Celtic Festivals

By J. A. MacCulloch.

The Celtic year was not at first regulated by the solstices and equinoxes, but by some method connected with agriculture or with the seasons. Later, the year was a lunar one, and there is some evidence of attempts at synchronizing solar and lunar time. But time was mainly measured by the moon, while in all calculations night preceded day.[889] Thus oidhche Samhain was the night preceding Samhain (November 1st), not the following night. The usage survives in our “sennight” and “fortnight.” In early times the year had two, possibly three divisions, marking periods in pastoral or agricultural life, but it was afterwards divided into four periods, while the year began with the winter division, opening at Samhain. A twofold, subdivided into a fourfold division is found in Irish texts,[890] and may be tabulated as follows:--

1st quarter, Geimredh, beginning with the A. Geimredh          festival of Samhain, November 1st.
(winter half)

2nd quarter, Earrach, beginning February 1st (sometimes called Oimelc).

3rd quarter, Samradh, beginning with the
. Samhradh          festival of Beltane, May 1st (called also
(summer half)         Cet-soman or Cet-samain, 1st day of
                                 Samono-s; cf. Welsh Cyntefyn).

 4th quarter, Foghamhar, beginning with                           the festival of Lugnasadh, August 1st
                       (sometimes called Brontroghain).


These divisions began with festivals, and clear traces of three of them occur over the whole Celtic area, but the fourth has now been merged in S. Brigit’s day. Beltane and Samhain marked the beginning of the two great divisions, and were perhaps at first movable festivals, according as the signs of summer or winter appeared earlier or later. With the adoption of the Roman calendar some of the festivals were displaced, e.g. in Gaul, where the Calends of January took the place of Samhain, the ritual being also transferred.

None of the four festivals is connected with the times of equinox and solstice. This points to the fact that originally the Celtic year was independent of these. But Midsummer day was also observed not only by the Celts, but by most European folk, the ritual resembling that of Beltane. It has been held, and an old tradition in Ireland gives some support to the theory, that under Christian influences the old pagan feast of Beltane was merged in that of S. John Baptist on Midsummer day.[891] But, though there are Christian elements in the Midsummer ritual, denoting a desire to bring it under Church influence, the pagan elements in folk-custom are strongly marked, and the festival is deeply rooted in an earlier paganism all over Europe. Without much acquaintance with astronomy, men must have noted the period of the sun’s longest course from early times, and it would probably be observed ritually. The festivals of Beltane and Midsummer may have arisen independently, and entered into competition with each other. Or Beltane may have been an early pastoral festival marking the beginning of summer when the herds went out to pasture, and Midsummer a more purely agricultural festival.  And since their ritual aspect and purpose as seen in folk-custom are similar, they may eventually have borrowed each from the other. Or they may be later separate fixed dates of an earlier movable summer festival.  For our purpose we may here consider them as twin halves of such a festival. Where Midsummer was already observed, the influence of the Roman calendar would confirm that observance. The festivals of the Christian year also affected the older observances. Some of the ritual was transferred to saints’ days within the range of the pagan festival days, thus the Samhain ritual is found observed on S. Martin’s day. In other cases, holy days took the place of the old festivals—All Saints’ and All Souls’ that of Samhain, S. Brigit’s day that of February 1st, S.  John Baptist’s day that of Midsummer, Lammas that of Lugnasad, and some attempt was made to hallow, if not to oust, the older ritual.

The Celtic festivals being primarily connected with agricultural and pastoral life, we find in their ritual survivals traces not only of a religious but of a magical view of things, of acts designed to assist the powers of life and growth. The proof of this will be found in a detailed examination of the surviving customs connected with them.



Samhain,[892] beginning the Celtic year, was an important social and religious occasion. The powers of blight were beginning their ascendancy, yet the future triumph of the powers of growth was not forgotten. Probably Samhain had gathered up into itself other feasts occurring earlier or later. Thus it bears traces of being a harvest festival, the ritual of the earlier harvest feast being transferred to the winter feast, as the Celts found themselves in lands where harvest is not gathered before late autumn. The harvest rites may, however, have been associated with threshing rather than ingathering. Samhain also contains in its ritual some of the old pastoral cults, while as a New Year feast its ritual is in great part that of all festivals of beginnings.

New fire was brought into each house at Samhain from the sacred bonfire,[893] itself probably kindled from the need-fire by the friction of pieces of wood. This preserved its purity, the purity necessary to a festival of beginnings.[894] The putting away of the old fires was probably connected with various rites for the expulsion of evils, which usually occur among many peoples at the New Year festival. By that process of dislocation which scattered the Samhain ritual over a wider period and gave some of it to Christmas, the kindling of the Yule log may have been originally connected with this festival.

