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The ancient Celtic pantheon consisted of over 400 gods and goddesses who represented everything from rivers to warfare. With perhaps the exception of Lugh, the Celtic gods were not universally worshipped across Iron Age Europe but were very often limited to only several regions or a specific area. Another difficulty in examining the Celtic pantheon is the paucity of written records produced by the Celts themselves; quite often a god (deivos/deiva) is named in only a single surviving inscription. To further complicate our lack of knowledge, the Celts often gave all-embracing powers and attributes to their gods which means that they can rarely be easily categorised like, say, the Greek Poseidon or Roman Mars. Nevertheless, by piecing together secondary accounts by Classical authors, the work of early Christian writers, Celtic artefacts, and archaeological investigations, we can build a reasonable picture of at least some of the vast number of deities the ancient Celts worshipped, a pantheon that the Celtic historian Proinsias MacCana described as a ‘fertile chaos’.
Celtic votive inscriptions from the Roman period often name a Celtic god with a Roman equivalent noted alongside, a practice known as the interpretatio romana, and this association is noted in the relevant entries below. The entries are generally restricted to only the major deities or those with multiple or significant inscriptions.
Abnoba - a hunting goddess venerated in the Black Forest region in southeast Germany and sometimes associated with the Roman huntress goddess Diana. Various votive inscriptions mention the goddess across southern Germany. A sandstone figurine of the goddess survives from Karlsruhe-Mühlburg in southeast Germany where she is shown wearing a Greek chiton and accompanied by a hunting dog who has captured a hare.
Aeracura - a goddess worshipped in parts of the Roman Empire and often associated with the Underworld god Dis Pater. No written records reveal any information about her.
Agrona - a goddess associated with slaughter in battle and venerated in Britain.
Ahes - a goddess credited with building the Roman roads in Brittany and considered a patroness of roads.
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Alator - identified by the Romans as the equivalent of their god of war Mars. He is mentioned in an altar from South Shields and a votive slab from Barkway, both in England. The latter depicts the god as a warrior with a shield, helmet, and spear.
Albiorix - his name likely derives from Alba or Albu (Albion to the Romans), the ancient name of Britain. Equated with Mars, an inscription naming him survives from Sablet in what is today the Languedoc region of France.
Alisonus (also Alisanos) - a god associated with rocks or rocky outcrops, possibly connected to the oppidum of Alesia in Gaul or the river Alisos. He is mentioned in votive inscriptions on two bronze dishes found in east-central France.
Amarcolitanus - his name may mean 'he of the distant gaze', and he was identified with Apollo by the Romans. A votive inscription survives from Branges in eastern France.
Ancamna - a goddess who is the partner of the gods Lenus and Smertrius in several inscriptions.
Andarta - a Celtic goddess whose name may derive from the Celtic word for the bear animal. Seven votive inscriptions naming the goddess survive from Die in southern France.
Andrasta - a Celtic goddess known only from a single reference by the Roman writer Cassius Dio (c. 164 - c. 235 CE). He records that Boudicca (d. 61 CE), queen of the Iceni in Britain, called upon the help of Andrasta when there was a tribal uprising in 61 CE. Hares were sacrificed to Andrasta.
Anextlomarus - a god whose name likely means 'great protector'. Another god equated with Apollo, he is mentioned in inscriptions from northern Britain and northern France. In a third location, Aventicum (Avenches) in Switzerland, an inscription has the name spelt Anextlomara.
Antenociticus (also Anociticus or Antocidicus) - the name of a youthful god who was worshipped at three altars near Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain. At the same site, parts of a statue of Antenociticus were discovered, which include the head where his hair resembles the horns of a young stag.
Anu (also Ana or Anann) - a major pre-Christian era goddess in Ireland. In the Glossary of Bishop Cormac, the goddess is referred to as the mother of all the Irish gods. Associated with fertility, Anu was especially revered in Munster although in epic poetry the whole of Ireland is sometimes referred to as the 'Land of Anu'.
Arduinna - a boar-goddess associated with mountains near the forest of the Rhine. She is linked to Diana by the Romans in votive inscriptions. She may well be depicted in a bronze statue of a goddess riding a boar of unknown provenance.
Arecurius - a god venerated in northeast England during the Roman period whose name means 'he who stands before the tribe'.
Arnemetia - a name of a goddess referred to in an inscription found at a sacred spring near Buxton, Derbyshire, England, and another from an altar in the Roman fort of Brough-on-Noe in the same county. In the latter inscription, the goddess’ name is Arnomecte.
Artaius - a god identified with Mercury by the Romans. His name may derive from the Celtic word for the bear animal. An inscription naming the god survives from Beaucroissant in southeast France.
Artio - another goddess whose name derives from the Celtic word for 'bear'. An inscription survives on a 20 cm (7.8 in) tall bronze figurine of the goddess discovered at Muri, near Berne, Switzerland. The goddess is depicted in a seated position, and she is offering a bowl of fruit to a bear. Another inscription naming the goddess was found near Trier in western Germany.
Arvernorix - a god identified with Mercury by the Romans whose name translates as 'King of the Averni', the tribe in the Auvergne region of central France. Only one inscription mentions the god by name and comes from near Miltenberg in Bavaria, Germany.
Arvernus - a god identified with Mercury by the Romans who may be a variation of Arvernorix. However, all of the written evidence of the god’s cult comes from the banks of the Rhine in Germany.
Atepomarus - a god identified with Apollo by the Romans. A votive inscription survives from Mauvières in central France.
Atesmerius - a god worshipped by the Meldi tribe in the lower Marne region of northeast France. An inscription survives from the Meldi capital at Meaux and another from Poitiers in western France where he is called Adsmerius. To further confuse the naming of this deity, an inscription of a goddess called Atesmerta survives from the Corgebin forest in the Marne region.
Barrex (Barrecis) - a god identified by the Romans with their god Mars and whose name survives in an inscription from Carlisle, northern England.
Belatucadrus - a god attested by a large number of inscriptions from northern England, often identified with the Roman god of war, Mars. His name is spelt in various ways on these inscriptions, perhaps suggesting he was particularly venerated by the lower classes (who had a lower level of literacy).
Belenus (also Belinus, Bel, Belus, or Belinu) - a major god whose name likely derives from the Celtic for 'light' or 'to shine' and who is referred to in both literature and inscriptions of all kinds, including an engraved gemstone. He was known in various parts of Celtic Europe but especially in southern France, northern Italy, and the eastern Alps. A high concentration of inscriptions naming the god has been found at Aquileia in northern Italy. Identified with Apollo by the Romans, he was likely regarded as the protector god of Celts living in northeast Italy. He is also mentioned in inscriptions as far south as Rimini and Rome and was associated with health-giving springs.
Belisama (also Belesama or Belisma) - a goddess associated with lakes and rivers whose name means 'bright one' or 'the most shining'. A votive inscription naming the goddess survives from near Orange in southern France. The inscription is written in the Greek alphabet and describes the dedication of a shrine to Belisama by one Segomaros, a Gaul from Nîmes. The Romans often identified the goddess with Minerva, and her name is the origin of many place names in France.
Bergusia - a goddess, possibly a patron of crafts, whose name is mentioned in an inscription from Alesia, chief settlement of the Mandubii tribe in eastern Gaul. She is the consort of the god Ucuetis.
Boand (also Boann, Boin, or Boinne) - a pre-Christian goddess who represented the Boyne River in eastern Ireland.
Bodb (also Badb or Bave) - The name in the Irish Mythological Cycle of both the son of the Dagda and a female battle demon who typically takes the form of a crow on the battlefield.
Bodua - a war goddess venerated in Gaul.
Bolvinnus - a god identified with Mars by the Romans and named in two votive inscriptions from Bouhy in central France.
Bormana - a goddess who is sometimes the consort of Borvo.
Borvo (also Bormo) - a god whose name likely derives from the Celtic word meaning 'to boil' and so indicates his frequent association with natural hot springs. Votive inscriptions have survived at two spring sites, both named after the god: Bourbon-Lancy and Bourbonne-les-Bains in central and eastern France respectively. He is also mentioned further afield but with different spellings, for example, Bormanus and Bormana in other parts of France and Bormanicus in Portugal. His consort in several inscriptions is the goddess Damona or Bormana. The Romans equated him with Apollo.
Braciaca - a god mentioned in one votive inscription from central England which identifies him with the Roman god of war Mars.
Brigantia - a goddess whose name means 'the sublime one' and who the Romans equated with the goddess Victory. She was particularly venerated in northern England from where several votive inscriptions survive. A unique inscription equates the goddess with Caelestis, an African goddess, while a relief from southern Scotland depicts Brigantia with mural crown and wings, associations of Minerva and Victory respectively. She may have been known as Brigindo in eastern Gaul.
Brigit - a goddess in pre-Christian Ireland who was a daughter of the Dagda. She was particularly venerated by poets, although she was also considered to have skills in healing, metalwork, and poetry. Very likely, she derives from the older British goddess Brigantia.
Britovius - identified with Mars by the Romans and mentioned in votive inscriptions from Nîmes in southern France.
Brixia (also Bricta) - a goddess of continental Europe of unknown significance, she may have had, as the consort of Luxovius, an association with water.
Budenicus - a god the Romans equated with Mars who is mentioned in only a single votive inscription from near Uzès in southern France.
Bussumarus - a god venerated in continental Europe who the Romans equated with their Jupiter.
Buxenus - a god the Romans equated with Mars and who is mentioned in only a single votive inscription from near Velleron in southeast France.
Camulus - a god venerated across Celtic Europe as attested by surviving votive inscriptions from Rome, Rheims in northern France, Br Hill in Scotland, Arlon in southern Belgium, Rindern and Mainz in western Germany. In most inscriptions, he is identified with the Roman god Mars. One carved stone bearing his name from Rindern is decorated with a crown of oak leaves and depictions of him often give the god ram's horns. He gave his name to Roman Colchester - Camulodunum - in southeast England.
Canomagus - a god of hounds named with Apollo on a votive inscription from Nettleton Shrub in southwest England.
Cathubodua - a war-goddess venerated in Gaul who is mentioned in a votive inscription from Haute Savoie in eastern France.
Caturix - a god whose name means 'king of battle' and identified by the Romans with their god of war, Mars. Votive inscriptions naming Caturix have been found across Roman Switzerland and in Böckingen in southern Germany.
Cernunnos - a horned god who represented nature, flora and fauna, fertility, and prosperity. He is frequently depicted in Celtic art across Europe and also Gallo-Roman art with horns or stag antlers. He is given human form but he may have animal legs and hooves. Frequently, he is shown seated cross-legged. His name may derive from the Celtic word for 'horn' or 'antler', but this is disputed amongst scholars. He is shown and named on the Nautae Parisiaci (first half of the 1st century CE), a votive pillar dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter and discovered beneath Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. He is also famously depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron (perhaps 1st century BCE) where he again wears torcs. He is the origin of the cultural hero Conall Cernach of the Ulster Cycle and perhaps one of the inspirations in the visualisation of Satan in Christian art.
Cicollus - a god whose name likely means 'Great Protector' and who was identified with Mars by the Romans. His consort is often Litavis. Cicollus is named in altar inscriptions discovered at Dijon, Mâlain, and Aignay-le-Duc, all in eastern central France. His veneration further afield is attested by an inscribed metal circlet from Windisch in northern Switzerland.
Cissonius - a god the Romans identified with Mercury. His name survives in at least ten votive inscriptions.
Cnabetius - a god whose name perhaps means 'the Crippled One'. The Romans identified him with Mars, and votive inscriptions survive from Hüttigweiler, Tholey, Wahlscheid in western Germany, and Erbstetten and Osteburken in southern Germany.
Cocidius - a god venerated in northern England, especially by members of the Roman army. Inscriptions identify him with the Roman god of war, Mars, the Roman god of woods, Silvanus, and the Celtic god Vernostonus (of which nothing is known). He is shown as a huntsman accompanied by a hunting dog and stag in an altar relief and as a warrior with a spear and shield on two silver votive plaques, all from England. He may have horns or wear a hooded cloak.
Condatis - a god whose name implies he was associated with the confluence of two rivers. Many settlements in Gaul built at such places were called Condates. Several surviving inscriptions reveal that he was venerated in northeast England, particularly at shrines between the rivers Tyne and Tees. He is identified with the Roman god Mars.
Contrebus - a god whose name means 'he who lives amongst us' and who is mentioned in a votive inscription from northwest England.
Corotiacus - only a single votive inscription from Martlesham, Suffolk, England names the god, who the Romans equated with Mars.
Cososus - he is identified with the Roman god Mars and is named in a votive inscription from Bourges in central France.
Coventina - a goddess who had a sanctuary dedicated to her near Hadrian’s Wall. The goddess is represented as a water-nymph reclining on a leaf in one votive relief plaque from the site. Another relief shows three nymphs, each holding a vessel and pouring from it water, a typical triplication of deities seen in Celtic religious art. Other votive offerings discovered at the sanctuary include bronze animal figurines, pottery vessels, and over 14,000 coins, most of which were deposited into a well, which was presumably associated with the goddess.
The Dagda - an Irish-Celtic god whose name is usually preceded by the definite article. His name likely means 'the good god', probably in the sense of being 'many-skilled'. His common attributes are a great club, which can both kill and bring the dead back to life, and a giant cauldron that can produce an inexhaustible quantity of food, especially porridge. In Irish Mythology, the Dagda appears as a multi-talented warrior-leader of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, invaders of ancient Ireland who won battles against the resident Fir Bolg and against the seafaring Fomorians. The Dagda was important during the festival of Samhain on 31st October/1st November when he coupled with the demon goddess the Mórrigan, which guaranteed fertility and prosperity for the coming year.
Damona - a goddess whose name may derive from the Celtic word for 'cow'. She is the consort of the god Borvo in several inscriptions from Gaul. In a single inscription from northeast France, she is the consort of a god called Albius. A third partner, Moritasgus, is identified by name on the remains of a statue of Damona from Alesia.
Danu (also Dana) - a Celtic mother-goddess who gives her name, which means 'stream' or 'the waters of heaven' to various places and the River Danube.
Daron - an obscure goddess venerated in Britain and associated with the oak tree.
Deva - the Roman name of a goddess venerated in Britain who gave her name to the River Dee in northern Wales and southwest England.
Dinomogetimarus - a god who is named (along with Divanno) in an inscription from Saint-Pons in southern France. He was identified with the Roman god Mars.
Divanno - a god who is named (along with Dinomogetimarus) in an inscription from Saint-Pons in southern France. He was identified with the Roman god Mars.
Dumiatis - a god whose cult is indicated by a bronze votive plaque from a hilltop Gallo-Roman temple near Clermont-Ferrand in central France. He was identified with Mercury by the Romans.
Eochaid - a sun god venerated in pre-Christian Ireland and associated with lightning and horses.
