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Title: Celtic Roots of Witchcraft
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(Date Posted:01/08/2009 02:23 AM)
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Celtic Roots of Witchcraft


What role did the Celts play in the development of Witchcraft and in the survival of Pagan beliefs and practices after the beginning of the Christian era?

The Celtic People and Their Religion

In the light of the romanticism surrounding the Celts in popular publications, many readers are left with a simplified or exaggerated account. The word €  ’³Celtic€  ’´ itself is misleading, for as a shorthand term it creates a convenient though inaccurate perception of a unified culture instead of the diverse group of tribes that had similarities in social structure, languages, and spiritual expressions. €  ’³The Celts€  ’´ were named by the Greeks, who called the barbarians of the north €  ’³Keltoi.€  ’´ The €  ’³Keltoi€  ’´ had no writing and their beliefs and knowledge were transmitted orally. All that we have to go on are the Roman and Greek texts, sometimes confirmed by archeology, and the medieval Christian literature of Ireland and Wales. Also at our disposal are the various folk tales encompassing the Faerie Faith in the British Isles. With only a fragment of material to shed any clues on the nature of Celtic Paganism, we must proceed carefully to illuminate
This aspect of our roots.

From Ireland to the fringe of Asia Minor, the Celtic tribes roamed and settled. The names and deeds of their warrior elite were praised by the poets as the movement of horse and cattle rocked the earth beneath them. In Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, kings and chieftains consulted seers who were custodians of the tribal law and doctors of natural philosophy and medicine: Druids, as they were called. The Druids were annihilated by the imperial persecution during the Roman conquests of the first and second centuries CE. We can only speculate what religious delegates filled these empty niches.

The beliefs of the Celtic religion are obscure; only parts remain from different time periods over vast geographic areas, leaving only a glimpse of the faith these people of the mists left behind.

Water, Fire, and Earth

In deciphering the key elements of the Celtic religion, one sees the relationship woven between the natural and supernatural realms€  ’·spirits and deities live in the landscape where humanity may come into contact with them and commune. Trees, hilltops, rivers, lakes, and wells are the spaces where these observances were held.

Water was a numinous force of life and death. Wells and springs were centers for healing where pilgrims could come to make votive offerings to the resident goddess in order to procure her curative aid. Coventina and Sulis from Britain are two such spring guardians.

Rivers were believed to be goddesses to who propitiatory gifts were given. Boann was a river spirit who gave the name to the river Boyne. Healing, regeneration, and fertility all play a part in the attributes found in the maternal deities associated with water. Today in Europe, rivers such as the Seine and Danube still bear the names of Celtic goddesses.

Very different in cosmology from modern pagans, the Celts saw the sun as female. Grian is a feminine noun in Gaelic for sun. Dia Greine was the Scottish name for the sun goddess. It needs to be stated that Scotland was founded by Irish pirates call €  ’³Scotti€  ’´ who raided and settled the coasts of €  ’³Pictland and Caledonia,€  ’´ replaced the Brythonic Celtic languages of the area with Gaelic.

Sulis was also a sun goddess who combined terrestrial and celestial qualities. Anu, or Aine, was the sun deity of the County of Munster in Ireland. She later became known as the Fairy Queen in local tales and is reminiscent of many Celtic deities who survived into the Christian periods. Her name contains in its meaning delight, harmony, brightness, glow, radiance, and glory. Croc Aine is the hill sanctuary of Aine near the lake of Lough Gur thought to be sacred. Ceremonies were held on the Summer Solstice via hybrid Christianized practices, and villagers climbed Croc Aine bearing torches in her honor. Faeries were also believed to attend the procession. Aine was thought to be the wife of Manannan Mac Lir, the god whose bed she rose from at dawn.

Evidence to support a solar dimension in association with the cult of a Mother-Goddess can be found during the Romano-Gallic period in Brittany and Gaul. Clay €  ’³Venus€  ’´ figurines, portrayed naked with a solar wheel and circles adorning their bodies, were discovered in domestic settings, healing springs, shrines, and graves. The sun goddess aided in matters of health and fertility and gave protection after death.

