Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts

Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans

Belief System

The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in.  In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.

Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness.  It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience.  Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies. 

Celtic Identity

The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas.   As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity.  They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.

Animism

In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe.  Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity.  For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.

Read More

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

Khasi Folktales: The Origin of Thunder and Lightning

The Khasi People

The Khasi people live in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya with populations in the neighboring state of Assam and some regions of Bangladesh. They evolved their own unique mythology and folklore and created many wonderful folktales that attempt to explain different aspects of the natural world.  There are all sorts of stories featuring monkeys, tigers, lynxes and other wild animals.  The domestication of some animals is also dealt with telling how dogs, cats, goats and oxen came to live among humans and give explanations of cosmic creation and natural phenomena. The Khasi divinities, such as the twin goddesses Ka Ngot and Ka Iam, who gave their names to the rivers Ngot and Lam respectively, are found along with other divine beings.  All this and more can be found in Folktales of the Khasis by Mrs. K. U. Rafy (1920) and presented here is a retelling of the story What Makes the Lightning?

What Makes the Lightning?

The story begins in the young days of the world when animals socialized with people. They spoke their language and tried to copy human customs and manners.  Every thirteen moons the people held a great festival where there were many sports and events.  People competed against each other and demonstrated their abilities in many different activities and one of the most popular was the sword dance.  All the people from the hills and the forest would come and take part and it was a gay and happy time.   The animals loved this event and would watch the people competing, dancing and having fun and the younger beasts began to ask the elders for a festival of their own.  After considerable thought the elders agreed and said that the animals should appoint a day when their own festival should be held.

U Pyrthat’s Drum

With great enthusiasm the animals learnt all the skills and rules for the competitions and all the moves and steps for the dances.  When they were ready they set a date for the festival to begin, but no one knew how to let everyone know the event was taking place. Someone suggested that perhaps U Pyrthat, the thunder giant, would beat his drum to tell everyone the event was beginning.   U Pyrthat  agreed and began to beat his drum summoning all the animals to their great festival.  His drum could be heard in the farthest of hills and the most remote places of the forest and the animals flocked towards the sound excitedly and a soon a great multitude gathered around U Pyrthat and his drum.

The animals had gone to great trouble to prepare  grooming and preening themselves to look their very best.  Each one carried either a musical instrument or a weapon relevant to how they intended to participate in the festival events.  There was much merriment when the squirrel marched in banging on a small drum followed by a small bird called the Shakyllia playing a flute, who was followed by a porcupine clashing cymbals together. It was a very happy day and all the animals were jolly and laughing, sharing a jokes and having fun.  The mole looked up and saw the owl trying to dance but because her eyes were not used to daylight she kept bumping into objects.  The mole laughed so much his own eyes became narrowed and his vision unclear and that is how we find him today.

The Sword Dance of U Kui, the Lynx

When the fun and merriment reached its height U Kui, the lynx appeared carrying a most splendid silver sword which he had lavished a lot of money on.  He had bought it just for the festival because he wanted to show off his skills in the sword dance.  Calling everyone to attention he began his dance leaping and stepping with energy, grace and precision.  Everyone cheered and admired his elegance of movement and technique but his success went to his head and he began to see himself as better than the others.

U Pyrthat’s Sword Dance

U Pyrthat, the thunder giant, saw the performance of the lynx and was full of admiration for his dancing skills and was very impressed with the silver sword.  He had not brought a sword himself as he had brought the drum he used to summon everyone. Thinking that he should like to try a dance or two wielding such a fine sword he asked the lynx if he could borrow it as a favor. U Kui was reluctant to allow the thunder giant to borrow his silver sword not only because it was so fine and expensive but because he did not like the idea that he might be upstaged.   The crowd seeing his reluctance began to shout,

 “Shame! shame! shame!”  

and booed and hissed thinking that it was rude and ungracious of him to refuse being as the thunder giant had beat his drum to summon them all.  In the end the lynx was shamed into lending the the giant his sword and reluctantly the handed it to him.

Taking hold of the magnificent silver sword the thunder giant prepared himself to dance.  When he was ready he suddenly burst into life leaping high and whirling the flashing blade in circles all around him.  He danced so furiously and leapt high and the flashing blade dazzled everyone.  As he danced he beat on his drum so hard the earth shook and the animals fled in terror.

Thunder and Lightning

U Pyrthat was inspired by the silver sword and danced faster and faster, leaping higher and higher.  Carried away by his dancing and the wonderful blade he leaped right into the sky with the silver sword flashing all around him while he beat on his drum, the sound rumbling and crashing down to earth.  At times, the noise of the drum and the flashing of the sword are still heard and seen by people all around the world.  They called it thunder and lightning, but the Khasis people know that it is the drum of U Pyrthat, the thunder giant and the stolen sword of U Kui, the lynx, that the people hear and see.

U Kui’s Heartbreak

U Kui was heartbroken at the loss of his fine silver sword.  Folks say that afterwards he made his home near a great hill and would sit and look at the sky when U Pyrthat danced.  He kept piling stones upon the hill hoping one day to make it high enough to reach the sky where he hoped to to  reclaim his sword from the dancing thunder giant.

© 13/03/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 13th, 2019 zteve t evans