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DIVINATION IN THE CELTIC WORLD
By Baroness Mistress Arwen Evaine ferch Rhys ap Gwynedd
First of all, let's define "Celts." The now-accepted version is that Celts were/are a linguistically related group of people, rather than a tribal or racial or societal or religious or similar-worldview grouping. "Celtic" tribes identified themselves not as Celts, but by their tribal names (Voconces, Brigantes, Belgæ for instance). The word "Celt" may well have come from the Keltoí, the westernmost tribe described by Herodotus. The Keltoí also held land at the source of the river Danube (named for Danu, the Mother Goddess).
The Celts were an oral, rather than letter-learned folk. Essentially, no written records were made or preserved by the early Celts. Their Greek and Roman adversaries set down accounts of the "proud and insolent savages" to their north, but such accounts are not entirely without bias. The Greeks and Romans were trying to exterminate Celts, and their writings were for home use, rather than for posterity and curious folklorists. Subsequent accounts, written during the Christian period, reflect that religion's "take" on things, expressed in a "politically correct" mode.
Divination was an important part of pan-Celtic life. The Mediterranean accounts tell of extremely superstitious Celts studying the bloody, warm, still-pulsing entrails of human sacrifices [Tacitus, Strabo], but since both of those authors weren't what we'd call objective, those accounts may well have been rather highly colored for their target audiences. The use of animal entrails is also controversial, and may not have been commonly practiced.Top of Page
Some things are known about soothsaying in the Celtic world, however. Druids (Irish female Druids were called bandrui) and especially bards often employed divination, omens, prophecy, certain plants, and altered states of consciousness in order to predict the future. Before uttering their prophecies, the Druids would eat acorns, shut themselves away in a dark place, chant, and in other wise attempt to attain an "ecstatic" visionary state similar to that of the Siberian and Sámi shamans. Specialists performed the more elaborate forms of divination, but ordinary folks could on occasion say sooth, especially on Samhain (Novermber 1), also known as Sauwain, Samain, or Sauin. This holiday marked the New Year to the Celts, and auguries were best performed on that day, just as in other cultures, auguries (mostly love, it seems) were performed on January 1. This holiday, according to the records, featured lots of booze. It was also the day upon which one slaughtered pigs. Fires were lit on certain hilltops, and the dead/faerie could walk upon earth, visible even to those who weren't second-sighted. Maidens on the Isle of Man baked "dumb cake" (soddag valloo) directly on the coals on the hearth; this cake was then eaten in total silence by all the women of the household. Then the ladies retired to their beds, hopefully to dream of their intended lovers and husbands-to-be. If a girl filled her mouth with water and lurked just outside a neighbor's house, holding salt in each hand, she would hear the name spoken of her future love.
Patterning divination was also practiced; as in January 1 auguries, molten lead would be poured slowly into water, and the patterns read for insight into the coming year, or for the trade or skill to be acquired during the coming year. Babies born on Samhain were supposed to be year-round augurs, not date-limited for this ability.
Below are several kinds of Celtic soothsaying techniques, for some of which we have the Gaelic terminology.
Díchetal do chennaib (chanting of prophecies): [Ireland]. "Composing on the Fingertips." It is not clear whether this was a form of psychometry, incantation using the fingertips as a memory guide, or even an abbreviated form of palmistry. This technique is vaguely mentioned in the literature, and unfortunately, not described. It has been documented, however, that St. Patrick allowed this practice to continue in Christian times, since none of the pagan deities were called upon or mentioned. Other soothsaying techniques, being overtly pagan, were expunged to the best ability of the Church.
Teinm laeda (psychometry/reading the aura of objects; divination by means of touch). A poem, spell, or short verse may have been recited by the druid, who then touched the object in question with a hazel wand. The bard Moén mac Etnae, holding a bone against a skull, determined not only that it was a dog skull, but also named the dog. In other instances, the diviner first chewed his thumb before attempting the prophesy. Saint Patrick, as a good Christian, banned teinm laeda, as well as imbas forosnal (trance divination), since both techniques involved a prayer/invocation/spell directed to a pagan deity and/or some kind of sacrifice.Top of Page
Imbas forosnai (trance Voyaging/shamanism), also called imbus forosna, himbas forsnai; "Illumination between the hands." The bard-seer-Druid first chewed hunks of raw meat, which were then offered to the dwellers of the Otherworld. Ideally, those dwellers would be so pleased with their gift that they would send the required information (usually the location of a stolen, lost, "borrowed", or hidden item) to the soothsayer's mind before the next day passed. If the Otherworlders refused the masticated largesse, the second stage of the divination ensued. Here, the seer spoke his incantations into his hands, and took care to sleep with his palms against his cheeks. He would then dream the answer. Or so goes the lore.
Ogham (use of letters in divination), also spelled ogam; pronounced "OH-umm" (Irish). These symbols are the closest that some insular Celts (mainly Munster County, Ireland, but inscriptions have been found in Wales and Scotland) came to writing. It is posited that ogham was developed sometime during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, possibly influenced in part by either Roman or Greek letters. Fewer than 400 ogham inscriptions survive, carved on stone. Any wooden sticks with ogham inscriptions have, alas, felt the tooth of time, and have crumbled into dust. Most inscriptions consist of a name and little else. There is no record of ogham being used in divination in period; perhaps it was a code system instead.
