Celtic Tattoo mythology information page
Tattoos by Captain Bret
& Celtic Tattoo
We do All styles of Custom Tattoos.
Offering Custom unique Tattoos, Nautical, Ladies Fine Line, Fancy Watercolors, Expert lettering and Calligraphy, Black & Grey, or, Extremely colorful designs, American Tradition Tattooing, Military, Sailor Jerry styles also. Tribal & Native Art specialist, Expert with COVER- UPS & Repairs, Realistic Tattoos, Dot work, stipling. Viking & Nordic Work. Dot-Work. Renowned for CELTIC Tattooing.
Skin&Ink Tattoo magazine article about Captain Bret's Celtic Tattoos
The lands occupied by Celtic peoples, whose existence can be traced over more than 25 centuries, were vast. Celts occupied land in modern day Eastern Europe, Greece, Spain, Northern Italy, Western Europe, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Celtic people have mystified anthropologists and historians for generations. They were a non literate culture whose history and literature was preserved through oral tradition. The only written records of their civilization are the texts left by classical authors, the first of which appear circa 500 BCE. These accounts, inaccurate as they may be, are important in that they demonstrate that the Celts came into cultural contact, and sometimes competition, with the Greeks as well as the Romans.
In recent years, modern archeology has been successful in reconstructing an echo of the "voice" of the ancient Celts. Facets of Celtic society, economy, and religion completely ignored by Classical texts have been brought to light. The classical image of Celtic life describes barbaric men and women dressed in uncured animal skins in primitive villages, people who worshipped strange deities and whose lives were consumed in blood feuds. Because of the authority of the classical authors, these ancient misconceptions were pervasive. They are visible, for example, hundreds of years later in some of the Shakespearean characters that people Cymbelline and King Lear.
The Celts impressed the Greeks and Romans with their bold dress and powerful appearance. Generally characterized by classical observers as a people of fair hair, of red or gold, and fair complexions, (although the people of the British Isles were described as small and dark-haired) most Celtic women apparently stood taller than the average Roman citizen. Celtic women, upon reaching maturity, adopted a complex braided style for their hair, and wore dyed and embroidered dresses. Plaids, or wrapped woven cloaks, were common for men and women alike, and gold and silver torques and armrills, as well as rings, adorned wealthy Celts. Brooches that held closed the openings of dresses and plaids were another common feature of Celtic dress. Gallic men commonly spiked their hair and bleached it to an almost white color with chalky water, and wore their beards long, while the Bretons and Picts tattooed their arms and faces with blue. Many Danish and English bogs have yielded archeological evidence of cloth and dress, and Roman historians such as Tacitus also document some of the customs of everyday Celtic life.
Very early Pictish stone carving with celtic styled swirl
Some features of Celtic life were not as closely chronicled in classical sources. The quality of Celtic metal-work was technically and artistically advanced. Most Celtic people lived in well-populated farming villages, with larger towns linking smaller settlements and acting as meeting sites for economic and cultural activity. Fortified cities and shrines were erected along well-travelled roadways. This evidence of a more complex society in pre-Roman Europe has led some scholars to rethink conclusions drawn from classical texts by such authors as Caesar, Polybius, and Strabo. Celtic societies, once considered "barbaric" as seen through the lens of classical observers, are now looked upon as advanced cultures networked through the bond of a common linguistic heritage.
Piecing together the culture and lives of the ancient Celts, in the absence of clear archeological or textual record, is not an easy task. No one is even sure where the term "Celtic" comes from. With a great deal of inconsistency, classical sources provide tantalizing but incomplete information about the peoples called Keltoi and Galatatae by the Greeks, and Celtae or Galli by the Romans. Two thousand years ago, the term Celt was used specifically for peoples inhabiting continental Europe; the denizens of England and Ireland were not to be called "Celts" until seventeenth and eighteenth-century linguistic scholarship began to identify the inhabitants of the pre-Roman British Isles as Celtic peoples.
Who were the Celts? The issue is further obscured by the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Romantics. Clumping all of the Celtic peoples into one homogeneous family with a single ethnic identity, the Romantics exalted the idea of the "noble savage." The notion of the "romantic highlander" and the modern conception of the druids are based on these romanticized images of Celtic history and culture. Modern nationalist writers such as William Butler Yeats in Ireland and Sir Walter Scott in Scotland used such idealized portraits as the basis of a new pan-Celtic movement that offered resistance to the modernization and imperialism of Victorian Britain.
Wicked COOL Video on YouTube
There are three types of evidence from the Iron Age through the Roman period available to archeologists and scholars of Celtic history. The first of these is documentary sources, or texts. Because concepts like language and cultural identity have no physical manifestation, written records are our only source for reconstructing them. The second source is linguistics, in the form of Celtic names and words referred to in Classical records, or place-names. These give philologists clues as to where the Celtic branch of languages may be placed in relation to other languages of the world. Celtic languages are now identified as one branch of the large Indo-European family.
Early stone carving, has Ogham lettering on sides
Ogham is the first Irish method of writing, dating from the fourth century, CE. Supposed by some historians to have resulted from contact with Latin Roman numerals, the resulting ogham alphabet is unique to Ireland. Its beauty and usefulness lie in its absolute simplicity - ogham can be easily cut into wood or carved into stone. The central line on which the characters sit is usually the edge of the writing surface, such as along the edge of a stone monument.