Divination and forecasting the fate of the inquirer for the coming year also took place. Sometimes these were connected with the bonfire, stones placed in it showing by their appearance the fortune or misfortune awaiting their owners.[895] Others, like those described by Burns in his “Hallowe’en,” were unconnected with the bonfire and were of an erotic nature.[896]

The slaughter of animals for winter consumption which took place at Samhain, or, as now, at Martinmas, though connected with economic reasons, had a distinctly religious aspect, as it had among the Teutons.  In recent times in Ireland one of the animals was offered to S. Martin, who may have taken the place of a god, and ill-luck followed the non-observance of the custom.[897] The slaughter was followed by general feasting. This later slaughter may be traced back to the pastoral stage, in which the animals were regarded as divine, and one was slain annually and eaten sacramentally. Or, if the slaughter was more general, the animals would be propitiated. But when the animals ceased to be worshipped, the slaughter would certainly be more general, though still preserving traces of its original character. The pastoral sacrament may also have been connected with the slaying and eating of an animal representing the corn-spirit at harvest time. In one legend S. Martin is associated with the animal slain at Martinmas, and is said to have been cut up and eaten in the form of an ox,[898] as if a former divine animal had become an anthropomorphic divinity, the latter being merged in the personality of a Christian saint.

Other rites, connected with the Calends of January as a result of dislocation, point also in this direction. In Gaul and Germany riotous processions took place with men dressed in the heads and skins of animals.[899] This rite is said by Tille to have been introduced from Italy, but it is more likely to have been a native custom.[900] As the people ate the flesh of the slain animals sacramentally, so they clothed themselves in the skins to promote further contact with their divinity.  Perambulating the township sunwise dressed in the skin of a cow took place until recently in the Hebrides at New Year, in order to keep off misfortune, a piece of the hide being burned and the smoke inhaled by each person and animal in the township.[901] Similar customs have been found in other Celtic districts, and these animal disguises can hardly be separated from the sacramental slaughter at Samhain.[902]

Evils having been or being about to be cast off in the New Year ritual, a few more added to the number can make little difference. Hence among primitive peoples New Year is often characterized by orgiastic rites.  These took place at the Calends in Gaul, and were denounced by councils and preachers.[903] In Ireland the merriment at Samhain is often mentioned in the texts,[904] and similar orgiastic rites lurk behind the Halloween customs in Scotland and in the license still permitted to youths in the quietest townships of the West Highlands at Samhain eve.

Samhain, as has been seen, was also a festival of the dead, whose ghosts were fed at this time.[905]

As the powers of growth were in danger and in eclipse in winter, men thought it necessary to assist them. As a magical aid the Samhain bonfire was chief, and it is still lit in the Highlands. Brands were carried round, and from it the new fire was lit in each house. In North Wales people jumped through the fire, and when it was extinct, rushed away to escape the “black sow” who would take the hindmost.[906] The bonfire represented the sun, and was intended to strengthen it. But representing the sun, it had all the sun’s force, hence those who jumped through it were strengthened and purified. The Welsh reference to the hindmost and to the black sow may point to a former human sacrifice, perhaps of any one who stumbled in jumping through the fire. Keating speaks of a Druidic sacrifice in the bonfire, whether of man or beast is not specified.[907] Probably the victim, like the scapegoat, was laden with the accumulated evils of the year, as in similar New Year customs elsewhere. Later belief regarded the sacrifice, if sacrifice there was, as offered to the powers of evil—the black sow, unless this animal is a reminiscence of the corn-spirit in its harmful aspect. Earlier powers, whether of growth or of blight, came to be associated with Samhain as demoniac beings—the “malignant bird flocks” which blighted crops and killed animals, the samhanach which steals children, and Mongfind the banshee, to whom “women and the rabble” make petitions on Samhain eve.[908] Witches, evil-intentioned fairies, and the dead were particularly active then.

