The Celts in Literature and Lore
Written and Researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.

On these pages, I will explore the World of the Celts. They have greatly influenced us with their art, legends, and craftsmanship.

"Everyone whose family roots lie in central, western, and northwestern Europe has a Celtic connection of some sort. Celtic culture is very ancient. It goes back over 2,700 years" (Pennick, Nigel, The Sacred World of the Celts. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1997, 3). They were living in what is known as the Danube Corridor in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries Before Christ.

The Word Celtic and Their Clan System:

The word "Celt" came from the ancient Greek word Keltoi." The Keltoi lived in the area of the Danube River in the 15th century B.C. according to Herodotus. The Celts were a linguistic group, which formed a family of interrelated languages. The people of the Umfield culture were ancestors of the Celts. The Celts may have come to Britain as early as the 7th century B.C. Celtic law promoted the welfare of the entire society.

Some Clans Claim Descent From Totemic Beasts:

According to Julius Caesar, the ancient Britons revered hares, chickens, and geese, which they never killed. Many Gaelic personal names are of animal originates:

Irish Beginnings:

On the banks of the Shannon Rover, in Ireland, stands the ruin of one of Ireland's largest, ancient Celtic monasteries, a place of learning and pilgrimage. Stories of Celtic spirituality and soul appear in Acta sanctorum. This book was compiled in the thirteenth century. However, they were written in the sixth through ninth century, as part of the Christian hagiography or literature that used saints as examples of spiritual mentors. The stories of the saints were made to inspire us to a higher cause and to teach good manners, self-awareness, self-acceptance, holiness, and to bring us closer to God and nature.

The mythology of both paganism and Christianity were combined in Celtic Christianity. Celtic women were equal with men in preaching religion. They could give mass and the sacraments. Brigid was a female Druid, before she converted to Christianity. In early Ireland there were fifteen women named "saint."

The Irish had Druids around the 5th century A.D. Scotland was founded around 500 A.D. Legend/mythology has it that Erc, son of Eochaidh, had three sons of the race Conaire.

Conaire:

Conaire was the royal dynasty of Munster in Ireland:

The word clann is Gaelic for children. A clan is a family:

Clan Names That Are Connected to One's Occupation:

The Druids, Celts, and Society:

Celtic beliefs were reformed by the Druids, who, in turn, were influenced by the Romans. The Celts are thought to have originated in central Europe, to the east of the Rhine (that area of southern Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech republic, and Hungary).

The medieval traditions of Chivalry have roots in Arthurian Britain and old Celtic martial arts and the Grail legends have inspired Christian devotion. Celtic technicians have produced numerous innovations such as chainmail in pre-Roman times.

The Tribal Clan:

The Tribal Clan of family of the traditional Celtic society had two leaders:

  1. The Warlord or King
  2. The Druid Priest

The Celts had a sort of caste system including:

Royal succession amomg the Picts was through the mother (matrilineal) in earliest times, which is why images of the earth goddess have prevailed. The Earth is our mother is significant to the beliefs of the ancient Celts and many Native American beliefs.

Tacitus' In Britain states: "There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne, or the command of armies." It has been argued that some of the Celts developed a matrilineal form of kingship.

Bede (d. 731) is often quoted regarding his belief that Pictish kings came to the throne by matrilineal succession (Celtic Women, 110). While Floyd and Jenny Laing in The Picts and the Scots (1993) believed this was quite simply Irish propaganda: "As things stand, the case for Pictish matriliny is not proven..." They used an electoral method in electing kings and ignored the promogeniture system with the eldest son as heir.

Kings in Scotland do have a female progenitor in Scota, the daughter of the Egyptian Pharoah, Cingris, wife of Niul, a Druid, whose son was Goidel or she was the daughter of the Pharoah Nectanebus, wife of Mil and mother of his children, the Milesians or Gaels (ibid).

Many heroes in Irish and Welsh literature are named after their mother and not their father.

Women could rule in their own right. Yann III (1312-1341) of Brittany was married three times with no legitimate heirs. He brother, Guy (d.1331), married and his daughter, Jeanne Penthievre, was her father's heir. Breton law allowed female succession. Jeanne lost her throne to Jean de Montfort, but kept her title to the grave.

Julius Caesar was governor of southern Gaul in 59 B.C. His journals record his views on warfare and the Druids:

"Throughout Gaul there are two classes of men of some dignity and importance" ... One is the Druid, the other is the knight.

The Druids concern themselves "with the worship of gods, look after public and private sacrifice, and expound religious matters..."