Although we know that the majority of the ogham writings were made on wood for everyday use, (as chronicled in the Táin ) the only texts to have survived to the present day are tombstones and other stone markers, the majority of which were made between the fifth and seventh centuries CE. These stone markers were found in Southern Ireland and the West coast of Britain, among the ancient Irish settlements there.
Each of the letters of the ogham alphabet represents the common name of a species of tree. The ogham chart to the left of the table depicts each letter or sound in the ogham alphabet, including the combination vowel sounds. In the table, each letter is matched with the tree-name it represents, in Irish, Welsh, and English.
The third source of evidence is archeological. On its own, archeology can seldom provide historians with a complete picture of a culture or society. But archeology as a method of identifying patterns of human life offers concrete evidence against which the textual evidence supplied by classical authors may be judged and better understood. Geographical distribution, laboratory analysis of the chemical composition of various artifacts and types of material, and the patterns of settlement and land usage are invaluable in the process of reconstructing the history of the ancient Celtic peoples.
Archeological digs at the La Tène site in Western France have changed the way in which Celtic art and technology is viewed by the modern world. It was initially suspected that a society so lacking in any form of written record keeping (ogham was a later addition to the Celtic tradition) would be unable to produce the geometrically and technologically complex works of art that were produced contemporaneously by the Greeks and Romans. However, examples of knotwork, metal-working, pottery, glass, and geometric circle-drawing of an extremely sophisticated nature were uncovered at La Tène . Simple geometric elements such as parallel lines, concentric circles, and chevrons later are merged with compass construction techniques to create complicated geometric patterns. In Kirkburn, (East Yorkshire) a sword of over seventy pieces, including a worked-iron blade, studs, and scabbard plates, was discovered. Its intricate construction and design attest to the skill of Celtic craftsmen.
Although the classical world studied the development of new and different arms and armour, the Celts wore no armour at all until circa 300 BCE, the approximate date of the invention of chain mail. Chain mail is of Celtic origin, the earliest known examples appearing in graves dating from the third century. The concept of thousands of small, interlocking metal rings is a complex one, and its implementation required considerable skill on the part of the blacksmith. Because chain mail was difficult to make, and expensive, only senior warriors or royalty are thought to have made use of it initially, although it became more widespread later on. Chain mail was soon adopted by the Romans when it proved effective in battle.
Ireland contains the sites of many ancient, abandoned Celtic settlements, some of which date back to almost prehistoric times. Formations of great earthworks, such as ring-forts, are thought to have been constructed during the Iron Age, and many examples survive to this day. By far the most commonly occurring archeological site is the ring-fort, which surrounded a single dwelling place. Called raths (earthwork), cashels (stonework), and duns (more adequately defended sites), these fortifications surrounded a central house, usually thatched with heather and banked with earth. The entire construction was roughly circular, and some of them lasted long enough to build up their surrounding raths prodigously (such as the early Christian rath located in Deer Park Farms, County Antrim.)
Celtic culture lives on through the languages and traditions of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. Although many of the Celtic languages are now exinct, six Celtic languages still exist today. These are classified into two categories: Q-Celtic, or Goidelic, and P-Celtic, or Brithonic. Scholars once believed that the dividing line between these two language groups (based on the pronunciations of "q" and "p" sounds) resulted from two distinct waves of immigration. More recent studies suggest that Celtic languages evolved gradually across their huge territory, rather than moving rapidly from a single concentrated area.
Early Celtic Gods
victory goddess of the Iceni tribe
sun god and healer, his name means "brilliant"
forest goddess, her name means "bear"
god of war (for Britain and Gaul)
lord of the animals, name means "the horned one"
Gallic horse goddess, also goddess of fertility
the high God, his name means "lord"
Treveni god of healing
goddess of the Seine River
hammer god, (like the Irish god Dagda) name means "good striker"
mysterious sky god, name means "the thunderer"
his name means "god of the tribe", possibly the god of many tribes
Vocontii god, Gallic in origin
Three was a sacred number in ancient Celtic mythology and religion. Riddles and triadic phraseology are frequent in Celtic mythology. The triskel, a figure composed of three spirals, signifies the three-layered nature of a human soul, and is itself a central figure in ancient Celtic symbolism. The earth, sea, and sky were thought to share a three-fold marriage in oaths and as witness to deeds, and represented sacred elements.
The number five signified the family unit and order in Irish tradition, because of the five provinces of Ireland, and also the five laws imposed on provincial Irish kings.
Seventeen was a number associated with the cycles of the visible moon, particularly the new moon. On this day of the moon's cycle, many influential and monumental events were thought to have taken place. The 17th generation was supposed to be the farthest reaches of ancestral memory, putting the longevity of memories within a clan at approximately 400 years.
Twenty-seven represented the sacred number nine tripled three times, which supposedly triples its potency. Twenty-seven also signified the number of warriors comprising a war-band, and the number of the members of a Celtic chieftain's royal court. The number nine may also have been associated with a nine-day lunar week.
Thirty-three represented the royal or judicary number, signifying great honor. The courts of great gods and heroes number thirty-two, with the king of the gods making the tally thirty-three. This also represented the number of islands that Maelduin had to visit before he could find his homeland.
Hills of Ireland Celtic Cross
On a Monday , marriages and loans were to be avoided because "work begun on Monday will never be a week old". Monday was considered a bad day to begin new endeavors.