Though the sacrificial victim had come to be regarded as an offering to the powers of blight, he may once have represented a divinity of growth or, in earlier times, the corn-spirit. Such a victim was slain at harvest, and harvest is often late in northern Celtic regions, while the slaying was sometimes connected not with the harvest field, but with the later threshing. This would bring it near the Samhain festival. The slaying of the corn-spirit was derived from the earlier slaying of a tree or vegetation-spirit embodied in a tree and also in a human or animal victim. The corn-spirit was embodied in the last sheaf cut as well as in an animal or human being.[909] This human victim may have been regarded as a king, since in late popular custom a mock king is chosen at winter festivals.[910] In other cases the effigy of a saint is hung up and carried round the different houses, part of the dress being left at each. The saint has probably succeeded to the traditional ritual of the divine victim.[911] The primitive period in which the corn-spirit was regarded as female, with a woman as her human representative, is also recalled in folk-custom. The last sheaf is called the Maiden or the Mother, while, as in Northamptonshire, girls choose a queen on S.  Catharine’s day, November 26th, and in some Christmas pageants “Yule’s wife,” as well as Yule, is present, corresponding to the May queen of the summer festival.[912] Men also masqueraded as women at the Calends.  The dates of these survivals may be explained by that dislocation of the Samhain festival already pointed out. This view of the Samhain human sacrifices is supported by the Irish offerings to the Fomorians—gods of growth, later regarded as gods of blight, and to Cromm Cruaich, in both cases at Samhain.[913] With the evolution of religious thought, the slain victim came to be regarded as an offering to evil powers.

This aspect of Samhain, as a festival to promote and assist festivity, is further seen in the belief in the increased activity of fairies at that time. In Ireland, fairies are connected with the Tuatha De Danann, the divinities of growth, and in many folk-tales they are associated with agricultural processes. The use of evergreens at Christmas is perhaps also connected with the carrying of them round the fields in older times, as an evidence that the life of nature was not extinct.[914]

Samhain may thus be regarded as, in origin, an old pastoral and agricultural festival, which in time came to be looked upon as affording assistance to the powers of growth in their conflict with the powers of blight. Perhaps some myth describing this combat may lurk behind the story of the battle of Mag-tured fought on Samhain between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians. While the powers of blight are triumphant in winter, the Tuatha Dea are represented as the victors, though they suffer loss and death. Perhaps this enshrines the belief in the continual triumph of life and growth over blight and decay, or it may arise from the fact that Samhain was both a time of rejoicing for the ingathered harvest, and of wailing for the coming supremacy of winter and the reign of the powers of blight.



In Cormac’s Glossary and other texts, “Beltane” is derived from bel-tene, “a goodly fire,” or from bel-dine, because newly-born (dine) cattle were offered to Bel, an idol-god.[915] The latter is followed by those who believe in a Celtic Belus, connected with Baal. No such god is known, however, and the god Belenos is in no way connected with the Semitic divinity. M. D’Arbois assumes an unknown god of death, Beltene (from beltu, “to die”), whose festival Beltane was.[916] But Beltane was a festival of life, of the sun shining in his strength. Dr.  Stokes gives a more acceptable explanation of the word. Its primitive form was belo-te[p]nia, from belo-s, “clear,” “shining,” the root of the names Belenos and Belisama, and te[p]nos, “fire.” Thus the word would mean something like “bright fire,” perhaps the sun or the bonfire, or both.[917]

The folk-survivals of the Beltane and Midsummer festivals show that both were intended to promote fertility.

One of the chief ritual acts at Beltane was the kindling of bonfires, often on hills. The house-fires in the district were often extinguished, the bonfire being lit by friction from a rotating wheel—the German “need-fire.”[918] The fire kept off disease and evil, hence cattle were driven through it, or, according to Cormac, between two fires lit by Druids, in order to keep them in health during the year.[919] Sometimes the fire was lit beneath a sacred tree, or a pole covered with greenery was surrounded by the fuel, or a tree was burned in the fire.[920] These trees survive in the Maypole of later custom, and they represented the vegetation-spirit, to whom also the worshippers assimilated themselves by dressing in leaves. They danced sunwise round the fire or ran through the fields with blazing branches or wisps of straw, imitating the course of the sun, and thus benefiting the fields.[921] For the same reason the tree itself was probably borne through the fields. Houses were decked with boughs and thus protected by the spirit of vegetation.[922]

An animal representing the spirit of vegetation may have been slain. In late survivals of Beltane at Dublin, a horse’s skull and bones were thrown into the fire,[923] the attenuated form of an earlier sacrifice or slaying of a divine victim, by whom strength was transferred to all the animals which passed through the fire. In some cases a human victim may have been slain. This is suggested by customs surviving in Perthshire in the eighteenth century, when a cake was broken up and distributed, and the person who received a certain blackened portion was called the “Beltane carline” or “devoted.” A pretence was made of throwing him into the fire, or he had to leap three times through it, and during the festival he was spoken of as “dead.”[924] Martin says that malefactors were burned in the fire,[925] and though he cites no authority, this agrees with the Celtic use of criminals as victims.  Perhaps the victim was at one time a human representative of the vegetation-spirit.

