LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 2: More on Celtic Northwestern Europe

Gaulish or Gallic legend

A realistic likeness in a 'frieze' of Epona, the Celtic horse goddess.
A realistic likeness in a 'frieze' of Epona, the Celtic horse goddess. | Source

Let me take you through the next part of the panoply

EPONA was in Gaulish mythology an important goddess of horses. As horses were vital to the Celts - for transport, for war-making and for trade. The cult of the horse goddess was central to their beliefs. she is always shown in pictures with horses, usually riding side-saddle. She is also a token of fertility, being sometimes depicted holding baskets of fruit or corn. Her mount is always a mare, sometimes shown with a foal representing the cycle of life. She is also linked with healing -

FIDCHELL A variant of chess in Celtic legend, that often features as a means of settling disputes. Although loosely translated as 'chess' the game usually referred to in Gaelic (Irish) legend as 'fidchell' is a similar type of board game said to be created by Lugh. A Welsh version was 'gwyddbwyll' (get your tongue around that)!

FIRE, and the worship of fire was sacrosanct. Bonfires were lit both at Beltane, on May 1st, and at the feast of Samhain on November 1st. The Celts may have seen fire as the earthly version of the sun. Wheel rolling also played a part in Celtic fire rites, the wheels being set on fire and rolled downhill. Another fire ritual tells us the Celts practiced a form of human sacrifice. Human images made of wicker were thought to have been filled with sacrificial animals - as well as people - and set alight. [Ever seen Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee in the 'Wicker Man'?];

FOSTERING was common as much in Celtic as in Norse culture. Children would be fostered in the homes of druids, chiefs, scholars (shades of Arthur and Merlin again) and monks in Christian times from around the age of seven. They were to be educated or inducted, learn poetry, music and literature and these skills might often be useful in the warfare of the time;

The game of Fidchell -  more a version of Nine Men's Morris than chess
The game of Fidchell - more a version of Nine Men's Morris than chess | Source
Remember 'The Wicker Man' with Edward Woodward as the beguiled policeman drawn to the isle, only to end up among sacrificial animals. Better known for Brit Ekland's nude dance
Remember 'The Wicker Man' with Edward Woodward as the beguiled policeman drawn to the isle, only to end up among sacrificial animals. Better known for Brit Ekland's nude dance | Source

The Celts had many gods, as many if not more than the Norsemen or the Romans. Some were demonic, some father-like, others fay. Whoever 'created' them or dreamed them up was imaginative. There were more goddesses than the Norsemen had, their society more female-oriented. Take a look inside and see how they bear themselves, for good or evil.

GEESE symbolised both war and defence, and geese were sometimes interred with dead warriors to ward off intruders. Celtic war gods were sometimes shown accompanied by geese - seen as good guards;

GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH, author of 'Historia Regum Britanniae', a history of the kings or rulers of Britain. Geoffrey lived around AD 1100-1155, a Welsh cleric of Breton origin whose grandfather came with Duke William.

GILDAS, attributed author of 'De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae', one of the post-Roman authors of Celtic history. Thought to have migrated from the area known as Strathclyde to Wales where he 'took the cloth'. Work credited to him - and disputed - is likely to have been written between AD 516-547, part historical, part fictional (and misogynistic) describing the Germanic invasions and large-scale Celtic westward migrations. He is also thought to be the author of an open letter of rebuke to the secular and ecclesiastical Celts, the 'Epistola Gildae'. It is probably understandable from his Briton/Brythonic background that his account of the Germanic migration into Britain was 'jaundiced', and needs to be viewed not so much in the light of historical observation as subjective comment; .

GOATS represented fertility in Celtic mythology. A goat is sometimes shown in company with the Romano-Celtic god Mercury. Goats were thought interchangeable with rams, and like goats rams were linked to aggression - in particular sexual aggression. Horned gods were common in Celtic culture, often seen as ram's horns although also as stag's antlers - sometimes the horns of goats;.

Celtic wild goose image
Celtic wild goose image | Source
Geoffrey of Monmouth, recorded Welsh history and mythology
Geoffrey of Monmouth, recorded Welsh history and mythology | Source
Modern painted Celtic goat icon, 'knitted' into a knot pattern
Modern painted Celtic goat icon, 'knitted' into a knot pattern | Source
St Gildas statue
St Gildas statue | Source

Pictish pagan artforms.The people who created them have remained enigmatic through British history Looking for inspiration or to merely indulge yourself? As varied and enigmatic as their gods and as imaginative as their creation, the Picts expressed their thoughts through a 'writing' system we know as Ogham. We have no way of interpreting them, as there is no-one left who knows how. Do yourself a favour, take a look inside... Little is known of the Picts. The records they left of themselves and their culture is lost to history.