Tuesday was thought a fortunate day, good for travelling and getting married.
Wednesday was believed to be a witching day, in which new projects should be avoided, for fear the witches might make plans go awry.
Thursday was an oportune day for a christening, but a bad day to move house.
Friday was the day that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and therefore represented the most unlucky day of all in the Welsh reckoning. Fruit trees were not to be pruned on a Friday, or else they would not blossom or bear for three more years. Waters were believed to be controlled by the fairies on Friday, and was also avoided.
Saturday was considered to be a lucky day in Welsh tradition. An ideal day for marketing or for conveying a newly-wed couple's belongings to their home, but never a good day for marriage, or else the couple might not live out the year.
Sunday was a good day for weddings. A knife-wound on a Sunday would be very slow to knit, a remnant of the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was slain with a blade forged during the Sunday mass.
My article and picture in Harley Davidson 100 year Anniversary Book
Skin&Ink Tattoo magazine article about Captain Bret's Celtic Tattoos
My article and picture in Harley Davidson 100 year Anniversary Book
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 calendar was lunar based, with thirteen months. Extra days as needed were added at new year's as a "time between times." Their 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 (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 August 31-September 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.
Click for Celtic Tattoos Photo Gallery
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 Hogmany, 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.
What we know about Celtic Mythology is largely gleaned from the books and manuscripts of medieval Ireland and Wales. These literary sources can be supplemented by the iconographic and archeological record from the pre-Christian Iron Age Celtic world itself, alongside external observations about the Celtic peoples and their druidic religion by contemporary witnesses such as Posidonious, Plutarch and Julius Caesar.
From these diverse sources we can develop a fascinating picture of a magico-religious system which in some ways parallels practices and beliefs evident from elsewhere in the Indo-European world in the last millenium before Christ. In other respects however, it is also possible to discern within this tradition an unusually sophisticated aesthetic and metaphysical conception which possibly owes something to the more indigenous elements of the prehistoric West - including the megalithic cultures of the Late Stone Age and Early Bronze Age background (3500 -1500 BC).
The Celtic mythological universe is essentially animistic, in which the tutelary goddess, representing the life and fertility of the kingdom occupied a significant position. The male god is the consort of this numinous being, and was related more intimately to the human world of the tribe and its diverse ancestors. Animal symbolism, perhaps a legacy of totemistic religious forms, also plays an integral role in the Celtic articulation of the sacred. Finally, the Celtic mythological universe is permeated by a multitude of parallel realities, known collectively as the Otherworld - which sometimes intersects with the mundane world, creating a point of entry for the magical beings and wondrous phenomena which populate these ambiguous dimensions.
Early Celtic people were surrounded on all sides by the natural world. They were continually aware of its presence, and their utter dependence on its balance and fertility for their basic nurture and comfort. Even for the most powerful king a harsh winter or a blight on the soil was a serious and sometimes life-endangering issue. Animal life was also ever-present: cattle, dogs, sheep, geese and swine surrounded men and their homesteads; while wolves, bears and wild boar stalked the wilderness beyond. Animate and inanimate nature teemed throughout this all-encompassing rural landscape and loomed large throughout the mind of pre-industrial man, on all its levels. It would have shaped his days, filled his dreams: and underpinned almost every one of his hopes and fears.
The spiritual reflex to this state of affairs has produces a distinctive universal pattern of beliefs, known to anthropologists today under the name of 'animism'. Put simply, this is a recognition of the essential aliveness of nature, not just in a biological sense but as a community of sentient entities, of which the human world was an integral part. Hence, the behavior of the river, the thundercloud, the flock of birds or the solitary stag (for example) would all be explained in social, emotional or psychological terms. A vivid example of this is to be found in the early Irish law tracts. This summary of a myth in these sources describes the origin of the laws of satire, as practiced in Early Medieval Ireland:
A bard was fishing in a certain river one day long ago. Not having much success in this endeavour, he sang a poem, scathingly saterising the river for having failed to provide him with the feast to which he felt himself entitled. Enraged, the river rose up from its banks, towering over the poet and threatening to engulf the whole plain. The hapless bard turned tail and ran, while the furious river pursued him over land. Finally, once the bard had offered appropriate recompense, the river abated and returned to its banks.
This was held to have been the first ever satire, and the first ever compensation of this kind. Like many events in this mythical dreamtime it established a precedent: in this case for all future negotiations in cases of satire and reconciliation in the Gaelic world.
In the British Celtic tradition, the most vivid example of animistic thinking is found in the Book of Taliesin in the form of a poem known as Cad Goddeu, or the 'Battle of the Trees'. Here, in a mythical battle at Caer Nefenhir, fought by the Sons of Don against the forces of the chthonic underworld, the mythical wizard Gwyddion was said to have transformed a forest of trees into a writhing, hostile army:
This development is also interpreted by the Christian as words of the 'Lord' who 'spoke through the land'. But in reality, behind these euhemeristic interpretations, we have a genuine recollection of an animistic vision - of the land as a mobile, sentient community - analogous to that of the human world.
A certain mutability was the hallmark of the dreamtime, animistic universe. It was not only, as suggested above, the time when the land acquired its features, names and customs: it was also a time in which all things were less stable, yet to acquire solidity of external form. People were also more changeable: one might become mutated through anger or desire, or gain some feature or habit through a particular formative experience. But most characteristic, however, of dreamtime mythologies throughout the world as a whole, is the strange and somewhat inscrutable mystery relating to the instability of boundaries which existed between men and the rest of the natural world, the animal world in particular.