Fire was a vital force and retained a primary importance in observing the holidays of the year. Fire ceremonies were enacted as a type of sympathetic magic to aid the sun on her daily and yearly course. Beltine (pronounced in Gaelic €  ’³beyaltinah€  ’´), meaning bright or goodly fire, is an example of one fire festival surviving in the British Isles as May Day. At Lughnasa, another important fire holiday, effigies were burned to commemorate the passing of the harvest and to ward off the woes of the year.

Brighid (pronounced Bree-Ed) was Celtic goddess associated with fire and solar symbolism; i.e., the Celtic cross an archaic sun symbol, fire was lit in her honor on Imbolc, the Gaelic seasonal festival on February 1. Fire was seen as inspiration, the source of poetic arts, smithcraft, and the healing power of the home hearth where peat fires were burned constantly in honor of Brede. In Kildare Ireland, a fire was once kept aflame perpetually, in reverence for the Christian saint who replaced the former goddess as a cult figure in the countryside. Many traditions of Celtic origin including the sanctity of fire and its ritual use survived Christianity through assimilation and hybrid forms of vernacular practice among rural people.

Mountains and hills were also seen as an extension of the divine feminine. Many mountains in Ireland and Scotland bear the name €  ’³Cailleach,€  ’´ meaning €  ’³of the old woman.€  ’´ High ground linked humanity with the heavens. Many fire ceremonies took place on the hilltops where the sacred flames were lit to properly honor the seasonal tide. The hill of Tara, where Irish kings were inaugurated and performed the scared marriage to the goddess of sovereignty who personified the land, and also the Paps of Anu in County Kerry Ireland, are both revered places.

Trees were particularly venerated in Celtic religions. They form bridges among the worlds: a tree's roots furrow deeply into the underworld; its trunk represents this world; and its branches spread high and wide, reaching heavenward. Deciduous trees represented the cyclical quality of life and symbolized continuity. Many tribes were named after certain trees; two examples from the Gaulish Celts are the Eburones, or the €  ’³Yew Tribe,€  ’´ and the Lemovices, or the €  ’³People of the Elm.€  ’´

As commented on by classical writers from Rome, the Celts sometimes worshipped in groves, which in Ireland were called Fidnemed, and in Britain and Gaul, Nemeton. In the Fionn cycle from the Irish tales, Finn eats the Salmon of Knowledge who feeds on the nuts of the hazel trees surrounding the well of wisdom. Trees in general are sacred in

Irish myths, but especially believed to be holy and sacred sources of wisdom were the hazel, oak, yew, and ash. Honoring trees has survived into Christian times and well into the modern era, via the folk practices of dressing trees with ribbons on seasonal celebrations.
the actual roots of Celtic Witchcraft are obscured by numerous cultural influences over long time periods. Furthermore, the lack of thorough details concerning the beliefs of the pagan Celts complicates matters. Left with the accounts of Christian writers and the commentaries of the Greeks and Romans, we catch only a glimpse of the faith practiced by these people from the mists. Considering the surviving seasonal celebrations, the pagan nature of various folk customs, and the confessions of Irish and Scots accused of Witchcraft, perhaps the remnants of our Celtic heritage may shine through, albeit in a light different than that of the mythos modern pagans have proposed, allowing for a greater richness in the development of Celtic cosmology and our understanding of our Celtic roots and bones.

The Tribe of Danu

In the land of Gaelic goddess of sovereignty, Eriu, a tribe of ancient deities who were Danu's children lived in a twilight world of eternal summer where they remained forever young. Called the Tuatha de Danaan (pronounced tooha day dahnarn), the Tribe of Danu, this Irish pantheon is the only Celtic one known. They taught various crafts and provided their descendants with labor. Ancient earthen mounds, lakes and springs, certain groves, and an island far off in the western seas were their gateways between the divine and mortal realms€  ’· the veil between divinity and our ancestors was thin. Most archeological evidence suggests worship of highly localized deities, but not organized along family lines or by clans.

