Celtic Cosmology - An Introduction (first published in Aontacht, April 2013 and Touchstone May 2013)
As a general rule, it would be fair to say that most non-pagans have little or no understanding of pagan theology/cosmology. In the absence of any information to the contrary, they often tend to be rather fearful and perhaps unwilling to investigate. This being the case, they would more than likely be surprised to find out that there is no unified theology or cosmology within Paganism, moreover they’d be surprised to learn that several quite different streams of belief and practice exist.
Within Paganism itself, the most well-known cosmological system is the Hermetic tradition, i.e. that of the ancient Greeks, in part derived from the Egyptians. Combined or intertwined with this is the Jewish mystical school of Qabalah, elements of which are to be found in Witchcraft, Alchemy, Freemasonry, Golden Dawn etc.
Much of this esoterica made its way across Europe to the British Isles via the Greeks, Romans and later on the Normans and the influx of Hermetic refugees caused by the crusades and the eventual fall of Byzantium. However, within Europe there are two indigenous streams of Paganism that have survived (partially) with relatively little outside influence, these being Norse and Celtic cosmology. In both cases this is most likely due to the physical isolation of being on the fringes of Europe and in the case of Scandinavia, the extreme weather probably deterred most invaders or would-be colonists.
What remains of Celtic cosmology is somewhat fragmented, for several reasons. Due to the colonisation of Europe by the Romans much of Celtic culture was almost completely eliminated – e.g. in Cisalpine Gaul, Gaul and Iberia where the Celtic languages and religious practices quickly fell into disuse.
In the British Isles, Ireland in particular, the influence of Roman culture was much weaker which enabled Celtic language, custom and religion to outlive the Western Roman Empire. What is now England was heavily Romanised, however some elements of Celtic culture did survive although this was again diluted by the influx of Germanic and Norse invaders from the 5th century onwards.
The arrival of Christianity had an obvious impact on Celtic religion more so than it did on any other aspect of Celtic life, however dating of Pagan burial sites in Ireland shows that Pagan practise continued alongside Christianity at least into the 8th century BCE. A brief comparison between Roman Catholicism and Celtic or Norse Paganism clearly indicates that much of the celebrations and customs of Paganism were simply assimilated or re-assigned by the Church, probably out of necessity. So, in a distorted form, much of Paganism has in fact survived into current times.
Further to the above, Norman and subsequent English colonisation of the entire British Isles forced the remaining Celtic countries into retreat and eventual collapse of their systems of government, agriculture, language and culture in general. This culminated in a ban on Cymraeg, Gaeilge and Gáidhlig which lead to the destruction or loss of much of the written and oral culture of the Celtic people.
So, unlike Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity for example, there is no one text or set of texts that embodies the theological or cosmological system of the Pagan Celts. What remains is a partial picture of Celtic belief, which has been used to reconstruct Celtic Paganism in the modern era – a process that is still continuing today.
In common with the pre-Socratic model of the 4 (or 5) elements, Irish culture relates to the physical word in terms of 4 and 5 but also 3 and 9. There are four cities mentioned in the Yellow Book of Lecan, from which the Tuatha De Danann came – each in one of the cardinal points of the compass. Four druids were associated with each city, as were four hallowed objects, the treasures of the Tuatha De Danann. Although the text is not explicit, the most common directional association is that shown below.
|Falias||Lia Fáil (stone)||North||Earth||Ulster||Battle|
|Gorias||Spear of Lugh||South||Fire||Munster||Music|
|Murias||Cauldron of Dagda||West||Water||Connaught||Knowledge|
|Findias||Sword of Nuada||East||Air||Leinster||Prosperity|
In addition to the 4 main compass directions, the Irish cosmology includes 5 others – roughly translating as: above, below, outside, inside and through. These 9 directions correspond with what is known as Dúile (9 elements), which includes the familiar air (sky), fire (sun), water (sea) and earth (land).
These 9 elements of Dúile relate to the cosmos (Bith), the 3realms within the cosmos and the 3 cauldrons within the human body, with 3 of these elements relating to each cauldron. This is most easily illustrated by the table given below, that I have borrowed and modified (from Searles O’Dubhain).
|Cnaimh (Bones)||Cloch (Stone)||Thuaidh (North)||Lia Fail||Coire Ernmae|
|Colaind (Flesh)||Talamh (Earth)||Faoi (Under)||Nemed(grove)||Coire Ernmae|
|Gruaigh (Hair)||Uaine (Plant Life)||Amach (Outwards)||Ogham and Herbs||Coire Ernmae|
|Fuil (Blood)||Muir (Sea)||Siar (West)||Cauldron of Dagda||Coire Goriath|
|Anal (Breath)||Gaeth (Wind)||Oithear (East)||Sword of Nuada||Coire Goriath|
|Imradud (Mind)||Gealach (Moon)||Isteach (Inwards)||Well of Segais||Coire Goriath|
|Drech (Face)||Grian (Sun)||Dheas (South)||Spear of Lugh||Coire Sois|
|Menma (Brain)||Nel (Cloud)||Thrid (Through)||Inspiration||Coire Sois|
|Ceann (Head)||Neamh (Heaven)||Os Cionn (Above)||Torc/Halo||Coire Sois|
The Dúile and the 3 cauldrons of wisdom (Sois), vocation (Ernmae) and Warming (Goriath) relate to the head, body and blood of a person, which in turn is related to the 3 realms of sky, land and sea. Hence it is clear that 3 was a very important number in Celtic cosmology – 3 cauldrons, 3 realms and 9 (3 x 3) elements. Indeed this continued to be theologically significant into the Christian era and even today the trefoil (3 leaved shamrock) is a symbol associated with Ireland.
