L I V I N G... M Y T H S
 
The Celtic Year
 
Homepage
What are myths?
Greek myths
Celtic myths
Native American myths
Chinese myths
The Celtic year
Books
About us
Events and courses
Web links

This page is adapted from Timeless Wisdom of the Celts.

To the Celts, time was circular rather than linear. This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. It is also reflected in their year beginning with the festival of Samhain on 31 October, when nature appears to be dying down. Tellingly, the first month of the Celtic year is Samonios, ‘Seed Fall’: in other words, from death and darkness springs life and light.

Caesar confirms this and offers an explanation (Conquest of Gaul, VI.18):

Horse brass
Horse brass with heads

The Gauls claim all to be descended from Father Dis [a god of death, darkness and the underworld], declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids. For this reason they measure periods of time not by days but by nights; and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and new year’s day, they go on the principle that the day begins at night.

 

A lunar calendar

Another reason for the importance of night in the Celts’ reckoning of time lies in their regard for the moon and the feminine principle which it represents. Certainly there is some evidence that they observed the solar festivals of solstices and equinoxes, and especially the summer solstice. It is also true that the Druids’ most sacred plant, mistletoe, was associated with the sun. However, the waxing and waning of the moon was of far greater importance.

The Celts showed their respect for the moon by using euphemisms such as gealach - meaning ‘brightness’, and never referring directly to ‘the moon’. Manx fishermen followed this custom up until the nineteenth century, referring to the moon as ben- reine ny hoie - ‘queen of the night’. More persuasive, however, is the evidence to be found in the Celtic calendar.

The earliest-known Celtic calendar is the Coligny calendar, now in the Palais des Arts, Lyon. It dates probably from the 1st century BCE, and is made up of bronze fragments, once a single huge plate. It is inscribed with Latin characters, but in Gaulish. It begins each month with the full moon, and covers a 30-year cycle comprising five cycles of 62 lunar months, and one of 61. It divides each month into fortnights rather than weeks, with days designated - from observation - as MAT (good) or ANM (not good). Each year is divided into thirteen months.

The Coligny calendar achieves a complex synchronization of the solar and lunar months. Whether it does this for philosophical or practical reasons, it points to considerable sophistication.

The lunar months given on the Coligny calendar are as follows. The translations are based on those of Caitlin Matthews:

Celtic names Modern months Meaning
Samonios October/November Seed-fall
Dumannios November/December Darkest depths
Riuros December/January Cold-time
Anagantios January/February Stay-home time
Ogronios February/March Ice time
Cutios March/April Windy time
Giamonios April/May Shoots-show
Simivisonios

May/June

Bright time
Equos June/July Horse-time
Elembiuos July/August Claim-time
Edrinios August/September Arbitration-time
Cantlos September/October Song-time

Triskell

A triskell motif on the end of a torque (worn round neck). The triskell, found in the Isle of Mann coat of arms, is a sunwheel, suggesting ever-turning renewal.

Pentre Ifan cromlech

Pentre Ifan cromlech, West Wales. If archaeologists are correct, such sites were built not by the predecessors of the people we know as the Celts, but by their ancestors.

The 13th month, Mid Samonios, was duplicated. Since months began with a full moon, no consistent dates can be given.


The Celtic festivals

We saw in Chapter 2 how when the legendary Irish hero Cu Chulainn woos Emer, he eyes her bosom and wishes aloud that he ‘might wander there’. Her reply suggests the magical importance of the Celtic festivals:

No man may travel there who has not gone without sleep from Samhain to the lambing time at Imbolc, from Imbolc to the fires of Beltain, and from Beltain to the harvest time of Lughnasadh, and from then to Samhain.

This cycle is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Celtic approach to time, and certainly the one that we can most easily follow nowadays. In our time, most of us are out of touch with the seasons, and the one big Western festival has become more of a time for ringing tills than ringing the changes. We can bring a sense of rhythm and continuity to our lives by observing the Celtic festivals.

Samhain

The Celtic year began with Samhain. Celebrated around 31 October, it was a time of deliberate misrule and contrariness, rather like the Roman Saturnalia. It was also a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thought to be so thin that the dead could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and some of the living - especially poets - were able to enter the Otherworld through the doorways of the sidhe, such as that at the Hill of Tara in Ireland.

At Samhain cattle were brought in for the winter, and in Ireland the warrior élite, the Fianna, gave up war until Beltain. It was a sacred time, whose peace was normally broken only by the ritualized battle of board games such as fidchell.

Our modern Hallowe’en stems from Samhain, and one explanation of the traditional pumpkin lanterns is that the Celts once placed the skulls of ancestors outside their doors at this time. The Christians took over the Celtic festival and turned it into All Saints Day. Even the modern English celebration of Guy Fawkes Day has echoes of the ancient fire festival.

Imbolc

Coming at lambing time, around 31 January, Imbolc (or Oimelc) celebrated the beginning of the end of winter. New lambs were born, and a dish made from their docked tails was eaten. Women met to celebrate the return of the maiden aspect of the Goddess. This survived into Christian times as the Feast of Brigid: the saint was a Christianized version of the pagan goddess who was the daughter of the Dagda (see page 00). In the Outer Hebrides, Celtic Christian celebrations of this festival lasted into the twentieth century, with women dressing a sheaf of oats in female clothes and setting it with a club in a basket called ‘Brid’s Bed’.

