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Celtic Callings - Celtic Traditions - Animal Symbols
Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology
A paper for Religion 375 at the University of Michigan by Lars Noodén, 22 November 1992 firstname.lastname@example.org Animals in Celtic and Welsh mythology are tied in with fertility and vitality, because they are living, moving, and growing. They also provide vitality and continued life for the tribes through their meat, skins, and bones. In addition, they are a connection to the realm of spirits and the gods. This connection is seen through their use in the hunt, search for secrets and wisdom. Specific animals have specific associations depending on the characteristics of the type of animal. Birds, fish, serpents, deer, cattle, swine, and so on all tend to be used as symbols. Boars, fishes, serpents, birds, and herd animals are the most frequently described. In addition to representing fertility and wealth, boars symbolize courage and strong warriors (MacCulloch, 356) for they are strong, dangerous, and very hard to kill. Their appearance in dreams and visions also indicates warriors. Isolt's forewarning of the death of Tristan, a great warrior, came in a dream about the death of a great boar (Spector, 85-86). Statues of boars are occasionally found in the company of statues of armed warriors, (Powell, 176) further indicating an association between boars and warriors. Great importance is attached to the bristles of the boar. Perhaps they are the distinguishing characteristic of the animal or symbolize its strength. For example, Fion is killed by stepping on a boar's bristle after breaking a geasa against hunting boars (MacCulloch, 150). Some of the extraordinary boars, that King Arthur fights in Culhwch and Olwen, have bristles that are gold or silver. Conversley, when Menw tries to steal treasures from Twrch Trwyth, he is only able to take a bristle. The pig herders at the start of the Táin, Friuch and Rucht, are named after the bristle and the grunt of the boar, respectively. It is the bristle of the boar, Friuch, that proves to have the most power; in the end, Friuch reborn as Donn Cuilnge destroys Rucht as Finnebach Ai. The bristles of the boar are mentioned many other times implying that they are an important part of the animal. Fish, salmon in particular, are associated with knowledge. The child that grew to be called Taliesin, the wise magician, was found in a fish weir. The significance of the salmon can be seen in many places. Gwyrhr questioned a series of wise animals, each one wiser than the previous, the oldest and wisest of all was the salmon of Llyn Llyw (Ford, 148-149). Cúchulainn used the hero's salmon leap across the Pupils' Bridge to get Scáthach's stronghold in order to gain access to Scáthach's advanced knowledge of arms. To gain the secrets Cúchulainn had to use the hero's salmon leap to Scáthach herself in order to gain the secrets reserved for her family. Each leap in the land of sorcery brought Cúchulainn to greater knowledge. Their wisdom can also be passed on by eating. The magic salmon gain the power of wisdom by consuming the hazel nuts that drop into sacred springs (MacCulloch, 377). By symbolically eating the salmon of wisdom, Demne gained such enormous wisdom that he was renamed (Ford, 20). Perhaps this is at the root of the modern practice where children are told to eat fish to increase their intelligence. Serpents and dragons symbolize trouble. Whenever they appear, strife and infertility follow. King Arthur's troubles with the future of his kingdom are presaged by dreams of dragons and serpents at the time of Sir Mordred's conception. King Arthur drives them out, but is wounded (Baines, 36). King Arthur is finally devoured by them in his last dream, subsequently his next battle is when Sir Mordred kills him. It is interesting to note that it is the appearance of a snake that initiates the battle. The swine herders before the Tain, Friuch and Rucht, ruin each other's land with snow during their magical fight, while in the forms of dragons (Ford, 48). Dragons should be particularly troubling to a king, because the king is the symbol of the fertility of the tribe and its land and the dragons are the counter symbol, laying waste to the land and preventing new growth. Birds are usually used to represent prophetic knowledge, (Davidson, 91) bloodshed, and skill. In an omen, birds can be either the message or the