We have already explained the world-view known as animism above, and in some ways the literal kinship which was felt to exist between groups of humans and a particular species of animal or plant can be understood in similar terms. Traces of a belief system known to anthropologists as totemism is all but universal amongst pre-industrial man, and can be seen to have played a role in the development of almost every culture throughout the human world. Celtic culture is no exception: and through the mythological lore of the bardic schools an interesting variant of this belief seems to have persisted well into the medieval period and beyond.
Totemism is thought to have originated in the Paleolithic era, and seems to have persisted in hunter-gather cultures wherever small human bands are engaged in a subsistence existence in a primarily wilderness environment. Its traces can be found in every corner of the globe: from Australia to America, Africa to Scandinavia. With the introduction of the arable and pastoral agricultural practices, these beliefs would tend to be replaced by more seasonally-orientated, anthropomorphic beliefs. But such was the power and persistence of the totemistic system, that elements of its influence can be detected in a number of cultural contexts long after this time.
The basic totemistic myth seems to have presupposed a distant foretime when the characteristics dividing the categories of nature had not yet become fully distinguished. It is thought that misshapen ancestors combining human and animal features populated this mysterious time of beginnings. Slowly, distinctive groups began to began to emerge from this chaos: notably particular clans of humans linked (by common decent from one of these primitive ancestors) to a given class of animals or (more rarely) natural features such as rocks and trees. Thus there might be bird-people, cattle-people, wolf-people, oak-people, river people. Each of these clans would feel a kinship with the animal or feature involved: and it was taboo for them to harm to harm these totem creatures in any way. The ancestral spirit protected the clan from disease, violence or hunger: and to harm any member of the clan or its kindred species would provoke the wrath of this daemonic spirit.
As Freud, Lang, Frazer and others have established, exogamy was another feature of totemism: it is thought that the incest taboo and other features or human family life might have grown up alongside these zoomorphic beliefs. It seems to be through the totemistic period of development that homo sapiens became truly what we would think of as human. As other social forms began to replace the wandering hunter-gatherer band, totemistic beliefs became absorbed into other systems of spiritual and social reality. None the less, this animistic view of the zoological world continued to haunt the human imagination for many centuries to come. As suggested above, reflexes from this system of magical thinking can be discerned in cultures throughout the human world: stories of talking beasts, were-wolves, shapeshifting magicians and ancestral animal spirits proliferate globally in one form or another.
The rationalisation of these zoomorphic fantasies would vary considerably, and each area might have its own tradition. In some places, for instance, it might be believed that those skilled in witchcraft could send their spirits forth in animal form. Elsewhere, people believed their ancestors lived on in the bodies of animals. Other cultures might contain a mixtures of these beliefs, and many more besides. All that we know is that the natural (i.e. pre-rational) perspective drew a much thinner line between the worlds of beast and man. Many anthropologists and prehistorians have argued that the earliest god-forms in every culture, at a certain stage in its development, were invariably of animal, rather than human form. Human gods such as those that typify the classical mythologies of Greece, Egypt or Rome were a relatively recent development.
In the Medieval Celtic world such totemistic beliefs were integrated piecemeal into the composite mythical vision of the neo-druidic bardic schools. The motif of shape-shifting in something of a hallmark of Celtic mythology, as has been noted by a number of observers. It is far from uncommon for a deity to bear zoomrphic associations of at least one species of animal. The great Irish goddess Boanda, for example, is associated with her beautiful white-coated, red-eared cattle. The psychotic warrior-hero Cúchulainn exhibited strong signs of an affiliation to a canine totem: he had a taboo on the killing of dogs and his name literally meant 'The Hound of Culann (the smith)'. Conal Cernach, like the ancient Gaulish horned-god Cernnunos (Herne the Hunter of English mythology), was associated with both the snake and the stag. A horse-goddess cult plays an important role throughout the Celtic world, being exemplified in the Welsh tradition by the figure of Rhiannon. The name of the great hero Arthur literally means The Bear. Lleu is the ruler of birds. Culwch was 'the slender boar'. The iconography of the pagan British world of Iron Age and Roman Britain also indicates that this totemistic zoomorphism was very much a part of the divine iconography of the native, druidic mythology.
The animal characteristics of these mythical figures were clearly so strongly part of the tradition involved that they never fully disappear, even long into the Medieval Christian period. Instead, as suggested above, they were rationalised in a number of ways. A dominant interpretation of these shape-shifting dreams in the Celtic world can be related to the famously druidic belief of reincarnation: or more specifically magical transmigration, evidence for which is frequently found in the medieval writings of Ireland and Wales. In Irish tales such as Tochmarc Étain ('The Wooing of Étain') and the some of the remscela or 'fore-tales' of the Tain Bó Cuailgne ('The Cattle-Raid of Cooley'), magical figures from the distant past play an active role within the action set in the narrative present. In Tochmarc Étain 'The Seduction of Étain', the heroine is first transformed by a jealous rival into a magical fly, and then buffeted from coast to coast by storms of druidic sorcery. Centuries later, she is swallowed by a noblewoman at the court of Conchobur in the Iron Age kingdom of the Ulaid, and reborn as a princess there. In her adult life she is pursued by Otherworld lovers from her previous existence amongst the Sídhe and the Tuatha dé Danaan. The action of the Tain Bó Cuailgne, on the other hand, hinges on the rivalry of two ancient bulls, whose conflict becomes inexorably projected onto the two tribal regions, Ulaid and Cruachu. One of the remscela of this epic traces the history of this rivalry back to two megalithic swine-herd druids, Ochall and Bodb whose magical conflict was pursued through a successsion of physical forms - including those of ravens, water-beasts and 'screeching spectres' - before they were eventually devoured in the form of grains of wheat by a herd of cattle, and reborn as the two great bulls Finn ('The Light One') and Dub ('The Dark') respectively.
