As promised, here comes the next part of my summary of what we really
have as information on pagan Celtic Religion. Today I'll take a look
at what rituals we have information on.
CELTIC RELIGION - WHAT INFORMATION DO WE REALLY HAVE
On rituals that were performed in Celtic Religion only very little
information has come down on us. However, we can still guess at a few
of those. Basically, we can discern between some different groups of
rituals. First, there are rituals performed at the seasonal feasts.
Then we know a little bit about transmigrational rituals (rituals falling
into the field of changes in ones life - often also called initiation
rites, which only incompletely describes this group as the death
rituals have to be included in this field). Third, we know of some
divinatory rituals. Fourth, we know of some rituals falling in the field
of curative processes, i.e. the healing of wounds or illnesses.
Firth, we know about some "magical" rituals. Finally, we have hints
to some rituals which can't be put into any of those fields.
We know basically of four great seasonal feast that were part of the
Celtic Yearcycle (I will not go into detail as to how these were
situated in the year in ancient Celtic times, look for this at
analyses of the Calendar of Coligny - which I perhaps will treat
separatly at some time), namely (starting with the beginning of the
year) Samhain, in the current calendarical system fixed to the first
of November, Imbolc (today 1st or 2nd of February), Beltane (today
1st of May) and Lughnasad (in August, usually equated with Lammas).
We can be certain that rituals took place at those feasts, however,
we know only very little about them.
Samhain is the "Celtic new Year". Rituals performed on this day (or
these days) probably were protectional (as the barrier to the
otherworld was thin at that time) ones, and probably such remembering
the dead. This feast is known already from ancient Celtic times,
where it is called "trinoux Samonis" or "tritinoux Samonis", more or
less translateable as "the three nights of Summer", probably not
meaning that they took place in summer but denoting the final three
nights of summer.
We know almost nothing about Imbolc rituals. The only hint is that it
is also called Eumelc (first milking, more or less), so it probably
included rituals which had to do something with milk.
Well, there's also not much known about Beltane Rituals. The feast
had to do something with fire (its translation is "Fire of Bel",
Belenos being one of the Gaulish gods associated with Apollo which is
probably a variant of the "Son of the Mother" god, the son of the
Lower Realm godess who was associated with fire), there are hints
that it also existed already in Gaul.
One of the rituals we know of taking place at that feast was that the
animals, especially the cows seemingly, were droven between two
fires. Probably this was a purification ritual, and rituals
associated with fire which exist in some parts of Europe may be
remeniscant of Celtic rituals. (Like the burning wheels who are run
down a hill in a village in Germany on the 1st of May).
Lughnasad is also only attested for Ireland. It was a harvest feast
probably, the rituals carried out at this feast probably centering
about the marriage between the Earth godess and Lugh (See the feast
of Tailtiu) with a lot of contests of skill and strength, probably.
The next big group of rituals are the transmigrational rituals. We
know little of them, but we can guess at the existence of some,
starting with the ritual of namegiving, over various initiation
rites until adulthood was reached, the inauguration rites to kingship
also fall into this category, and finally the death rites are a part
of this complex.
From various sources we can guess that a ritual existed with which
the child was accepted into the community of "humans" more or less.
This can be seen in the Mabinogi for instance, where the mother of
Llew has to be tricked into giving him a name and only then (and
after three other "initiations" he is considered to be a man), but
also in the fact that we do not find babies in Celtic graveyards
usually. The youngest individuals to be found in Celtic graveyard
usually are no younger that 3 to four years, approximatly the timne
when they start to speak.
OTHER CHILDHOOD TRANSMIGRATIONAL RITUALS
What else can be guessed from the Mabinogi text is that there were
still some other initiation rituals until one could be considered
adult. We only have hints at such rituals for males, but it is likely
that they also existed in similar kind for females. What these other
initiations are for the male nobles (as Llew is) is obviously the
initiations to weapons (which is paralleled in the boyhood deeds of
Cuchullin) and that he gets a wife (also paralleled in the Cuchullin
tales where Cuchullin is not allowed to marry Emer until he hasn't
had special training "initiation" with the famous Scathach - in
course of this initiation, however, he is primarily sexually
initiated - see also that his son stems from this episode).
RITUALS TO BE ACCEPTED INTO A WARRIOR-BAND
At these rituals can be glimpsed from the Finn saga. Here, acceptance
into the Fianna requires the applicant to succeed in a test which has
many ritualistic elements. As such "warrior-bands" like the Fianna
are also likely to have existed in ancient Gaul (see to this the
Gaesates), equal rituals probably existed to be accepted into these
INITIATION TO KINGSHIP RITUAL
On this matter we probably have the best information of all the
rituals existing in Celtic religion. However, these rituals seem to
vary from place to place and in time. What is told to us about the
inauguration ceremony in Ancient Gaul is that the king to be is
lifted, standing on his shield, by his followers. The rituals
connected to the kingship in Tara, however, require the king to be to
sleep with the sovereignity godess (according to Giraldus Cambrensis
who claims to have seen such a ceremony in Connacht this means the
king makes sex with a white mare, which is slaughtered, its blood and
flesh are put into a large vat in which the king to be bathes, which is
then cooked and then eaten by the people who are at the ceremony) and
has to fulfill a test by stepping onto the Lia Fail. In the kingdom
of Dalriada the ceremony probaly included the king setting his foot
into a "footprint" and some other ceremonies as well (btw, the
footprint has size 42-43 in middle European shoe size standard - I
tried it myself).