messenger. For example, Morrígan came in the shape of a bird to warn the Brown Bull (Kinsella , 98). The interpretation of their calls and movements can lead to knowledge of future events. Birds, especially ravens and crows, usually presage bloodshed and battle, when they are associated with it, sticking with the theme of prophesy. Deirdre's dream of three birds drawing blood foreshadowed death and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was shedding rotting flesh and maggots while in the form of an eagle. The Irish war goddesses were said to call the ravens down to battle fields to feast on the flesh of the slain (Davidson, 98). Even normal, modern crows and ravens descend to feed on corpses along the road. Birds can also be used to demonstrate a warrior's prowess by their method of capture. Lleu Llaw Gyffes was so skilled he could hit birds with a stone without killing them outright (Ford, 101). Cúchulainn demonstrated even more prowess capturing birds skillfully, but his son, Connla was still more skilled. He could not only stun them with a stone, but also with only his voice (Kinsella , 39, 91). Horses, cattle, and pigs represent fertility. Horse, cattle, and pig bones are found in Welsh and Celtic graves, (Powell, 28) indicating that they were very important to those cultures. The prosperity of the clan is
magic is much more prevalent and sometimes even time passes differently there. pigs became added to the diet of the Irish. Wells. 23). Under a spell. The Celts believed that souls were manifested as tiny animals or beings(MacCulloch. an owl. Davidson(87) mentions a less mythical middle-Irish manuscript describing how to determine the approach of visitors through interpretation of bird calls. 37). 173) and Sétanta. 65). Davidson (54) Davidson described rituals where the leader of the tribe mated with a horse. without his hunting party or his horse (Baines. but they are not a natural type of white or red.While pursuing a large. it is quite likely that they are merely symbols of hard times. 71). The bull.23/12/13 Celtic Callings . ruining the land and preventing daily activities (Spector. They became reborn as the extraordinary bulls Finnebach Ai and Donn Cuailnge. and Donn Cuailnge who were all consumed by their mothers as tiny creatures and then reborn. suggesting at least partial survival of their personalities. animals figured strongly with fertility in Celtic and Welsh mythology. and through their use in rituals. A vague. 98-99). would be proportionally important to the success and survival of the tribe. symbolized the herd and its fertility just as the king would symbolize the clan and its fertility. have been the cause for destruction or loss of fertility. Birth and rebirth are fertility. By and large birds are associated with speech. Two dragons were heard screaming on the island of Britain every May 1st. However. 37). www. very small creatures. later known as Cúchulainn. If such a magical being was eaten by a female. red ears. Finnebach Ai. A few animals are associated with infertility because their success is incompatible with the survival of the tribe. 77). The magical animals are noteworthy in appearance and get the attention of the hunter by their supernatural shape. hoards of warriors disguised as mice ravaged Manawydon's wheat. Gwyrhyr & Arthur's messengers conversed with an eagle. Animals are used to bring knowledge directly by speech.Celtic Traditions . 42-45). The dogs appear with "glittering bright white" and red ears that glitter as brightly as their white bodies (Ford. then it would grow until she gave birth to it. Eating special animals provided Celts with knowledge. the most common way of gaining knowledge from animals in Welsh and Celtic mythology was to talk with them or to interpret their actions. magical prey out of the world of the mortals and into a place of magic.com/resources/celtic_traditions/celtic_religion/animal_symbology. a magical site. rivers. They just happened. magical power. through what they symbolize. Cattle were a major Celtic food source (Davidson. When Demne tastes by accident the salmon of wisdom caught by Finn Éces (Ford. a blackbird. and Taliesin even described himself as having previously been Gwion Bach. Sétanta. No specific causes were given for the arrival of the dragons. tiny creature in a drink. plentiful animals. In these places. thus joining the fertility of the horse with the tribe's. There are many other examples of the pursuit of supernatural