Among the deities was a tribal protective father called a teutates (tribal father). Sucellus (the €  ’³good striker€  ’´) is an example of a paternal figure who carried a hammer and pot, similar to the Irish Daghda (pronounced dargda) who carried a club and cauldron. The same god may have been known as Donor, Thunor, and Thor across the Rhine, as both Celtic and Germanic people worshiped protective, fertile father gods. Partnered with the tribal father were the regional mothers who were known by area-specific names. Nantosuelta (winding brook) is the Gaulish €  ’³mother€  ’´ mated with Sucellus, although both deities are also represented alone, emphasizing their individual importance.

The concept of the triple mothers was the product of Teutonic, Roman, and Celtic influences. The Matrones were linked to fate, health, fertility, and protection. As well as being worshiped in domestic settings, the divine mothers were beseeched by Roman soldiers and Gaulish and Germanic auxiliary troops in their moments of need. Images of the mothers are found in the British west country, southern Scotland, Gaul, and the Rhineland. In Romano-Britain, the mothers are associated with the genii cucullati (triple gods) often portrayed as her defenders. Depicted as hooded figures, the fertility of the genii cucullati was emphasized by phallic imagery and the eggs they carried.

Sacred Triplicities

Three was considered a sacred number, nine being the most powerful of triplicities. Examples of the use of threes and nines can be found not only in the representations of deities, but also in Welsh and Irish literature. Some examples follow.

Upon landing on Irish soil to lay claim to it for his people, Amergin, the chief Milesian poet, encounters three goddesses: Eire, Fodla, and Banba (pronounced eroo, fowla, and banva, respectively) who personified the countryside. Amergin promises each goddess he will name the land after her if the Milesians can settle in the country of the Tuatha de Danaan. Because of the insincerity of the offer, the sons of Mil are driven from the hill of Tara. After setting sail on the Irish sea, the poet turns around beyond the ninth wave and returns, his poetic incantation creating magick powerful enough to aid his fellow tribesmen in wresting the island from the Tribe of Danu.

Another example, the Welsh Triads ( Trioedd Ynys Prydain), are a teaching device that use three references to illustrate a point. For example, a person is three things: what they think they are, what others think they are, and what they really are.

Nines are prevalent, too. Blodeuwedd, the flower maid, who appears in the Welsh text The Mabinogion and the poem €  ’³Cad Goddeu€  ’´ attributed to Talesian, was created by the British magicians Math and Gwydion out of nine different flowers and roots, and water from the ninth wave. She was intended to be a bride for Lleu Llaw Gyffes (pronounced hleeow hlow gufess), Arianrod's son. A queen and enchantress, Arianrod placed three taboos on him: never to bear arms, never to have name, and never to marry a woman mortal born. In the tale of the well of Segais, or the Irish well of wisdom, there were nine hazel trees that dropped their nuts into the pool feeding the salmon of knowledge. Nine sisters carried off the once and future king in the Arthurian tales to Avalon.

Cauldrons and Cups

The cauldron was a important symbol across Celtic Europe from Ireland to the north of Greece for more than a thousand year period and was associated with both gods and goddesses in religious art and later in post-Christian writings. Part of the Welsh canon, the Book of Taliesin is a 13th-century manuscript that tells of a supernatural woman named Ceridwen who keeps a cauldron of inspiration, wisdom, and regeneration. Ceridwen has a daughter, Crearwy (light), and a son, Affagddu (dark), the two polar aspects of creation. Affagddu is ugly and to compensate for her son's deformity, Ceridwen brews a magickal potion in her cauldron that will bestow vast wisdom on him. But Gwion, a boy who was guarding the brew, when scaled by three drops of the liquid, licks his fingers and receives the wisdom meant for Affagddu. Enraged, Ceridwen chases Gwion and both shapeshift into various animals until Gwion becomes a kernel of corn which the enchantress, now a hen,
consumes. Ceridwen becomes pregnant and nine months later gives birth to Taliesin (Radiant Brow).