Beltane cakes or bannocks, perhaps made of the grain of the sacred last sheaf from the previous harvest, and therefore sacramental in character, were also used in different ways in folk-survivals. They were rolled down a slope—a magical imitative act, symbolising and aiding the course of the sun. The cake had also a divinatory character. If it broke on reaching the foot of the slope this indicated the approaching death of its owner. In another custom in Perthshire, part of a cake was thrown over the shoulder with the words, “This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep; this to thee, O fox, preserve thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded crow; this to thee, O eagle.” Here there is an appeal to beneficial and noxious powers, whether this was the original intention of the rite.[926] But if the cakes were made of the last sheaf, they were probably at one time eaten sacramentally, their sacrificial use emerging later.

The bonfire was a sun-charm, representing and assisting the sun.  Rain-charms were also used at Beltane. Sacred wells were visited and the ceremony performed with their waters, these perhaps being sprinkled over the tree or the fields to promote a copious rainfall for the benefit of vegetation. The use of such rites at Beltane and at other festivals may have given rise to the belief that wells were especially efficacious then for purposes of healing. The custom of rolling in the grass to benefit by May dew was probably connected with magical rites in which moisture played an important part.[927]

The idea that the powers of growth had successfully combated those of blight may have been ritually represented. This is suggested by the mimic combats of Summer and Winter at this time, to which reference has already been made. Again, the May king and queen represent earlier personages who were regarded as embodying the spirits of vegetation and fertility at this festival, and whose marriage or union magically assisted growth and fertility, as in numerous examples of this ritual marriage elsewhere.[928] It may be assumed that a considerable amount of sexual license also took place with the same magical purpose. Sacred marriage and festival orgy were an appeal to the forces of nature to complete their beneficial work, as well as a magical aid to them in that work. Analogy leads to the supposition that the king of the May was originally a priest-king, the incarnation of the spirit of vegetation.  He or his surrogate was slain, while his bodily force was unabated, in order that it might be passed on undiminished to his successor. But the persistent place given to the May queen rather than to the king suggests the earlier prominence of women and of female spirits of fertility or of a great Mother-goddess in such rites. It is also significant that in the Perthshire ritual the man chosen was still called the Beltane carlane or cailleach (“old woman”). And if, as Professor Pearson maintains, witch orgies are survivals of old sex-festivals, then the popular belief in the activity of witches on Beltane eve, also shows that the festival had once been mainly one in which women took part. Such orgies often took place on hills which had been the sites of a cult in former times.[929]



The ritual of the Midsummer festival did not materially differ from that of Beltane, and as folk-survivals show, it was practiced not only by the Celts, but by many other European peoples. It was, in fact, a primitive nature festival such as would readily be observed by all under similar psychic conditions and in like surroundings. A bonfire was again the central rite of this festival, the communal nature of which is seen in the fact that all must contribute materials to it. In local survivals, mayor and priest, representing the earlier local chief and priest, were present, while a service in church preceded the procession to the scene of the bonfire. Dancing sunwise round the fire to the accompaniment of songs which probably took the place of hymns or tunes in honor of the Sun-god, commonly occurred, and by imitating the sun’s action, may have been intended to make it more powerful. The livelier the dance the better would be the harvest.[930] As the fire represented the sun, it possessed the purifying and invigorating powers of the sun; hence leaping through the fire preserved from disease, brought prosperity, or removed barrenness. Hence also cattle were driven through the fire. But if any one stumbled as he leaped, ill-luck was supposed to follow him.  He was devoted to the fadets or spirits,[931] and perhaps, like the “devoted” Beltane victim, he may formerly have been sacrificed. Animal sacrifices are certainly found in many survivals, the victims being often placed in osier baskets and thrown into the fire. In other districts great human effigies of osier were carried in procession and burned.[932]

The connection of such sacrifices with the periodical slaying of a representative of the vegetation-spirit has been maintained by Mannhardt and Dr. Frazer.[933] As has been seen, periodic sacrifices for the fertility of the land are mentioned by Caesar, Strabo, and Diodorus, human victims and animals being enclosed in an osier image and burned.[934] These images survive in the osier effigies just referred to, while they may also be connected with the custom of decking the human representatives of the spirit of vegetation in greenery. The holocausts may be regarded as extensions of the earlier custom of slaying one victim, the incarnation of a vegetation-spirit. This slaying was gradually regarded as sacrificial, but as the beneficial effect of the sacrifice on growth was still believed in, it would naturally be thought that still better effects would be produced if many victims were offered. The victims were burned in a fire representing the sun, and vegetation was thus doubly benefited, by the victims and by the sun-god.