The Three Celtic Paths of Life:

  1. The Bardic Path - concerns itself with the World of the Sea, the Mind, the Past, Ancestors, Lore, Genealogy, Songs, Poetry, Storytelling, and Transformative Magick.
  2. The Druid's Path - concerns itself with the World of the Sky, the Spirits, the Future, the Gods and Goddesses of the tribes, Theology, Adnministration, Politics, Adjunication, and Intercessionary Magick.
  3. The Seer's Path - contains articles concerning The World of Land, the Body, the Present, Nature Spirits, Herbalism, Healing, Alchemy, Weather, Divination, and natural Magic.

The Druids Path:

The Druids memorized vast amounts of poetry. Things were not written down because:

  • they didn't want their training methods to be known by common people.
  • they didn't want their students to rely on books, rather they should rely upon and develop their memories.
    Celtic men of letters were Cato, Catuluus, Varro, and Virgil.
    Druids had an oral tradition and had to memorize tens of thousands of verses ... this could take up to twenty years to master.
    Druids believed:
  • that souls do not suffer death, but pass from one body to another. This eliminated the fear of death and made men braver.

    The Druid priests supervised public and private sacrifice.

  • that the motion of the stars and changes in the earth (nature) could influence men's quality of life.

    In 55 B.C. Druidic students went to Britain for their higher education. They learned cosmology, astronomy, physics, and theology.

  • in their immortal gods

More About the Druids:

For many, the Druid brings to mind a group of white-robed and bearded men gathering at Stonehenge and celebrating pagan rituals. Many times the Druids were thought to be religious fanatics sacricing humans to their gods and goddesses. Then there is the magic, spells, mistletoe, forest groves, and oak veneration. In truth, the Druids were all these things and more. Druids practiced politics, sacrificial ritual, prophesy, and control of the supernatural world (The World of the Druids. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997, 7). They were teachers, keepers of the oral traditions, royal advisers, and many times became rulers of sorts.

They were Celtic priests and judges and they were exempt from military service. Caesar (Gallic Wars), Strabo (Geography) and Phiny (Natural History), wrote about the Druids. They were explored in many Celtic mythologies of Ireland and Wales, Many think the work Druid comes from the Indo-European word dr for oak. "The magicians performed no rites without using the foliage of those trees (oaks) ... it may be supposed that it is from this custom that they get their names of Druids, from the Greek work meaning Oak (Phiny, Natural History XVL, 95).

CLICK HERE for more information about Celtic Trees

However, newer scholars have Druid meaning wisdom.

The Celts venerated Nature and were polytheistic. They believed that the course of nature is the will of the gods. Their Bards, Vates, and Druids had a close relationship with the natural world.

The Celts always held the arts in highest regard, especially the spoken word. The Bards and Druids taught their students a highly developed since of memory.

The gold or silver branch was the symbol of the Bards:

  • The Anradh or poets of second order, carried a silver branch.
  • The Oilamb or chief poets, carried a branch of gold.
  • The Penkerd was the chief singer of the Bards
  • The Bard Teulu was the Bard of the Royal Entourage who owned untaxed land and a horse (by the King), and a harp and gold ring (by the Queen)

The Bards were the basis of modern European literature.

Scottish Traditions

Scottish Clans:

Scottish Clans often had heraldic animals:

  • Campbell of Breadalbane, McIvers and MacKinnon all have the boar as their sign.
  • Campbell of Cawdor and Lindsey had the Swan
  • Clan Bruce has the Lion
  • Clan Chattan, MacGowen, and MacIntosh have the Cat
  • Colquhoun, Davidson, Forbes, Fraser of Lovat, Keith, and Scott has a Stag
  • MacLeod has a Bull
  • Kennedy has a Dolphin

The Scottish Tartan:

The Scottish tartan represented one's station in life. The more colors in the tartan, the higher the social status of the wearer. Highland cloth was called breacan - a woolen weave, from Highland Sheep. Tartans were woven in twill.

Saint Columba:

Columcille or Columba was born into a royal clan in Donegal, Ireland, on December 7, 521. His name means "Dove of the Church." Columcille was a student of Finnan of Clonard. He founded Derry monastery in 546, Durrow in 556, and possibly Kells, in Ireland.

St Columba set up monasteries on the holy island of Iona in 563. The Angles settled in Northumbria. In 850, the Picts and Scots united under King Kenneth MacAlpin. Malcolm III was Kenneth's Descendant. King Alexander III (D: 1286), was the last Scottish monarch of Celtic descent.

*****

RELATED LINKS:

The Celtic Bear ... Celtic Goddesses ... Celtic Gods ... Celtic Saints

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