A cloud of mystery and wonder surround the Irish religion that predates Christianity, and it is a religion that includes many myths and legends still popular today in parts of Ireland. The following covers a chronological view of religion in Ireland, ranging from the pre-historic times to the arrival of Christianity. The main focus will revolve around Druidism, as well as the deities and myths that relate to it, and its replacement, Christianity.
The first indication of religion in Ireland is found with sacred stone temples that date back to 3500 b.c. These stone temples were burial grounds on hilltops and covered in mounds of dirt. This type of temple was consistent throughout other places in europe during that time, so Ireland may have shared a common religion with other peoples. (McCaffrey and Eaton). These burial sites were thought to be magical entrances into the Otherworld (Wilkinson).
In 2000 b.c. stone circles were built in Ireland and across europe, which indicated a religion revolving around the sun. The stones were placed in a way that correlated with the movements of the sun, and this may have related to the importance of fertility and birth to the ancient peoples (McCaffrey and Eaton).
In 1159 b.c. there is archaeological evidence that the weather in Ireland worsened, and this resulted in the people placing more importance on the water gods of lakes and springs.
Druidism existed in Ireland from the 2nd century b.c. until the 2nd century a.d., or longer in some places untouched by the Roman conquest (“Druidism”).
In 5th Century a.d. missionaries like Maewyn Succat, also known as Saint Patrick, brought Christianity to Ireland, which led to a gradual but certain conversion to Christianity throughout Ireland. The old pagan religion was left to be myth and legend (McCaffrey and Eaton).
Nature Worship & Druidism
It is difficult to find the distinction between the ancient Irish nature religion and Druidism, and in many cases, there may be no distinction. It seems that the Druids were merely a development of whatever preexisting nature religion was present in Ireland at that time. Although nature worship began as early as 3500 b.c. in Ireland, Druidism was not an evident part of the religion until the 2nd or 3rd century b.c.
The ancient Celts believed that the earth was a living being, and all the things belonging to it including rocks, water and fire were also alive. Every living and, what we would now consider to be non-living, thing possessed some kind of spirit. This is the basis for their nature-worship religion. They worshipped trees, stones, rivers, etc., and above all they worshipped the Earth Mother. Animals played an important role in their religion, because they were often thought to be sacred or protected by the gods and goddesses. In some cases, the animal might be a god or goddess. Sacrificing an animal was a way to connect with the deities; Rituals would require a person to destroy the animal completely and in some cases, drink the blood or eat the meat in “community” with the respective deity (“Celtic Religion”).
Human sacrifices were very rare and only performed in dire situations that required a lot of help from the gods. The most common forms of sacrifices were of animals and possessions. They would give up their best possessions to the gods for favors or good luck. For example, a sacrifice to a water goddess might be performed by first destroying a possession (such as a gold knife), and then throwing it into the body of water belonging to the goddess (Martell 22).
There were many festivals celebrated throughout the Celtic year, but the most popular ones were Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. Imbolc was celebrated on February 1 as the first day of spring in honor of the goddess Brigit. Beltaine was celebrated on May 1 as the first day of summer, which marked the time for the cattle to be moved out to the fields after a winter indoors. Lughnasa was celebrated on August 1 for the god Lugh (Lugos) and included a large gathering and feast. Samhain was celebrated on November 1 as the Celtic New Year. This was thought to be a very magical and dangerous day when people and spirits could cross between worlds and the gods were hostile, so sacrifices were necessary to keep them pleased (“Celtic Religion” & Martell 21).
The Druids were Celtic priests, religious teachers, judges, civil administrators, prophets and bards. They would perform all of the rituals in festivals and celebrations, and in other daily practices. Most of their rituals were performed in sacred oak forests or with mistletoe, and they would use altars or stone temples, called dolmens, for these rituals and sacrifices. There would be a supreme archdruid above all of the rest, and although there could be female Druids, normally females were sorceresses and prophets without the normal powers of the Druids. They were knowledgeable about astrology, magic and other natural mysterious powers (“Druidism”).
The ancient Celts also believed in some sort of afterlife, though we do not know much about it, except that it is called the Otherworld. Some sources claim that they believed the Otherworld to be just like this life, and once they lived and died in the Otherworld, they would be born back into this one. Other sources describe the Otherworld as an eternal afterlife where no one grows old and everyone is happy, much like our notion of heaven today. Everyone would die and go to the Otherworld; there was no concept of judgment or condemnation, good or evil. Regardless of which belief is correct, archaeologists have found that the ancient Celts would bury their dead with all of their greatest possessions, along with food, weapons and even a chariot, to help them with their journey to the Otherworld. Some tribes partook in cremation, but then buried the urn with possessions, following the same principle of having to journey or passover to the Otherworld with things from this world.
As previously mentioned, the ancient Celtic people were polytheistic and believed in many gods and goddesses of or relating to the earth and nature. There are thought to be about 400 Celtic deities, but only a few big ones (“Celtic Religion”). Many of the deities existed for similar reasons and purposes in different regions or within different tribes as tribal gods.
The Celts often grouped their deities into threes, because it represented fertility of both humans and the earth, and the span of human life (Wilkinson 115). The triad of warrior goddesses, daughters of the mother goddess Ernmas, comprised of Badhbh goddess of wisdom, Morrigán goddess of prophecy, war and revenge, and Macha would appear to warriors before they were about to be killed as a hideous ghost. They were believed to take the form of crows and ¨feast on the flesh of the fallen¨ (Wilkinson 175). Nemain is the goddess of panic and fear, and she may accompany the warrior triad (Barnes 124).
