The Celtic Connection

Celtic Art

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Celtic Art

Celtic Line

The intent of this page is to provide you with a little information about the Celtic people and their traditions. Of course there is so much to tell that I can only hope to give a small sampling here. There are many excellent sources of more detailed information, including the source of most of the information below ("Chronicles of the Celts" by Iain Zaczek). I am also including links to other Celtic pages which will provide further insight.

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A BRIEF HISTORY
The true origins of the Celts lie deep in the mists of prehistory. They were a loosely-knit group of tribes, with connective elements of a common culture and a common language. Traces of these date back to the final stages of the Hallstatt culture (c. 700-500 BC), which was based in the area around Upper Austria and Bavaria. By the sixth century BC, Greek authors wrote of a people called the 'keltoi' in southern France and, a century later, Herodotus located them in the region around the Danube. In time, their settlements stretched from Turkey and the Balkans right across to western Europe. At the peak of their power, they were strong enough to sack both Rome (386 BC) and Delphi (279 BC). The memory of these victories was soon eclipsed, however, by the rise of the Roman Empire. Here, the lack of cohesion between the various Celtic tribes proved fatal. One by one, they were overrun or expelled from their territories. Eventually, they were pushed back to the western fringes of the continent.

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IRELAND
The ancient Celts once flourished in most of Europe but it is in Ireland that their traditions have been most preserved. The early Irish chronicles conjure up a society dominated by an aristocratic warrior caste in an age before Christianity. The heroes of these epic tales prize nothing higher than fame and courage, as they battle the magical forces pitted against them. Their deeds are as noble and as mysterious as the hill-forts and standing stones that are scattered around the Irish landscape, while their boasts and love of exaggeration can compete with the most extravagant modern-day blarney.

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WALES
In the early Middle Ages, invading Saxons swept into Britain, pressing the Celts into the extremes of the mainland. Throughout this troubled period, the Welsh saw themselves as defenders of the west, the Celtic heroes who might rise one day to hurl the foreign oppressors back into the sea. Hemmed into a beautiful, mountainous country, their political isolation only strengthened their cultural identity. This was still a Celtic nation, a land of bards and druids, where Taliesin composed his riddling verses and King Arthur lay sleeping with his knights, waiting to return.

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BRITTANY
The ancient name for Brittany was Armorica, the land of the sea. In the fifth and sixth centuries, Brittany was peopled by Celtic refugees, hermits and missionaries who had sailed from Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. These settlers were Brittany's earliest heroes, escaping the invading hordes of Angles and Saxons and struggling to defend the Celtic faith. Yet for all their holiness, these pioneers had much in common with the warriors of other Celtic myths, as they battled against dragons, tyrants and sorcerers to lay the foundations of their independent nation.

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ISLE OF MAN
The Isle of Man probably takes its name from an Irish sea god, Manannán Mac Lir. According to tradition, he was the first king of the island. Manannán was a shape-shifter with many magical possessions, such as a boat that obeyed the thoughts of its master and a sword that could penetrate any armour. The horses of his chariot took the form of large waves. His Welsh counterpart was called Manawydan Fab Llyr, the subject of a tale in the Mabinogion. Before it fell prey to the Norsemen, the Isle of Man had strong Celtic connections. It had its own language, a dialect of Gaelic, and its now familiar three-legged emblem, the triskele, was widely used in the designs of Celtic craftsmen. The island also shared the same literary heritage. The ballad of Fin as Oshin, for example, is a variant of the Irish story of Finn and Oisin, woven together with anecdotes about King Orry.

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ANIMAL SYMBOLISM
Latene Boar
The symbolic significance of animals is apparent in every aspect of Celtic life. Evidence has shown that a wide variety of creatures were used in sacrifices and in certain funerary rites. In addition, animal imagery is an ever-present feature in artworks and literature. The bull, as might be guessed from its prominence in the Táin, was a symbol of power and wealth. Tarvos Trigaranus, the three-horned bull, was revered in both Britain and Gaul and the beast was also associated with the selection of the high kings at Tara. Candidates had to participate in a Tarbhfhess, a ceremonial 'bull-sleep' presided over by druids. Boars, too, featured in sacrifices and ritual feasting. They were more closely associated with war, however, and were frequently portrayed on shields and armour. Other animals were believed to possess special powers. Dogs, for example, were associated with healing, as their saliva was thought to have curative properties, while salmon were regarded as a source of knowledge. This is confirmed in a number of Irish and Welsh stories. In the Fionn cycle, Finn gains wisdom after tasting the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge, while questing Welsh knights, in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, enlist the aid of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.

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OGHAM
Ogham was the ancient alphabet of the Celts. It is thought to have been invented in southern Ireland, although examples have been found in many parts of the British Isles. Letters were composed of straight or slanting lines, incised onto the edges of wooden or stone blocks. Evidence suggests that it was in common use from c. AD 300 until the seventh century, although some authorities believe that it may have been used even earlier on perishable materials. The Irish sagas tell of great libraries of ogham texts, recorded on pieces of bark, but no traces of these have been found. In the Táin, Cú Chulainn issued challenges to the Connacht men in ogham, carved on standing stones. The ogham was also believed to have magical properties, and druids used them in divination. The system was named after Ogma, the god of eloquence, prized by the Celts who rated word-power higher than physical prowess.