In the Welsh tradition, we find the story of Gwion, the young cauldron-keeper of the legendary sorceress Ceridwen. The latter transgresses his mistress by accidentally tasting her magical elixir of omniscience: giving him instantaneous knowledge of all things past, present and future. He is immediately aware as a result that she is now his mortal enemy, he starts to flees her wrath, transforming himself into a hare. She pursues in the form of a greyhound. He then takes the form of a fish, and she continues to hound him, in the shape of an otter. This transmigratory sequence continues until the pursued finally transforms into a grain of corn, in which form he is finally devoured by Ceridwen in the shape of a hen. He is later reborn to her as a baby boy, before being eventually cast adrift and discovered in the court of the Dark Age British king Elfin, as the child-wonder and chief bard Taliesin. The experience of multiple incarnations is related at the beginning of the Cad Goddeu :
In all three of these anecdotes the device of shape-shifting sequences was used as a bridge between the distant mythological cycle of the pre-historic dreamtime and the proto-historic heroic cycles of the Irish and Welsh traditions, which lay closer to the horizons of living historical memory. Other interesting similarities also emerge: in all three stories the transmigrant shape-shifter is actually devoured; twice as grains of corn, and once as a tiny fly; before being reborn to their devourer in a later age. If Caesar and other classical observers are to be trusted on such issues, the druids of ancient Gaul believed that the 'souls of men would be reborn after a fixed period of time' (perhaps the period that was understood to elapse between one cycle and the next?). More specifically than this, a belief is also described in which the druids were said to hold that the human sacrifice of criminal prisoners would be said to result in a 'bounty of corn' for that year. Could it have been that corn grains or other small objects were the lowest end of the transmigratory journey: the bearest manifestation of the soul in its cyclic journey?
Before moving on to the next stratum of the Celtic mythological thought-world, it is worth considering a few other aspects of the native animal mythos, which lie outside the confines of the dogma of druidic transmigration. First of all, shape-shifting might be take one of two basic forms. It might either be imposed involuntarily by an outside agency whose magical power was greater than that of the victim or occur at a disruptive momment (such as at the point of death), or the animal form might be assumed voluntarily by a magician (such as Gwion or Ochall) in possession of sufficient knowledge or druidic power to control their external appearance in this way.
An example of a more voluntary change, used as an aggressive form of magic, can be seen in the Irish Ulster Cycle: wherin the hero Cúchulainn is harried by the dark goddess Morrigan, whose sexual advances he had rejected as he stood guard at the ford of Áth Tarteisc during the Cattle Riad of Cuailgne:
'...an eel flung three coils about Cúchulainn's feet and he fell back in the ford. Cúchulainn rose up...cattle stampeded madly through [surrounding] army...next a she-wolf attacked Cúchulainn and drove back the cattle westwards upon him...she [then] came in the shape of a hornless red heifer and led the cattle dashing through the ford and the pools...'
Examples of involuntary change, imposed by an outside agency, can be found from both sides of the Irish Sea. From the Ulster cycle we find the aforemention myth of Étain, in which the eponymous heroine suffers at the hands of a jealous rival, endowed with the druidic power to transform her into the shape of a fly. From the British tradition, we have example of Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, in the Fourth Branch, who are transformed into a succession of animals and made to bear each other's young in punishment for the rape his virginal footbearer, Goewin daughter of Dol Pebin.
The integration and preservation of both the animistic and totemistic perspectives with the Celtic mythological tradition contribute to its distinctively fantastical and magical atmosphere. The Celtic tradition is characterised by its ability to absorb and retain different elements from both its own past and the subsequent influences from neighbouring cultures. The end result of this process, however, was a melodic, integrated whole, despite its diverse cultural origins. The Celtic world-view was underpinned by a rhythmic sensibility and an eye for the teeming beauty of the natural world. They continued to respect and appreciate the clamorous ecstasy of birdsong at dawn, the wild fury of the charging boar, the blissful mirth of the sparkling stream and the silent grandeur of the looming mountain: even after the surrounding land and non-human life had been largely tamed and appropriated to their needs.
As human life achieves greater ascendancy over its environment; domesticating cattle, cultivating cereals, clearing the ever-present forest or bush and consolidating their society into larger and larger population groups; the instinctive superstition of totemistic animism will tend to become replaced by a more seasonal, anthropomorphic form of spirituality, in which a specialised group of men or women will tend to preside over calendrical rites, and god-forms will show increasingly human characteristics. In Britain, this process probably began during the Megalithic era, and continued into the Iron Age, even up into medieval times and beyond, integrating and rationalizing the more archaic elements as it evolved.
