Celtic Heritage - culture, belief and traditions of the Celtic Peoples Celtic Heritage - culture, beliefs and traditions of the Celts

Celtic Heritage - culture, beliefs and traditions of Celts and Druids


Celtic Heritage

Animals and Birds in Celtic Tradition - J Craig Melia


From the iconographical evidence and their appearance in countless mythological tales we can see that Animals and Birds featured large in the Celtic Tradition. Despite the fact that most of the myths refer to the Warrior Caste it should be remembered that it was the common man of the land that made up the greater part of the population. And this may explain why animals and birds not normally associated with the Warrior Caste have survived within their myths, and often through to the modern day within folk tales.

The Celts were an agrarian society, hence they had a great respect for their environment, of natural phenomenon and the elements, and of the creatures who shared their sacred landscape. Animals affected every area of everyday life, from the economy to hunting and warfare, religious beliefs and rituals, in art and literature. Animals were central to all aspects of Celtic life.

Some Animals were held to be sacred in their own right, others were viewed as mediators between the mortal and the divine.

Often Deities are depicted with their associated animals or birds or in some cases both. We have become used to linking them together. Think of Epona and you think of horses, (C)ernunnos is linked to stags (despite both snakes and birds also been depicted).

It is worth making a general point regarding Deities. Regardless of the attributes they are given, most have their beginnings, and maintain their links with, the most basic human need, that of nourishment. A Sun God must shine upon the crops and the River Goddess must water them. Even the most martial deity in Europe, the Roman Mars had his beginnings as an Italic agricultural God.

Another important point is to have a balanced view regarding Deities. On the one hand, comparative study gives us a wider view, and with Gods as complex as Celtic Deities a very wide view is needed. When we compare two things, in good Celtic fashion, a third thing is created, a greater perception. It is important too, to remember that the Celts did not live in a closed society, they were influenced by and in turn influenced surrounding cultures, whether Roman, Greek, Germanic or whoever else they came into contact with.

On the other hand, there is a real danger of over simplification, of using the interpretatio Romano to neatly list and catagorize Deities into Greco-Roman style Pantheons or slotting them into nice Indo-European models, losing sight of the original, more complex figures.

It is my hope that in this project I have been able to strike that balance.

J.C.Melia  1999

Part One Animals

Deities asuming Animal Forms is a widespread motif in Celtic Mythology, as it is within the myths of people around the world. Transformation would appear to be a well recognised theme.

In the Mabinogion Math turns his wayward nephews into deer, boar and wolves, each pair producing offspring. Math then transforms the fawn, piglet and cub into human form. Donn mac Midhir lures Finn to the Otherworld in the shape of a fawn.

The Goddess of Sovereignty is linked to and assumes the shape of both the Horse and the Cow, with Epona, Rhiannon, Macha and Boand been the obvious examples.

Boars and Deer frequently appear in tales of the Celtic Otherworld, as it is in the hunt that the hero begins his journey. This motif is the basis for many of the myths attached to Finn mac Cumhaill and boar-hunts particularly feature heavily in Fenian literature. Caeilte kills a magical boar which is able to re-appear as new after it has been eaten. The death of Diarmaid, killed by the supernatural boar of Benn Gulban.

In the tale of 'Kulhwch and Olwen' in the Mabinogion is given a series of impossible tasks to achieve before he will be allowed to marry Olwen. The final task is to take the comb, scissors and razor that are caught within the bristles of a certain boar, Twrch Trwyth. After completing all the tasks needed Kulhwch, Arthur and the others set out after the boar. Twrch Trwyth is chased throughout Ireland, Wales and Cornwall before he is overcome and the desired objects are procured. Yet still, the great boar lives, and is last seen running out to sea, still chased by two of Arthur's hounds.
It is clear that the Twrch Trwyth chased from Ireland is cognate with Torc Triath, the King of the Boars, mentioned in Lebor Gabala.