The oldest conception of the vegetation-spirit was that of a tree-spirit which had power over rain, sunshine, and every species of fruitfulness.  For this reason a tree had a prominent place both in the Beltane and Midsummer feasts. It was carried in procession, imparting its benefits to each house or field. Branches of it were attached to each house for the same purpose. It was then burned, or it was set up to procure benefits to vegetation during the year and burned at the next Midsummer festival.[935] The sacred tree was probably an oak, and, as has been seen, the mistletoe rite probably took place on Midsummer eve, as a preliminary to cutting down the sacred tree and in order to secure the life or soul of the tree, which must first be secured before the tree could be cut down. The life of the tree was in the mistletoe, still alive in winter when the tree itself seemed to be dead. Such beliefs as this concerning the detachable soul or life survive in Maerchen, and are still alive among savages.[936]

Folk-survivals show that a human or an animal representative of the vegetation-spirit, brought into connection with the tree, was also slain or burned along with the tree.[937] Thus the cutting of the mistletoe would be regarded as a preliminary to the slaying of the human victim, who, like the tree, was the representative of the spirit of vegetation.

The bonfire representing the sun, and the victims, like the tree, representing the spirit of vegetation, it is obvious why the fire had healing and fertilizing powers, and why its ashes and the ashes or the flesh of the victims possessed the same powers. Brands from the fire were carried through the fields or villages, as the tree had been, or placed on the fields or in houses, where they were carefully preserved for a year. All this aided growth and prosperity, just as the smoke of the fire, drifting over the fields, produced fertility. Ashes from the fire, and probably the calcined bones or even the flesh of the victims, were scattered on the fields or preserved and mixed with the seed corn.  Again, part of the flesh may have been eaten sacramentally, since, as has been seen, Pliny refers to the belief of the Celts in the eating of human flesh as most wholesome.

In the Stone Age, as with many savages, a circle typified the sun, and as soon as the wheel was invented its rolling motion at once suggested that of the sun. In the Edda the sun is “the beautiful, the shining wheel,” and similar expressions occur in the Vedas. Among the Celts the wheel of the sun was a favorite piece of symbolism, and this is seen in various customs at the Midsummer festival. A burning wheel was rolled down a slope or trundled through the fields, or burning brands were whirled round so as to give the impression of a fiery wheel. The intention was primarily to imitate the course of the sun through the heavens, and so, on the principle of imitative magic, to strengthen it.  But also, as the wheel was rolled through the fields, so it was hoped that the direct beneficial action of the sun upon them would follow.  Similar rites might be performed not only at Midsummer, but at other times, to procure blessing or to ward off evil, e.g. carrying fire round houses or fields or cattle or round a child deiseil or sunwise,[938] and, by a further extension of thought, the blazing wheel, or the remains of the burning brands thrown to the winds, had also the effect of carrying off accumulated evils.[939]

Beltane and Midsummer thus appear as twin halves of a spring or early summer festival, the intention of which was to promote fertility and health. This was done by slaying the spirit of vegetation in his representative—tree, animal, or man. His death quickened the energies of earth and man. The fire also magically assisted the course of the sun. Survival of the ancient rites are or were recently found in all Celtic regions, and have been constantly combated by the Church. But though they were continued, their true meaning was forgotten, and they were mainly performed for luck or out of sheer conservatism. Sometimes a Christian aspect was given to them, e.g. by connecting the fires with S.  John, or by associating the rites with the service of the Church, or by the clergy being present at them. But their true nature was still evident as acts of pagan worship and magic which no veneer of Christianity could ever quite conceal.[940]



The 1st of August, coming midway between Beltane and Samhain, was an important festival among the Celts. In Christian times the day became Lammas, but its name still survives in Irish as Lugnasad, in Gaelic as Lunasdal or Lunasduinn, and in Manx as Laa Luanys, and it is still observed as a fair or feast in many districts. Formerly assemblies at convenient centres were held on this day, not only for religious purposes, but for commerce and pleasure, both of these being of course saturated with religion. “All Ireland” met at Taillti, just as “all Gaul” met at Lugudunum, “Lug’s town,” or Lyons, in honor of Augustus, though the feast there had formerly been in honor of the god Lugus.[941] The festival was here Romanized, as it was also in Britain, where its name appears as Goel-aoust, Gul-austus, and Gwyl Awst, now the “August feast,” but formerly the “feast of Augustus,” the name having replaced one corresponding to Lugnasad.[942]