Some speculation suggests the cauldron led to the development of the Grail legends. Although this theory has some credence, the cup is equally as old of a religious icon, as observed in the sovereignty rites between the Kings of Ireland and the Goddess of the land. Cups of plenty have appeared as archeological evidence during the Romano-Gallic period in Gaul. Cauldrons were popular as propitiatory gifts in bogs, marshes, and fresh water sources, the Cauldron of Gunderstrup being the most famous of such finds.

Was reincarnation a part of Celtic beliefs? According to Roman accounts, the Celts possessed such dogma; however, the Irish and Welsh tales speak of a divine Otherworld associated with the Faerie folk who evolved out of the ancient goddesses and gods after the coming of Christianity. Does this contrast a doctrine of rebirth? Do people go on to be Faeries or do they become ancestral apparitions as mentioned in the folk traditions of many districts of Brittany and the British Isles? There is little evidence of a coherent belief in reincarnation among our pre-Christian Celtic ancestors. A diversity of beliefs in what occurs after death can be found in all European pagan religions, and the Celts were no exception.

The Faerie Faith

The Faerie and Celtic faiths are integrally woven together. Long after the coming of Christianity, belief in the invisible world of spirits persisted in many variations. Many of the same workings attributed to Witchcraft are linked to those of the Fair Folk, including fertility or famine of the fields and livestock, weather control, healing or bringing disease, and the giving of ill or good luck. Is this a coincidence? What is the link between Witches and Faeries?

In the confessions of Irish and Scottish peasants accused of Witchcraft, many report receiving their abilities from the elves and faeries. Isabel Gowdie, a 16th-century €  ’³wise-woman€  ’´ from Morayshire, speaks of being in the €  ’³Downie-hills€  ’´ with the €  ’³good people€  ’´ and the €  ’³Qwein of Fearrie.€  ’´ The Queen of Elves was mentioned by Andrew Man of Aberdeen in his interrogation before judges.

Sometimes a cunning man or woman would be called to help counter the ills of elfshot, a disease caused by the angry magick of elves. Propitiation was a common preventive measure when dealing with the Faeries. The pouring of a libation of ale or cream was a popular offering. In the beginning of this century on the Isle of Lewis, farmers would wade waist deep in the sea and make an offering to Shoney for a bountiful seaweed harvest.

The Tylwyth Teg were Welsh faeries believed to be spirits of Druids born before Christ who, being good souls, avoided hell and instead lived in the invisible realm of wandering sprites. In Ireland the fair folk were called sidhe (shee); a bean-sidhe (banshee) is a €  ’³White Lady€  ’´ whose ominous presence and wailing cries foretold the death of a family member. In Aberdeenshire, Scotland, travelers left offerings of barley-meal cakes to the bean-sidhe at wells situated near two hills assumed to be her haunting grounds. Samhain (pronounced sarwen), meaning €  ’³summer's end,€  ’´ is the ancient Celtic new year feast when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was thin. During the Christian era, as Hallowmas, it was believed to be a time when faeries were especially active.

Druids and Bards

Who were the religious officials of the Celtic faiths? Druidecht, or the druidic arts as they were called by the Irish, appear to be the backbone of Celtic spirituality and society. The Celts believed that even as a poet may not speak before his King, a King may not speak before his Druid. In Greek etymology, druid means €  ’³men of oaks,€  ’´ but the early Irish literature contains the word drui, suggesting a mixture of linguistic origins. Druidism was prevalent in Britain, Gaul, and Ireland and absent in Iberia and Galatia. Druids were oracles, judges, doctors, and philosophers of the natural sciences. In the Irish tales, Druids are also magicians whose feats resemble those of the Faeries and Witches.