Epona - a major goddess whose name derives from the Celtic word for 'horse' and so she was likely regarded as a protectress of this animal, an important one in Celtic culture, as well as mules and donkeys. Epona was venerated in various parts of Celtic Europe as attested by over 60 votive inscriptions discovered from Iberia to the Balkans. A great number of images of the goddess have survived and typically portray her either riding a horse (side-saddle) or sitting on a throne holding a bowl or cornucopia (horn of plenty) with a horse stood on either side. She is sometimes accompanied by a foal, bird, or dog. Epona is mentioned by various 1st- and 2nd-century CE Roman writers, including Apuleius who describes a statue of Epona festooned with roses and set up in a stable.
Ernmas - the mother of the war/demon goddesses Bodb, Macha, and the Mórrigan in the Irish Mythological Cycle. Her name refers to the idea of death from weapons.
Erriapus - a local god venerated in southern Gaul. A sculpture of the god's head was found in the Garonne region where he is surrounded by foliage.
Esus - a god who was venerated across Gaul but who is mentioned in only a few inscriptions by name, notably on the 1st-century CE Nautae Parisiaci votive monument found beneath Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. On the same monument, he is depicted in relief as a bearded man next to a tree. He is wearing the clothes of an artisan and holds a sickle with which he is cutting off branches of a tree. Next to this scene is a bull and three cranes, which perhaps refers to a particular myth involving Esus which has now been lost. Esus is mentioned by Roman writers as a recipient of human sacrifices, the particular method being to hang the victim until their limbs are separated from the torso.
Fagus - a god associated with the beech tree.
Gebrinius - a Celtic god who may be Germanic in origin. Inscriptions naming him were discovered under the cathedral of Bonn. Identified with Mercury by the Romans.
Genii Cucullati - mysterious Celtic divinities which are not given a name but appear in groups or alone and wear hooded cloaks in art. Depictions typically have them near a single better-known god and holding either an egg or a scroll.
Glanis - a healing-spring god venerated at a shrine in Glanum in southern Gaul. He may have been part of a triad of gods known as the Glanicae.
Grannus - a god considered to have healing powers and equated with Apollo by the Romans. He is often called Apollo-Grannus in inscriptions which have been found in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, France, and Hungary. He had several sanctuaries dedicated to him across the Celtic world. His consort was Sirona, and votive dedications have been discovered which were made to the two gods as a pair.
Icuana - a goddess associated with the river Yonne, a tributary of the River Seine. She is named in a now lost Roman-period votive inscription found in Auxerre in north-central France.
Intarabus - an unknown god equated with Mars by the Romans. Inscriptions naming him survive from Trier in western Germany and Foy in Belgium.
Iovantucarus - a god whose name means 'he who loves youth' and so he was perhaps a protector of children or patron of adolescents. He is identified with the Roman god Mars in multiple inscriptions from Trier but with Mercury in an inscription from near Tholey, both in western Germany. Unusually, he is named on a silver ring from Heidenburg, also in western Germany.
Latobius - a god known only by inscriptions, some of which come from Noricum (Austria), and the remains of a colossal statue.
Leherennus - perhaps a pre-Celtic god, his votive inscriptions concentrate around Ardiège in southwest France. He is equated with Mars by the Romans.
Lenus - a god whose veneration is attested by votive inscriptions from Trier, Caerwent (southern Wales) and Chedworth (southwest England). He is equated with Mars by the Romans. A relief from Chedworth depicts Lenus carrying a spear and an axe.
Leucetius (also Loucetius) - a god whose name means 'to shine', votive inscriptions survive from sites in western Germany, Strasbourg in eastern France, and Bath in southwest England. He is equated with Mars by the Romans.
Litavis - a goddess whose name may mean 'earth' or 'broad'. Several votive inscriptions survive from northeast France. She is the consort of Cicollus and is equated with Mars by the Romans.
Lugus (also Lugos, Logos, or Lugh) - a Celtic god who remains obscure until medieval sources expand upon his associations. The god gave his name to many place names such as Lugdunum, modern Lyon in southeast France. He may be the god that Julius Caesar describes as the supreme Celtic god, but scholars are not all in agreement on this point. He represents the sun and light and was regarded as an all-wise and all-seeing deity. In later mythology, he becomes the great warrior and Irish cultural hero who is often given an epithet such as Lugh Lámfada (or Lámfhota), meaning long-armed or 'of the long hand', which refers to his prowess with throwing weapons, or Lugh Samildánach, meaning 'skilled in many arts and crafts'. He leads the Tuatha Dé Danann race to victory against the seafaring Fomorians at the Battle of Mag Tuired and kills one-eyed Balor with his magic spear or sling to establish a 40-year reign of peace and prosperity.
Luxovius - a water god venerated in Luxeuil in eastern France where there is a natural spring. His consort is Brixia.
Macha - a demon/war goddess who is the sister (or alternative aspect) of the Mórrigan and Bodb, both of whom are also demon/war goddesses in the Irish Mythological Cycle. She is the daughter of the Dagda.
Maponus (also Maponas) - a god whose name means 'son' or 'child'. He is mentioned in votive inscriptions from northern England and the famous lead tablet from Chamalières in central France. He is identified with Apollo by the Romans. During the Roman period the god is depicted, like Apollo, holding a lyre and so he is associated with music and poetry.
Matrona - a mother-goddess associated with the Marne river and named in votive inscriptions from northeast Gaul.
Matronae (also Matres or Martrae) - a triad of mother-goddesses venerated across central Celtic Europe and typically shown as a trio of deities who hold such items as flowers, baskets of fruit and ears of wheat, or hold infants, all of which remind of their association with fertility and abundance.
Matunus - a god whose name derives from the Celtic word for the bear animal and who is named in a single votive inscription from northern England.
Medb (also Maeve) - perhaps an ancient goddess of sovereignty who became better known in later Irish mythology as the wife of Ailill, king of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle.
Medocius - a god named in a votive inscription from Colchester in southeast England. The Romans equated Medocius with their god of war, Mars.
Moccus - a god whose name is perhaps related to the Celtic word for 'pig'. He is mentioned by name in a votive inscription from Langres in northeast France and may have been the protector of boar hunters. The Romans equated him with their god Mercury.
Mogetius - a god mentioned by name in votive inscriptions from Bourges and Seggau in central France and Austria respectively. Going by various names which include Mogons, Mountos, and Mogtus, the Romans equated him with Mars.
Moltinus - votive inscriptions naming this god survive from Mâcon in eastern France and a curse tablet from near Innsbruck, Austria. His name is in some way connected to sheep, most likely rams.
Moritasgus - a god mentioned in two inscriptions from Alesia in eastern France. In a damaged statue from the same oppidum he is identified as the partner of Damona. The Romans equated Moritasgus with their god Apollo.
The Mórrigan - a war-goddess whose name likely means 'mare-queen'. Her sisters are the demon war-goddesses Bodb and Macha and trio are sometimes referred to as the Mórrigna. She was important during the festival of Samhain on 31st October/1st November when she coupled with the warrior god the Dagda, which guaranteed fertility and prosperity for the coming year. The Mórrigan features prominently in later Irish mythology where she is repeatedly unsuccessful in her attempts to seduce the hero Cú Chulainn. She was here most associated with inciting conflict, stirring up the frenzy of battle, and as the bringer of death. The goddess has a terrible appearance but she has both sex appeal and associations with fertility, despite her destructive nature on the battlefield where she most often appears as a crow or raven.
Mullo - a god whose name suggests an association with hills or mules. Votive inscriptions naming Mullo have survived at Craon, Nantes, Rennes, and Allones, all in northwest Gaul. He likely had a role as a healing god, in particular, ailments of the eyes.
Nabelcus - a god who is named in several votive inscriptions from Saint-Didier in southeast France. He was associated with Mars by the Romans.
Nantosuelta - a goddess venerated in Roman Gaul who is named in various inscriptions and shown in visual form as a woman holding a sceptre topped by a miniature house. She was likely linked with the home and hearth. She is sometimes mentioned as the consort of Sucellus.
Nehalennia - a goddess venerated on the North Sea coast of England and in the Netherlands. She is often depicted as a young woman wearing a short cape, seated and holding a basket of fruit; she is very often accompanied by a dog.
Neít - a pre-Christian god of war venerated in Ireland. His wife is Nemain.
Nemain - a pre-Christian war goddess venerated in Ireland who was thought to confuse warriors on the battlefield. She is the wife of Neít.
Nemetona - a goddess whose name derives from the Celtic term for a sacred grove of trees (nemeton). Votive inscriptions naming the goddess survive from both England and Germany, some of which indicate she is the partner of Mars. The goddess had temples dedicated to her at Klein-Winternheim and Trier, both in eastern Germany.
Nodons (also Nodens or Nudens) - a god whose name may mean 'fisherman-hunter'. Two votive inscriptions from northwest England (now lost) named the god. Other inscriptions survive from Lydney Park in southwest England. He was associated with healing and dogs. The Romans equated Nodons with their god Mars.
Noreia - a goddess venerated in southern Austria and northern Slovenia.
Ocelus - a god venerated in southern Wales and northwest England as attested by surviving votive inscriptions. The Romans equated Ocelus with their god of war Mars.
Ogmios - a god named in two lead curse tablets from Bregenz in eastern Austria. He was likely associated with the Underworld although the 2nd-century CE Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata equates him with Hercules. Lucian describes having seen a statue of Ogmios in Gaul where he is represented as an old man with dark skin who holds a club and wears a lion pelt. Curiously, this statue was accompanied by people made from amber who were wearing chains, which were attached to Hercules' tongue and ears. On asking what this signified, the Gauls replied that the figure represented eloquence. This attribute was associated with Hermes/Mercury for the Greeks and Romans, but it is notable that in later Irish mythology the invention of writing was credited to a figure called Ogma.
Olloudius - Votive inscriptions naming the god survive from southwest England and southern France. In a surviving figurine from southern England, he is shown wearing a cap and cloak while he holds a plate of offering and a cornucopia (horn of plenty), both suggesting he was associated with healing, fertility, and prosperity. He is identified with Mars by the Romans.
Rhenus - the classical name for the Rhine river which the Celts may have called Rēnos. The river may have been considered a 'father' to those people living near it, an attitude suggested by a votive altar inscription (RHENO PATRI) from Strasbourg in eastern France. In addition, the Roman poet Propertius (c. 50 - c. 15 BCE) describes a 3rd-century BCE Celtic prince by the name of Viridomarus who called himself a descendant of the Rhine.
Robur - a god associated with the oak tree.
Rosmerta - a goddess whose name implies a protectress role who was associated with motherhood and fertility. Her usual attributes are a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and a patera (sacrificial bowl). Rosmerta was venerated in northeast Gaul. Her companion god in some votive inscriptions is Mercury, and this explains why she is sometimes depicted holding that god’s staff, the caduceus.
Rudianus - a god venerated in southeast France as attested by votive inscriptions. The Romans identified him with their god of war Mars.
Rudiobus - a god mentioned in a single votive inscription on the base of a horse statue from Neuvy-en-Sullias in central France.
Segomo - a god associated with horses and particularly venerated by the Sequani tribe in central-eastern Gaul as attested by numerous votive inscriptions. The Romans identified the god with Mars.
Sequana - a healing goddess who shares her name with the Celtic name for the River Seine. The goddess had an important sanctuary at the source of the Seine near Dijon where many votive offerings have been excavated including over 200 wooden sculptures. Finds have also included a bronze figurine of the goddess standing in a boat with her arms spread wide. Her shrine was expanded in the Roman period.
Sirona (also Dirona) - a goddess whose name means 'star', she was venerated in various locations across France, Germany, and Austria, most often at healing springs. Sirona is often represented as a woman in a long robe holding grapes, eggs, or an ear of wheat and so she was associated with fertility. She is the most frequent companion of Apollo for the Celts, but she can also be identified as the consort of Grannus.
Smertius (also Smertrios) - a god whose name suggests an association with protection and providence. He appears both in name and as a relief in the Nautae Parisiaci, a 1st-century CE votive column found beneath the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. On the column he is shown as a bearded man holding a club and the tail of a snake which he his about to hit.
Souconna - a goddess who is a personification of the River Saône in eastern France. She is named in various votive inscriptions from the region.
Sucellus (also Succelus or Sucaelus) - a god whose name may mean 'the Good Striker'. He was venerated across Celtic continental Europe as attested by votive inscriptions. His consort is sometimes Nantosuelta, notably on an inscribed altar from Sarrebourg in eastern France. This altar shows a relief of the two gods where Sucellus is bearded, holds a sceptre, and wears a short tunic and boots. Besides the god is a bulbous pot. The sceptre is particular as it is long and topped by what appears to be a hammer. Many other depictions of the god also include this hammer-sceptre, and he frequently has a canine companion.
Suleviae - this is a group of Celtic sister goddesses who were venerated in Britain, Germany, and Rome (where there were many Celtic mercenaries). The trio was most likely seen as protective figures and associated with regeneration.
Sulis - a goddess who is best known (but not exclusively) from the healing spring named after her, the Aquae Sulis, in Bath, England where she also had an impressive temple dedicated to her. Sulis is mentioned by name on many votive altars and curse tablets, as well as a grave marker for one of her priests. The Romans identified the goddess with Minerva.
Sutugius - perhaps a pre-Celtic god, he is mentioned by name in votive inscriptions from near Saint-Placard in southwest France. The Romans equated him with Mars.
Taranis - a god identified with the sky and thunder, as his name suggests, and so he was associated with Jupiter by the Romans. The 1st-century CE Roman poet Lucan noted that human sacrificial victims to Taranis were burnt in a wooden tub. He is mentioned in votive inscriptions where his name is spelt either as Taranucus or Taranucnus.
Tarvos Trigaranus - a god whose name translates as 'the bull with three cranes'. He is both named and depicted on the 1st-century CE votive monument the Nautae Parisiaci, which was discovered beneath the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. As befitting his name, the god is shown as a bull standing by a tree and with three cranes standing on his back. This likely refers to a popular myth concerning the god which has now been lost. A stele from Trier in western Germany also shows a bull with three birds, indicating the myth was widespread in the Celtic world. The myth may also concern the god Esus.
Teutates (also Toutates) - a god whose name may derive from the term 'god of the tribe' or 'father of the tribe'. He is mentioned in votive inscriptions from Britain, Austria, and Rome. The 1st-century CE Roman poet Lucan noted that human sacrificial victims to Teutates were drowned headfirst in a tub of water. The Romans equated him with their god Mars.
Toutiorix - a god whose name may mean 'king of the tribal group'. A votive inscription naming the god survives from Wiesbaden in eastern Germany. The Romans equated the god with Apollo.
Ucuetis - a god who is named in a votive inscription from Alesia in northeast France. Depictions of Ucuetis holding a hammer may indicate he was a patron of craftworkers. His consort is Bergusia according to an inscription found on Mont Auxois at Alesia.