Unlike some other Indo-European traditions, the Celtic mythological universe was not dominated by a fixed pantheon of named functional deities in the way that, for instance the Roman or Greek mythologies had universal gods and goddesses for specified areas of life (e.g, Mars the god of war, Venus the goddess of love, Hermes the god of magic and intelligence etc.). Instead, each tribe had its own ancestral heroes and deities - to whom a whole range of fabulous deeds were frequently attributed, whose (esoteric) names their descendants would repeatedly invoke for protection and support in all areas of their lives. These deities were as numerous as the stars in the sky, and for the vast majority we can glean very little in the way of the individual identities of each (beyond a distinctive feature on a carved stone head here, or the bombastic inflections of a folktale there).
Be this as it may, there are certain common associations which defy this regional diversity. There were certain forms which seem to have haunted the Celtic imagination - archetypal entities into which the identities of local heroes, heroines or ancestors would necessarily become subsumed. Click for Celtic Tattoos Photo Gallery
Most clearly pronounced is the goddess - whose associations with the land and its fertility were pronounced throughout the Celtic world. The goddess might bear the name of a region or territory - such as Eriu for Ireland, Cailliech Beara for the Southwestern districts or the great Boanda, spirit of the River Boyne and goddess of the valley of that name. In other circumstances, this tutelary relation might be more figuratively implied - such as the motif wherein the ruling king of that land is always depicted as the consort of this sovereignty goddess.
In the embrace of a true king, the goddess would yield warmth and bounty; from a false king the elements would recoil - leaving impoverishment and misery for his subjects until a more fitting consort could be found. Under a good king, the harvests were plenteous, the weather was mild, people and animals gave birth fecundly. Under a bad king, the seasons were harsh and irregular, harvests were thin, and births were infrequent or deformed in the human and animal world.
There is clear evidence that such beliefs were held well into the medieval period and beyond: as can be seen by the entries in Medieval annalistic records such as Brut y Twysygion or Chronica Scottorum. Irish sources were especially explicit about this relationship, with one early treatise, Audact Morainn, being entirely concerned with the Fír Flathemon, 'the Rightful (practice of) Sovereignty'. This was an essentially Indo-European cult, in which the king or *rig-s ('the extender') was primarily a religious as well as a political/military function. The king, therefore, was a high-priest as well as a warlord and chief: the human embodiment of the divine on whom the well-being of the tribe was magically dependent.
Likewise, the fortunes of the goddess herself were a mirror of the fate of the land: she might become desolate, threadbare or withered if the land is neglected or abused: or she might blossom and regain her youth if the land is restored by a rightful king. She had both a light and a dark aspect: she could appear the demure and radiant damsel 'the treasure hard to obtain' when the youthful king was at the height of powers. As he aged, and his hour drew near, she might manifest as a hideous witch or dark priestess: ready to preside over his killing and replacement at the hands of a more suitable rival.
Many myths throughout the Celtic world would tell of how a prospective king was approached by a mysterious, otherworldly lady (typically while lost in a desolate wilderness), who turns out to be this tutelary goddess: the coupling with whom ensures the future ascendancy of this king and his heirs. Again, it is within Ireland that the most explicit revelations of this mystery are clearly delineated. Nonetheless Brythonic sources (including the Mabinogi), can also be seen to include this kind of otherworldly encounter, with a numinous lady in whom the powers of sovereignty seem to abide.
The Sacred Cauldron
Closely associated with the goddess archetype is the symbol of the cauldron, chalice or grail. The signification of this particular symbol seems closely related to that of the fountain or spring, at the heart of river-goddess cults of the Ancient Celtic world. Cauldrons of regeneration, cauldrons of inspiration and cauldrons of endless bounty all feature in the annals of Celtic mythological lore. But besides this, the cauldron also must have occupied a central role in mundane world of Celtic tribal life. It was the source of food, drink and nurture in the household, and perhaps the hub of that most consummate of Celtic social activities: the chieftain's feast. Traditionally, this would involve the slaughter of a pig and its boiling in the tribal cauldron. Warriors would then be given portions therefrom in strict order of heroic merit, followed perhaps by the cup of mead served by the queen. So strong was the feeling and depth of significance aroused by this ritual that it was not unknown for violence to break out in the Celtic feasting hall, over this contested 'hero's portion'.
The cauldron; while being a symbol of the reproductive, nutritive and inspirational qualities of the feminine; was often portrayed in pagan Celtic iconography in the hands of a the tribal god, a tutelary patriarch with pronounced chthonic characteristics. In the Irish tradition, the guardian of the cauldron is simply known as Ind Dagda, 'The Good God'. He is characterised by primitive, phallic attributes: his crude and violent copulations with the dark goddess Mórrigan being responsible in one story for shaping some of the plains, ridges and earthworks of Ireland... His belly and appetite were vast, and his garb was that of the stone-age peasant: a course brown tunic from which his buttocks protruded. In Gaulish iconography, we find a god known as Sucellos 'Good Striker' whose elemental hammer was undoubtedly associated with the virtues of thunder and lightening, while his bowl, carried in the other hand, signalled (like the cauldron of the Dagda) his mastery of the bounty of nature (i.e. his conjugal relation to the Great Goddess). The Penn Annwfn, with his cauldron and associations with the chthonic underworld appears to have been one significant bearer of this archetype in the British Celtic mythological universe of the Mabinogi. The Arthurian manifestation of this archetype is to be found in the Grail King, whose health and vitality is mysteriously linked to the state of the land; equally in the sinister axe-bearing 'Green Knight' encountered by Gawain in the poem of that name.