Thoughout the lands under Celtic influence, boars appear to symbolise royalty, bravery and prowess in battle. Boars appear on coins and as bronze statues, warriors with boar shaped helmet crests appear on the Gundestrupp cauldron. The boar was often the main dish of warrior feasts.

Fionn's wife, Sabha is turned into a fawn by a Druid, and their son is called Oisin (Little Deer). In many tales of the Fenian Cycle, the heroes are led in an adventure by an Otherworld being disguised as a deer.

Bulls and Cows formed the basis for wealth within the community and were seen as a symbol of the Land and of material wealth. Meat, leather, milk and dairy products were of intense value to the tribe.

When a King was to be chosen a 'bull-feast' (Tarbfeis) would be held, in which a bull would be ritually killed and a broth would be cooked. The chief priest would bathe in and eat the broth, and would recieve a vision of the new King as he slept. In the story of Conaire, it is foretold that the new King will be found walking naked along a road into Tara carrying a sling and a stone. Through divine intervention, Conaire fulfills the criteria and is pronounced King.

Finnbhennach Ai and Donn Cuailgne, the two great bulls that feature in the 'Tain', originated as two swineherds called Rucht and Rucne, who through a series of anthromorphic incarnations in which they fight one another, meet their end as the 'Tain' reaches its bloody finale.

In the form of a crow, the Morrigan spoke to the Bull, urging him to defend himself.

     ....the Morrigan, daughter of Ernmas,
came from the sidh and sat on the pillar-stone in Temair
     Cuailnge, warning the Donn Cuailnge about the men of Ireland:-
"So, pitiful one, Donn Cuailnge, be on your guard,
for the men of Ireland will come upon you and will carry you off
     to their encampment unless you take heed.'
And so she began to warn him.......

Cattle raids seem to have been a much greater part of Celtic life than say inter tribal battles, and one is reminded of the raids practiced by numerous Native American tribes upon their neighbours.

A number of Goddesses are linked to the cow. Boand, a river goddess was identified with the cow itself, representing a widespread Indo-European motif of River-Mother Goddess providing life giving milk. The River Boyne (named after her) means white-cow 'Bu-uinda'. According to some legends she was the mother of Aenghus Mac ind Og (linked to Mabon of Britain, linking Boand to Modron, the mother). She was drowned at Well of Nechtan becoming the river Boyne.

The Dadga, Mider, Mananan and various other Gods all had magical cattle, the envy of mortal men.

Dogs are probably the animal most associated with mankind and understandably they appear in many myths. Dogs are viewed as having all the characteristics expected from a 'best friend' - companionship, protection and loyalty.

The Celts, as already stated, were an agrarian people, and dogs were important in both hunting and the protection of flocks.

As the smith Culainn cries to Setanta, on the death of his guard-dog

     You are welcome, boy, for your mother's heart's sake.
But for my own part I did badly from this feast.
     My life is a waste, and my household is like a desert,
with the loss of my hound! He guarded my life and my honour.
A valued servant, my hound, taken from me!
He was shield and shelter for our goods and herds.
He guarded all our beasts, at home and in the fields......

Setanta promises to perform the duties of Culainn's hound, hence his name, for a year whilst he a puppy is raised from the same litter to take his place. Clearly, a great price is placed on this dogs life.

Finn mac Cumhaill had two enormous hounds who feature in many of his hunting adventures. The hounds, Bran and Sceolaing, were also his cousins. He loved them devotedly, but once in a fit of impatience he struck at Bran who went and drowned himself from grief. Finn was heart-broken and would be haunted by the howling of his lost friend.

Dogs also seem have been thought of as denoting great strength  in a warrior, and ferocity in battle. Cunobelinus, Cuchullain, Cu Roi, Cynon, etc. all have names linking them to 'hound'. The very Dogs of War.

At the healing sanctuary Nodens (The Gaelic Nuada) at Lydney only one image of the God has been found, whilst at the same site many images of dogs were discovered. The dog was linked with healing, its saliva was thought to heal wounds until recently.