Another major deity was Cernunnos, the horned god of fertility. He was thought to resemble a man with the horns, ears and hooves of a stag, and he was associated with the cornucopia, fruit and grain. He would often be depicted as a ¨wild¨ god, surrounded by other beasts like a bull, stag, boar an snake (Wilkinson 114).
Taeanis (Taranis) was the god of thunder and was thought to be a harsh god. His followers often made cruel sacrifices, sometimes burning humans alive or drowning them in the bogs in the name of Taeanis. He may be related to the Roman gods Dis Pater, and underworld deity, and Jupiter, god of war. The Celtic god of war was Lugh, but he was also talented in the arts, healing and prophecy, so he was well-respected in the Celtic religion (Wilkinson 115, 174).
Some of the other important Celtic deities were Epona horse goddess of fertility, Dana the mother goddess of all the Celts that moved into Ireland known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, Manannán mac Lir god of the sea, Oghmas (Ogmios) god of eloquence and knowledge, and Oenghus god of love.
Belenus god of the sun, was the Celtic equivalent of the Greek Apollo, and he was linked to the Beltaine celebration. He was thought to be able to heal people and he was a greatly respected deity, not only in Ireland, but also across Europe.
Brigit was made up of three goddesses, all daughters of the sky god, and she controlled human fate.
There are hundreds more gods that the ancient Celts worshipped, but these were some of the most important and widely accepted deities in Ireland and, in some cases, across Europe.
From symbols to creatures, there are a limitless amount of myths and legends the Celts have accumulated over the years; Some date back to the ancient nature religion while some developed during the early Christianity years. They all contribute to the development of the Celtic religious throughout the years up until the coming of contemporary Christianity.
The triskelli (triskele, triskelion) is the three-legged spiral associated with the gods Daghad, Ogme and Lugh, the lifecycle of child, adult and the old, and the elements air, water, fire and earth formed in the center. There seems to be a motif of wholeness or completeness with this symbol.
Mermaids were also in Irish legends as beautiful sea creatures, daughters of Lyr god of the sea. One myth in particular from Cornwall is about Morveren, who fell in love with the voice of a human man; Once he caught her watching him sing, and he chased her to the sea. She took him to the land of Lyr and he spent the rest of his life singing the songs of the sea to protect fisherman from rough waters. It is said that the waves carry his voice to those who listen (Barnes 149). Mermaids were mostly considered to be benevolent, beautiful creatures, half woman and half fish, with green hair and webbed fingers.
The kelpie, a shape-shifting water horse, was more of a Scottish-Gaelic myth, but is also present in Irish mythology. The kelpie was said to haunt rivers and streams, similar to what we know as the Loch Ness monster. The kelpie would attract tired travellers and cause them to fall into the water and drown. This type of ¨sacrifice¨ would be necessary to please the god every so often. A selkie on the other hand was a seal by day and a man or woman by night. Men selkie were benevolent creatures that were thought to bring good luck, while women selkie were dangerous creatures that lured men to their deaths.
Other mythological creatures include bugganes, fairies, leprechauns, pixies, etc. Bugganes, most common in Manx, were deformed humans or ogres that would burrow underground or under old churches, and they were hostile, ugly creatures. Fairies, leprechauns and pixies all fell under the category of little people. Leprechauns were aquatic little ugly men, but the lore surrounding them varies from story to story and has developed over time into a little green man with a pot of gold. Another type of fairy is the Bean Sidh (Banshee), queen of the Tuatha civilization previously mentioned, and she would appear to people right before they died. The Lian Sidh was an extremely dangerous love fairy that would turn men into slaves if they refused her love; They would die young and pass over into Tir-na-n-Og, a fairy land (Barnes 138-153).
Each region may have its own myths and legends regarding the different creatures, but overall the stories have similar messages. Within Ireland there are the Ulster and Fenian cycles, and outside of Ireland there are also the Arthurian legends. These legends have less to do with the development of the Celtic religion and more to do with regional ¨history¨. Although both the Ulster Cycle and Fenian Cycle do have a connection to the sun god Lugh within their legend, and both are empowering stories about fighting off Ireland's enemies (Wilkinson 116-117).
Christianity (Brief Overview)
Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century a.d. with St. Patrick and other missionaries. The conversion of Ireland is attributed to St. Patrick, though, because in comparison to the rest of Europe, Christianity was patiently and non-violently accepted into their culture. Celtic Christianity allowed for their previous pagan practices to be absorbed into the Christian religion (McCaffrey and Eaton). For this reason, the Celtic Church was set apart from contemporary Christianity until 664 b.c. when the Celtic church was replaced by British Christianity (Barnes 156).
Overall, Irish religion has developed a lot over time, starting out as merely a nature-worship religion, becoming more hierarchical by creating the druid priests, then with the conversion of Christianity, creating the Celtic Church and ultimately the full conversion into contemporary Christianity. Although Ireland is now a Christian nation, some of the old druidism still exists today in Wiccan occult religions, not only in Ireland, but around the world. Even within the Christian country, some of the old myths and legends are still acknowledged and respected, more so out of respect for the national culture than for actually believing in the myths.
More Information About the Celts
Barnes, Ian. The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World. Edison, NJ: Chartwell, 2009. Print.
Bonwick, James. "Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions." Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions Index. Sacred-texts.com, n.d. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/idr/index.htm>
"Celtic Religion." GaelicMatters.com. GaelicMatters.com, 2011. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.gaelicmatters.com/celtic-religion.html>
"Druidism." Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. N.p.: World Book, 2014. 1p. 1. Web. 4 May 2015.
McCaffrey, Carmel and Leo Eaton. “Religion” In Search of Ancient Ireland. PBS, 2002. Web. 4 May 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ancientireland/religion.html>
Martell, Hazel. The Celts. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.
Wilkinson, Philip. Myths & Legends. London: DK, 2009. Print.