In order to understand the religion and magic of the Pagan Celts it is important to comprehend their basic symbols and cosmology. Every culture has a basic map of the universe, physical and spiritual, that allows its people to understand their place in the cosmos. These patterns underlie and tie together the myths and tales of the gods, the nature of the individual soul and the sacred reality of the land on which they dwell.
In seeking for the cosmology of the ancient Celts we are hampered by the scattered and fragmentary nature of the evidence. No literary or folklore source records a Celtic creation story, or sets out in one place a clear description of any Celtic map of the worlds. Instead we have a hodgepodge of bits and pieces recorded in the work of Christian monks, the observation of foreigners, and the folk-memory of Celtic peoples.
Still, taken together this amounts to a considerable body of information. Interestingly, these sources tend to validate and confirm one another, allowing us to be more confident in determining which ideas might have held prominence among the Pagan Celts. In this format, I don't intend to constantly cite sources and examples for these concepts. I will present a short bibliography in support of these facts and ideas at the end of the article.
In the same way, I must say at the beginning that many of the conclusions reached here are very speculative. Celtic scholars would probably place them in the "could be" column. But for those of us attempting to build a workable modern Celtic Paganism, we must take risks that a scholar would not take.
We must go past scholastic certainty into inspirations and intuition to synthesize these various sources into patterns that can be put to work by modern Pagans. I will try to indicate as we go which of the conclusions given in these articles are accepted by scholars, and which have been reached within the Pagan community. When I give conclusions that are my own, I will try to make that clear as well.
1: The War Between the Gods and the Giants
Though the Celts leave no creation myth, one source of clues about the Celtic views of cosmos is the body of lore surrounding the settling of the isle of Erin. The legends recorded in the medieval Irish "Book of the Invasions of Ireland" depict a process that may reflect earlier myths of creation.
In these stories we find a series of waves of invasion that bring first the gods and goddesses and later the tribes of mortals. During this process, or probably because of it, the land itself comes in being, described as either the clearing away of the forest or the more direct emergence of land from the empty sea.
In these tales both the forest and the sea stand as symbols of the unformed chaos from which the ordered mortal world must be drawn. We see the gods slowly growing in strength until they have brought the island fully into being, making it ready for mortal habitation.
This process reveals the first example of the primary division of the Celtic cosmos into two, a division that begins the manifestation of the worlds. We see primary division between the First Chaos and the first islands of the World Order. This is reflected in stories of war between to tribes of divine beings: the gods and the Giants.
In the Book of Invasions the ancestors of the gods are opposed by beings called Fomorians, which may mean either "People of the Sea" or "Giants". The Giants are the force which drives out the ancestors of the Tuatha De Danann, and they are driven out in turn. In the process, the manifest world is brought into being.
In modern Paganism we sometimes find versions of this conflict between Order and Chaos that owe more to fantasy novels and role-playing games than to actual lore. It is far too easy for modern people to make the error of seeing the dynamic tension between Order and Chaos as a version of the "War Between Good and Evil".
That later myth was invented in the Zoroastrian religion and adopted by the later monotheistic religions and Gnostic sects. It considers Order to be good and Chaos evil, and proposes an uncrossable line between the two. But in what seems to be the more original mythology of the Celts and other Western European peoples there is both cooperation and conflict between the gods and the Other gods (or Giants, or Demons). The gods intermarry with the Fomor to produce important Kings and Champions.
Generally in Indo-European myths a war between Order and Chaos results in a victory for Order, but a victory that in no way destroys Chaos. Rather Order—the power of those gods who would make the world fit for mortal life—gains a rulership of a portion of the worlds, which can be built and ordered for the good of all beings. In the course of doing so they make places for the powers of Chaos, bringing them into the Order itself.
Nor should we assume that the Fomorians were merely symbols of pestilence and wrongdoing. It is far more accurate to view them as related to the primal power of fertility and the pre-human land. They may not conform to human standards of behavior or virtue, but they are intrinsic to the cosmos, and needed for its proper structure.
It is said that after the gods defeated the Fomors the latter were forced to reveal the secrets of sowing and reaping. They are described as having both beautiful and hideous individuals. They embody the raw power of non-human nature, which must be overcome, at least in small areas, for human tribes to live in comfort.
To this point we have been looking at facts and interpretations that are well within the bounds of scholarly acceptance. As we move on to the next segment we go further into speculation, especially as regards the First gods.