The Hero and the God
There were numerous manifestations of these matriarchal goddesses and patriarchal gods in the Celtic world. Notable among the former we find Rhiannon 'The Great Queen' among the Welsh, who was almost certainly among the Three Matriarchs or Tri Rieni mentioned at the beginning of the Second Branch. Across the Irish Sea, the mythological cycle is dominated by the ever-present goddess of the Boyne valley, Boand(a) by name, queen of the faery-like tribes of the Sídhe. She is the lover of Ind Dagda and the mother of numerous otherworldly heroes. She is mysteriously associated with the River Boyne, a river which was known to medieval bardic traditions as The Roof of the Ocean.
The titanic figures of Bendigeidfran, Beli Mawr and Casnar Wledig from the Mabinogi alone show characteristics of this Patriarch/Chieftain archetype, just as do Ind Dagda, Manannan and later figures such as Finn MacCumhail and Diamairt MacCerbhall in the Irish tradition. Famous historical British kings Arthur, Coel Hen ('Old King Cole') and Rhydderch Hael developed similar characteristics as their legends grew. Often such figures were to be found at the very hub of a narrative cycle. Their generosity and kingly qualities were often seen as the axial force of a diverse retinue of warriors and heroes, many of whom would have had legendary exploits of their own.
The Kilduncan Stone the most important Pictish carved stones to be found in Scotland in the last 100 years.
Some degree of variance within these basic male and female archetypes certainly did occur within the Celtic mythological tradition. Most obvious is the dichotomy involving the archetypes of hero and chieftain, already alluded to above. The hero-youth archetype was essentially itinerant and perigrinatory, representing the unstable forces of evolution, development and change. He offered his skills and services at the court of an established chieftain-king: who represented the principle of mature mastery, continuity and proprietal responsibility, with his domestic and political status affirmed through his symbolic marriage to the goddess-figure.
However, despite the relatively junior position of the hero, it is the deeds and adventures of this younger figure, rather than those of the chthonic-god or chieftain-king archetype, which command the most narrative interest. Indeed, this is the pattern throughout the world, where the aspirant progress of the hero through difficult birth, childhood miracles, trials of youth, out of which the winning of the hand of the bride represents the final accession into the full adult status, is universally represented. The role of the chieftain-king in these stories is more often than not to provide a wider context - defining the era ('in the time of Arthur' etc.) or the place (e.g. 'at the court of Rhydderch Hael'), the political milieu involved.
An interesting feature of Celtic tradition is the phenomena of 'aging' of individual characters, which often sees them progress through the roles of hero, king and chthonic deity as their memory passes from history into legend, and from legend into the realm of mythology. An actual historical figure, the Belgic warlord Brennus appears to have assimilated a number of mythical motifs, finally ending up as Bran vab Llyr or Bendigeidfran in the British Celtic tradition of medieval Wales: where his role is somewhere on the threshold of the legendary patron-king, and the titanic deity of whose chthonic presence exercises a protective influence over the land of his people. As a general rule: the older and more established such figures grew, the more pronounced became these chthonic and tutelary characteristics. Like the Great Queen, the Great King eventually would become a larger-than-life mythological figure: typically abiding in a magical paradise under a giant tumulus surrounded by his retinue, perhaps in a mysterious state of suspended animation, but always ready to return to the world and fight back the enemy if the tribe was faced with irreversible dangers. The British king Arthur is another example. The tradition of Arthur began (it would seem) with an actual historical figure, a Romano-British general by the name of Artorius, in the sixth century AD. By the tenth century this figure had absorbed a cluster of hero legends, many of a fantastical, supernatural nature. By the eleventh century, he seems to have become a king, with his own retinue of heroes, each with their own body of legendary exploits. By the twelfth century, Arthur had become a tutelary figure, slumbering in suspended animation, surrounded by his retinue of knights, ready to rise from 'the hollow hills', to defend his people in their hour of need.
Alongside the hero-chieftain dichotomy, there are numerous other subsets within the basic god-goddess duality outlined above. Some signs of the Indo-European influence on Celtic Mythology can be seen in the emergence of functional types. Existing deities acquired specific associations: with magic, with war or with farming, for example. The female figures too became more diversified: the pan-Celtic deity Brigit, Brigid or Bride having a particularly strong associations with (paradoxically) both purity and virginity on one hand and fertility and childbirth on the other. She was very much the daughter goddess - female equivalent of the equally widespread hero boy-gods Lugus or Oengus Mac Oc. Her counterpoint within the female pantheon might be seen as the strongly maternal figures such as Modron or Boanda; or the dark goddesses Badb and Morrígan, who stand for the principles of war and wanton destruction.