The Grail

According to some sources this was the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper. Other sources tell us it was the cup used to catch the blood from the wound made by centurion Longinus on Jesus to see whether he was dead. Joseph of Arimathea is thought to have set foot in Britain, at Glastonbury in the 1st Century AD, and to have brought the grail with him. Two phials were also considered to have been brought, containing the blood and the death agony sweat (?) of Jesus. The grail was passed on from one generation to the next, eventually becoming the theme for a quest.

Central to the Arthurian story, legend has it that it was found by Galahad because he was seen as the purest in heart of Arthur's knights. The grounds for the story of a search for some sort of vessel may have emanated from Celtic tradition, and may be linked with a quest to the Otherworld to find a magic cauldron.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti's 'Angel of the Grail'
Dante Gabriel Rosetti's 'Angel of the Grail'
Which would you say looks like the grail cup - this one, described as a 'claret cup', this one...
Which would you say looks like the grail cup - this one, described as a 'claret cup', this one...
or this one? This is one used in the Indiana Jones film, but would you say more authentic than the one above?
or this one? This is one used in the Indiana Jones film, but would you say more authentic than the one above? | Source

Grail Poll

Answer honestly, which do you think looks right for its role -

See results without voting

Groves

Groves were used as centres of worship other than temples. Sacred groves were common sites of worship, druids being masters of ceremonies. Many trees were sacred to the Celts, a group or grove being seen as more sacred, Alder, domestic Apple, Ash, Birch, Blackthorn, Broom, Cedar, Elder, Elm, Fir, Silver Fir, Furze, Hawthorn, Hazel, Holly, Juniper, Mistletoe, Oak, Pine, Rowan, Willow and Yew.

Holly, mistletoe, yew... On the Dark Side of festivals

Here's the ivy. Remember the carol, 'The holly and the ivy...'?
Here's the ivy. Remember the carol, 'The holly and the ivy...'? | Source
Holly tree with berries, a female of the species and favoured by the druids
Holly tree with berries, a female of the species and favoured by the druids | Source
A 1,000-year old yew somewhere in England. Ever wondered what the yew has to do with the Church? We have them in church-yards and cemeteries. Your average druid would be happy with that, your vicar would just turn a blind eye...
A 1,000-year old yew somewhere in England. Ever wondered what the yew has to do with the Church? We have them in church-yards and cemeteries. Your average druid would be happy with that, your vicar would just turn a blind eye... | Source
Mistletoe, another pre-Christian favourite for Christmas. How did kissing under the mistletoe get to be associated with a Christian festival?
Mistletoe, another pre-Christian favourite for Christmas. How did kissing under the mistletoe get to be associated with a Christian festival? | Source

Gundestrup Cauldron

Detail, one of the panels on the Gundestrup cauldron showing a bearded god or hero
Detail, one of the panels on the Gundestrup cauldron showing a bearded god or hero | Source

One of the most impressive Celtic relics, found in 1891 by a man in Jutland, Denmark. He had been cutting peat at Vesthimmerland. Made from almost pure silver, the cauldron was gilded and would have been a vessel used in a worship rite.

Capacity is over twenty-eight gallons (106 + litres), was made with five inner and seven outer panels, before burial its silver panels had been dismantled. The panels show a mythological tale or saga with people, gods and animals, several of which being well-known figures such as Cernunnos, the stag-horned god. One panel shows three bulls awaiting ritual slaughter, whilst others show exotic creatures such as lions, leopards and elephants. A number of goddesses can be seen, amongst whom is one flanked by wheels - as depicting being taken in a cart. One other panel shows a procession of Celtic horsemen and foot soldiers.

Argument has arisen around the date and origin of the cauldron, one suggestion advanced being it was made between the fourth and third centuries BC in Romania or Thrace (Northern Greece). Several craftsmen are thought to have been involved in its making.

Although much of the symbolism are plainly Celtic in origin, much does not appear to share a western Celtic background, i.e, some think either south-eastern European craftsmen made the cauldron or it had been stolen from Gaul and altered by other Celtic invaders.

Cauldrons and other artefacts are known to have been left in water as offerings, and the area may once have been a lake or broad river. There is also a chance it might have been left there for safekeeping, i.e., in times of strife or war.

Next: From Habren to the Helvetii

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