Verbeia - a goddess particularly venerated in northeast England from where a sandstone altar and a relief survive, both from the Roman fort of Ilkley. The relief depicts the goddess holding a snake in each hand.
Vernostonus - a god identified in one inscription with Cocidius who was venerated in northern England and seems to have been especially popular with Roman soldiers.
Veteris (also Vitris or Vitiris) - a god mentioned in a great number of votive inscriptions from northern England.
Vindonnus - a god named in several inscriptions found in Essarois in northeast France. Votive plaques often show eyes so perhaps he was linked to cures for eye ailments. He was equated with Apollo by the Romans, also a healing god.
Visucius - a god venerated across Gaul as indicated by surviving votive inscriptions from Bordeaux and northeast France as well as the Benelux countries. He was equated with Mercury by the Romans.
Vorocius - a god whose name may derive from Voroux in central France. A votive inscription naming the god survives from nearby Vichy and indicates that the Romans equated him with their god Mars.
Vosegus - a god named in several surviving votive inscriptions, it is also the name of the forest region of eastern France where the Vogesen tribe lived. He is depicted carrying a piglet and holding nuts and pinecones.
The Dagda was chief of the Irish Tuatha dé Danann, god of life and death, agriculture and fertility. A learned advisor and master of druidic magic, he possessed a cauldron that provided plenty, a massive club that granted life or death, and an enchanted harp that ordered the seasons.
The fearful Phantom Queen known as the Morrígan was the Irish goddess of death, discord, and war. She was portrayed both as a single entity and as three sisters who could issue terrifying prophecy and foretell the deaths of warriors and kings.
Lugh of the Long Arm was a young Irish god who sought revenge for his father’s unjust death. A master of all skills, he lead the Tuatha dé Danann to victory against the Fomorians. His death marked the decline of his tribe’s presence in Ireland.
The great hero of the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn was a man of great passions whose skills were rarely matched in battle. A proud warrior, he could fight back hordes of enemies with unmatched rage.
Danu was the mysterious Celtic mother goddess and ancestor of the Irish Tuatha dé Danann. It was from her that the tribe took its name. Little is known about Danu, though she may have some connection to the Danube River. Other theories hold that she was a wind or earth goddess that looked after her nomadic tribe.
The Horned God Cernunnos was a mysterious Gaelic deity associated with the woodlands. Though little is known about Cernunnos’ role in Celtic mythology, folklorists and neopagans have constructed a new mythic tradition around his image.
Brigid, the Exalted One, was the Irish goddess of spring, fertility, and life. She reigned over Imbolc, a winter holiday that marked the beginning of the Irish year. Tales of Brigid were told in every corner of Ireland, and aspects of her lived on in the figure of St. Brigid of Kildare.
Aengus was the chief poet of the Tuatha dé Danann and son of the Dagda. His music and poetry charmed women, inspired kings, and won his enemies’ property from under their noses. He was later charmed himself by Caer Ibormeith, the woman of his dreams.
The Cailleach was a mysterious ancient figure in Scottish and Irish lore. In addition to being the goddess of winter and old age, she was a trickster who assisted those dwelling in the harsh winters of the north.
Gwydion fab Dôn was a magician in the Mabinogi, an advisor and father figure to his nephew Lleu whose magic often helped those around him but frequently had unintended consequences in the long-term.
Medb was the Queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle, whose passions and ambition put her well above most men in Ireland. She clashed with King Conchobar of Ulster, grandfather of Cúchulain.
Badb Battle-Crow was one of the three sisters of the Morrígan, Irish goddess of war and death, who sowed fear and discord in combat and could turn the tide of battle.
Nuada of the Silver-Hand was the first King of the Tuatha dé Danann, well liked and wise, yet he was forced to give up the throne after he lost his hand. His successor, however, was so unjust that a silver hand was made for him, so he could retake the throne.
2 – The Celts Did Not Leave Behind Written Accounts
There is scant evidence of any Celtic writing system although there are some fragments of text, there isn’t any real documentation of past events. In De Bello Gallico, Caesar wrote that the druids didn’t want to trust their learning to writing even though they did use Greek script for their other writings.
Instead, the Celts maintained an oral tradition of learning which was maintained by druids and scholars for hundreds of years. In the Celtic world, learning things by heart was deemed to be a great virtue.
Archaeologists have found remnants of inscriptions in languages such as Greek and Latin at Celtic settlements however. Most of the written accounts of the Celts came from Greek and Roman sources who were naturally biased since they perceived the Celts as the enemy. This is why we have so many documents which claim the Celts were savages given the source of this information, we need to take these statements with a pinch of salt. We also get a good idea of what Celtic society is like through artwork.
Celtic Mythology Stories: A Guide
“O Lady of the Fair Hair,
Sing to me of the fair ancient land.
Yours divine voice
Whispers the poetry of magic
that flow through the wind,
Like sweet-tasting water of the Boyne.
“Girls, forever young and beautiful,
Dancing around the broken dun,
Where long forgotten heroes
sang of victory
And drank ales
to old memories.
“Sing to me one last time,
Goddess of the Fair Hair,
Before my old ear fail me.
Let me see you dance,
Before your beauty fade away
from my failing sight.”
We now leave the mild climate of the ancient Aegean, and the cold, forbidding regions of the North.
Here, we enter the lush, green land, shrouded in mists of magic and wonders. The land is young yet ancient beautiful yet intriguing and something quite magical.
We meet people who are fair and noble. Yet when aroused into battle, these people can easily become savage. One can lose their heads, quite literally, at the end of the swords.
Here we turn our page to Celtic Mythology.
Though Celtic myths was not written until eleventh century AD, after the Vikings was driven out of Ireland, their sources, mostly oral traditions, were quite old. Even ancient.
Many of the myths that come to us, come mainly from Ireland and Wales. Celtic myths also included those from Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany (in France). We have to thank the Welsh myths, and to a lesser degree to the Irish, for the legends of King Arthur. While the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde originated in Brittany, it gained popularity in Continental Europe and the British Isles.
Though Celtic literature didn’t appear until the Middle Age, Celtic people and their religions existed during the time of ancient Rome. For more information on the Celtic people and their history and myths, feel free to read About Celtic Myths.
The pages devoted to Celtic myths, has been divided into three section:
Queen Medb (Maeve)
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If you want to know some background information about Celtic myths, click on About Celtic Myths.
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The majority of the characters and stories presented in Timeless Myths, belonged to Irish myths. There are stories of Welsh myths, such as the collection of prose tales, called the Mabinogion.
Since there was a father-figure, there was definitely a mother one as well. As we previously mentioned, Goddess Danu was the mother of the Celtic gods. She is also one of the most ancient Celtic gods and quite popular.
However, she had not appeared in many stories despite her popularity and significance in Celtic mythology. Danu was actually the goddess of earth and fertility. Tuathe de Dannan, the famous race of supernatural Celtic gods, is the tribe of this goddess.
She also hid that side of her of being a sturdy warrior goddess. Her name “dan” rooted from ancient Irish words, meaning skill, art, and poetry.
Goddess Danu appeared in small roles in different stories. None of the stories in which she had main roles survived, but her characteristics were pieced together.
Some legends claim that she is the mother of the Celtic god the Dagda. That was narrated in a story where Goddess Danu appeared with the god of light and healing, Bile. The latter was a pure representation of a holy oak tree Danu was to nurture that tree and feed it. Their union gave rise to the birth of the Dagda, according to legends.
They Defeated an Early Roman Empire in Battle
The Romans are perhaps best known for their military prowess, often defeating their adversaries repeatedly with precise battle tactics and mechanistic strategy. But before they eventually overpowered the Celts in later centuries, an early Roman army went into battle against an army of Celts known as the Gauls. Accounts are varied — and most accounts of encounters with the Celts are told from the Roman perspective — but according to the account of a Roman historian, Titus Livius, the Roman army was outnumbered and underprepared. Gallic forces overtook them easily and entered Rome, which was practically deserted.
Eventually, both the Roman and Gaulish armies were short on supplies and their forces said to be dying from sickness and starvation. The Gallic army, led by a legendary leader named Brennus, demanded payment from the Romans in gold, and cheated so that the scales were “dishonest.” When Roman leaders protested, as the story goes, Brennus laid his sword on the scales and proclaimed, “Vie Victus!” or “Woe to the conquered!”
The ancient history behind Ireland’s roads (PHOTOS)
I was driving along the R438 on my way from Sneem in Co Kerry to my home in Co Cavan, when it occurred to me how very long and curiously straight certain stretches of this road are. And it's not the only one I've come across whilst driving around Ireland. The Romans have always been credited with building incredibly straight roads, regardless of terrain or obstacle, as they advanced on their campaign of dominion across Europe. However, the Romans never came to Ireland in anything other than small groups to trade and barter.
What if the Romans were just making use of a network of roads which already existed? I mean, why go to the extra trouble and expense of excavating and building new roads, when all they had to do was lay their stones over the top of a pre-existing system?
What people don't realize, is that the Celts were great road builders. In Irish mythology, the "Annals of the Four Masters" claim that there were five main roads, or slighe (pronounced slee) radiating out from the Hill of Tara to various parts of Ireland.
Slighe Asail (pronounced slee ass-il) ran west from Tara to Lough Owel in Westmeath and may have continued in a north-westerly direction.
Slighe Midluachra (pronounced mee-loo-hra) went north from Slane, past Dundalk, round the base of the highest of the Fews mountains called Carrigatuke (but formerly known as Sliabh Fuad) near Newtown-Hamilton in Armagh, to the ancient Navan Fort (Emain Macha), and on to Dunseverick on the northern coast of Antrim.
Slighe Cualann ran southeast through Dublin, crossing the River Liffey by the hurdle-bridge that gave the city the ancient name of Baile Átha Cliath (pronounced Bol-ya ah Clee-ah, meaning 'the town of the hurdle-ford'). It then passed what is now known as Donnybrook, before heading south through the old district of Cualann from which it took its name, and then heading up the coast to Bray.
Slighe Dala ran southwest from Tara through Ossory in Co. Kilkenny.
Finally, Slighe Mór, also known as An tSlí Mhór, (meaning ‘The Great Way’) led southwest from Tara, joining the Esker Riada near Clonard, along which it continued until Galway. The current M6 motorway also follows this route. This is the route which intrigues me the most, for it has a fascinating story.
The word Esker derives from the Old Irish word escir, meaning 'a ridge or elevation dividing two plains.' These long flowing ridges were formed from deposits of glacial material as the ice of the last ice age melted. The Esker Riada ran for 125 miles connecting Dublin with Galway, passing through counties Dublin, Meath, Kildare, Westmeath, Offaly, Roscommon and finally Galway. A section still exists today between Kilbeggan and Tyrrellspass in Westmeath.
Riada means 'road.' Since the Esker Riada provided solid, higher ground, and thus a firm, reliable way through the bogs of the Irish midlands, it was inevitable that our ancient ancestors would use it as a highway connecting the east and west of Ireland.
In the year 123 AD, following a battle at Maynooth (Magh Nuada) between High King Conn of the Hundred Battles and Eoghan Mor, a truce was agreed, and the decision made to divide Ireland between the two rulers along the natural boundary of the Esker Riada. Thus Eoghan took the southern portion and named it Leath Mogha after himself, and Conn took the northern portion which he named Leath Cuinn. To cement the agreement, Conn then gave his daughter in marriage to Eoghan's son.
An tSlí Mhór provided strategic and commercial advantages to the monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis in Irish, meaning 'meadow of the sons of Nós'), constructed at the point where the River Shannon passes through the Esker Riada.
Initially, Clonmacnoise was just a simple wooden church founded in 546AD by St Ciarán with the help of Diarmait Uí Cerbaill, who later became the first Christian High King of Ireland. St Ciarán died only a year later from yellow fever and is supposed to have been buried under the floor of the original wooden church, on which site now stands the 9th-century oratory named Temple Ciarán.
Clonmacnoise went on to become a major center for religious learning and fine craftwork, famous throughout the land and attended by scholars from all over Europe until its decline in the 12th century. Interestingly, the R438 I was telling you about runs close by Clonmacnoise . could it be an old Irish road connected with the holy site somehow?
Although these ancient roads are mentioned in early tales of mythology, such as "The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel," which belongs to the Ulster Cycle, according to the "Annals," they continued in use into early medieval times.
The Early medieval law describes five types of road including the highway (slighe), the regional main road (ród), the connecting road (lámraite), the tolled side road (tógraite), and the cow road (bóthar). In fact, bóthar is the most common term for 'road' in modern Irish bóithrín (pronounced bor-een) is a very narrow, rural lane.
So, what were ancient roads made of? Usually, they were made of wood, and enabled travel either on foot, by horse, or by cart, across Ireland's marshy bogland. These tracks across bogs were called togher (tóchar in Irish), and remains have been found by archaeologists all over Ireland.
A Bronze Age trackway (c.2000 BC) was found at Ballykillen Bog in Co. Offaly which was wide enough to carry wheeled vehicles. A 1km section of wooden track approximately 1 meter wide, was identified in Co. Leitrim dating to approximately 1500 BC . In Co. Antrim, a 2m wide track made from oak beams and planks was found, its width suggestive of carrying wheeled traffic. In Munster, a 13.6 mile stretch of Iron Age road with a stone surface was excavated, but this was a rare discovery.
It seems that in ancient times, the roads were very well maintained the Brehon Laws set out rules and regulations in great detail for building them, keeping them in a state of good repair, and for cleaning them, something sadly lacking in today's infrastructure.
Interestingly, though, the development of Ireland's roads then seemed to enter a period of deterioration until the 18th century, when a network of turnpike roads was built. A turnpike was a type of gate across the road preventing access. The traveler had to pay a toll to pass through it.
I will leave you with a lovely, if quite wacky, little legend about the origins of Ireland's roads, as related by Lady Gregory in her book 'Of Gods and Fighting Men.'
“And one time Manannan's cows came up out of the sea at Baile Cronin, three of them, a red, and a white, and a black, and the people that were there saw them standing on the strand for a while, as if thinking, and then they all walked up together, side by side, from the strand.
“And at that time there were no roads in Ireland, and there was a great wonder on the people when they saw a good wide road ready before the three cows to walk on. And when they got about a mile from the sea they parted the white cow went to the north-west, towards Luimnech, and the red cow went to the south-west, and on round the coast of Ireland, and the black cow went to the north-east, towards Lis Mor, in the district of Portlairge, and a road opened before each of them, that is to be seen to this day.”