2: Primal Fire and Water, and the First Gods
The primary division of the cosmos into two may also be expressed as a division into Primal Water and Primal Fire. This division is an Indo-European constant, appearing in Vedic, Hellenic, and Norse cosmology. While we have no specific examples of this primal myth in Celtic terms, we have a huge body of lore supporting the magical impact of both Fire and Water, and some tales that suggest an older pattern that might parallel other Indo-European patterns.
For instance, in Norse myth, Fire meets Ice (the arctic versions of water) to produce a boiling mist that solidifies into the first empty plain of the physical world. We can speculate that the Celts, especially the Celts of the Isles, may have seen their world, their island, being drawn up out of the featureless primal Sea by the action of the drying and warming Fire.
The Fire and Water duality is also associated, throughout Indo-European symbolism, with a division of the spiritual world into a bright Heavenly realm, associated with water. These are also associated with the basic duality of order and chaos. In the simplest analysis the Underworld holds the Waters of Memory, of Bounty, and of Rebirth, the Chaos of Potential from which life draws nutrients. The Heavens hold the Fire of the Hearth, and of Sacrifice, the World Order that allows individual life to arise from the Waters. While this division is not spelled out explicitly in any tale, it is supported by many clues in the tales of human interaction with the Otherworld.
The Family of gods that held prominence in Britain and Ireland at the coming of the Christian era are remembered as the Tribe of the goddess Danu (Tuath De Danann). Danu is the First Mother of the god/desses, whose name has ancient connotations of flowing water. In Wales this mother was remembered as Don, who also had strong associations with the Sea.
Both of these goddesses are examples of a Celtic tendency to consider the local river or great body of water as the place, even the body, of their tribal goddess. So Danu may well be a goddess remembered from the time when the Celts dwelled in the region of the river Danube, a time that would have been far distant to the Celts of 100 B.C.E.. Thus, many modern Celtic Pagans consider Danu, or Don, to be the Goddess of Primal Waters, possibly even associated with the Starry River of the milky way.
Lore from Britain and Erin suggests that the mate and complement of Danu may have been a god of Primal Fire named Bel, Bela, or Bile. Welsh sources tell us that the husband of Don, the father of the Tribes, was named Beli, and inscriptions throughout Britain record god names such as Belatucadros and Belinus. In Erin the word for a Sacred Tree was "bile".
If we take these all as cognates, part of the same mythic complex, we can discern the figure of Bel, the Sacred Tree from which comes the Sacred Fire, and Bel, the Sacred Fire itself. Bel may also be a part of the Underworld Father complex. He can be seen as the Fire beneath the Cauldron of Rebirth, the heat that cooks the Cauldron of Bounty so that the Earth can be fruitful.
In modern Celtic Pagan synthesis, Danu and Bel are the most common choices for primal, first-principle Deities of Cosmic Fire and Water, as well as First Mother and First Father. Some Celtic Pagans have very direct worship of these Powers, but some consider them ancient and distant, of a generation before the gods and goddesses we currently worship. Since there are no tales at all of the deeds or history of either figure, I personally think the latter approach is more consistent with the lore.
Even though we are talking about a primal pair of male and female deities, we should avoid thinking of this as similar to Wiccan duotheism. Though there is a basic tendency in Celtic lore to pair the Deities into "married" couples, there is very little reason to think that the Celts viewed all their gods and goddesses as aspects of a single cosmic divine couple. So Danu and Bel are not the Celtic "Lady and Lord", but only two of the many goddesses and gods.
So we find a basic division of the Celtic cosmos into two. Whether Cosmic Fire and Water, the Primal gods Danu and Bel, or the War Between the Gods and Giants, the tales tell of a pair of complementary opposites. These principles interact through physics, love, of war, and that dynamic interaction that causes the manifestation of the worlds. In assuming such a pattern for the Celtic peoples we do no more than place them in direct harmony with the creation and cosmos patterns of their surrounding cultures.
This initial division carries over from the purely mythic and divine to the more local and material.
3: Dividing the Land
The primary division of the cosmos is reflected in the mythic geography of the Celtic countries. Several tales tell of the land being divided into two, though the two things it is divided into vary from tale to tale.
In the tale of the arrival of mortals into Erin, the mortals win the surface of the land while the Tuatha De Danann are given the places beneath the ground. When at one time Erin is divided between two chieftains the division is made so that one receives "all the houses, feasts, treasure and fortresses" and the other is given "rivers, waters, wilds, and woods".