Bards were poets whose praise and satire was powerful enough to raise high or lower the status of a lord or king. In a society where the spoken word was a magick more powerful than the written one, poetic arts continued to be revered long after Christianity became the dominant faith. Despite living in a Christian culture, storytellers such as the Irish seanchies and the Welsh cyfarwyddion preserved the essence of our pagan past with their enchanting tales. Poetic inspiration, known as awenin in Welsh, was a power employed by the Awenyddion, soothe-sayers who became possessed by spirits to prophesy. Dynion Hysbys were wise men in Wales who consulted Faeries in their divination practices.

In Brittany, until the seventeenth century, holy shrines were kept by the Fatuae, old women who taught rites centered on the maternal spirit of the springs where they were located. The filid in Ireland continued the poetic craft practiced by the Druids of old. Among the regalia of a filid was a silver branch, a wand decorated with apples, nuts, and bells which acted as a key to open the gates of the Otherworld from which the poet drew his power. Ollamh was a title given to a chief filid.

Celtic Practices Survived

For the most part, the religions of the past did not have names to identify them. Plus, in a Christian society, the majority of clues surrounding the survival of pagan practices centers around simple country people who, despite holding onto archaic customs, would very much consider themselves to be good Christians. So let's look at some surviving folk traditions to see how pagan faith was observed and preserved.

Well dressing ceremonies are an offshoot of the veneration the Celts had for water sources. A well was decorated with flowers and wreaths of greenery. On Ascension Day at Rorrington in Shropshire, the villagers processed around the hillside with a fiddle and drum to where the well was located; dancing was followed by feasting. In west Glamorgan people used to perform a ritual for rain at the Gellionen Well. Dancing on the green by the well included participants throwing flowers at each other, and one person would fill a bowl with water from the well and shout €  ’³bring us rain!€  ’´

Pilgrims at Dungiven in county Londonberry would visit a holy well to hang rags in the bushes nearby and circle around a standing stone, bowing and reciting prayers after having washed themselves in the river Roe. In the nineteenth century, women were observed dancing around the well of Melshaach while an old woman sprinkled them with its waters to bestow fertility.

Traditionally, dance and sacred theater are the vehicles used to commune with the divine, to reenact our life experiences. Mummers plays were performed from the mediaeval period into the modern era. The cast of characters consisted of Maid Marian, Robin Hood, Father Christmas, chimney sweeps, and milkmaids. The themes usually centered on the eventual combat of a hero and villain where the vanquished is revived. On May Day, two troupes of dancers met to enact a ceremonial battle between the Winter Queen and the Queen of the May. The Winter Queen was played by a man dressed as a old woman, while the May Queen was portrayed by a young woman. Often there was a procession with the Jack in the Green followed by the ritual marriage of the King and Queen of May.

Morris dancing is also an honored tradition from our past. The Abbots Bromley morris dance is the most famous. Reindeer horns from the 11th century are featured in the dance. Many of the customs referred to above are a conglomeration of Teutonic, Roman, and Celtic influences. It was probably during the Tudor period that many of the dances and symbols became popular, since that is when they first appear to have been documented.

These threads of lore weave our roots together, both past and present, making our history a thing alive waiting to be cultivated for our future. In the heart of the Celt, a deep ancestral fire burned, a place where worlds opened up and visions of what was sacred were revealed. We should continue to search for knowledge of the Celtic past and preserve it, as would our Celtic forebears.


Bord, Janet and Colin. Earth Rites. Granada Publishing Limited, 1983.
Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. Penguin, 1971.
Cunliff, Barry. The Celtic World. St. Martins Press, 1990.
Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. Thames and Hudson, 1992.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Carol Publishing Group, 1990.
Green, Miranda. Celtic Goddesses. George Braziller, 1996.
-----. Celtic Myths. British Museum Press, 1993.
-----. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. Routledge, 1989.
Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. 1991.
Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge, 1995.
Jones, Simon. The World of the Celts. Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Stewart, R. J. Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses. Blandford, 1990

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