Herne, God of the Wild Hunt
In British lore, Herne the Hunter is a god of vegetation, vine, and the wild hunt. Similar in many aspects to Cernunnos, Herne is celebrated in the autumn months, when the deer go into rut. He is seen as a god of the common folk, and is typically recognized only around the Windsor Forest area of Berkshire, England. Herne was considered a divine hunter, and was seen on his wild hunts carrying a great horn and a wooden bow, riding a mighty black horse and accompanied by a pack of baying hounds. Mortals who get in the way of the Wild Hunt are swept up in it, and often taken away by Herne, destined to ride with him for eternity. He's seen as a harbinger of bad omen, especially to the royal family.
The Tragedy of Deirdre
The heroine of the Ulster Cycle is the beautiful Deirdre. King Conchobhar intends to marry the young woman, but she falls in love with Naoise and flees to Scotland with him. When they return, the king has Naoise killed.
Forced to lived with Conchobhar, the grief-stricken Deirdre never smiles and makes clear to the king how much she hates him. The story ends with Deirdre taking her own life by striking her head against a rock. Deirdre's tragic tale served as inspiration for poetry, plays, and stories by later Irish writers, including William Butler Yeats and J. M. Synge.
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about A . D . 500 to 1500
Much of what is now known about Celtic mythology is based on manuscripts that were prepared by monks in the Middle Ages. Irish collections dating from the 700s and Welsh collections from the 1300s recount many of the myths and legends of the ancient Celts.
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Major Gods. The Celts worshiped a variety of gods who appeared in their tales. Most were all-powerful local deities rather than gods with specialized roles. Each tribe had its own god, who protected and provided for the welfare of that tribe. Some of them had similar characteristics. For example, Dagda, the god of life and death in Ireland—known as the good god—resembled Esus, the "master" god of Gaul.
Some deities had more clearly defined roles. Among these were Lug, or Lugus, a sun god associated with arts and skills, war and healing, and the horned god Cernunnos, who was god of animals and fertility. The Celts also had a large number of important female deities. These included Morrigan, the "Great Queen"—actually three war goddesses, Morrigan, Badb, and Nemain, who appeared as ravens during battle. Another important deity was Brigit, goddess of learning, healing, and metalworking. Epona, the horse goddess, was associated with fertility, water, and death.
Major Themes. Magic, magicians, and the supernatural played a significant role in Celtic mythology. A common theme was the magic cauldron. The cauldron of plenty was never empty and supplied great quantities of food. The cauldron of rebirth brought slain warriors to life again. Myrddin, a magician in the Welsh tales, later became Merlin in the Arthurian legends*.
deity god or goddess
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world magical or miraculous cauldron large kettle
Other important themes in the myths were voyages to mysterious and dangerous lands and larger-than-life heroes. The heroes experienced all kinds of adventures and often had to perform impossible tasks before marrying their loved one. Love, romance, and mischief also figured prominently. The gods played tricks on humans and on one another. Animals changed shape at will.
|Brigit||goddess of learning, healing, and metalworking|
|Dagda||god of life and death|
|Danu||fertility goddess and mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan|
|Epona||goddess associated with fertility, water, and death|
|Lug||god of the sun, war, and healing|
|Morrigan||goddess of war and death|
Many myths told of the otherworld. In this mysterious place, there was no work and no death, and the gods and spirits who lived there never got old. The Celts believed that humans could enter this enchanted place through burial mounds called sídhe, through caves or lakes, or after completing a perilous journey. After reaching the otherworld, they would live happily for all time.
The Ancient Celtic Pantheon - History
It had to be recited by someone of upright life and pure heart and was passed down, as were many healing charms in Ireland, from man to woman and woman to man (in Wales they seem more often to have been passed down through the same gender). In Pembrokeshire of the mid-nineteenth century there was a charmer who specialised in stopping blood. He dipped his finger in the blood of the person haemorrhaging and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. Then he muttered over him words from Ezekiel "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thy own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. Yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live." He then stretched out his hand as if blessing the man. This incantation was repeated 9 times. xvii The use of this charm has also been recorded in Cornwall while in Ireland another formula was used relating the flow of blood to the flow of the river Jordan, such as: "There came a man from Bethlehem to be baptised in the river Jordan, but the water was so muddy that it stopped flowing. So let the blood! So let the blood! "
We are very fortunate to have numerous examples of incantations and charms or ortha collected by Alexander Carmichael in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The charms were in the original Gaelic and translated into English by Carmichael. Although Scotland lacks the early written tales and poetry of Ireland and Wales, this collection, entitled the Carmina Gadelica, is unique in its depiction of the prayers, rituals and charms that were part of the everyday lives of the folk of the 19th century Highlands and Islands and which, although Christianised (and to some extent improved by Carmichael), give us a glimpse of older beliefs and customs encapsulated in oral form to an extent not found elsewhere. The healers and fairy doctors did not like to disclose the words of charms and incantations for they were thought to lose their properties if they were not said in the right way and with the right accompanying actions, or if they were told to someone who did not take them seriously, and this would have repercussions for their custodians. Rather than offend, it seems that people would often pretend to have forgotten the words of the charms when asked by folklorists or researchers, and examples of them are much scarcer in Ireland and Wales. It says a lot for the trust that the folk must have had in Carmichael that he was able to collect so much.
Of the healing incantations and charms, together with rituals, found in the Carmina Gadelica there are some for healing diseases of livestock, some for the healing of people and some that were to be said while collecting the various protective plants and medicinal herbs. English translations do not do justice to the complexity and beauty of some of the Gaelic originals. Here, for instance, is a verse which will give some idea of the repetition, alliteration and assonance contained in the originals:
Air na saigheada sìdhe sìodha,
Air saigheada sìodha seun,
Air saigheada sluagha sàthach,
Air saigheada sàrach seud
Against the fairy elfin arrows,
Against the elfin arrows charmed,
Against piercing arrows of fairy host,
Against harassing arrows on the journey
The names of power found in the ortha are a mix of Christian and pagan, as is also the case in many Irish charms and prayers. The charms show a synthesis of Christian and pagan tradition. For instance the charm made by Fionn son of Curnall (quoted from above) clearly reflects the belief in the fairies but ends "In tryst of Father and Son of tears/ In tryst of perfect Spirit of might/Refuse not the prayer to one in need/And say it not on the Lords day."
We can see from this how the two systems of thought and belief could exist side by side. The Christian story is interwoven with more ancient beliefs. Jesus, his heavenly and powerful Father who had sent him as a sacrifice to the people, his loving mother Mary and foster-father Joseph appear beside Gaelic saints like Columba and Bride, as well as alongside the traditional beliefs in the often malign power of the fairies, of the evil eye, of the surly creatures of the mountains and the heroes and heroines of Gaelic myth and legend like Fionn. Bride is written into the Christian story as his foster-mother, an obvious anachronism since the saint was born hundreds of years after Christ, or perhaps the earlier pagan goddess Brigit is being remembered here.
All this gives us a rich picture of the way that the folk appropriated and embraced the Christian story and imbued it with a unique perspective. The divine family is welcomed in a personal and intimate way into each persons home and family to lend their support and protection:
Often the treatment of the Christian material shows just this emphasis on Celtic values, such as the importance of the hearth and of kinship as seen here. The key to understanding the Celtic mindset lies not in rejecting everything with a Christian or contemporary overlay but in looking at how these things have been incorporated into the Celtic world-view and how the treatment and practice of them differed from the treatment and practice of them in other cultures.
In comparatively recent times it was believed that poets could, by writing verses, which referred to particular illnesses, effect a cure. There are folk stories of the 19 th c blind Irish poet Anthony Raftery protecting a house where he stayed from a fever that was prevalent in the village by composing and reciting a verse. xviii
A form of verbal charm which had spread from the Continent rather than being native to the Insular Celts, was that of the legend. This took the form of a brief story of a healing act carried out by a divine being, Christ himself or one of the saints. This charm, for instance, was popular in Wales and one version of it, although in the Welsh language, was said to have come from an Irish priest in county Cork, showing how such things moved from country to country:
This type of charm contains similar elements to the invocatory charms since it uses the power of the word and of names but being in story form gives it another dimension. Story-telling was an important part of Celtic society and its uses and benefits went far beyond that of mere entertainment and social cohesion. In the process of the telling the ancestors were brought to life and their supernatural powers affirmed. The people of the tribe or community were brought into contact with the myths that affirmed the values and truths that were believed to underpin the mundane world. Although the Legends from the Continent were in the main brief tales of Christ and his disciples, as we can see from the Carmina Gadelica the holy family, as well as certain of the non-Celtic saints such as Michael (thought by some scholars to be a replacement for the Celtic god Lugh), were in a sense adopted by the Scottish Celts and brought into the community and the family.
From Ireland there is an instance of a long story being used for healing xix and in The Vision of MacConglinne, the belief that the telling of a story could confer all sorts of benefits upon the hearers is satirised it includes the promise that if recited as the first tale in a new house, no corpse would be taken out of it. Although satirical, this nonetheless demonstrates that there were such beliefs. xx It is possible therefore that the Legend charms found special acceptance in Celtic society because they told such a healing story.
One of the ways in which telling stories may have been supposed to work was by sympathetic magic - the story, spoken on the breath, was a created truth, giving an example of healing. In a similar situation - i.e. toothache - a similar outcome a cure of the toothache - could be created.
Julius Caesar commented that the druids did not commit any of their teachings to writing although they used Greek letters for recording other matters. The early insular Celts had a largely oral culture and left few written accounts, apart from inscriptions. In Ireland the earliest writings date from the beginning of the seventh century when some laws and traditional lore began to be written down, as well as Christian material such as lives of the saints.
Medieval Christian manuscripts were thought to possess miraculous healing powers. In 1627 Connel Mac Geoghegan, the translator of the Annals of Clonmacnoise told of the 300 books that St Columba is said to have written:
. which Bookes have a strange property, which is that if they or any of them had sunck to the bottom of the deepest waters they would not loose one letter, signe of character of them, which I have seen partly myselfe of that book of them which is at Durrow. for I saw the ignorant man that had the same in his custody, when sickness came upon cattle, for their remedy putt water on the book and suffered it rest there a while and saw alsoe cattle returning thereby to their former or pristin state and the book receave no loss. xxi
In Ireland, some of the medieval physicians were thought to have derived their knowledge from Otherworldly books, as we have seen earlier.
Healing charms were often written down and then kept in a small pouch hung round the neck (as were some of the Legends). In both Ireland and Wales the opening paragraphs of St Johns Gospel were thought to protect the wearer from illness and misfortune and were often written down (sometimes in Latin, by the priest) and worn in this way. In Ireland this was known as the custom of Leabhar Eoin. The opening lines of this gospel state:
Here John was drawing on an idea from the pre-Christian religion of the Greeks concerning the Logos which emanated from the mouth of God and was responsible for creating the universe. This idea of the Logos was not unlike the personification of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) found in the Hebrew Wisdom Literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, etc) in which it was understood that Holy Wisdom was with God in creation. The author of John took this idea and connected it to the Logos, and gave the Greek world a version of Incarnation with which they could resonate it also resonated with the Celts as with other Indo-European groups.
The dynion hysbys often possessed printed books for their education but also handwritten books of the various remedies, charms and rituals they used. These books have become part of a tradition in Welsh literature known as secret books owned by the dynion hysbys or cunning men - sometimes a page of one would be lost with wonderful consequences. A dyn hysbys from Denbighshire filled a tenth of his secret book with instructions for calling the fairies, the Tylwyth Teg, all but one of them being in Welsh. The rest of the book contains details of fortune telling and astrology, strict metre spells in both Welsh and English and instructions on how to make an amulet according to the tradition of the Cabala. xxii
7 The Power of the Elements
Fire and water were particularly important elements in Celtic thought and belief. Strabo, in the 2nd century CE, recorded that the Druids believed that mens souls and the universe were indestructible although both fire and water would at times prevail over them. Burning and drowning, along with wounding, were the three components of the triple, sacrificial death. Almost two thousand years later, in the folk tradition of Ireland, a way of protecting against a bird of ill-omen was to say, "Fire and water be on you, and in your mouth and may the curse be on your head, O bird of evil, for evermore." xxiii
Water could cause flooding and there are many myths about wells or streams which overflow (often because of the actions of a woman) and overwhelm the land. The stories of Boand and Sinann have been mentioned earlier, and in Welsh tradition the land of Maes Gwyddno was flooded when the maiden who looked after the well, Merered, forgets to put the lid back on it. The Book of Invasions emphasises the Biblical flood and The Roll of the Kings makes a record of lake-bursts that occurred during a kings rule. Too much rain could not only cause floods but also create waterlogged conditions which were dangerous to crops and a hindrance to human activities.
Yet obviously water is necessary for life and in a time when piped water was unknown, sources of water were both vital and sought after, for no individual or community could survive without it. It is strange to us today, but dew was a prime source of water. By soaking a cloth in it and then wringing it out quite a substantial amount could be collected. Dew was often seen as a blessing and a gift, appearing almost magically as it does, and was considered one of the elements.
Mythologically and symbolically water was associated with wisdom, not only in the Wells of Segais and Connla, but also as a constituent and medium of the potion in the cauldron of inspiration, and, as the Boyne river, the agent which carried the hazelnuts of wisdom and contained the salmon of wisdom. It was also associated with regeneration for cauldrons of liquid and wells appear in Celtic mythology as a means of rebirth.
Fire could be just as unpredictable and hazardous as water, destructive of both life and property. Yet it could also be life-giving, for, like the sun which it imitated, it gave warmth and light. It was seen to possess the power of transformation and was an intermediary enabling raw qualities of the Otherworld to be harnessed for human use: the potion in Ceridwens cauldron of inspiration is heated or cooked by fire, as is Finns salmon. Its destructive side could also be harnessed - there is reason to believe that the ritual burning of an object was thought to destroy it in this world but send it transformed into the Otherworld. This may have been the purpose of the ritual burning of the ceremonial structure at Emain Macha in Ulster.
Such vital elements as these also had an important role to play in healing and there was a strong link between water and the sun or fire in this connection. Light sparkles and is mirrored in water and this had connotations of illumination in the context of poetry and wisdom. In the realm of healing there are several associations between healing springs, deities and the sun. The Celtic Apollo who appears in some places as Apollo Vindonnus, Apollo the fair or white, and in others as Apollo Belenus, the bright one, was associated with healing springs on the Continent. xxiv There is less direct evidence of this in Britain and Ireland but an important site is Aqua Sulis , or Bath, where hot water gushes out of the ground at a vast rate. Sulis was a native deity whose name is linked with the sun although at this site she is equated with the Roman Minerva, perhaps because Minerva was the Roman goddess associated with crafts which included the craft of medicine. It may have been thought that the sun heated the water underground during its sojourn in the nether regions when its light was not visible. The fact that the sun could venture into the dark and unknown regions of the world (in the West where the dead were thought to go) and return unscathed was another aspect of its role as nurturer and healer. In folk tradition, a prayer to the sun in the Carmina Gadelica, which speaks of it as feminine, expresses this:
Another Romano-Celtic healing site, sacred to the Celtic god Nodens, was built above the River Severn and there is archaeological evidence of the sun/water connection in the form of objects which have images connected with both. There is also evidence of the treatment of eye diseases and there were obvious connections between eyes, the sun and water. Eyes were able to see because of light which came from the sun and the eyelashes mimicked its rays. The folk of the Scottish Islands express this connection in a Christian context by referring to the sun as "The eye of the great God. The eye of the King of the living".