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CELTIC WEAPONS
The Celts were renowned for their fighting prowess, so it is hardly surprising that they placed a high value on fine weaponry. Iron-working had been introduced during the Hallstatt period and, by the sixth century BC, warriors were using heavy, long-bladed slashing swords. Many had richly decorated hilts, inlaid with amber, ivory or gold-leaf. Scabbards, shields and helmets were similarly decorated. At a very early stage, a clear distinction was made between functional weaponry and parade gear. The latter was highly ornamental, but usually too fragile to withstand genuine warfare. Dead warrior princes were sometimes laid on the back of a chariot, sword in hand, and weapons were deliberately discarded as a form of sacrifice in lakes or rivers. There is a likely echo of this practice in the way that Excalibur, King Arthur's sword, was cast into the water at the time of his death. Naming weapons and attributing special powers to them was typical of the Celts. Fergus' magic sword 'Cladcholg', which may be related to Excalibur, was said to stretch the whole length of a rainbow and slice the tops off hills. Similarly, in the Táin, the hero Cú Chulainn wields the 'Gae Bolga', an awesome spear presented to him by Scáthach, his supernatural combat tutor.

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IMBOLC
Imbolc was the second of the Celtic seasonal festivals, covering the months of February, March and April. The chief rituals were carried out on 1 February and had strong associations with fertility. In pastoral terms, they were linked with lambing and the lactation of ewes. The festival was also devoted to the powerful triple-goddess, Brigid. In her different aspects, she was influential in the fields of healing, poetry and smithcraft. Poets regarded her as the source of literary inspiration and her protection was frequently invoked by mothers in childbirth. In Ireland, she was much revered by the filidh (sages), who recognized her gift of prophecy. The cult of Brigid was probably connected with the worship of Brigantia, a northern British deity, and also with the Irish saint of the same name. It can be no coincidence that the latter's feast day is celebrated on 1 February, the same day as Imbolc.

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CELTIC DECORATION
Celtic Art
The most distinctive and unifying aspect of Celtic culture is its style of decoration. This developed during the early stages of the prehistoric La Téne period, when it featured primarily on metalwork and stonework, and it was still a potent force a millennium later, when scribes and illuminators came to create the great Gospel books. Simplicity and adaptability are the main reasons for this longevity. The essential components of Celtic design consist of a few basic shapes, including spirals, interlacing, fretwork and swastikas, which are woven together to form intricate patterns. Figurative elements are sometimes combined with these abstract forms, but they are always highly stylized, echoing the rythms of the overall design. So, the limbs or beards of human figures may lock together, to form swastikas or triangles, while the bodies of birds or animals taper away into ribbon-like strands, which then become part of an interlacing pattern. Celtic craftsmen produced infinite variations on these themes, employing them in every possible medium. As a result, a knotwork pattern on a sword might be reproduced on a lavish item of jewellery or a sacred image in a manuscript.

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CERNUNNOS
Cernunnos was a horned god, one of the most ancient Celtic deities. He is known to have predated the Roman influence in western Europe, with images from as early as the fourth century BC. In essence, he was a nature god, symbolizing fertility and plenty. He was also lord of the animals and typical representations show him squatting on the ground, surrounded by the beasts of the forest. Abundance was symbolized by sacks of money or cornucopias, which were placed on his lap, and his role as a fertility god was often emphasized by the presence of a ram-horned snake. He is portrayed in this way on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Cernunnos was usually depicted with antlers, although images with other animal horns can occasionally be found. On some shrines, the antlers were removable, indicating that the god may have been the focus of seasonal rituals, reflecting the annual growth and shedding of horns. In Irish legend, Cernunnos is associated with the father-god known as the Dagda, and there may also be links with the classical cult of Pan.

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NEWGRANGE
The intricately decorated passage-grave at Newgrange is arguably the most impressive monument of its kind in Europe. Situated 20 miles out of Dublin, it dates back to around 3000 BC and forms part of a larger megalithic site called the Brugh na Bóinne. This includes two other tumuli, Knowth and Dowth, and a number of standing stones. Newgrange is particularly famous for its elaborate carvings, both inside and outside the tomb. These consist mainly of abstract patterns - such as spirals, chevrons and lozenges - and although they were created many centuries before the arrival of the Celts, they exerted a profound influence on the craftsmen of the La Téne period. The original architects of Newgrange aligned the tomb with the winter solstice in order that, at sunrise on 21 December, a shaft of light penetrates through a small aperture and lights up the interior of the chamber, just reaching a stone basin that once contained the cremated remains of the dead. It is not known whether the Celts used Newgrange for any ritual purpose, but it was clearly important to them. It is mentioned many times in their early tales and the name of the tomb means 'the cave of Gráinne', a reference to a leading character in the Fionn Cycle.

