Friday, August 20, 2010

Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses

Book Review: Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses By R.J. Stewart (Blandford 1990)

I thought that this was a well-done book with some interesting and sincere observations and info. There were lots of comparisons between Irish history/myth and Welsh history/myth from stories penned from the oral bardic traditions in the 12th century. Ireland was less subject to invasions so the older Celtic lore is more apparent and there was no Roman influence there. Romano-Celtic art and statuary is more ubiquitous in England where the Romans amalgamated their own gods with similar Celtic deities. One thing he noted was that Celtic deities were often place-specific or local deities but usually of a general type – such as a war, healing, or fertility deity.

He draws heavily on the Welsh texts such as the Mabinogion and the earlier Vita Merlini and other Arthurian texts. The Merlin texts seem to offer very interesting symbology. According to the author some of the olde Celtic symbolism such as the four sacred power objects of Ireland brought by the Tuatha de Dannan – 1) the Sword of Nuada (East), 2) the Spear of Lugh (South), 3) the Cauldron of the Daghdha (West), and 4) the Stone of Fal (North) - was incorporated into the European occult tradition and eventually the magickal revival that occurred in the Renaissance. The four sacred objects apparently became (or were associated with) the four suits of the Tarot, and of course the common playing cards. He says that the imagery described in the Vita Merlini and the Prophecies of Merlin (both by Geoffrey of Monmouth) represents some of the earliest textual known written history of the Tarot.

He gives three levels or types of Celtic legend:

1) the level of adventure – tales mainly (comparable to archeological evidence)
2) the sanctity of the land – where environmental and tribal welfare is emphasized
3) cosmic/stellar/universal – ideas echoed in myths worldwide

An example of the cosmic would be the festivals of Samhain and Beltaine as based on the rising and setting of the Pleiades (group of stars called the seven maidens) as well as the constellation Orion – appearing to be a hunter chasing them across the sky.

He shies away from the defining the Celtic ideas in terms of both/either solar myth or shamanism as many authors like to do. Apparently most sculptural depictions of deities are Romano-Celtic and so heavily influenced by Roman ideas of similar deities. The compatibility of deities may be due to both cultures being of Indo-European origin as the dominating influence.

Linguists tend to separate the Celtic tribes into 2 groups based on language – Q-Celtic – or Gaelic speakers from Ireland/Scotland/Manx --- and P-Celtic speakers from Wales/Breton/Cornwall. But culturally – they are very related. Legend has it that the Irish Gaels arrived earliest from Spain and displaced the existing races of half-humans and magical beings that had displaced the previous ones. This is recounted in the Book of Invasions (compiled from lore in the Middle Ages). The tribe called the Belgae were said to arrive last (100-50 B.C) conquering Southern England then being conquered in turn by the Romans. Ireland and most of Scotland remained free from Roman rule.

The Celtic traditions were oral and the Druids apparently devised verbal means for aiding the memory of stories, poems, and myths – likely in threes. Later Celtic myth became more similar to classical mythology but before Roman influence it was more Chthonic and more related to the shamanic divisions of Sky World, Earth World, and Underworld. Totem animals were utilized – the best known being boar/pig, bear, horse, serpent, stag, wolf, crow, bull, and ram. Also cats, hares, otters, swans, and many other animals had magical aspects. It is likely that certain tribes had a tribal totem and perhaps a taboo against hunting or eating certain animals. Cernunnos – the lord of the animals – and patron of hunters was a chief Celtic god being either the consort or son to the Mother Goddess in different parts of the yearly cycle. The aging Triple Goddess as maiden, mother, and crone was related not only to the moon cycle but also the seasonal cycle. The Welsh flower maiden created by the magicians Gwydion and Math betrays her lover Llew and is then transforrmed into an owl. The triplicate goddess Morrigan is associated with the threshold energies of death, sex, and war. Epona was the goddess of horses and fertlity – similar to the Welsh Rhiannon. Brighid was amalgamated with Minerva in the Roman period and so became more associated with culture and the arts. Taranis – the god of the wheel and of thunder became associated with Jupiter and Dis Pater (god of the Roman underworld) and may have been a father-god of the Druids. More or less specific to the Celts one finds the goddess of sovereignty associated with kingship and the sacredness of the land – although this may be an overall Indo-European pattern. Indeed the Indo-European tribes may have been alike enough that their god-types could be amalgamated easier during cultural overlap and conquest.

Mabon – the son of light in Welsh myth – represents a common Celtic pattern of young hero deity similar to Lugh and Oengus and the hero Cuchulain and associated with Apollo by the Romans. Lugh is also associated with Mercury. Merlin is another figure who falls into this pattern. The Son of Light motif typically undergoes a threefold ritual death in the various stories as the author describes. The most notable story of this is that of the Welsh Llew.

He notes a triple form of the Celtic male deities in reference to the aspects of Merlin:

“1) Bright Youth: Mabon/Oengus
2a) Lord of the Animals: Cernunnos
2b) Lord of Therapy: Belenos (Apollo)
3) Wise Elder: Daghdha/Ogmios”

The name Merlin or Myrddin was often given to powerful seers and poets. The pattern of these godforms – Merlin/Mabon/Oengus/Apollo was similar enough to make the acceptance of Christ – as the son – easy enough to fit into the pattern.

The myths associated with Cerridwen and her cauldron of the Underworld (called Annwyn in Welsh) and Gwion are recounted and also there is an appendix depicting the story of Math son of Mathonwy which comes from the Mabinogion.

Interesting book if one is interested in unraveling pagan Celtic cultural and belief patterns. Long past oral cultures that have been re-absorbed into later belief patterns live on mainly in folk lore – in song patterns –in stories and legends – in the imagination of their descendants. Of course – in archeology too and there does seem to be common points in both.

No comments:

Post a Comment