The sun was a source of great healing energy. Walking three times round a fire or sacred place was a potent ritual action because it imitated the circling of the sun and was therefore always carried out sun wise ( cor deiseil in Irish), to draw down its beneficent power on any undertaking. This action also partook of the natural way of things which, as we have seen, was important because it asserted the fruitful power of truth and order.
Sunrise was a particularly potent time and therefore good for enhancing the effect of healing rituals. In folk tradition, people would go up to a hill top on May morning to experience the full power of the rays of the rising sun and in one Irish ritual for healing urinary problems in cows the healer would form her hands into a trumpet, point them at the rising sun and recite the incantation through them as loudly as possible. xxv
Fire was venerated as the most sacred or holy thing, it brought blessing or divine favour and could therefore strengthen and protect. In folk tradition in Ireland it was thought very unlucky to put out a light while people were at supper for this would mean that there would be one less person at the table before the end of the year. xxvi It was also unlucky to carry fire out of the house where a person was ill for to do so was to take away the blessing from the house along with it. xxvii There may have been the concept expressed here that fire in some way represented the vital spirit of a person and so to extinguish the fire also represented extinguishing the vital spark of life.
It was the custom to walk round the fire three times on St Johns Eve (the Christian saints day closest to Midsummer) in order to ensure health for the year to come. xxviii In parts of the Celtic world the livestock was driven between two fires at Beltane, in order to purify them and rid them of disease. The festival occurred on May 1 st , which marked the beginning of summer or the warm half of the year and the bonfires were an integral part of the ritual activities. They were a symbol of the sun and, as well as greeting it they expressed the hope that, by sympathetic magic, it would blaze as strongly and brightly throughout the months ahead.
Water was known to be sacred to the Celts for many offerings of valuable weapons and ornaments were thrown into lakes, streams and rivers. As with the destruction of objects by fire, sending them into the water may have been thought to send them to the Otherworld. In folk tradition, the dew gathered on May 1st was considered a potent liquid and people bottled it and used it for the rest of the year. Wells were also visited on May 1 st to drink or bathe in the water which was infused with the power of the Beltane sun. In Wales, spring and summer, and especially May and June, were thought to be the times when all types of water were at their most potent, probably because it is then that the sun sends its most gentle and beneficial warmth and light.
In the ritual described above where the incantation is chanted to the rising sun, water was also used as part of the healing. The woman would first cup her hands and catch the urine of the affected cow in them. She would then throw the urine into running water to carry away the demon that had caused the complaint and wash her hands in clean cold water before forming them into the trumpet. This illustrates the properties of water - it is a cleanser and a vehicle or medium for carrying things, seen and unseen. In folk healing, water was obviously used as a medium for making up herbal potions but it also had a role to play in absorbing and taking on the healing and beneficial qualities of other objects. Quartz and rock crystal (which sparkle in the sun and give a pale glow in moonlight) were highly prized and much in evidence at ritual sites in the Celtic countries. Their properties could be harnessed medicinally by placing them in a bowl of water, the water then being drunk or applied to a part of the body in need of healing.
The same was done with certain stones, especially white ones, and metal objects which were thought to have special powers - especially gold, silver and iron. Although rubbing the affected part with them could access their powers, they were also placed in water which was then used medicinally. Carmichael records a very moving account given by a nurse in the Highlands who witnessed such a ritual:
"I was waiting for the doctor and very anxious the while. The patients mother filled a small basin with water and into this water she put a number of rings and brooches of gold and silver, which she stirred about in the basin. She then held the basin to her dying daughters lips and made her drink three mouthfuls of the water, each mouthful in the name of Father, of Son, and of Spirit. Soon after that the child came. Then the doctor came and soon all was well. But the child was born before the arrival of the doctor, and the birth was as gentle and as easy as any I have ever seen. How the trinkets in the water could affect the case I do not pretend to know, but that some occult matter was at work in the whole matter I am certain.." xxix
Water also had the ability to absorb or carry the magical and curative effect of prayers and incantations. In another ritual from the Highlands used to cure illnesses of people or animals caused by the evil eye, the person had to go in silence to running water over which the living and the dead had passed. Taking a palmful of water the healer would recite an incantation which affirmed that she was doing this in the name of the Holy Trinity, while putting the water into a clay crock. This water was then put in the ears or some other part of the person or animal, and a banishing spell or incantation was uttered "Shake from thee thy harm/Shake from thee thy jealousy/Shake from thee thy illness" in the name of the Trinity. The rest of the water was then poured away onto a grey stone or steady rock.
Some lakes and rivers were thought to have healing properties. In the Táin Bó Cuailnge we learn how:
Cúchulainn lay there sick. Senoll Uathach, the Hideous, and the two sons of Ficce were the first to reach him. They bore him back with them to Conaille, where they nursed his wounds and bathed them in the waters of the rivers Sas, for ease, the river Búan for steadfastness, Bíthslán for lasting health, the clear Finnglas, the bright Gleóir, the dashing Bedc in Tadc, Talamed, Rinn and Bir, in the sour Brenide and narrow Cumang in Celenn and Gaenemain, Dichu, Muach and Miliuc, Den, Deilt and Dubglas.
However the connection between healing and water may most clearly be seen in the importance of wells for healing. We have already learnt that the Well of Sláine was one component in the healing of wounded warriors, reminiscent of the cauldron of rebirth in the Welsh story of Branwen which brought back to life the dead warriors placed in it. Most of the wells of Britain and Ireland had some curative function and a whole range of illnesses and diseases were capable of being cured by them, from leprosy to toothache, from mental troubles to rheumatic pain. Infertility was one of the most common reasons for seeking the help of a sacred well, not surprising when one considers the regenerative and fertility aspects of water.
Eyes are associated with water as well as the sun eyes are the source of tears and the Welsh word for eye, llygad , can also mean the source of a river. Many of the healing wells were associated with the cure of eye complaints - whether this is because eye complaints were so numerous in ancient times or because of a particular healing connection between water, wells and eyes is not known.
Many wells and springs were sacred in pre-Christian times and were probably connected with certain deities, like Coventinas Well in Carrawburgh, Northumberland, and the springs of Sulis. However, in line with the Christian practice of converting pagan sites to Christian ones (advocated by Pope Gregory in the 7th century) many pagan well-sites became associated with Christian saints, who often had the same name as their pagan predecessors. In this way the saints took over the associations and roles of some of the pagan deities and became the means by which the people could gain access to supernatural or Otherworldly powers. Relics of the saints eventually became imbued with healing powers and were often enclosed in shrines or caskets and became the focus of pilgrimages, as did the wells.
The rituals conducted at the wells are varied and were carried out throughout Britain and Ireland, although some of them appear more in one country than another.
Times of visitation were important for there were certain days (as well as certain seasons) that were more efficacious. These were very often the day special to the saint who was connected with the well, known in Ireland as Pattern days. Irish wells dedicated to St John the Baptist were thought to boil up at midnight on 23 rd June and for the first hour of the 24 th of June any illness could be cured by the water. xxx Special days were also those connected with certain periods in the Christian calendar, such as Easter. In Wales, favoured days were Thursdays, especially in May, Fridays, and Sundays, especially in July. Also in Wales, the most auspicious times were night and morning, midnight, before sunrise, dawn and while the dew was still on the ground.
Bathing in and drinking the water were part of the well ritual. Sometimes the whole body was immersed in the water, sometimes just a part, usually the diseased part. Water from the well could be put in bottles or pails and taken to a sick person - often this had to be done while maintaining a state of silence, and in fact, most of the rituals performed at the well took place in silence, apart from the recitation of charms or prayers. Sometimes the water was taken into the mouth and had to remain there while a circuit was made of the well or a surrounding feature. Cloths or rags were sometimes soaked in the well water, used to bathe the afflicted part and then tied to a tree near the well or placed under a stone.
Drinking from skulls was a feature of some wells, especially in Wales and Scotland. The head was a particularly important part of the body to the Celts they may have believed that the higher qualities and the soul resided in the head. Skulls were therefore potent objects and drinking from them was thought to be efficacious. In Wales, the water of the well of St Teilo, Ffynnon Deilo, was drunk out of the saint's skull, which was in the keeping of the Melchior family, and it was reputed that the cure would not be effective unless this were done. Commonly, whooping-cough and epilepsy were the illnesses most often cured by drinking out of skulls.
There are quite a number of instances where a stone circle, megalith or tombstone is located near to the well and in Wales part of the healing ritual involved sleeping on the stone. In some cases though, the sick person would spend the night on the altar stone of a nearby church or at a local farmhouse. If he or she were able to sleep, it was taken as a sign that a cure would occur. This is similar to the practice carried out at ancient healing shrines such as the one at Lydney where pilgrims would have stayed the night and had visionary dreams which were part of a cure. There are instances in Celtic mythology of sleep - and music- being used to heal the birds of the Irish goddess Cliodhna were said to sing so sweetly that the sick would fall into a healing sleep and in the Mabinogion, the birds of Rhiannon were able to sing to lull the living to sleep and to wake the dead.
At other wells there were special healing stones which had a part to play. In Wales small white or quartz stones (thought to be particularly holy) were offered at some sites. In some places the pilgrim would pick up a stone and after walking round the well would place it on a cairn. Sometimes small stones which resembled a part of the body had to be rubbed on the appropriate part, and by St Brigits stream in her supposed birthplace of Faughart (where there is a well and a shrine dedicated to her) there are a series of large stones representing different parts of the body which the pilgrim would touch as part of a healing ritual. I once observed a middle-aged couple walking the stations of the cross down to the stream and then visiting each stone in turn, performing in silence a set of graceful and ritualised movements at each one in order to touch it with the appropriate part of the body. I was much impressed by this silent and dignified veneration of the sacred objects of both a Christian and pagan culture, and the seamless blending of the two.
Some of the wells and springs contained fish, salmon, trout, or eels, and it was taken as a sign that the sick who sought healing there would be cured if they saw one. Sometimes the patient would have to stand in the water of the well and if the eel coiled round his or her legs, this was a good omen.
Circumambulating the well was always done by walking sunwise or cor deiseil round the well a certain number of times. Three times was the usual number but it could be seven or nine. As we have already seen this action was in accordance with the movement of the sun and the proper order of things, and was thought to draw down the power of the sun. Sometimes only the well was circumambulated, sometimes the pilgrim also had to walk round a sacred stone or a nearby church, or chapel.
As already mentioned, ritual actions at the wells were usually carried out in silence except for the recitation of special words. Francis Jones who researched the folklore of the wells of Wales in the first half of the 20th c was unable to find out what incantations and ritualistic phrases were used. Some of them had obviously degenerated into meaningless sounds, such as the words to be said at Ffynnon Fair in Rheadr, "Frimpanfroo, Frimpanfroo/ Sali bwli la/Iri a" xxxi In Ireland in more recent times the words to be said are Christian prayers and incantations, for instance at St Brigits well at Liscannor Co. Clare, the Paternoster and the Hail Mary are to be said a certain number of times.
In Wales many things could be offered at healing wells. Francis Jones gives a list which includes clothes, rags, pins, buttons, coins, thorn-points, flowers, stones and fowls. Most common, however, were pins (which were often bent), coins and rags. Why the pins were bent is a matter for speculation. It may relate to the ancient practice of breaking swords and other precious objects before throwing them into lakes and streams as offerings to the gods, metaphorically killing them so that they were no longer of use in this world. Other theories are that bending them was meant to get rid of the evil spirit troubling the sick person or that it would stop the pricking pains often associated with eye complaints.
Sometimes prophecies could be made as to the course of an illness, depending on what happened to the objects thrown into the water. For instance, if a pin became discoloured it was a sign that the pilgrims wish would be granted, or the rate at which something sank would give an indication of the rate of healing.
The leaving of rags is more common in Ireland and Scotland where they are called clouties. They were usually tied to trees or bushes - in Ireland particularly there is often a single tree, often hawthorn or ash, growing by a well, in which case it was especially venerated. Sometimes they were left under stones and at Doon Well in Co. Donegal (which at one time had no trees near it although some have now been planted there) they were wrapped round the crutches left there by people who, presumably, no longer had need for them. Different reasons are offered for why they were left but it is most likely that they represented the part of the body in need of healing, and that as the rag rotted away, so would the sickness go also the rag represented the sick person since it had been in contact with them and by leaving it, the patient would in a vicarious way be in contact with the healing presence of the deity or the saint. However it is also possible that they were a sign of thanks to the guardian of the well or a votive offering, given in fulfilment of a vow.
8 Riddance, Transference and Reciprocity
Rags or clooties were not the only things that may have had the sickness transferred onto them In ancient times objects representing the afflicted part of the body were often left at shrines and wells, possibly so that the healing power could continue to have an effect. The anatomical models and carvings found at Fontes Sequancae (the healing spring in France at the source of the Seine, dedicated to the water goddess Sequana) included whole people, limbs, internal organs and heads (often the eyes were emphasised). In the time of the free Celts these offerings were usually made of wood but in Romano-Celtic times they were more frequently of stone. Illnesses represented were respiratory and heart disease, stomach and intestinal disorders, problems connected with the breasts, the genitalia and the limbs. xxii
Another explanation of the purpose of these anatomical offerings however is that the images of the diseased part were offered to the deity so that he or she would bestow healing onto the person who had given it. xxiii This comes back to the idea of balance maintained by a mutual exchange
More recently, the folk of the Scottish Highlands and Islands show in their charms and incantations that they had the notion of riddance or transference. The charms for chest constriction or seizure use the power of the elements or of Jesus to send all maladies, ailments and discomfort onto animals, birds, whales, rocks, mountains, moor and the sea. "It will cause them no harm /And it will cause good to thee. " says one charm. xxxiv There is the idea here that the illness overwhelms the person, but by transferring it to other beings and elements it not only leaves the person but is redistributed so that it loses its power to do harm and a better balance is achieved. Another charm sends a part of the malady onto the great surging sea for She herself has the best means to carry and we see here again the role of water as transporter and cleanser.