The Horse is firmly linked to a number of Celtic Goddesses, Epona, Rhiannon and Macha, and can be seen to be a symbol of sovereignty and political power. These three Goddesses are an example of the pan-Celtic Goddesses that had equine associations, were also Goddesses of Sovereignty, War, and Fertility, and probably served as a Psychopomp, carrying the dead to the Otherworld. In this, they may be linked to the Germanic 'Valkyries'.

The horses power, harnessed, provided the Celts with their military strength throughout Europe, coupled with the use of Iron. These mighty beasts pulling the chariots, provide a potent symbol of the power of the warrior nobility.
Rhiannon, who's name probably derives from Rigantona - Great Queen, is linked to Macha, who in turn is linked to the Morrigan, who's name is also thought to mean Great Queen. A byname for both Macha and Epona is Rigona (Queen) and Macha is also called Roech (Great Horse).

In the myths we have, there are further links between Rhiannon and Macha. Both marry a mortal, appearing from some other realm and searching him out. Although Rhiannon at first rides a horse, she is later punished by been forced to act as one, as does Macha in the tale that explains the 'Pangs' of the Ulstermen in the Tain.

In the Dindshenchas Macha is given the name Macha Mongruad or Red-Mane. In this tale Macha shows her more War-like aspect, overcoming countless warriors, she appears not so much as the Goddess of Sovereignity, but as the sovereign herself.
Epona was the only Celtic deity to be taken into the Roman circle of Gods.. The Roman cavalry seems to have taken Epona to their heart, as iconography can be found throughout the Empire. She is given the byname Regina.

A common theme, seen both in Gaelic and Brythonic myth, is the horse born on the same day as, and therefore linked to, the hero. The Grey of Macha (Macha again!) amd the Black of Sangliu, who pull the chariot of Cuchulainn follow this theme, to the point were the horses are killed on the same day as the hero. The same theme is seen in the story of Pryderi, who has a colt whose life is bound to his own.

The Salmon is associated with the gaining of poetic wisdom and magical knowledge, although this is indirectly because it eats of the Nine Hazelnuts of Wisdom that fall into its pool, which are the true source. The Salmon are usually described as been specked which indicates a connection with the Otherworld. A doorway to the Otherworld was referred to as a speckled gate (cómhla breac).

Finn mac Cumhaill is said to have gained his prophetic abilities from the Salmon of Knowledge, when cooking the salmon for his master, three drops burned his thumb which he thrust into his mouth. From that day forth all he had to do was place his thumb to his lips and he would 'know' all that he needed. Obviously, this motif of gaining of wisdom can be linked to the tale of Gwion Bach, who whilst cooking a 'special brew` of `poetic inspiration` for Ceridwen, also had three drops burn his thumb and gained illumination to be reborn as Taliesin.

The Salmon was held to be the oldest, and therefore wisest of the animals. From the Book of Lismore

                 A year for the stake,
                 Three years for the field,
                 Three lifetimes of the field for the hound,
                 Three lifetimes of the hound for the horse,
                 Three lifetimes of the horse for the human being,
                 Three lifetimes of the human being for the stag,
                 Three lifetimes of the stag for the ousel,
                 Three lifetimes of the ousel for the eagle,
                 Three lifetimes of the eagle for the salmon,
                 Three lifetimes of the salmon for the yew,
                 Three lifetimes of the yew for the world from its begining to end.

In the tale of `Kulhwch and Olwen`, a similar tradition is expressed, as, in the search for the mysterious Mabon ap Modron, progressively older creatures are asked in turn about him. Each, in turn, have no knowledge of him, but suggest asking an older creature. Eventually they reach the Salmon of Llyn Lyw, the oldest and wisest, who leads the questors to their goal.    

Part Two Birds

Deities asuming Bird Forms are common throughtout I-E myths, particularly as the means for a God to seek a union with a mortal. The myth of Leda and the conception of Castor and Pollux has clear commonality with a number of Celtic Myths. The conception of numerous heroes, including Cuchulainn and Conaire, involve an Otherworld figure taking the form of a bird. In the tale of Aengus and Caer, the Young God transforms himself into a swan to unite with Caer, also in swan-form, who then returns with him to his palace at Brugh na Boinne.