Beltain

Beltain, celebrated around 1 May, was another fire festival; but whereas Samhain was associated with going to ground, and withdrawing, Beltain burst forth with an abundant fertility. Cattle were let out of winter quarters and driven between two fires in a ritual cleansing ceremony that may have had practical purposes too. It was a time for feasts and fairs, for the mating of animals, and for divorces - possible arising from trial marriages entered into at Lughnasadh. Like Samhain, it was a time for boardgames - as well as for travel between the worlds: the legendary poet Taliesin is said to manifest at Beltain.

Beltain was sacred to the god Belenos, the Shining One, whose name survives in placenames such as Billingsgate, and in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline - Hound of Belenus. In fact the word ‘Beltain’ derives from Bel-tinne - fires of Bel. As noted above, for the Fianna, Beltain heralded the start of the ‘fighting season’. De Jubainville, in his Irish Mythological Cycle, writes :

It was on a Thursday, the first of May, and the 17th day of the moon, that the [invading] sons of Miled arrived in Ireland. Partholan [chief of the next race of invaders] also landed in Ireland on the first of May ... and it was on the first day of May, too, that the pestilence came which in the space of one week destroyed utterly his race. The first of May was sacred to Beltene, one of the names of the god of Death, the god who gives life to men and takes it away from them again. Thus it was on the feast day of this god that the sons of Miled began their conquest of Ireland.

Beltain is the origin of pagan May Day festivities such as that of the Padstow Hobby Horse, and maypole dancing, of the ‘Queen of the May’, and of ‘well dressing’ - decking holy wells with flowers, as still practised in some rural communities.

Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh was a summer festival lasting for as long as two weeks either side of the day itself, which fell around 31 July. It was said to have been introduced to Ireland by the god Lugh, and so was sacred to this god. The Romans identified Lugh with Mercury. At any rate, both are gods associated with skills, and this festival was celebrated with competitions of skill, including horse-racing. There was horse-trading, too; perhaps this is why the festival was also linked to the fertility goddess Macha, who dies in childbirth after being forced to race against the King’s horses. In Ireland the festival was associated with Emain Macha, in Ulster, but was held in various locations, including the royal fort of Tara.

Solar festivals

We know less about Celtic celebrations of solar festivals. However, the solstices were probably celebrated. Miranda Green suggests that the fires of Beltain were ‘sympathetic magic to encourage the Sun’s warmth on earth’. She adds that Beltain, Lughnasadh and Samhain ‘celebrated critical times in the annual solar cycle’, and that pagan and Christian Celtic midsummer festivals involved rolling a flaming wooden ‘solar’ wheel down a hill and into a river. It is also significant that sun disks, solar chariot wheels and swastikas (whose arms are intended to portray a blazing, spinning sun) are important motifs in Celtic art.

Newgrange

A view of Newgrange burial mound (Meath, Ireland), where the winter solstice was celebrated.

Point to see the entrance.

Celtic astrology and tree calendars

Astrology is an art, or science, that focuses on the passage of time, and which emphasizes the unique nature of a moment in time. Much has been written about ‘Celtic astrology’. Classical writers - including Strabo, Caesar, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero and Pliny - comment on Druidic knowledge of astronomy and astrology. There is also evidence that the Druids understood the tides and that they cut mistletoe and other plants at particular phases of the moon. Peter Berresford Ellis puts forward a tentative case for a Celtic astrology, mentioning among other things the survival of astronomical terms such as dubaraith, meaning eclipse, into modern Irish. He suggests that if the Druids did use astrology in addition to various forms of divination, their astrology would have been lunar-based, as is Hindu astrology, which uses a system of 27 or 28 lunar ‘mansions’.

Another tantalizing point is the Coligny calendar’s designation of days as ‘good’ or ‘not good’. However, in the end there is no absolute proof, probably because of the Druidic aversion to keeping written records.

Similarly, there is no proof that the Ogham-based Celtic tree calendar popularized by Robert Graves actually existed, whatever poetic truth it contains.

Attuning to time cycles

There are several ways to apply the Celtic sense of time. First, we can attempt to become more aware of the truth of constant change. Nothing stays the same; ‘what goes around comes around’. There are ‘good’ days and ‘not good’ days. We should not cling to good times or despair during bad times. One way to develop an awareness of this is to keep a diary of our moods and experiences. Reading it back later will develop a sense of perspective.

Keeping a diary can usefully be tied in with observing the phases of the moon - preferably in the night sky. Many people who keep a ‘moon diary’ find a pattern in their lives, and in their moods, corresponding to the lunar phases. This can enable you to plan accordingly, as well as developing your sense of natural rhythm.

On the larger scale, we can observe the festivals and attune our lives to seasonal changes. We may find that Samhain is a good time to become more introspective and plant the seeds of new projects, allowing them to germinate over the winter months. On a more sombre note, this is a good time to remember the dead. Beltain, on the other hand, is a time to embark on projects requiring courage and energy.

Beltain - a time for feasts and fairs, for the mating of animals, and for divorces ... as well as for travel between the worlds.

Nowth burial mound

A burial mound, or sidhe, at Knowth, Co. Meath. Such gateways to the Otherworld or Underworld were thought to be wide open at Samhain.

Celtic bucket handle

Meditative figure on a Celtic bucket handle. The four swastika-like motifs suggest the four elements, seasons and directions, as well as turning sunwheels.