There is a Welsh language charm, one of the few which has survived, against the shingles, which again shows the operation of riddance as a healing principle. Shingles was thought to have been caused by a malevolent eagle and could be cured by someone who had eaten eagle flesh, or someone whose ancestor up to the ninth generation had done so. The charmer had to spit on the eruption, rub it with his finger and then blow on it nine times after first chanting an incantation which "sent" the disease "Over nine seas, and over nine mountains/ And over nine acres of unprofitable land/ Where no dog shall bark and no cow shall low/And where no eagle shall higher rise." xxxv
9 The Healing Power of Herbs
As already noted, herbs were put into the Well of Sláine where the warriors wounded in the Battle of Maigh Tuired were healed, and after DíanCécht slew his son Miach, 365 herbs grew from his grave. Airmed, DíanCéchts daughter, arranged them according to their properties but DíanCécht mixed them up, ordaining that, although Miach, the supernaturally-gifted surgeon and healer, was no more, Airmed, the herbalist would remain. Alexei Kondratiev has pointed out that the Breton herbalists retain some of the ancient traditions and see their 26 sacred herbs as corresponding to the body of a slain god, with vervain, one of the Druid herbs, at his head, and St Johns wort representing the blood. xxxvi In Wales a sachet of powdered vervain root was worn round the neck to cure all diseases, but especially those of the head.
Although the herbs were mixed up so that no one knew their properties, it seems that over time these were rediscovered. Many of the old Scottish Gaelic remedies were eventually used in early medical practice. Alexander Carmichael tells us that Dr Donald Munro Morrison who was a proficient student of chemistry as well as a physician, remarked that " the Highlanders
had cures for all the common ailments of man and beast, but where or how they had acquired them he could not understand he had analysed the plants, earths and other remedies they used, and in no instance were these misapplied, on the contrary their ingredients were those now used by practitioners in a more concentrated form." xxxvii Much of this healing lore has been lost today. As Mary Beith has pointed out in her book Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands (which contains a useful herbal) the knowledge of herbs and other remedies used by the Highlanders and Islanders has been largely ignored. Yet there is much manuscript, documentary and personal evidence which could yield medical information as valuable as that being sought from traditional healers and remedies in other parts of the world. xxxviii
The use of herbs for healing the wounded in battle is described in the Irish tales, especially the Táin Bó Cuailnge , the earliest version of which date from the 8th century. In this we hear how men of medicine and healing came to Cúchulainn and Ferdia to heal and make them whole by applying plants and herbs to their wounds, and later a man of the Síd heals Cúchulainn with charms and herbs after his fight with Lóch. The men of medicine were part of the army, as in the Second Battle of Maige Tuired, their contribution being to treat the warriors and if possible enable them to continue fighting. 2
2 It is also apparent in the Táin that the value of nourishing food and comfort for the sick was known. The men of medicine belonged to the army of the men of Ulster but they treated Cúchulainn and Ferdia so that it could not be said that, if Cúchulainn won, he had had an unfair advantage. Likewise, Ferdia had sent to Cúchulainn all the food and health-giving drinks that were available to him, for the same reason. It is also stated repeatedly that it was right for men wounded in battle to be given beds of rushes with rests for their heads The law tract Bretha Crólige (probably 8th c) deals mainly with the system of compensation and entitlements of those who have been injured but it also places emphasis on diet and the care of the sick (keeping them away from noise and disturbances, for instance). These are also features of the indications for the care of the sick in the later manuscripts of the Welsh physicians of Myddfai and the medieval Gaelic physicians, but we can see here that this was part of a much older practice.
Herbs are referred to in the law tract Bretha Crólige which states that the only condiment a person on sick-maintenance was entitled to were garden herbs and adds that "it is for this purpose that gardens have been made, viz. for care of the sick." xxxix Mary Beith has pointed out that an early 9th c record of the herb garden for the hospital at the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland xl (founded by disciples of Columbanus, an Irish monk), shows that over thirty herbs and vegetables were grown, namely "lilies, roses, climbing beans, sage, rue, iris, pennyroyal, watercress, cumin, lovage, fennel, onion-leaf celery, coriander, dill, poppies (including the opium variety), radishes, beet, garlic, shallots, parsley, chervil, lettuce, parsnip and cabbage." xli Most of these were used in the Highlands and Islands according to Beith and folk medicine in Wales in the 20th c still uses remedies made from herbs, fruits, trees and vegetables. xlii
The evidence of the Táin , as we have seen, certainly suggests that the uses and properties of herbs were known well enough to determine when injuries were beyond their efficacy and only magical healing had any chance of working. In the Tochmarc Emire , The Wooing of Emer,
dating from the 8 th c, Scáthach, the warrior woman, gave Cúchulainn a sleeping-draft which would be enough to keep an ordinary man asleep for 24 hours, but only lasted for an hour in his case. This supposes a knowledge and understanding of the dose needed to obtain a desired effect.
However, we can do little more than speculate as to which herbs were used in early Celtic times, since, apart from Plinys comments, these have not been recorded. The medieval manuscripts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales reflect the medical learning of Europe rather than native tradition. As for the later folk uses of herbs, these varied a lot from area to area and
local names for plants also confuse the issue. James McKillop mentions some fairy herbs widely used in Celtic countries, namely dandelion, eyebright, foxglove, yarrow, ivy, plantain, polypody of oak and vervain. Dandelion was believed to have curative powers, especially in heart disease, Eyebright was often used in Europe including the Celtic countries for diseases of the eye and the Irish had affectionate names for it such as soilse na súil, light of the eye, and radhaircin, little sight. The foxglove was seen as a particularly potent herb:
Since sickness was often thought to have its origin in the Otherworld and prevention being better than a cure, plants and trees were also widely used for protective magic and had an important role to play in the maintenance of health. In the folk tradition of Ireland it was said that vervain and the mountain ash (rowan) were the best protection against disease and the evil eye. In Wales the rowan and the elder were often planted by the cattle-shed to protect the cattle and horses from harm. Rowanberries were brought into the house to bring prosperity and success and worn about the body to keep women from being bewitched twigs of elder were worn by children to protect them from pain. xliv St Johns Wort was thought capable of scaring the devil and was much honoured in Wales where it blossomed on St Johns Day and was associated with midsummer. The leek, the national emblem of Wales, was widely believed to promote victory and the avoidance of wounding in battle if rubbed on the body, famous fighters would use it in this way before going into a fight. In Scotland the yarrow may have been used for the purpose of giving victory in battle. The St Johns Wort was also widely venerated in Scotland where it was known in Scottish Gaelic as achlasan Chaluim Chille , or the armpit package of Columba. It was used to ward off the evil eye and all malign influences as well as to bring prosperity. Medicinally it was much used as a woundwort.
Rituals connected with the picking of herbs
Not surprisingly, herbs had to be gathered in the right way, that is with the appropriate actions, charms and invocations. In his Natural History , Pliny the Elder relates that the samolus , a charm against the diseases of cattle, had to be gathered with the left hand when fasting, the gatherer not looking behind him and only putting the plant down in the cattles drinking-troughs. He also tells us the druids taught that vervain had to be gathered:
a bout the rising of the Dog-star -- but so as not to be shone upon by sun or moon--and that honey-combs and honey must be first presented to the earth by way of expiation. They tell us also that a circle must first be traced around it with iron after which it must be taken up with the left hand, and raised aloft, care being taken to dry the leaves, stem, and root, separately in the shade. xlv
Although Pliny ridicules the magicians of the Gauls saying they "give utterance to ridiculous follies" on this matter, we may note that there is practical and sensible advice about the drying of the parts of this plant, interwoven with the rituals. The time of gathering according to the heavens, the propitiation of the earth or earth spirits, the use of the circle drawn with iron, were as much part of their science, their systematic and formulated knowledge, as the method of drying the plant.
The Carmina Gadelica describes similar observances in the Scottish Highlands and Islands almost two thousand years after Pliny. For instance, the St John's Wort, St Columbia's plant, had to be found by accident, it should never be sought, and like other several other plants, it was to be plucked with the right hand only and kept in the left:
The herbs were often addressed directly and spoken of with praise - so St John's wort is spoken of in terms normally used for noble lords and chieftains as allail , of great renown, or loinneil , splendid, elegant. The plant was thus honoured and while picking it the person would also recite the purpose it was required for and the intent in taking it:
This statement of intent would have been an important part of the ritual gathering of the plant since the spoken or breathed word was thought to be magically potent.
10 Dogs and Snakes associated with Healing
In the Celtic world dogs were connected with hunting, death, healing and protection. Healing goddesses on the Continent, such as Sirona and Aveta, were associated with dogs and in Britain, Nodens shrine at Lydney is associated with hunting, healing and dogs. Many goddesses are depicted as having lapdogs and there is also a connection between lapdogs and women in early Irish literature which has led some people to speculate that the warmth given by the dogs was a source of comfort and healing, perhaps particularly in period pains. In our own time it has been found that dogs have a beneficial effect on the sick and seem to have an uncanny ability to detect cancer early. Agnes Sampson, a Scottish witch who was executed in 1590, could foresee whether a sick person would get well or die by watching the behaviour of a large black dog.
Dogs had the ability to act as guides and protectors in death. In Breton folklore Ki Du (black dog) is a companion in the Otherworld and during a persons rebirth into the form of another human being or animal. Dogs were seen to have special qualities which enabled them to pass unscathed into the world of the dead and back again (like the sun). Thus they were seen as liminal beings who could bring healing back from the Otherworld.
In the early 20 th century in Ireland, dogs were also connected with death. People believed that dogs had the ability to detect sickness and foretell who would die, "the howling of a dog where a sick person is lying is regarded in Ireland in all grades of society with pale dismay as a certain sign of approaching death". xlvi
We are reminded of the dual nature of the dog in the Bretha Crólige of medieval Ireland where it is stated that dogs must not be put to fight near sick people in hospital. An Irish healing charm against wounds and poisons invokes "the blood of one dog, the blood of many dogs, the blood of the hound of Fliethas" for healing, but one of the poisons is that from the bite of a rabid dog. The concept that what can kill can also cure is operating here, reminiscent of the dual nature of the dog who can exist in both the world of the dead and the world of the living.
Healing goddesses are also commonly associated with snakes. Snakes can be poisonous and deadly and the Irish charm already mentioned invokes the daughters of Fliethas against the serpent. But they too have a dual nature and are often seen as symbols of fertility since they give birth to many young at once, and their form is often linked to the phallus. They are symbols of regeneration and rebirth because they shed their skin and emerge renewed, and as they often live or hide in holes in the ground they have underworld or chthonic associations. Thus they too have Otherworldly connections they are liminal beings who can bring healing, fertility and renewal.
Some Gaulish healing goddesses such as Sirona and Damona were depicted with snakes twining around their arms, and the British snake goddess Verbeia, who is thought to be the personification of the River Wharfe, holds two snakes in the shape of zigzags. They may have been meant to symbolise both snakes and water. Snakes move with rippling and flowing movements like water and meandering rivers are often referred to as snake-like. xlvii
11 The Blessing of the Circle
We have seen that moving in a circle like the sun was an important concept in ancient times. There are numerous examples of this in the old tales and Athenaeus quotes Poseidonius as saying that the Celts worshipped their gods by turning sunwise. It was also a way of showing respect to people. Moving in the same direction as the sun was a way of putting oneself in alignment with the movement of the heavens and was therefore auspicious. One of the Old Irish words for right, dess , also carried a meaning of in order and deiseal , the word
describing a sunwise motion, is made up of dess and sel , or turn. In Tenga Bithnua (via John Carey, and with his translation) states:
Every creature has been established in roundness. For the heavens were established in a round circle, and the seven surrounding seas were made in a circle, and it is in a round circle that the stars go around the round wheel of the world, and it is in roundness of form that souls are seen after parting from [their] bodies, and the circuit of lofty heaven is seen to be round, and the circuits of sun and moon are seen to be round. All of that is fitting for the Lord who has always been and who will always be, and who made all those things, is a circle without beginning, without end. xlviii
In this text, of course, we have a Christian context and reasoning but there may have been some reflection of an earlier belief contained in it.
The action of walking in a sunwise motion around a person or sacred site showed respect but this circling could also be used for protection. The satire, The Vision of MacConglinne, already referred to, describes a copy of the Gospel being passed round people for this purpose and the Carmina Gadelica describes the ritual of the caim whereby a person would stand on the spot with one finger outstretched and turn in a circle. This circle would then remain as the person moved around, giving them protection.
By putting oneself in harmony with the order of things one was thought to receive a health benefit. The healing rituals involving circles that are described in the folklore are different in concept but still honour the sacredness of the circle. Well take a look at some of these since they describe the beliefs and actions of folk in the Celtic lands of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But bear in mind that their practice and the thinking underlying them is common to many cultures and it is hard to find any evidence for their use by the ancient Celts.
One way of bringing about a cure was by passing the afflicted person or animal through a circle, believed by folklorists to symbolise regeneration, a new birth. The circle could be made of a variety of materials, from woodbine, to yarn, to a cleft in a tree or a hole in a stone.
David Rorie recounts a healing ceremony in Scotland called Beannachd na Cuairte , the Blessing of the Round or the Circle. xlix An iron circle, wrapped with straw on which oil had been dripped, was held by two women either side of it and set alight. Two other women standing opposite passed a small child back and forth through it, eighteen times (the number of months the child had been alive) after which the child was given back to his mother and the burning hoop was thrown into a pool. There are several important elements in this ritual - not only was the child passed through the circle as an enactment of rebirth, but iron was held to have special protective properties fire, as we have seen, was sacred and thought to bring blessing as well, perhaps, as strengthening the child with its vitality. And though the arrangement of the four people with the child in the middle must have been the most practical way of holding the burning hoop, it still corresponded to the ritual arrangement we have encountered before of four people standing around the sick person in the middle, and may have had a healing function. The practice of discarding the flaming hoop after the ceremony is related to the banishing of the disease it was quite common for the circle, of whatever substance, yarn or wood etc, to be cut into pieces (often nine) and burnt or buried after the passing through.
Girdles of different descriptions were sometimes put round women having a difficult labour in Scotland: they could be a lace, a leather belt, a piece of yarn or thread. They were believed to sain the child and the mother from harm and bring blessing. In Ireland the crios Bríde or girdle of Bride was made of straw rope and on the eve of Imbolc, Brides festival, people would pass through it three times, kissing it and coming out of it with their right foot first. It was hoped that this would improve their health that day and make them seven times better in a years time.
Passing a child, adult or animal through a cleft or hole made in a tree was believed to have healing properties, particularly for rickets and prolapses. In one ceremony in Wales a hole was made in an ash tree and a child with a proplapse was passed through it. The hole in the tree was then bound together and as it healed, so did the child. In Cornwall there were many stones with holes through them that were used for healing. The Tolven Stone near Helford was thought to ensure fertility if a woman squeezed through it naked and the Men-an-Tol in Madron parish was used to cure children of scrofula and rickets. Of note is the fact that they were passed through it three times and then rubbed on the grass against the sun. l As we know, the usual practice was to go with the sun and moving widdershins or cor tuathal , against the sun, was reserved for cursing and rituals of harmful intent. However, it could also be used as an unwinding or a banishing of something and in this case must have been used as a way of getting rid of the disease.