Of the Morrigan it is said, `She delighted in setting men at war, and fought among them herself, changing into many frightful shapes and often hovering above fighting armies in the aspect of the crow`.

It would appear that the eagle was originally of greater significance to the Celts, in line with other Indo-European traditions. However, by the time the tales were set down in writting, the eagle had been pushed into the background.

In the 'lists' of the `oldest creatures`, the eagle is only out-done by the salmon and it should be noted that Llew, fatally wounded by Gronw, transforms into an eagle and perches atop a magical tree. This is un-doubtably a Celtic reference to the Axis-Mundi, and can be linked to other Indo-European tales. The tale of Odin, injured by a spear hanging in Yggdrasil, with an eagle in the upmost branch, seems to have originated from the same motif.

Ravens and Crows appear to be interchangable in their use in the mythologies. That is not to say that the Celts weren't able to differentiate between them, but that they were viewed as having the same role within the traditions.

They are viewed in two different ways. Firstly, as a symbol of war, of prowess in battle, devourer of carrion. Probably the most famous Raven Goddess is the Morrigan, (equated with Macha and Badh in the Tochmarc Emire who are seen as hooded crows). The Corvids are the main carrion birds of Britain and Ireland, so the sight of them on the battlefield, striping the flesh from the corpses of warriors, would be an image to stick in the mind of the survivers.

Secondly, they can be seen as a provider of prophetic omens and oracles. The Celts, like various other peoples performed Ornithomancy as a means to foretell the future. Many birds were used but the Corvids more than any other. The Morrigan, the Raven Goddess herself, offers many prophetic utterances, including this one, a vision of the end of the world:-

      ..I shall not see a world which will be dear to me;
summer without blossoms, cattle will be
     without milk, women without modesty, men without valor,
conquests without a king…Woods without mast, sea without produce…
False judgements of old men, false precedents of lawyers,
every man a betrayer, every son a reaver. The son will go to the bed of his father, the father will go to the bed of his son.
Each his brother's brother-in-law. He will not seek any
     woman outside his house… An evil time, son will deceive his father, daughter will deceive her mother…

Other to actually prophecies, the future could be divine from the actions, the flight or the calls of ravens, and a large amount of Raven-lore was built up, with the direction and sound been interpreted as different outcomes.

From the evidence, Raven-Gods wouldn`t appear to be a Universal Concept amongst the Celts. Lugus, the Gaulish Lugh, was associated with ravens in ancient times. Lyon, France (formally Lugudunum) was said to have been founded when Ravens settled on the site. This was seen as a favorable omen and the city was built. Early coins from the city show the Patron God accompained by ravens.

The most obvious candidate for a Raven God comes from Brythonic sources, Bran Bendigeidfran. Bran means Raven, and Bendigeidfran, though probably derived from other sources referring to his Wondrous Head, means Blessed Raven. Popular tradition links him to ravens through his association with the White Mount (Tower Hill). However, apart from his name and later folk-tales there does not seem to any real evidence allowing us to view him as a Raven God.

Ravens also feature in the Dream of Rhonabwy. In the tale, the army of Owein consists of three hundred ravens. It is of interest that Owein's mother is Morgan, who's name is cognate with the Gaelic Morrigan, the Raven Goddess.

Swans Probably the most famous tale featuring swans is that of the Children of Lir, who are transformed by their step-mother, Aoifa. Tales of swans always portray them as people under enchantments, whether the Children of Lir, Aengus and Caer, Midhir and Etain, Derbforgaill and her servant.......

The main motif regarding swans seems to be one of love. Aengus mac in Oc fell in love with Caer, who was under a magical enchantment by her father so that she was in the form of a swan for a year, followed the next year by being in the form of a human. Aengus transforms himself into a swan to unite with Caer, whilst she is still in swan-form, and the two of them return to his palace at Brugh na Boinne
Midhir and Etain escape from her husband's fortress in the shape of swans in order to be together.

