldest animal in the world and the one which has travelled the most, the Eagle of Gwernabwy."
Gwrhyr then said, "Eagle of Gwernabwy, we are messengers from Arthur who have come to ask if you know anything of Mabon son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when three nights old." "I came here long ago," answered the eagle, "and when I first came I had a stone from the top of which I pecked at the stars every evening, and now that stone is not a hand's–breadth in height. I have been here from that day to this, and I have heard nothing of the man you seek except when I made a trip to look for food at Llyn Llyw. There I sank my claws into a salmon, expecting that it would feed me for a long time, but it drew me down into the water, so that I barely escaped. I returned with all my relatives to destroy the fish, but it sent messengers to make peace, and came itself to have fifty tridents pulled out of its back. Unless this salmon knows something of the one you seek, I know of none who might know anything. I will guide you to it."
They came to that place, and the eagle said, "Salmon of Llyn Llyw, I have come with Arthur's messengers to ask if you know anything of Mabon son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when three nights old." "I will tell you as much as I know. I swim upstream on every tide until I reach Gloucester, where I found such evil as I had never found before. That you may believe me, let one of you ride on my shoulders." So Kei and Gwrhyr rode on the salmon's shoulders until they came to the prisoner's enclosure, and they heard moaning and wailing from the other side of the wall, and Gwrhyr said, "Who is crying in this stone house?" "Alas, there is reason for this man to lament: Mabon son of Modron is here, and no one was ever so harshly imprisoned, not Lludd Silver Hand, not Greid son of Eri." "Is there any hope of securing your release through gold or silver or worldly wealth, or through battle and fighting?" "Such release as is got for me will be got by fighting." So they returned to Arthur and told him where Mabon's prison was; Arthur summoned the warriors of this island and went to Gloucester where Mabon was prisoner, but Kei and Bedwyr rode on the salmon's shoulders. While Arthur's men were fighting at the fortress, Kei broke through the wall of the enclosure and rescued the prisoner on his back, besides fighting with the men; then Arthur returned home, and with him Mabon, a free man.
— Wales, 14th century
From The Dean Of Lismore:
The horse is one of the most revered and celebrated animals in Celtic literature. In this poem from The Dean of Lismore, Finlay the red–haired Bard pays tribute to the majesty and beauty of the beast.
Gael–like is every leap of the dun horse,
— Scotland, c. 16th century
Excerpted from "The Wisdom of the Celts"
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Table of Contents
Chronology of Events,
The Major Works,
Love of Nature,
The Role of Women,