Besides of the actual deposition of the dead body (be it inhumation,
cremation or whatever method else), there were some rituals which we
can grasp from archaeology that were connected to death. These
included in almost any cases a big feast in the area of the
graveyard, of which sometimes still diverse animal bones can be
located in the grave area, including a piece of meat and a container
with drink (most often probably beer or similar, but in some cases
wine, especially for richer dead). Additionally there were put into
the grave other gravegoods as well, most probably also pointing at a
ritual process in which the items were put into the grave. This is
especially visible in some areas of Celtic settlement in certain time
periods, where the items put into the grave with the dead body are
intentionally destroyed (often called "ritually killed").
Another large group of rituals we know of as used by the Celts are
Divinatory rituals. Most of them are no longer reconstructable, all
we know is that the druids were able to predict the future from
birdflight and similar things.
It is noted in historical sources that the druids could predict the
future from sacrifices. To do this, they would kill an animal, or in
cases of high importance also humans, and predict from their
BULL-SLEEP ("TARB FESS")
Another divinatory ritual known to us is the socalled Bull-sleep, in
Irish "Tarb Fess". In this ritual the faith (Gaul. vates) overeats
himself with the meat of a freshly killed bull (usually with yellow
skin) and then lays down to sleep on the hide of that same bull.
During the sleep he then has a prophetic dream.
Curative Rituals known to us have already been shortly mentioned in
connection to sacred springs. Obviously, the Celts attributed high
curative powers (even the power of rebirth) to the water. Hints to
this we find in the already quoted passage in Cath Maige Tuired as
well as in items like the "cauldron of rebirth" (the Grail of the
Arthurian tradition), as archaeology gives us hints in the findings
of models of body parts in the springs of the Seine. Obviously,
Rituals like immersion in "sacred" water and the offering of
equivalent models if the injured body parts was used as a curative
ritual (although we also know of surgery made by the Celts, up to
the surgical opening of the skull, i.e. trepanation).
We also know a "curative" incantation as allegedly used by Miach, the
son of Dian Cecht, to heal the severed Arm of Nuada, the king of the
TD. It goes: "joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew" (Cath Maige
The last great group of rituals are what I will call "magical"
rituals here, because I know no better term for it. Suggestions are,
COLLECTION OF PLANTS RITUALS
The first kind of ritual in this group is described to us by Pliny
the elder in his historia naturalis, where he is also speaking about
curative plants used by the Druids and how they are aqquired. This is
the source wherefrom the famous Mistletoe story stems, and from which
is usually deducted that the Druids wore white clothing (which I
personally very much doubt). Pliny discribes how the druid puts the
right arm through the left sleeve of his clothing and cuts, with a
golden sickle, the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloth. He
describes rituals to collect some other plants as well, which include
jumping on one leg around it in the lefthand direction.
BLESSINGS AND CURSES
ALso falling in this group of rituals are the blessings and curses.
Usually, they invoke a god to do something to somebody else, and are
usually engraved into permanent material that is deponated somewhere
(for instance lead plates). There are some quite nice curses on them
Finally, I take a look at some rituals which cannot be put into the
above groups (at least not very well).
THE TEMPLE UNROOFING RITUAL
From the druidesses of one of the French channel islands we know of a
yearly ritual, in which they unroofed their whole temple and then set
up a new roof in one day. If one of the druidesses let fall what she
carried of the roof, so it is said, she would be torn to pieces by
the others. In fact, seemingly, the druidesses tried to make each
other (or maybe also one of them that was choosen to previously) let
fall pieces of the roof.
In many of the sacred places we know of depositions of items, which
have to be called "ritual depositions". During their deposition
definitly rituals were carried out, in some cases also including
intentional destruction of the sacrificed items.
HUMAN SACRIFICES AND THE THREEFOLD DEATH
Finally I come to the human sacrifices. These (as already seen in the
Temple Unroofing Ritual, which seems to include such a human
sacrifice), definitly also had ritualistic components. We do not know
much of them, but we have at least one such ritual that can be
reconstructed, the socalled "threefold death". This means that the
victim dies of three reasons at the same time. In the archaeological
material we can see this in case of Lindow man, the bog body from
Lindow moss in England, which was killed in such a ritual. As far as
it can be recostructed, Lindow man had been hit in the head (with
probably an axe), however, not strong enough to let him instantly
die. He was strangled with a Garotte, however, only as far as this
would not have caused instant death. After these two "killings", he
was thrown in a pool in Lindow moss, face downwards and unconscious,
probably, so that he as well drowned. So he died a "threefold death".
Similar deaths through three simultaneous reasons are for instance
also told about Merlin, and about the Southern Scottish "wise
man"/bard/druid Lailoken, who allegedly fell off a cliff onto a spike
standing out of a river, coming with his head under water so that he
died from the fall, from the spike and from drowning.
This connection has led to the assumption by some scholars that in
case of Lindow man we might have found a "Druid prince".
It is also noteworthy that this threefold death could be interpreted
as a death in all "Realms" as described for the gods. The Upper Realm
(the skies/air) is found in the fall of Lailoken and in the
strangualtion of Lindow man, the Middle Realm (the Earth) is found in
the spike on which Lailoken lands and the axewound of Lindow man, and
the Lower Realm (the Waters) are quite obvious.
This practice is numerously attested by the ancient historians, the
Irish tales and hints towards it can be found in archgaeology as
well. It definitly had a ritual meaning.
These were the rituals we know of from the Celts. Tomorrow I don't
have the time two sit and type some hours, so I will continue no
earlier than Saturday, dealing, as far as possible beginning with an
overall reconstruction of what the beliefs of the Celts were.
To be continued ...