Cormac explains the name Lugnasad as a festival of Lugh mac Ethlenn, celebrated by him in the beginning of autumn, and the Rennes Dindsenchas accounts for its origin by saying that Lug’s foster-mother, Tailtiu, having died on the Calends of August, he directed an assembly for lamentation to be held annually on that day at her tomb.[943] Lug is thus the founder of his own festival, for that it was his, and not Tailtiu’s, is clear from the fact that his name is attached to it. As Lammas was a Christian harvest thanksgiving, so also was Lugnasad a pagan harvest feast, part of the ritual of which passed over to Samhain.  The people made glad before the sun-god—Lug perhaps having that character—who had assisted them in the growth of the things on which their lives depended. Marriages were also arranged at this feast, probably because men had now more leisure and more means for entering upon matrimony. Possibly promiscuous love-making also occurred as a result of the festival gladness, agricultural districts being still notoriously immoral. Some evidence points to the connection of the feast with Lug’s marriage, though this has been allegorized into his wedding the “sovereignty of Erin.” Perhaps we have here a hint of the rite of the sacred marriage, for the purpose of magically fertilizing the fields against next year’s sowing.

Due observance of the feast produced abundance of corn, fruit, milk, and fish. Probably the ritual observed included the preservation of the last sheaf as representing the corn-spirit, giving some of it to the cattle to strengthen them, and mingling it with next year’s corn to impart to it the power of the corn-spirit. It may also have included the slaying of an animal or human incarnation of the corn-spirit, whose flesh and blood quickened the soil and so produced abundance next year, or, when partaken of by the worshippers, brought blessings to them. To neglect such rites, abundant instances of which exist in folk-custom, would be held to result in scarcity. This would also explain, as already suggested, why the festival was associated with the death of Tailtiu or of Carman. The euhemerised queen-goddess Tailtiu and the woman Carman had once been corn-goddesses, evolved from more primitive corn-spirits, and slain at the feast in their female representatives. The story of their death and burial at the festival was a dim memory of this ancient rite, and since the festival was also connected with the sun-god Lug, it was easy to bring him into relationship with the earlier goddess.  Elsewhere the festival, in its memorial aspect, was associated with a king, probably because male victims had come to be representatives of a corn-god who had taken the place of the goddess.


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Some of the ritual of these festivals is illustrated by scattered notices in classical writers, and on the whole they support our theory that the festivals originated in a female cult of spirits or goddesses of fertility. Strabo speaks of sacrifices offered to Demeter and Kore, according to the ritual followed at Samothrace, in an island near Britain, i.e. to native goddesses equated with them. He also describes the ritual of the Namnite women on an island in the Loire. They are called Bacchantes because they conciliated Bacchus with mysteries and sacrifices; in other words, they observed an orgiastic cult of a god equated with Bacchus. No man must set foot on the island, but the women left it once a year for intercourse with the other sex. Once a year the temple of the god was unroofed, and roofed again before sunset. If any woman dropped her load of materials (and it was said this always happened), she was torn in pieces and her limbs carried round the temple.[944] Dionysius Periegetes says the women were crowned with ivy, and celebrated their mysteries by night in honor of Earth and Proserpine with great clamour.[945] Pliny also makes a reference to British rites in which nude women and girls took part, their bodies stained with woad.[946]

At a later time, S. Gregory of Tours speaks of the image of a goddess Berecynthia drawn on a litter through the streets, fields, and vineyards of Augustodunum on the days of her festival, or when the fields were threatened with scarcity. The people danced and sang before it. The image was covered with a white veil.[947] Berecynthia has been conjectured by Professor Anwyl to be the goddess Brigindu, worshipped at Valnay.[948]

These rites were all directed towards divinities of fertility. But in harvest customs in Celtic Scotland and elsewhere two sheaves of corn were called respectively the Old Woman and the Maiden, the corn-spirit of the past year and that of the year to come, and corresponding to Demeter and Kore in early Greek agricultural ritual. As in Greece, so among the Celts, the primitive corn-spirits had probably become more individualised goddesses with an elaborate cult, observed on an island or at other sacred spots. The cult probably varied here and there, and that of a god of fertility may have taken the place of the cult of goddesses. A god was worshipped by the Namnite women, according to Strabo, goddesses according to Dionysius. The mangled victim was probably regarded as representative of a divinity, and perhaps part of the flesh was mixed with the seed-corn, like the grain of the Maiden sheaf, or buried in the earth. This rite is common among savages, and its presence in old European ritual is attested by survivals. That these rites were tabu to men probably points to the fact that they were examples of an older general custom, in which all such rites were in the hands of women who cultivated the earth, and who were the natural priestesses of goddesses of growth and fertility, of vegetation and the growing corn. Another example is found in the legend and procession of Godiva at Coventry—the survival of a pagan cult from which men were excluded.[949]