This again shows us that while Celtic thought divided the world into Tame and Wild, Order and Chaos, one was not considered good and the other evil. In fact the gods and Spirits always receive the part of the worlds that mortals might consider lesser. But those realms, described in story as "beneath the earth" or "beyond the shore of the sea" always show the spirits receiving the portion that places them out of the sight of mortals. They are metaphors, in my opinion, for the invisible realms of spirits.
In the Book of Invasions there is a more geographic division of the isle of Erin as well. The two sons of Mil, Eremon and Eber, divide Erin between them. Eremon takes the North and Eber the South. Some sources say that they both became kings, but that the North retained the greater kingship, and the lore clearly makes the North the more noble of the two.
For instance, Gaelic culture considered poetry and the spoken work more fitting for learned and noble folks than music. When the folk divided themselves between the two kingdoms, the poets go to the North and the musicians to the South. The North is called "The Half of Conn" (meaning the chief) and the South "The Half of Mug" (meaning the servant).
We find that same tendency in the lore of Wales. The land is divided North and South, and the north, with its greater honor, is divided again into two, making the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys. The south is left with only a single kingdom, Deheubarth.
This motif of the greater north and lesser south, with the north containing two and the south one to make a triplicity is a common element in Celtic lore. We will examine it more closely when we look at triple and four-fold symbolism.
4: The Otherworld
Finally, one of the most important divisions of the Celtic spiritual world-map is between the common world and the Otherworlds.
Throughout Celtic lore we find tales of mortals passing beyond the boundaries of the apparent human world and into realms of magic, wonder, and peril. These locales are described in various ways, and we'll be looking at them in our next article. But taken together, we can refer to them all as the Otherworld(s).
The sources of information about the Otherworld are among the most varied in all the lore. In the Book of Invasions there is not much evidence of an Otherworld separate from the land itself. It is only after the worlds are divided between the gods and Spirits, who choose the unseen portions of the worlds, and mortals, who choose the seen, does the Otherworld begin interacting with mortals.
The tales that recount those interactions stretch from very old stories such as the Ulster cycle, through the tales of almost historic high-kings such as Conn and Art Mac Conn, through the folklore that survived in Celtic countries to be collected in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the so-called Fairy Faith. They show a wide range of influences, from the original Celtic roots to the lore of the Vikings who ruled Erin in the early Middle Ages to the influences of Greek and Roman authors brought to the Celtic lands by learned Christian clerics. The job of sorting out the truly Celtic elements in the tales of the Fairy Faith is an ongoing effort today.
The Otherworld appears in many guises. It may be a chain of beautiful islands far across the western sea, as it appears in the Voyage of Maelduin, or it may be as close as the other side of the ground on which we mortals walk. It is revealed to us as places not unlike our common world, but brighter, stronger, more enduring than any mortal thing, and full of wonders and puzzles. Yet when mortals try to bring the gold, the wonder, of the Otherworlds back into common life it may vanish in the blink of an eye. It is peopled with whole tribes and nations of beings, and with individual powers that are unique. These powers may be aware of mortals, some may be friendly, some enemies.
The complementary duality between Common World and Otherworld is very important to practical Celtic magic and religion. The balance of relationship between mortals and beings and powers of the Otherworld maintains the earth's fertility, the prosperity of tribes and the spark and joy of human life. It seems likely that a good deal of the work of a Celtic Priest of magician would have been in maintaining and restoring those relationships.
5: Summary and Conclusion
So we might list the primal divisions of the Celtic Cosmos, as currently reconstructed in modern Celtic Paganism, in this way:
- Underworld Power / Chaos of Potential
- Power of Heavens / World Order
- Wild Nature
- Hearth, Town and Temple
- Cosmic Water
- Cosmic Fire
It is easy to list these out in a simple "table of Correspondence". But the reality is more complex. We might say that the first division is into Common and Other worlds. In both of these the Underworld Power and the Power of the Heavens mingle. In both the Underworld and the Heavens the power of Fire and Water appear.
While we can say that Water is most closely associated with the Underworld it certainly appears in the Heavens, and while Fire may be primarily of the Heavens it also manifests in the Underworld. And both Danu and Bel can have both Underworld and Heavenly forms.
In future articles I will describe the Underworld and Heavens model in more detail, as we discuss the further mapping of the Celtic cosmos.
(Ed. note: Special thanks to Matthew Walke for transcribing this article.)