Tarbhfleis (Bull-Sleep): perhaps the most elaborate prognostications ritual, one to select the new king. Here, a bard-soothsayer devoured as much raw, warm meat of a slaughtered bull as he could hold, and then wrapped himself in the bull's hastily-liberated bloody hide. The poet would then sleep, to dream of the identity of the new king. If the poet failed his task, his punishment was death It is not clear if it was fur-side in or fur-side out. Somehow, if I were a bard, I would far prefer the former case. Also, being wrapped in an unwashed, untanned bull hide, and with a belly full of raw tough meat doesn't sound terribly conducive to falling asleep and having good dreams. Maybe lots and lots of mead was also a part of the ritual?
In 1769, there is a Scottish Highlands record of a Trotternish district fellow who was sewn up in an ox hide and placed below a tall waterfall [it was not stated whether on land at the base of the fall or in a hollowed-out cave behind the water flow] in order to see the future. This points to a long-enduring "Great Ritual" divination.Top of Page
Cétnad [Ireland]: Bard-soothsayers intoned a special chant through their hands, addressed to the Seven Daughters of the Sea [the daughters otherwise unknown; the poem not preserved] to predict a person's life-duration. Another chant, also intoned through the hands, was for finding lost or stolen property; notably cattle.
Omens: These events, unlike oracles, don't necessarily reveal the future, since they can hint at past or far-off events, as a kind of far-seeing. More than a few omens point to death, injury, or disease. In Yorkshire, England, if a donkey-sized (or slightly smaller) shaggy dark spheroidal critter with eyes, or a shaggy white dog (Padfoot) or [in other regions or England and Scotland] the Barguest or Barrow-ghost, Bear-ghost, which resembled a headless man, white cat, or wraith-like rabbit (all with fiery eyes) came toward you, it was an omen of death. The Barguest's appearance may also indicate the death of a prominent member (élite) of society. One should never strike at (or touch) it, since that allowed the beast to gain power over you. The best thing was to simply get out of its way and sight as quickly as possible.
There are predictive omens, such as a rat found at sea (either swimming for its life or floating dead), which was a sign of pending death by drowning of someone aboard a Scottish ship. If a rat or mouse was seen in a sieve, the boat would surely get as many leaks as there were holes in the sieve. In Irish lore, if a dog howled three nights in a row, that meant that death would strike. The same held for a hen cackling while sitting on her roost, bare spots in a field sown with grain, etc. A horseshoe, if found with its open (heel) end pointing toward you, meant bad luck; the reverse (toe end toward you) meant good luck coming your way.
Oracles: Usually unusual events or items, such as the flight of birds, odd weather, etc. Items which were place-dislocated (such as a sea shell atop a mountain) or time-dislocated (out-of-season flowering of a plant or tree) would also be considered oracular events. Oracles could also be humans who, in trance, prophesied the future, sometimes in disjointed or riddling phraseology.
Prophecy: Attained skill as a result of ritual and/or drugs, while omens and, in some cases, oracles, are unplanned and unsought or "natural" gifts or actions. The prophetic state had to be attained by ritual induction of trance or altered consciousness in order to penetrate the future ahead of time. Prophecy is a forecast of an event, state of being, location of someone or something, etc. Drug use among Druids (outside of the ingestion of well-chewed non-hallucinogenic acorns before a séance) has not been established, as far as can be determined.
Dreams: One could gain access to the Otherworld while in the state of dreaming. A specialized divinatory dream form is the "Bull-sleep", described above.Top of Page
Cat Divination: In Scotland, the future could be predicted by killing a cat. [Do not try this technique unless you want PETA, the Humane Society, and the cops after you!]. Cats were especially linked with weather forecasting. If a cat walked away from the fire, that meant a storm was coming, and if the cat washed its face, that meant rain to come. A ghost cat may have figured in an Irish divination technique, possibly linked to The Cave of the Cats (Clagh Taghairm nan Cat) in County Roscommon.
Crow Divination: The crow, black-feathered and fond of carrion, was linked to the Morrigan, sort of a Celtic Valkyrie type "plied" goddess linked with fated death. They hovered over the dying [doubtless to get first crack at the best parts], and could also inform where the best site for building a new settlement or town should be located. It was considered bad luck to have a crow look down the chimney, for that meant that someone within the house was fated to die in the near future.
Eagle Divination: The eagle was especially linked to oracular divination. The descendants of a person who ate eagle meat would, to the ninth generation, possess extraordinarily high soothsaying abilities. In Wales, it was said that the eagles of Mount Snowdon could control weather, and had oracular powers.
Rabbit Divination:.Boudicca apparently used a hare (or two or more) in a divination ritual before she went into battle (mentioned by Dio Cassius). Rabbits were considered fierce beasts (shades of the Vorpal Bunny!), and eating its meat was taboo to the Continental Celts. It is possible that this prohibition might be a shadow of a former religious role for the coney.
Plant Divination :
Alder wood (Alnus sp.): One of the sacred trees; alder bears its catkins and tiny cones at the same time, and its freshly-cut wood (and sap) turns from white to red upon exposure to air. Thus, alder sap, chewed bark, and wood is a kind of "plant blood". Chopping down an alder tree was thought to be murder, since it was obviously inhabited by a supernatural spirit which bled like ordinary mortals. Alder's association with divination [no specific technique recorded] endured into relatively modern times in rural Scotland. It is interesting that we also find red alder sap used to paint the figures on the Sámi (Lapp) shaman drums, which are used to divine the future for the clan/tribe/family group.
Hazel and Rowan wood was used to make wands (among other things). The former wood is used in teinm laeda (see above); the latter to direct or protect from the vagaries of fairies and supernatural mischief-makers.
Rose: linked with romance and love auguries, and for use in love potionsTop of Page
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