Pliny speaks of the nudity of the women engaged in the cult. Nudity is an essential part of all primitive agricultural rites, and painting the body is also a widespread ritual act. Dressing with leaves or green stuff, as among the Namnite women, and often with the intention of personating the spirit of vegetation, is also customary. By unveiling the body, and especially the sexual organs, women more effectually represented the goddess of fertility, and more effectually as her representatives, or through their own powers, magically conveyed fertility to the fields. Nakedness thus became a powerful magico-religious symbol, and it is found as part of the ritual for producing rain.[950]

There is thus abundant evidence of the cult of fertility, vegetation, and corn-spirits, who tended to become divinities, male or female. Here and there, through conservatism, the cult remained in the hands of women, but more generally it had become a ritual in which both men and women took part—that of the great agricultural festivals. Where a divinity had taken the place of the vaguer spirits, her image, like that of Berecynthia, was used in the ritual, but the image was probably the successor of the tree which embodied the vegetation-spirit, and was carried through the fields to fertilise them. Similar processions of images, often accompanied by a ritual washing of the image in order to invigorate the divinity, or, as in the similar May-day custom, to produce rain, are found in the Teutonic cult of Nerthus, the Phrygian of Cybele, the Hindu of Bhavani, and the Roman ritual of the Bona Dea. The image of Berecynthia was thus probably washed also. Washing the images of saints, usually to produce rain, has sometimes taken the place of the washing of a divine image, and similarly the relics of a saint are carried through a field, as was the tree or image. The community at Iona perambulated a newly sown field with S. Columba’s relics in time of drought, and shook his tunic three times in the air, and were rewarded by a plentiful rain, and later, by a bounteous harvest.[951]

Many of these local cults were pre-Celtic, but we need not therefore suppose that the Celts, or the Aryans as a whole, had no such cults.[952] The Aryans everywhere adopted local cults, but this they would not have done if, as is supposed, they had themselves outgrown them. The cults were local, but the Celts had similar local cults, and easily accepted those of the people they conquered. We cannot explain the persistence of such primitive cults as lie behind the great Celtic festivals, both in classical times and over the whole area of Europe among the peasantry, by referring them solely to a pre-Aryan folk. They were as much Aryan as pre-Aryan. They belong to those unchanging strata of religion which have so largely supplied the soil in which its later and more spiritual growths have flourished. And among these they still emerge, unchanged and unchanging, like the gaunt outcrops of some ancient rock formation amid rich vegetation and fragrant flowers.


[889] Pliny, xvi. 45; Caesar, vi. 18. See my article “Calendar (Celtic)” in Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Rel. and Ethics, iii. 78 f., for a full discussion of the problems involved.

[890] O’Donovan, Book of Rights, Intro. lii f.

[891] O’Donovan, li.; Bertrand, 105; Keating, 300.

[892] Samhain may mean “summer-end,” from sam, “summer,” and fuin, “sunset” or “end,” but Dr. Stokes (US 293) makes samani- mean “assembly,” i.e. the gathering of the people to keep the feast.

[893] Keating, 125, 300.

[894] See MacBain, CM ix. 328.

[895] Brand, i. 390; Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, ii. 437; Stat. Account, xi. 621.

[896] Hazlitt, 297-298, 340; Campbell, Witchcraft, 285 f.

[897] Curtin, 72.

[898] Fitzgerald, RC vi. 254.

[899] See Chambers, Mediaeval Stage, App. N, for the evidence from canons and councils regarding these.

[900] Tille, Yule and Christmas, 96.

[901] Chambers, Popular Rhymes, 166.

[902] Hutchinson, View of Northumberland, ii. 45; Thomas, Rev. de l’Hist. des Rel. xxxviii. 335 f.

[903] Patrol. Lot. xxxix. 2001.

[904] IT i. 205; RC v. 331; Leahy, i. 57.

[905] See p. 169, supra.

[906] The writer has himself seen such bonfires in the Highlands. See also Hazlitt, 298; Pennant, Tour, ii. 47; Rh[^y]s, HL 515, CFL i.  225-226. In Egyptian mythology, Typhon assailed Horus in the form of a black swine.