Surgery was practised from the earliest times - there is evidence, for instance, of trepanation (the making of holes in the skull) being carried out in the Bronze Age in Scotland, from a skull found on the Isle of Bute. There were British surgeons in existence in the 50s CE since the grave of a man in Southern England has been found with medical instruments. The man is thought to be British rather than Roman since the set of surgeons tools found with him were made of iron rather than the bronze or bronze and iron used for Roman medical instruments and differ subtly from them. The 13 instruments found would have enabled him to carry out a range of procedures, such as cutting, excising, retracting, extracting and dissecting. li The trepanned skull of a thirteen-year-old child thought to be from the early Christian period was found in Co. Meath in Ireland and there are other Irish examples from the medieval period. In the late 17th c a man called Neil Beaton, said to be illiterate but no doubt learned in the medieval oral tradition, lived on Skye and was a successful doctor, curing, amongst other things, running sores, headaches and complications after childbirth. He was also said to have "cut a piece out of Womans skull broader than half a Crown, and by this restord her to perfect Health." lii
The Irish law tracts, while silent on the techniques and range of the surgeons activities, confirm that surgical procedures were carried out in Ireland. The Bretha Crólige shows that the physician was allowed to cause bleeding during his treatment but he had to pay a fine and meet the cost of the patients sick-maintenance if he cut a joint or sinew.
Bone setters have certainly existed in Wales, Scotland and Ireland since the medieval period and probably longer. Like the charmers and other folk healers, bone setting was something that ran in the blood and bone setters were gifted with the touch. They practised their skill alongside their normal occupations. In Fifeshire of the 20th c, a schoolmaster, blacksmith (blacksmiths commonly numbered bone setting among their skills) quarryman, platelayer, midwife and joiner were all bone setters and they were visited by rich and poor folk alike. liii Their particular skill was in healing sprains and dislocations, and, although there were certainly some who missed tubercular joints and failed to detect fractures, there were many who were very competent in what they did and enjoyed a good reputation. Massage, binding of the affected part of the limb and the faith the patients had in the bonesetter were all part of the practice. There were also several versions of a charm which was widely used for sprains and dislocations:
Other versions of this substitute the names of different saints and there is even a German charm from a 10th c manuscript which uses the names of Phol, Woden and Balder (Teutonic deities), which shows how widespread the formula was. It was known in Ireland at a comparable or earlier date since Míach uses a short version of it for the healing of Nuadas hand in The Second Battle of Maige Tuired .
Having reviewed the concepts and methods of Celtic therapeutics, ancient and more recent, lets now take a look at some of the practitioners of healing from early to modern times.
i) Healers in Classical accounts.
As the practices of the ancient Celts begin to come into focus through the tantalisingly few snippets of information from the Greek and Roman commentators, the druids become the obvious candidates for the role of physicians and healers. However the only writer to actually call them healers is Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). The other Classical writers, including Julius Caesar, describe them rather as religious specialists, advisors, seers, philosophers and legal experts. The closest we get to an image of them as healers outside of Pliny is Strabos description of the Vates and Druids as natural philosophers and Julius Caesars observation that they were skilled in the workings of nature - both of these may have presumed some knowledge of medicine and healing.
Pliny the Elder is not always reliable in his Natural History since some of the examples he gives are obviously fantastical. However he did serve as a military tribune in Gallia Belgica in 45AD and in later life he was procurator in Gallia Narbonensis in 70AD and Gallia Belgica in 75AD. Therefore he had some first hand experience of the Gaulish people he wrote about and, as the title of his book suggests, natural history, which included herbs and other substances used for healing, was one of his main interests.
His vivid and romantic depiction of white-robed priests cutting mistletoe with a gold sickle on the sixth day of the moon has survived into popular culture as probably the most enduring image of the druids. Although we may note the dubious nature of gold as a cutting implement, his observation that mistletoe grows but rarely on the oak is certainly true and it could well have been a momentous occasion when it was found on what was undoubtedly a sacred tree to the Gauls. The druids appear in this account as religious specialists of some status and power since cattle were of great value to the tribes the sacrifice of two white bulls, which followed the harvesting of the mistletoe, was substantial. Although Pliny refers to the druids here as priests, earlier he calls them magicians, saying that this is what the term druid denotes among the Gauls.
According to Pliny the druids called the mistletoe all-healing and it was used to make barren animals fertile and as an antidote to poisons. Vervain is an important herb mentioned as being used by the druids, with specific instructions being given for its harvesting as we have seen earlier. Pliny also mentions two (unidentified) herbs connected with the druids: the selago which they said should be carried as a charm against every kind of evil and the smoke of it used to cure diseases of the eye, and a marsh-plant called samolus , useful for diseases in cattle.
Since the druids had intimate knowledge of the workings of nature they probably did have a knowledge of healing and of herbs, which they taught, and they also performed the high rituals connected with the movement of energy between the two worlds. However it is possible that the actual practioners came from the class of Vates or Seers mentioned by Strabo. Pliny himself refers at one point to a decree issued by the Emperor Tiberius against their [the Gauls] Druids and the whole tribe of diviners and physicians, suggesting that physicians were distinct from the druids or magicians. lv
ii) Healers in the medieval tales of Ireland and Wales and in Scottish Folklore
In the medieval tales and sagas, healers are described variously as physicians or men of medicine and healing, and seer-physicians. Druids are described as healers rarely, if at all. Of course it must be repeated here that the depictions we find in the tales and myths of the insular Celts are not reliable as authentic versions of pre-Christian lore since a) the scribes were not always familiar with the practices they were describing and b) the stories and motifs they told of were not written down until the 7th century AD at the earliest and were contaminated by Classical material, Christian scripture and lore and medieval folk tradition. Nevertheless, we can, arguably, discern pre-Christian, Celtic strata in the tales that have come down to us.
The Táin Bó Cuailnge , the oldest Irish source, tells us of Fingin, the fáithliaig or seer physician to king Conchobor. Fingin is able to tell by looking at the warrior Cetherns wounds who has caused them and what damage they have done internally. (Conchobars druid , Cathbad, is not a healer but an advisor, teacher and prophet.) Cetherns injuries were rather severe, to put it mildly, and obviously required supernatural skill to fix. Even Fingin acknowledged it might be beyond his powers:
This wound, the healer said, was the work of two warriors.. I know them, Cúchulainn said, Those were Bun and Mecon, Trunk and Root, from the kings most trusted people. The blood is black here, the healer said [to Cethrn]. They speared through your heart at an angle and made a cross inside you. I cant promise to cure this, he said, but there are a couple of ways I might keep it from carrying you off. lvi
Although the army physicians had been unable to offer Cethern any help, Fingin gave him a choice of treatments: either one which would take a year but allow him to live out his normal span, or one which would give him just enough strength in 3 days and 3 nights to fight his present enemies. Cethern chose the second option in true warrior mode and Fingin healed him by placing him in a bath of bone marrow.
Francis Shaw comments that, according to one medieval account of medicine in Ireland, it was expected of the greatest physicians that they should be able to diagnose each illness of the various members of the family from the smoke rising from the hearth, giving another demonstration of the connection between divination and healing. lvii
As we have seen earlier, the poets and seers Finn and Taliesin, in Irish and Welsh tradition respectively, also had the gift of healing and in Scottish folk tales Michael Scotts magical powers included not only the ability to cure the sick but also the gift of foretelling the future, reading other peoples minds and enlisting the help of the fairies.
(iv) Professional physicians
The Táin refers to men of medicine and healing who as we have seen, did not have the supernatural skills to treat Cethern successfully. They were army physicians belonging to the troop of the men of Ulster and they treated the injured by putting plants and herbs into their wounds.
In the Cath Maige Tuired (11th or 12th century but drawing on 9th century material), the account of the epic battle between the Fomoire and the Túatha Dé Danaan, the druids role is to bring showers of fire upon the faces of the Fomoire while it falls to Dían Cécht, the physician and his two sons and daughter, to treat the injured:
Any man who will be wounded there, unless his head is cut off, or the membrane of his brain or his spinal cord is severed, I will make him perfectly whole in the battle on the next day. lviii
In the Mabinogion story of M ath, Son of Mathonwy (mid 12th century but drawing on an extensive earlier oral tradition), when Lleu is transformed into an eagle by Goronwys poisoned spear, Gwydion the magician struck him with his magic wand and transformed him back into human form. But after that, all the good doctors in Gwynedd were brought, and well before the end of the year he was cured.
So in Welsh medieval tradition too there was a distinction between druids or magicians and professional physicians.
v) Physicians in the medieval records of Ireland and Wales
Not a lot is known about the Irish physician, (Old Irish lieig ) , prior to post-Norman times, but that there was a class of professional doctors is known through the testimony of Brehon Law (7th to 8th century). The Uraicecht Becc assigns them an honour-price of seven séts, regardless of rank, and the Bretha Nemed toísech tells us that there were three things that conferred a privileged status on a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish and a painless examination. As well as acting as a dietician, the physician knew something of herbal treatments since, as it is stated in the Bretha Crólige, the purpose of herb gardens was the care of the sick. For a wound on the face a king was entitled to have three foreign herbs brought for him - presumably these were thought to be especially potent, if they could not be found he was entitled to three ounces of silver instead. The physicians also had knowledge of surgery since the same legal tract warns that if a physician cut a joint or sinew he was obliged to pay a fine, and from skulls found in Co. Meath it is evident that they knew how to use trepanation without killing their patients. The physician was paid a substantial amount of the fine due to a victim - half the sum in serious cases and up to a quarter in less serious ones - so he was obviously highly valued and wealthy.
From the Táin we learn that the Red Branch knights had a hospital or house known as the House of Sorrows where the sick and injured were treated. Brehon Law also describes hospitals for the use of the people of the tuath . It is stipulated that these hospitals should be free of dirt, have four open doors and a stream of water running through the middle of the floor. It is clear then that cleanliness, ventilation and water for cleansing as well as drinking were seen as essential.
We know nothing of the methods of training for early Irish doctors but they must have existed since a distinction is made between qualified and unqualified physicians. The law texts make it clear that the qualified doctors had a considerable amount of medical knowledge, especially in regard to injuries and wounds (since the legal tracts are dealing mainly with compensation and remuneration).
It appears that by the 14th century these professional doctors abandoned some of their native medicine and took up the new learning that had come to Europe in the 12th century. As early as 1330 an Irishman was studying at a school of medicine in Montpellier. The new medical knowledge was a mixture of Arabic, Greek and Roman with a large amount of folk-remedies thrown in.
In the 16th century a visitor to Ireland gave a rather contemptuous description of the native schools of law and medicine where the pupils learned by rote groveling on straw couches and chanting out their lessons from books in Latin, without precepts. lix This picture is reminiscent of the poets lying on beds in the dark to compose.
However, the renowned physician Van Helmont, writing in the early 17th century gave another view of the Irish physician. He related how each Irish noble family had its own physician, appointed not because of the knowledge he had brought with him from college but because he could actually cure disorders. Van Helmont maintained that these doctors gained their knowledge from books left them by their ancestors and that these books detailed the symptoms of diseases and the native remedies that could cure them. In spite of this, the medical books that have come down to us show not native remedies but those of Europe referred to above, although they are written in Irish, not Latin. Shaw suggests that the doctors made a show of the Continental learning but actually continued to use their own native medicine passed down orally from their ancestors.
It is likely that the profession of doctor, like that of the poets, was hereditary. This is certainly true in the later medieval period in Ireland when there were certain medical families working under the patronage of local rulers and wealthy families as Van Helmont described. The OCassidys were physicians to the Maguires of Fermanagh, the OLees to the OFlahertys of Connaught and the OHickeys to the OBriens of Thomond, the OKennedys of Ormond to the Macnamaras of Clare.
Returning to the early medieval period in Ireland, we may note that the doctors who appear in the Laws were part of the establishment, legal officials as well as physicians. Their opinion and expertise were needed to settle the level of compensation as well as the question of whether the sick man would die. But it is likely from the mention of the unqualified physicians that there was another class of doctors, whose knowledge of their craft was passed down from other people in their communities rather than gained from schools. lx
Turning to Wales, it seems that some of the Welsh medical manuscripts show more native influences than those of Ireland. There are not many charms, but many of the recipes are fairly simple, unlike the more complicated remedies of the learned European tradition. They are of two types, lists of remedies for specific diseases and recipes. The prose is of a more native kind similar to that found in the works relating to bards and lawyers. It is characterised by numerical groupings, including triads, which made them easier to learn. lxi
In the Welsh laws of Hywel Dda, counterparts of the Irish Brehon Law, the physician is one of the twelve officers of the court and obviously enjoyed a high status. He was entitled to land, a horse, woollen clothing from the King and linen clothing from the Queen. In exchange, under the Kings protection, he was expected to give medical attention to all the people of the Court free, although he was entitled to their bloody clothes, and for the three really serious wounds - a blow to the head reaching the brain, a blow to the body reaching the bowels and a fracture of an arm or leg - he also received nine score pence and his food or a pound without his food. The Welsh physician also had a knowledge of herbs since it is recorded that he received four pence for medication with herbs for a swelling. The physicians worth was six cows and six score cows with augmentation.
It is likely, given the Celtic tradition of passing on knowledge down the generations, that, as in Ireland, the role of physician ran in families. We know that Rhiwallon and his three sons were court physicians to the prince of Dinefwr, Rhys Gryg (12th c) and that this family went on practising medicine in Wales into modern times. lxii
An engraved stone from the first century CE at Metz shows a female doctor, giving evidence of women healers in antiquity.
Although the physicians in the Irish laws and legends are commonly referred to as he, there is evidence that women were also physicians and healers. We have already met Airmed, the daughter of DíanCécht, who used the herbs that grew from Miachs grave and there are other examples of female physicians in the tales and sagas. The female leech Bebinn drew the venom from an unhealed wound in Cailtes leg by means of two fedans or tubes, which she acquired, from another woman healer called Binn, the daughter of Modarn. She also treated him for a general indisposition by giving him five emetics at certain intervals, having first steeped the herbs in water. Each dose was different and had a different action. lxiii P.W. Joyce, writing in 1903 about medicine in ancient Ireland comments "It is worthy of remark that in our legendary history female physicians are often mentioned: and so we see that in ancient Ireland the idea was abroad which is so extensively coming into practice in our own day." lxiv
There is a reference in Brehon Law to the woman-physician of a territory, the banliaig túaithe, being one of the twelve types of women who was not entitled to be taken to hospital for nursing but was nursed at home, a fee being paid to their kin instead. This was probably because it was difficult to replace them, as their presence was needed in their communities.
The woman-leech Bebinn may have been such a banliaig túaithe
What training these women had and how they fitted into the system of medical care in ancient Ireland is unknown. It seems likely that their knowledge was passed down orally and that they treated the common people of the territory for everyday ailments and wounds rather than battle-field injuries or those that were the subject of compensation claims.