The 3 realms of sky, land and sea are representative of the upper world (Magh Mór), middle world (Míde) where we usually find ourselves and the otherworld (Tir Andomain). Personally I would say that these three realms co-exist here and now in the same space, it is a matter of perception that shields us from seeing the greater reality. In the Welsh tradition these 3 realms are near enough the same but are shown as 3 concentric circles – Annwn (otherworld), Abred (middle) and Gwynfyd (upper), with the space beyond (Ceugant) being the infinite or godhead.
The 3 realms are alluded to in Celtic myth, the otherworld in particular and it is also represented by the Bile Buadha or Tree of Power/World Tree, which is similar in concept to the Norse Yggdrasil. The sacred tree or Bile Buadha relates to the 5 ancient provinces as described in Settling Of The Manor Of Tara, each of which had its own Bile. These are roughly the same as the 4 modern provinces (shown earlier) with the addition of Míde or Meath – the sacred tree Craebh Uisnigh being located at Uisneach the ‘navel of Ireland’, sacred and royal centre. So to the 4 provinces shown earlier we can now add:
Uisneach - Centre Spirit Míde Kingship
This Celtic concept of the universe unifies the 3 realms of existence with the human existence via dúile (element) and the coire (cauldron) but it also connects via the Bile Buadha to the 5 provinces and cardinal points. Connecting all of existence is neart or nwyfre (Welsh) which roughly means life-force or the spirit that flows through all things. This whole concept can be described as Dán, which is somewhat similar to the Chinese concept of Tao – everything is interconnected, everything is animated by spirit.
This belief is clearly illustrated by Brehon Law which gave usage of the land among the community (tuath) rather than our modern concept of ownership. It also treated animals as persons to the extent that a hen could be punished for trespass, snatching and wasting or bees must provide honey as compensation for stinging a neighbour or passer-by. This view of the world and all that is in it as deeply connected is beautifully described by the ancient poem the Song of Amergin. Amergin, the Milesian (Gaelic) Ollamh or chief druid is also credited with the ancient tract The Cauldron of Poesy which is a metaphysical discourse on the 3 cauldrons and the 9 elements.
This view of our existence endured through the Christianisation of the British Isles and indeed through colonisation by the English. Clear evidence of this is the survival of belief in the Sidhé and the otherworld in folklore and literature. As late as the end of the 1800s the Gaels of Scotland preserved their language (Gáidhlig) and beliefs, although superficially Christianised. Alexander Carmichael saved the sayings and practices of the last generation of islanders and highlanders who retained these traditions in his collection Ortha nan Gaidheal (Carmina Gadelica). One of the best examples of this being a direct reference to the three realms:
Neart mara dhuit Power of sea be with you
Neart talamh duit Power of land be with you
Neart néimhe Power of sky
Mathas mara dhuit Goodness of sea be with you
Mathas talamh duit Goodness of land be with you
Mathas néimhe. Goodness of sky.
This deep connection with the realms of existence is borne out in the seasonal cycles of the Celt and their respect for the sun, moon, stars and the earth and all that lives upon it. Their most important celebrations were tied to the natural cycles and to the deities of the land itself, a model which has fortunately been retained and is commonly understood (in various forms) by Pagans as the ‘eightfold wheel of the year’.
So clearly we can see that Celtic cosmology has a unique view of the world that has somehow survived the contraction of the Celtic world. Unique as it is, it is perfectly possible to integrate this worldview with the more common classical tradition. The Irish Order of Thelema does exactly this and thereby combines indigenous belief and practice with the generally more familiar hermetic structures.
In my own practice I work within a framework of the 5 elements and the 3 realms and 3 cauldrons and I find that the two models are entirely compatible in an Irish context when considered in terms that I’ve outlined above.
At the end of the day, finding a meaningful and practically workable spiritual experience is more important than the restrictions of theological dogma. Although I do not advocate a ‘pick and mix’ approach to spirituality - without disrespecting or defiling discrete magical and spiritual systems one should be free to work with what one fully understands in a way that is beneficial to the connection with spirit, deity or whatever you might define as cosmic. Although the ancient Celts were hardly syncretic they clearly recognised the interconnectedness of all existence, like the branches and the roots of the cosmic tree that stretch into the furthest reaches of the universe. I am sure that were they around today they would embrace tolerance, shared wisdom and be open to the positive influences of the world that surrounds them.
Luke Eastwood is a Druid, Writer and Horticulturist living in Co. Wexford, Ireland. He belongs to several Druid orders, a Druidic grove and maintains irishdruidnetwork.org. He is also the author of The Druid’s Primer and The Journey, published by Moon Books. www.lukeeastwood.com