As has already been noted, however, it was this archetypal role which tended to absorb the name or identity of a historical individual in the Celtic world. This is possibly due to a strongly cyclic view of reality: which may have been part of the Megalithic intellectual legacy to the culture of the British Isles. This histiographic perception is suggested in medieval Celtic literature by the habitual classification of stories, actions or persons into perennial, archetypal events or phenomena. Irish scribes catalogued their narrative tradition into such narrative archetypes, including Tana (Cattle-Raids), Coimperta (Conceptions and Births), Immrama (Voyages) etc. The Brythonic tradition includes numerous classificatory notiae known as 'The Triads of the Island Britain': groupings of recurring events such as 'The Three Quests', character types like 'The Three Enchanters' or other phenomena: 'The Three Bull-Spirits' 'The Three Lover's Horses' etc. On a psycho-linguistic level, the very grammar of Celtic languages accentuates a proclivity towards this timeless, perennial perception of events: with the verbal noun (e.g. 'an arriving' 'a promise' 'an increasing' etc.) often defining the nature of activity within a given narrative sentence structure, where a finite verb might usually be expected.
One should understand Celtic Mythology as a continual reworking of these basic archetypal characters and themes. Every tribe, every clan, possibly even every family or homestead had its own traditions relating to its (usually male) ancestors and their deeds and descent; as well as the local (usually female) figures representing the life and fertility of the river, valley or plain on which they lived. Out of this diversity there can nonetheless be found a series of universal archetypes and perennial themes. It is this stock of characters and story-forms - endlessly spun around a myriad of localised figures - which forms the very substance of the Celtic mythological tradition.
No discussion of Celtic mythology is complete without some reference to what is often referred to as 'The Otherworld'. A distinctive body of tradition has emerged from the Celtic world about this realm and its inhabitants which have infused, via the Arthurian lore and related traditions, into the narrative cultures of Western Europe as a whole. The familiar genre of the 'fairy tale' - found from Ireland to the forests of Russia, owes much to beliefs of this kind.
Commentators have tended to speak of the 'Otherworld' as unitary entity. In fact the Celtic cosmos was no less fragmented or hetrogenous than the tribal world consciously inhabited by the early Celtic peoples themselves. Even a neighbouring clan could, in the eyes of these people, exhibit degrees of 'otherness' - a quality which in itself served as a magnet for a whole variety of fantastical projections.
Be this as it may, the Celtic Otherworlds often share a peculiar set of distinctive characteristics. Their inhabitants tend to be either beautiful in the extreme - or grossly misshapen and hideous of aspect. The Otherworld is a source fantastical animals and powerful magical objects. The seizure of such wondrous treasures is a frequent goal of Otherworld quests undertaken by heroes from the world of men: 'the traditional feat of greatness' as one commentator accurately described it. Sometimes, a mortal might even become the lover of a faerie mistress from 'The Land of the Ever Living', 'The Plain of Delights' or other such Otherworldly paradise locations. Likewise, it was also not unknown for an Otherworldy lover to abduct or seduce a mortal princess and spirit her away to 'The Land of Summer', or wherever his magical kingdom might be.
Otherworld beings were neither divine, nor wholly 'mortal' (in the broadest sense of the word). They were magically powerful, yet also prone to strange weaknesses. Sometimes, a clever mortal hero would exploit such weaknesses, and obtain famous magical concessions from these Otherworld denizens. Their relation with the world of men could be friendly as well as hostile: marriages and other forms of alliance between the worlds were not unheard of in the Celtic world.
Mortals might abide in Otherworld locations, returning to find that generations have passed in their absence - or after what has seemed like decades in the Otherworld reality, little more than a few hours of mortal time have elapsed. Sometimes the Otherworld itself appears to be little more than another dimension of time - but one not normally perceptible to the mortal eye.
Otherworld settings were often paradoxical in their location: typically situated in liminal settings such as tidal islands or fog-laden hill-tops, or in other more fantastical settings: glass towers, rotating rocks etc. Another tradition tells of a land which can only be seen while standing on a certain patch of turf, at a certain time. A popular tradition recalls a magical underworld, accessible via certain points on the megalithic landscape: i.e. tumuli, standing stones and other sacred earthworks. There are strong suggestions that this Chthonic Otherworld is ultimately rooted in ancestor cults and the calendrical rituals of Megalithic Britain.
As has been implied above, Otherworld characteristics were often projected on outsiders of one kind or another: aboriginals, foreigners, merchants: even those from different social backgrounds. However, the nature of the Otherworld was not confined to physical or cultural distance: it could exist within the blink of eye, the space of a dream, or the experience of any other form of altered consciousness. As seen through the druidic eye, the world was thronging with a multitude of invisable realities - all of which could exert any manner of influence over the world of men, and any of which could be entered: if the time, place and circumstances were correct.
Click for Home Index Page
Celtic Tattoo PortfolioTribal Tattoo Portfolio
Custom & Traditional Tattoo Portfolio
Home INDEX Page
Celtic Tattoo History Page #1 Page #2 Page #3
Celtic Mythology Page #1 Page #2 Page #3
These designs, pictures, Photographs, JPG,s,Gifs, files, logos, Tattoos, images, content are used exclusively by Captain Bret's Tattoo Shop Inc. and represents our company, they are our intellectual property © 1981 All rights reserved. All Tattoos By Artist Captain Bret A. Lohnes ©1981
NO commercial or non-commercial reproductions allowed or tolerated without valid license from Captain Bret's Tattoo Shop Inc.
All designs and images/content/compilation herein are Copyright 1981. Trade Mark-Service
Mark protections exist. Said Copyright, Copyrights, Service Marks, Trade Marks
may be filed, owned, by all, some, or individually by the following, Bret
A. Lohnes, Captain Bret's Tattoo Shop Inc. and www.tribal-celtic-tattoo.com