As we shall see, the fairy doctors and folk healers of more recent times, like Biddy Early, could be women as well as men.
Among the miracles the Celtic saints performed were those of healing. As a 9th century life of St Patrick puts it, God gave his saints the power of curing the ill, raising the dead, transforming lepers, expelling demons, causing the blind to see, healing the mute and deaf and so forth. These miracles are obviously based on New Testament tradition and the saints heal through the power of the Christian God rather than through wisdom they have received from the pagan Otherworld. However it is of interest that Adomnáns life of Columba (7th century but based on an earlier text) relates how Columba sees a pestilential cloud and prophecies that it will bring rain that evening that will make men and cattle sick. He gives Silnan a piece of bread which has been blessed with the invocation of the name of God and bids Silnan dip this in water and then sprinkle it on the afflicted to cure them. We are reminded of the fáithliaig in Adomnáns comment these two things, I think, are clearly associated - namely, the gift of prophecy regarding the cloud and the miraculous power in healing the sick.
Curiously though, it appears that the earliest Irish saints Lives contain significantly fewer healing miracles than those on the continent, from which the genre must have been derived. There are a few more instances in the Lives of women saints than the men but even in the Life of Ita, a saint known for her cure of disease, these are comparatively few. However, rather than seeing this as evidence of a lack of a native healing tradition, there may be another explanation. The saints were seen as counterparts of the druids with whom they often do battle, pitting their magical skills against each other. If the druids in early Ireland and Wales were primarily seen as magicians, priests and advisers rather than healers perhaps the hagiographers saw the saints in the same way.
As we have seen, in medieval Ireland there were healers who ministered to the needs of the people of the túath and were distinct from the official, qualified doctors who helped to administer the sick rule of law and tend to the victims of violence and injury. As in most societies, these men and women and their counterparts in Wales and the Highland and Islands of Scotland, continued to heal the sick, wounded and mentally ill in their communities up to the present time. Many of these native physicians healed in a way that reflects that of the seer-physician of the Táin and earlier Celtic tradition. They were knowledgeable men and women who had healing abilities and who, in an almost shamanic way, were able to converse with supernatural powers in order to cure illnesses, find lost things, remove spells and predict the future. Some of these healers gained their knowledge from learning and books, some purely from the fairies or other supernatural beings, some from a combination of both. In Irish folk tradition the various ups and downs of life that people had no control over were generally put down to the activities of Otherworld beings. The fairy doctors were able to restore the balance with the fairy world and so bring about healing. In Ireland, one of the best examples we have is a woman from Co. Clare called Biddy Early who died in 1873. lxvii
It was said by some that Biddy Early had been away with the fairies for seven years and that they had taught her their healing powers, by others that she was given her gift by her son who had got it from the fairies. She had a small green, or some say blue, bottle that she shook and looked into to find out what was wrong with someone and how to cure them. Illness was often thought to be a result of the fairies having taken someone away and left a changeling in their place. Biddy Early was able to prescribe the cure and then negotiate with her people, the fairies, about them. She turned away many that she said were none of her business because their illness was not from the fairies.
Her cures consisted of herbs, healing water (taken, for instance, from the dew on the grass around three boundary walls, or from a boundary stream, boundaries being liminal and therefore potent areas) and practices such as telling someone to spit on a person or animal that had been overlooked (by the fairies). As the fairies were fastidious the spit served as a deterrent. Also, Theres something strange about spits and if you spit on a child or beast its as good as if youd said, "God bless it" as one of Lady Gregorys informants said. 3
3 Spittle was widely used as a healing and protective agent. It was often thought to be even more effective for healing if it was mixed with the soil or dust from a sacred well or site. Lady Wilde records that fasting spittle, especially if mixed with clay from a healing well, was especially efficacious.
In Wales, the dyn hysbys or cunning man was a similar character - although by definition he was always male, there were also cunning women, the gwraig hysbys . The dyn hysbys like his Irish counterpart also had the sight and could find lost things, lift evil spells and cure. He was able to call the spirits, the tylwyth teg , the fair people, (fairies), to enlist their help. One such man was Dr Harries of Cwrtycadno near Lampeter (d.1839), and his son Henry, both of whom had the distinction of appearing in the Bywgraffiadur, a Welsh Whos Who, as famous magicians. Thousands of people flocked to see him in his house at the top of a hill, reached by walking two miles through thick oak forest. There were many stories handed down about him, stories of how he healed madmen, found lost things, punished thieves and called up the spirits.
Unlike similar healers in Ireland however, the Welsh dyn hysbys often used charms, spells and magical rites derived from a magical tradition that was based on esoteric material from countries like Persia and Egypt that had flooded into Europe after the first crusade. lxviii
There was also a type of folk healer in Ireland, Scotland and Wales known as a charmer. In Wales the swynwr was seen as distinct from the consurwr (conjurer) or dyn hysbys he did not claim supernatural powers but only to have secret knowledge which enabled him to heal. This knowledge was passed down the generations and its efficacy depended on it being kept secret. The charmers were somewhat more acceptable to the Christian folk than the dyn hysbys who got their powers from spirits. In my own area of Wales, Ceredigion, there was a swynwr called Jonathan Richards who lived in Blaen Brwyno. Known as Jonathan Bach to distinguish him from his father who was also a swynwr , he was able to stop haemorrhaging by reciting a charm, to heal burns and to break the illness known as clefyd y galon , the disease of the woollen threads, which appears to have been a deep melancholy affecting the heart. lxix There are still people alive today whom he healed as children and the charm for checking blood was passed down to a woman of the area and then to her niece who still has it. As in parts of Ireland and Scotland the tradition is alive and still very much resorted to by local people, although there is evidence that it is changing to incorporate some of the different healing methods brought to Wales by incomers.
The charmer was able to heal by virtue of a charm passed down to him, the fairy doctors by their contact with the Otherworld but there were also people who were able to heal because they were the seventh son of a seventh son or because of contact with various creatures. We have already seen that in Wales shingles could be cured by someone who had eaten eagle flesh, or whose ancestor had. In Ireland, putting a worm into the hand of a child before he was baptised, and leaving it there until the worm died, gave that child the power to heal all childish diseases in later life. In the South and West of Ireland, a person who had licked or had physical contact with a lizard was given immunity from burns himself and able to heal them in others. As recently as the late 1980s in Ireland a man who had the power to heal burns because he had licked a lizard as a child had patients referred to him by two local doctors. lxx
To summarise then, we have some evidence from Classical writers that the druids and physicians of Gaul had knowledge of herbal medicine. There is also evidence from the medieval tales and poetry of Ireland and Wales that there were not only professional physicians, some of whom were attached to armies, but also a tradition of seer-physicians who had supernatural knowledge and gifts. The Laws of medieval Ireland and Wales attest to a professional class of doctors as well as giving some shadowy indications of women who lived in the túath and gave medical treatment. In more recent times there were folk-healers who cured people in their communities using a combination of methods, some of them similar to those of the ancient seer-physicians. Folk-healers still exist and serve their communities in parts of the Celtic-speaking world today.
The origins of disease and its cure are, to a large extent, mysterious even today, and there are several different theories. The biological and pathological models embraced by the orthodox medical profession is very successful in certain areas, but there is room for a complementary approach which is based, like the Celtic healing arts, on a cultural model. If we believe, like Virchow that "disease begins with the insufficiency of the regulatory apparatuses" and like Hahnemann, the founder of homoeopathic medicine, that illness is caused by a weakness or derangement of the vital force, then we can see how by addressing this regulatory apparatus or vital force, which is undeniably bound up with the emotions and the spirit, healing may occur. The charms and rituals of the ancient, medieval and more modern Celts, together with their herbal remedies and surgical and bone setting skills, addressed the body, mind and spirit, reaching as they did, into the heart of their faith and beliefs. This being the case, they are worthy of further study and regard by anyone working within the framework of the Celtic tradition.
i Quoted in Ó' hÓgáin, D: The Hero in Irish Folk History, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1985, p. 63
ii Glassie, H : Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995 p.460
iii Lady Gregory:Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992
iv Jones, Ida B., Hafod 16 (A Mediaeval Welsh Medical Treatise) in Etudes Celtiques, vol 8 (1958-9), pp. 346-93
v Eliade, Mirceau : Traite d'Histoire des Religions, pp. 293 and Eliade, Mirceau: 'La Terre-Mere et les Hierogamies cosmiques' in Eranos-Jahrbuch, XXII, 1954, pp.87
vi Glassie, H : Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995 p. 307
vi Cross, T.P. and Slover, C.H : Ancient Irish Tales. George G. Harrap & Company LTD, London, Bombay, Sydney, 1935. pp 412-415
vii Nash, D. W, Taliesin, John Russell Smith, London 1958
viii Mackenzie, Donald A., Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend, Dover Publications Inc., 1997
ix See Nagy, Joseph: The Wisdom of the Outlaw, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, p 160.
x Watkins, Calvert, Indo-European Metrics and Archaic Irish Verse, Celtica, 6 (1963) Hamp, Eric,
xi The Semantics of Poetry in Early Celtic, Papers from the Thirteenth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society, ed. Breach, Woodford A., Fox, Samuel E., Shulamith Philosph (University of Chicago, 1977).
xii Haycock, Marged: The Significance of the 'Cad Goddau' Tree-List in the Book of Taliesin in Current Issues In Linguistic Theory 68, Celtic Linguistics, p.300
xiii Gray, E: Cath Maige Tuired, Irish Texts Society Vol LII, 1982, p55
xiv Kinsella, Thomas, tr: The Tain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969, p 190
xv Cross, T.P. and Slover, C.H : Ancient Irish Tales. George G. Harrap & Company LTD, London, Bombay, Sydney, 1935. p 189.
xvi Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, pp 416-7, 653-5
xvii John, Brian: Fireside Tales from Pembrokeshire, Greencroft Books, Newport, 1993, p132
xviii Ó' hÓgáin, D: The Hero in Irish Folk History, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1985, p236-237.
xix Leighes coise Chein in O'Grady, S.H, ed: Silva Gadelica, 2 vols, London and Edinburgh, 1892, ii
xx The Vision of Mac Conglinne in Cross, T.P. and Slover, C.H: Ancient Irish Tales. George G. Harrap & Company LTD, London, Bombay, Sydney, 1935. pp551-587
xxi Quoted in Toulson, Shirley: The Celtic Alternative, Century Paperbacks, London, 1987 p.52
xxii Griffiths, Kate Bosse, Byd Y Dyn Hysbys, Y Lolfa Press, Talybont,
xxiii Wilde, Lady: Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1991, p 50
xxiv Green, Miranda: The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, B.T.Batsford Ltd, London, 1991, Chapter 6, p 107-121
xxv Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, p 613
xxvi Wilde, Lady: Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1991, p 51
xxix Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, p 613
xxx Bord, Janet and Colin: Sacred Waters, Paladin, London, 1986, p 57.
xxxi Jones, Francis: The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1954, p 102-3
xxxii Green, Miranda: Celtic Goddesses, British Museum Press, London, 1995, p 90 (See the whole chapter, pp 89-116.)
xxxiv Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, pp 411-414
xxxv Owen, Elias: Welsh Folk-Lore, Woodall, Minshall and Co., Oswestry and Wrexham, 1896, p 264.
xxxvi Kondratiev, Alexei: The Apple Branch, The Collins Press, Cork, 1998, p 171
xxxvii Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, p 377
xxxvii Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, pp 121-3
xxxix Binchy, D. A: Bretha Crólige, Ériu 12, (1938) pp. 1-77, para 27.
xl Gaelic charms which mention DíanCécht, the healing god of the Túatha Dé Danaan and Goibnu, the smith god, were written in the margins of Latin manuscripts by the Celtic monks at the same monastery.
xli Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, p 42
xliiJones, Anne E: Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales in Folk Life, Vol 7, 1969, p 61.
xliii MacKillop, James, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp 114, 175, 214, 380.
xlivTrevelyan, Marie: Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, EP Publishing Ltd, Wakefield, 1973, pp 101-105
xlv Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Eds. Riley, H.T., Bostock, John, book 25, chapter 59 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137
xlvi Wilde, Lady: Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1991, p 90
xlvii Green, Miranda: Celtic Goddesses, British Museum Press, London, 1995, pp 169-71
xlviii From Tenga Bithnua quoted and translated in Carey, John, A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, 1999, p. 88.
xlix Rorie, David: Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland, Canongate Academic, Edinburgh, 1994, pp 127-8.
l Deane, T and Shaw, T: The Folklore of Cornwall, B.T.Batsford Ltd, London, 1975, p 141. See also Folklore 54, 1943, pp 298-299.
li See website of the Colchester Archaeological Trust http://peipa.essex.sc.uk/CAT
lii Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, p 89
liii Rorie, David: Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland, Canongate Academic, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 29
liv Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, p 196
lv Kendrick, T.D., The Druids, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1927
lvi Kinsella, Thomas, tr. The Tain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969, p.210
lvii Shaw, Francis, 'Irish Medical Men and Philosophers' in Seven Centuries of Irish Learning, ed. Ó Cuiv, Dublin, 1961, pp. 75-86
lviii Gray, Elizabeth A., Cath Maige Tuired, Irish Texts Society, 1982, p 51
lix Shaw, Francis, 'Irish Medical Men and Philosophers' in Seven Centuries of Irish Learning, ed. Ó Cuiv,
lx See Kelly, Fergus, A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1988
lxi Morfydd E. Owen, 'The medical books of medieval Wales and the physicians of Myddfai', The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 31 (1995)
lxii See Jenkins, Dafydd Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts of Medieval Wales, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1986 See also Morfydd E. Owen, 'The medical books of medieval Wales and the physicians of Myddfai', The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 31 (1995), also Morfydd E. Owen, 'Meddygon Myddfai, a preliminary survey of some medical writings in Welsh'. Studia Celtica ix/x (1995), 210-33.
lxiii Joyce, P.W., A Social History of Ireland, M.H.Gill, Dublin, 1920. The story is in the Acallam naSénorach, The Colloquy of the Sages.
lxiv Joyce, Patrick Weston: A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, Longmans, Green and Co, London 1906
lxv Quoted in Bitel, Lisa, Spirituales Medici in Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 173-193
lxvi Davies, Wendy: The Place of Healing in Early Irish Society in Sages, Saints and Storytellers. Celtic Studies in Honour of Professore James Carney, Maynooth Monographs 2, Maynooth:An Sagart, 198 pp 43-45
lxvii Gregory, Lady: Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992 pp.32-50
lxvii Griffiths, Kate Bosse, Byd Y Dyn Hysbys, Y Lolfa Press, Talybont,
lxix See Evan Isaac, Coelion Cymru, Y Clwb Llyfrau Cymreig, 1938, chapter x, pp145-169
lxx Nolan, Peter: Folk Medicine in Rural Ireland, in Folk Life, Vol 27, 1988-89, pp 51