beasts throughout Celtic and Welsh mythology with the common characteristic being their unnatural. The theme of the hunt uses animals to pass to and from the realm of magic and the gods in Celtic and Welsh mythology. white deer. color. like the mist descending over land (Ford. white color. Rhiannon arrives from the other world on her white horse at an earthen mound (Ford. and this caused sterility in all living creatures of the land and water (Ford. However. springs. Some heros have gained knowledge of the speech of birds. Exceptionally magic or ancient animals speak the language of humans and can pass on their wisdom through speech. and were consumed by cows while fighting each other in a battle of magic. and a salmon to learn ancient knowledge from them (Ford. 52)and as such. A dragon briefly ravaged Ireland.htm 2/4 . 17-18). Both Taliesin and Cúchulainn had extraordinary abilities extending to the supernatural. the chosen party pursues an unusually fleet of foot.celticcallings. but no clear purpose was given to the nine scores of birds that consumed the fertility of the fields of Ulster (Kinsella . A special understanding of the speech of animals can yield a great advantage. Branwen took an ordinary starling and taught it to understand enough speech to find her brother (Ford. possibly the soul of the god Lug (Kinsella . Davidson(143) mentions the use of animal hides to enhance the contents of dreams. destroying the fertility of his land as revenge for Gwawl (Ford. Horses were also seen to symbolize fertility. 82-87). King Arthur arrives at Sir Pellinore's well. 80) which leads them and their dogs to a magical trap. Lleu Llaw Gyffes was grown from "some little thing" (Ford. Other ways to enter the other world are by charm. and earthen mounds are some of the magical places that border with or coexist in the other world.Animal Symbols reflected in the prosperity of its herds. A prosperous tribe was indicated by healthy. 148-149). Fertility and continuation of the clan was a major concern of the Celtic and Welsh peoples. 113-116). dragons indicate lack of fertility. Taliesin had been Gwion Bach disguised as a grain of wheat (Ford. Later. or by spell. 20) he gains such great wisdom that he is renamed. had been a vague. So. For example. more earthly explanations. Prince Pwyll encounters king Arawn's dogs from the other world. Pryderi and Manawydan pursue a "gleaming white boar" (Ford. which is the leader of the cattle. 21). Here again. like the song from magical birds (Ford. 164. 160). For example. a stag. They continued to escalate their combat by involving the tribes of Ireland. The dragons had to be destroyed in order to restore the fertility of the land. glowing. during the excitement of the hunt. like revenge or a curse. This is illustrated in the rebirths of Taliesin. speed. Friuch and Rucht changed into maggots. and power. enabling them to be warned of danger or told secrets by the birds. The bright white animals from the other world sometimes have bright.
They arrived bearing honey and left with blood. H. This happens in the story Math Son of Mathonwy. The two pig keepers. 87. and King Arawn are examples. 22-43. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. However. animal skins to enhance dreams. or birds as converyors of secrets. symbolizing treachery on the part of king Conchobar (Pilkington. dreams of water beast as omens.23/12/13 Celtic Callings . Rhiannon's arrival on a supernatural horse. T.htm 3/4 . Spirits and supernatural beings also take animal forms to guard something. dragons and sterility. The god Lug may have become the small life that Deichtine consumed in order to become Cúchulainn. Friuch and Rucht. shape changing as a punishment. he was defeated in a battle during the civil war with Sir Mordred (Baines. each holy place generally has a spirit guardian in the form of an animal. In conclusion. a mound. Spirits and supernatural beings also take animal forms. serpent. Kinsella. 1977. ravens and battle. often temporarily. or a grove often is likely to have its own spirit. Horses as fertility symbols. a river. divination from animal movement.R. xi-xx. Movements of smaller animals. Penguin Books: New York. use birds to demonstrate prowess.supernatural dogs. 173). the forms changed into are most often those of animals. Clark : Edinburgh. 118-136. tiny animals as souls. Bibliography Baines. such as birds and rabbits. USA. 46-50). dragons as infertility. Each well. 472-512 Return to: King Arthur's dragons and serpents. also. Another example of an omen is Deirdre's dream of the three great birds. boar bristles. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. 195). before being reborn to guard a land or clan and thus its fertility. King Arthur dreamt of being devoured by serpents. dragons. Generally. Shape changing is another theme generally involving animals. and herd animals are closely connected with the physical well being of the tribe. Ellis. and other water beasts. 497-498). trans. bird songs or mist to leave mortal world. Ford. www. shape changing in battle. King Arthur was destroyed by this mass of troubles. 1988. Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. Scotland 1911. and mice and hard times.celticcallings. Return to: wisdom of the salmon. salmon gain wisdom. The serpents and dragons alone mean great troubles within the land.com/resources/celtic_traditions/celtic_religion/animal_symbology. Merlin. University of California Press: Berkeley. assumed the shapes of many creatures to try to gain an advantage over one another after their rivalry escalated into a long fight (Kinsella . 132137). Morrígan fought against Cúchulainn using three different animal shapes in her efforts to gain an advantage (Kinsella . Return to: boars as symbols of strength and courage. Sometimes humans are changed into the shape of other humans. MacCulloch and Davidson make several references to people being changed into animals as punishment. England. Divination of future events and past wisdom can be gained through proper use of animals. Pwyll. Another is Lleu Llaw Gyffes' escape from an assassination by fleeing in the shape of an eagle (Ford. Return to: birds as messengers. One example that describes shape changing in a defensive manner is Gwion Bach's attempt to escape from Ceridwen by using different animal forms (Ford. Battle while in animal form is commonly seen during a fight between two powerful opponents. J. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. NY. trans. the guardian of the tribe of Ulster. King Uther Pendragon.Animal Symbols Animals appear as an omen by their appearance and activity through a symbolic message. Thus. Davidson. The Tain. cattle as food for the Celts. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse. the most frequently used animal symbols of the boar. Keith. 107 Return to: birds. pursuing a magical boar into other worlds. Thomas. gaining wisdom through eating salmon.Celtic Traditions . CA. divination from animal movement. According to Celtic myths. a spring. bird. 77. flock of birds consuming crops of Ulster. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 90. A. 106-107). MacCulloch. USA. 219. because the next day. NY.Kinsella . Water places would have a guardian in the form of a fish(MacCulloch. 150-153. 177). 164. 1969. small creatures as souls. Connla's use of birds to demonstrate prowess. Patrick K. trans. On a smaller scale. The type of animal and their activity is the substance of the message. 247). 1962. On the eve of his battle with Sir Mordred. 186). MacCulloch. animals symbolize the essence of fertility and vitality in Welsh and Celtic mythology. Gods from the other world can assume animal forms for other reasons. the animal shape is usually taken voluntarily in order to guard something or to gain an advantage in combat.. white deer. shape changing as a punishment. 11. spirit guardians. have also been interpreted to divine the future (Davidson. and T. USA. Very powerful opponents take the shapes of animals for extra power. Not all shape changes in battle are offensive. horse and tribe's fertility. fish.
USA. Spector.23/12/13 Celtic Callings .htm 4/4 . NY. cattle. 127-232 Return to: birds as omens in dreams. 1973 Return to: boars as warriors or dragons and infertility. Return to: boars and warriors or horses. Northwestern University Press: Evanston. The Celts. Sharkey. The Romance of Tristan and Isolt.. 1980. NY. Powell.. Celtic Mysteries: The Ancient Religion.Celtic Traditions . USA. 1975. F. "Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne.G.com/resources/celtic_traditions/celtic_religion/animal_symbology.Animal Symbols Pilkington. www. USA. ed. Norman B.E. and pigs in Celtic graves. trans. Crossroad: New York.. T. New Ed.celticcallings. England 1965. M. The Bodley Head: London." The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erin. Thames and Hudson: New York. John.
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