This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology
Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods
Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.
The Dream of Aengus
Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.
Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.
Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica. There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee. It is this species that this work mostly refers to. Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies. This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs. Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.
Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used. Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more. They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system. An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted. Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.
Telling The Bees
It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in. This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed. Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld. The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife.
There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper. This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.
When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly. Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.
An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune. In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,
“The master’s dead, but don’t you go;
Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)
Whereas in Germany the song was,
“Little bee, our lord is dead;
Leave me not in my distress.” (2)
In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees. Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person. Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.
Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees. Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.
In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive. Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.
In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died. Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.
In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings and happy events as well as funerals. A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees. A Scottish newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive. A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.
Messengers of the Gods
There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung. Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.
Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity. Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth.
Importance of Bees
Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases.
In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or theCailleach 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.
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.
The Anansi Tales are a body of traditional stories that originated in Ghana and spread throughout West Africa. They were carried to the Caribbean and the New World with the unfortunate African people who were transported there to spend their lives in slavery. They were passed on orally and from generation to generation producing many variants of the same tale. The stories center around a protagonist called Anansi who is both human and spider. He can appear in either form or anthropomorphically with a human head and a spider body. He is often seen as a trickster or as a intermediary between the gods and humankind. During the dark days of slavery he was seen as a symbol of hope and resistance by showing how someone who was considered small and weak could overcome the big and powerful by using cleverness and courage and was a reminder of the old ways back in Africa. The following is a retelling of an Anansi tale which highlights his cleverness and trickery.
How the Tales were Named
In the early days of the people, all of the tales that were told were stories about the chief of the gods whose name was Nyankupon. Spider who was known as Anansi was jealous and thought all of the stories should be about him. Therefore, Anansi went to Nyankupon and asked that in future all the tales people told should be about him.
Nyankupon told Anansi that he would agree to this but only if Anansi could fulfill three tasks. For the first task, Anansi had to bring him a jarful of living bees. The second, was for him to bring Nyankupon a live boa-constrictor. For the third, Anansi had to bring him a living leopard. Anansi agreed and taking a clay pot he went to a place where he knew bees lived in great numbers and sat down and began talking aloud to himself saying,
“They will not be able to do it.” “Yes, they will.” “No, it is too difficult!” “Of course they will be able to do it!”
He kept this debate up for some time and eventually the bees took notice of him and asked him what he was talking to himself about. He told them he and Nyankupon had been arguing over whether the bees were skillful enough fliers to be able to fly into the clay pot. He told them he believed they were, whereas Nyankupon argued they were not.
The bees were indignant and told Anansi firmly that of course they could and to prove it they all flew into the pot until it was packed tight with them. Anansi quickly put the lid on the pot and sealed and took it to show Nyankupon that he had succeeded in the first task.
The next morning Anansi went out and found a long stick and then went to a place where he knew a boa-constrictor lived. When he arrived at the home of the boa-constrictor he began talking to himself saying,
“Surely he cannot be as long as this stick”
“Yes, he will be as long!”
“Oh, no he won’t!”
“Of course he will! “
And he kept on talking to himself for some time until the snake came and asked him what he was talking about. Anansi told him that in Nyankupon’s town people are saying the stick is longer than the snake was whereas but he believed the snake was longer than the stick.
“Would you be as kind as to lay yourself along so that I may measure you? asked Anansi politely. The boa-constrictor the stretched himself along the stick from end to end and Anansi lost no time in binding him around the stick with his spider thread. Then he took him to Nyankupon successfully completing the second task.
Leopard by Jacques Christophe Werner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The third morning Anansi sewed up one of his own eyes and went to a place he knew where a leopard lived. As he drew near he began to shout and sing at the top of his voice and he made such a din that the leopard came out to his home to see what all the noise was about.
“Why are you shouting and singing in such a joyous manner?”
said the leopard to Anansi.
“Look, can you not see? Look, I have stitched my eye up and now I can see such wonderful things that I have to sing and shout about them,”
The leopard looked and he saw that Anansi’s eye was indeed sewn up and then he said,
“Sew my eyes up too and then I will also see wonderful things!”
So Anansi the Spider quickly sewed up the eyes of the leopard rendering him blind and helpless. Then he led him to Nyankupon who was both impressed and astounded at the ingenuity of Anansi and granted him his wish. That is why all the old tales that people tell today are known as Anansi tales.
Stag on the Watch – By Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) – Public Domain Image
The stag in Celtic mythology is a symbol of the forest. It grows antlers that resemble branches on a tree. It looks as if it carries the forest around with it crowned on its head. The stag is fast, powerful and agile and sexually vigorous. This represents the the energy of nature which is self regenerating. The shedding of its antlers in the autumn and their regrowth in the spring is like the seasonal cycle of the forest trees which shed their leaves each autumn and regrow them each spring.
One of the finest relics of the Celts is the Gundestrup cauldron. This is a Iron Age silver work cauldron that was found near the Danish village of Gundestrup. The cauldron is ornately decorated with many fine figures of gods, animals and images of nature. Cernunnos, the stag horned god of the Celts is depicted sitting cross legged next to a stag. On another part of the cauldron there is a depiction of a god holding a stag with each hand.
The stag appears to be highly regarded in Celtic society and held in reverence over a widespread area. In Luxembourg a depiction of a stag with coins flowing from its mouth has been found.
A carved stone figure found in Rhiems depicts Cernunnos with a stag and a bull that are drinking from a. stream of coins. This is believed to mean that stags are associated with prosperity.
As can be expected, in many areas the stag is associated with hunting. The stag would have played an important part in the economy of the Celtic people. Its flesh provided food, its skin provided clothing and coverings, and its bones provided, tools and weapons such as arrowheads.
In northern Britain, Cocidius, the hunter god, was associated with the stag. In the south of Britain, around Colchester, Silvanus the woodland king, also known as Silvanus Callirius, was associated with the stag.
At a mountain shrine at Le Donon, in the Vosges dedicated to a nature or hunter god. His image was carved in stone showing him wearing the hide of an animal and he had fruit hanging from him. Next to him stands a stag and he has his hand placed on its antlers in what seems to be an act of benediction.
The Celtic Relationship With Nature
Images of hunting and of the forest are shown next to images of prosperity. It shows the relationship and respect the hunter has for the hunted and in doing so reveals much about the Celtic mindset and their relationship with nature.
Burgundy was believed to have been a horse breeding region during Celtic times and a place where the stag horned Cernunnos was revered. A sculpture made by the Aedui tribe shows a “divine couple.” A god and goddess, are shown apparently presiding over the animal kingdom. They are shown in a sitting position next to each other with their feet resting on two stags. Next to the god is a horse that is being offered a drink from a goblet. The goddess is offering a goblet to a horse by her side to drink from, while petting it.
The stag in Celtic terms was a representation of the natural world and the animal kingdom. The antlers are a reminder that nature can be dangerous and violent. It can be violent and harmful, but it can be benign and beneficial. They stag is also a symbol of male fertility, the fertility of the forest and the renewal of nature. As such it played an important role in Celtic society and culture representing the Celtic relationship with nature and the animal kingdom.