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MORRIGAN
The Morrigán was the supreme Celtic war goddess, hovering over battlefields to incite soldiers and scavenge upon the dead. She plays a crucial role in the tale of Cú Chulainn. At first, she attempts to woo him but, once rejected, she becomes an implaccable enemy, determined to bring about his doom. She has the power of prophecy and is also a shape-shifter, usually assuming the form of a crow or raven. It has been suggested that she may be the forerunner of Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian cycle. The Morrigán was a threefold goddess and she figures in the Irish legends either in her own guise or in one of her subsidiary aspects - as Badb, Macha or Nemain. These characters are more or less interchangeable, although they feature in different legends. Macha placed a curse upon the men of Ulster, after being forced to race against the king's horses whilst pregnant. Nemain's terrible howl caused a hundred warriors to die of fright, and Badb was often seen at a ford before a battle, cleansing the weapons of soldiers who were about to die. The Morrigán allied her destructive nature with an intense, sexual potency; the combined associations of fertility and death link the goddess with the Sheela-na-gig, a grotesque figure carved on many Irish churches and castles.

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SHAPE-SHIFTERS
Magic and the supernatural play a major role in early Celtic literature, moulding the destinies of all the leading characters. Shape-shifting, along with prophecies and curses, was the most commonplace of these magical interventions. The gods could assume a variety of guises and, in many cases, were capable of inflicting similar changes upon mortals. Often, the transformations involved animals, although other variations were possible. In the Mabinogion, for example, Pwyll takes on the form and identity of a lord of the Otherworld. The Celts also had a fondness for multiple changes. For example, in the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, Janet can only rescue her lover from the fairy throng if she holds onto him as he goes through a series of perilous transformations. Among other things, the hero turns into a snake, a toad, a swan and then a red-hot iron rod. Significantly, Tam Lin's salvation can only be attained during the festival of Samhain (Hallowe'en), as this is the period when the boundaries between the real and the supernatural worlds are broken down, and strange transformations are most likely to occur. The Celts' fascination with shape-shifting was reflected in their imaginative artworks. In fields such as metalwork and manuscript illumination, craftsmen loved using designs that appeared abstract at first glance but which, on closer examination, conjured up the appearance of an animal's head or body.

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EPONA
Epona was an ancient horse goddess whose name survives today in our word 'pony'. Uniquely for a Celtic deity, she was also worshipped by the Romans and a festival was held in her honour on 18 December. On this day, all beasts of burden were rested. The classical connection probably accounts for the unusually consistent iconography of the goddess. She was normally portrayed sitting side-saddle on a mare or standing between a group of horses. Her symbolic role was more complex. As a mother-goddess, Epona was associated with fertility and was sometimes shown with a sucking foal. She was also linked with healing and the protection of the human soul. Common attributes included a napkin that was used to start horse races - and also, by inference, the race of life - and a large key. The latter opened the gates to the Otherworld, where Epona conducted the soul after death.

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CELTIC CROSSES
Celtic Cross
Standing stones had long been the focus of solar cults throughout western Europe, before pre-Christian Celts started erecting monumental pillar-statues, placing them in sanctuaries and burial places. Their general shape suggests that they were meant to represent trees, which were held in great reverence by the early Celts. They survived the coming of the Christian era, as missionaries did not wish to upset potential converts by destroying their shrines. Instead, they Christianized the stones by carving crosses on them, a custom said to have been introduced by St. Patrick himself. In the sixth century, craftsmen began sculpting them into the form of free-standing crosses. Spirals, interlacing and key patterns were all borrowed from Celtic metalwork and, in some cases, the affinity with secular artefacts was even closer. The prominent bosses on the cross at Ahenny, for instance, have been likened to rivets. By the tenth century, however, the depiction of figures was becoming more common and this trend was to culminate in the great Crosses of the Scriptures.

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TARA
Tara is a prehistoric burial site in County Meath, famed as the legendary capital of the high kings of Ireland, and a holy site for thousands of years. Here, according to tradition, elaborate rites were carried out between the future high king of Tara and the goddess of soverignty. Medb, for example, was said to have participated in a ritual union with nine of the high kings, preventing the rule of any candidates who refused to mate with her. Another test was provided by the Stone of Fál, which screamed when it was touched by the rightful heir. There are claims that Cormac mac Art, a leading figure in the Fionn cycle, established a sumptous court at Tara and a lavish festival was also regularly celebrated at Samhain, on 1 November.
In the fifth century, the place was occupied by Niall of the Nine Hostages and it was here that his pagan son, King Laoghaire, was supposed to have been confronted by St. Patrick. After this, Tara's importance appears to have declined. Nonetheless, the twelfth-century Book of Leinster contains an illustration of the Banqueting Hall at Tara, which begs comparison with Arthur's Round Table, and the site has always been seen as a symbol of national unity.
Excavations have revealed traces of wooden buildings, dating from between the first and third centuries AD, and there is a standing stone which may be associated with the Stone of Fál. Some sources argue that the latter was Jacob's pillow, transported to Ireland by Israelite refugees. Others say that the real stone was carried to Scotland by a king of Ulster. According to this theory, the monolith became known as the Stone of Scone, the coronation stone which has long been held in Westminster Abbey.

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CREDITS
Majority of the information is from "Chronicles of the Celts" by Iain Zaczek.