The beautiful exterior often belies their strength and fierceness. They are viewed as destructive when they descend upon Emhain Macha and ravage the area as an omen of Cuchulainn's conception. Swans appear several times during his short lifetime. In the story of Cuchulainn and Derbforgaill, two magical swans chase the hero who casts a stone at them. He wings one, who falls to earth loosing her enchanted state, revealling Derforgaill. Cuchualinn sucks out the stone that has wounded her. It is added that because he has tasted her blood, he can not have carnal knowledge of her, and so gives the maiden to his foster-brother Lugaid.

The Birds of Rhiannon are probably the most well known of the otherworld birds that feature in Celtic myth. Rhiannon is often linked to the Gaulish Epona, and it is interesting to note that iconic representations of the Goddess Epona are accompanied by both horses and birds.

In the tale of Bran and Branwen in the Mabinogion, the seven survivors of the battle against the men of Ireland, spend seven years feasting in Harlech, where the three birds of Rhiannon provide them with music of such beauty, that all other song appears unmelodious. Though the birds are beyond the waves, their song seems to come from the same room as the seven warriors.

In Irish mythology Cloidna, an Otherworld Queen of Munster, also possesses three magical birds, whose song can restore the health of the wounded. Besides her residence in Munster she, like Rhiannon, is said to inhabit a magical isle where adventurers live in an Otherworld paradise, freed from the passage of time.

The Crane features on a number of iconographical images. The famous image of Tarvos Trigaranus - Bull with Three Cranes from Paris, the image of a tree containing a bulls head and three cranes from Trier, the Celtic shields from the Triumphal Arch, Orange and two images from Chesters along Hadrian's Wall.

Although the Celts would appear to have a great deal of knowledge on Ornithology, they would appear to join Cranes with Egrets and various other wading birds. As with Ravens and Crows I don't think that this was due to them not been able to differentiate between them, but because they were all viewed as having the same role.

Midhir of Bri Leith had three cranes guarding his palace, and to see these birds whilst travelling to battle was seen as a bad omen. Indeed, cranes can be found as decorations on swords and other weapons. It has been suggested that Cranes were envisaged as 'bad-luck', and that they adorn weapns to inflict this bad-luck upon the enemy.  

J. Craig Melia - March/April 1999  


Pagan Celtic Britain - Dr Anne Ross            ISBN 0-89733-435-3
Animals in Celtic Life and Myth - Miranda Green     ISBN 0-4151-8588-2
The Gods of the Celts - Miranda Green     ISBN 0-7509-1581-1
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green     ISBN 0-4150-8076-2
Celtic Heritage - Alwyn and Brinley Rees           ISBN 0-500-27039-2
Iron Age Britain - Barry Cunliffe        ISBN 0-7134-7299-5
The Druids - Stuart Piggott                ISBN 0-12 02.1650 2
The Celts - Frank Delaney                ISBN 0-340-34932-8
Celtic Myth and Legend - Charles Squire            ISBN 0-87877-039-5
Celtic Myth and Legend - T W Rolleston           ISBN 0-946495-84-X
The Apple Branch - Alexei Kondratiev            ISBN 1-898256-X
Tales from the Mabinogion - Gwyn Thomas and Kevin Crossley-Holland       ISBN 0-575-04343-1
Britain and the Celtic Iron Age - Simon James and Valery Rigby         ISBN 0-7141-2306-4
Taliesin - John Matthews        ISBN 1-85538-109-5
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology - James MacKillop    ISBN 0-1986-9157-2
The Celtic Heroic Age - John T Koch     ISBN 0-9642446-1-6
Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture - Bernhard Maier    ISBN 0-8511-5660-6
Roman Britain - Peter Salway    ISBN 0-19-821717-X
The Tain - Thomas Kinsella    ISBN 0-19-2881090-1
The Druids - Peter Berresford Ellis     ISBN 0-8028-3798-0