[907] Keating, 300.

[908] Joyce, SH ii. 556; RC x. 214, 225, xxiv. 172; O’Grady, ii. 374; CM ix. 209.

[909] See Mannhardt, Mythol. Forschung. 333 f.; Frazer, Adonis, passim; Thomas, Rev. de l’Hist. des Rel. xxxviii. 325 f.

[910] Hazlitt, 35; Chambers, Mediaeval Stage, i. 261.

[911] Chambers, Book of Days, ii. 492; Hazlitt, 131.

[912] Hazlitt, 97; Davies, Extracts from Munic. Records of York, 270.

[913] See p. 237, supra; LL 16, 213.

[914] Chambers, Med. Stage, i. 250 f.

[915] Cormac, s.v. “Belltaine,” “Bel”; Arch. Rev. i. 232.

[916] D’Arbois, ii. 136.

[917] Stokes, US 125, 164. See his earlier derivation, dividing the word into belt, connected with Lithuan. baltas, “white,” and aine, the termination in sechtmaine, “week” (TIG xxxv.).

[918] Need-fire (Gael. Teinne-eiginn, “necessity fire”) was used to kindle fire in time of cattle plague. See Grimm, Teut. Myth. 608 f.; Martin, 113; Jamieson’s Dictionary, s.v. “neidfyre.”

[919] Cormac, s.v.; Martin, 105, says that the Druids extinguished all fires until their dues were paid. This may have been a tradition in the Hebrides.

[920] Joyce, PN i. 216; Hone, Everyday Book, i. 849, ii. 595.

[921] Pennant, Tour in Scotland, i. 291.

[922] Hazlitt, 339, 397.

[923] Hone, Everyday Book, ii. 595. See p. 215, supra.

[924] Sinclair, Stat. Account, xi. 620.

[925] Martin, 105.

[926] For these usages see Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, ii. 439 f.; Sinclair, Stat. Account, v. 84, xi.  620, xv. 517. For the sacramental and sacrificial use of similar loaves, see Frazer, Golden Bough{2}, i. 94, ii. 78; Grimm, Teut. Myth. iii.  1239 f.

[927] New Stat. Account, Wigtownshire, 208; Hazlitt, 38, 323, 340.

[928] See Miss Owen, Folk-lore of the Musquakie Indians, 50; Frazer, Golden Bough{2}, ii. 205.

[929] For notices of Beltane survivals see Keating, 300; Campbell, Journey from Edinburgh, i. 143; Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen, ii.  439 f.; Old Stat. Account, v. 84, xi. 620, xv. 517; Gregor, Folk-lore of N.E. of Scotland, 167. The paganism of the survivals is seen in the fact that Beltane fires were frequently prohibited by Scottish ecclesiastical councils.

[930] Meyrac, Traditions ... des Ardennes, 68.

[931] Bertrand, 119.

[932] Ibid. 407; Gaidoz, 21; Mannhardt, Baumkultus, 514, 523; Brand, i.    8, 323.  

[933] Mannhardt, op. cit. 525 f.; Frazer, Golden Bough{2}, iii. 319.

[934] P. 234, supra.

[935] Frazer, op. cit. i. 74; Brand, i. 222, 237, 246, 318; Hone, Everyday Book, ii. 595; Mannhardt, op. cit. 177; Grimm, Teut.  Myth. 621, 777 f.

[936] See my Childhood of Fiction, ch. v.

[937] Frazer, i. 82, ii. 247 f., 275; Mannhardt, 315 f.

[938] Martin, 117. The custom of walking deiseil round an object still survives, and, as an imitation of the sun’s course, it is supposed to bring good luck or ward off evil. For the same reason the right hand turn was of good augury. Medb’s charioteer, as she departed for the war, made her chariot turn to the right to repel evil omens (LU 55).  Curiously enough, Pliny (xxviii. 2) says that the Gauls preferred the left-hand turn in their religious rites, though Athenaeus refers to the right-hand turn among them. Deiseil is from dekso-s, “right,” and svel, “to turn.”

[939] Hone, i. 846; Hazlitt, ii. 346.

[940] This account of the Midsummer ritual is based on notices found in Hone, Everyday Book; Hazlitt, ii. 347 f.; Gaidoz, Le Dieu Soleil;

Bertrand; Deloche, RC ix. 435; Folk-Lore, xii. 315; Frazer, Golden Bough{2}, iii. 266 f.; Grimm, Teut. Myth. ii. 617 f.; Monnier, 186 f.

[941] RC xvi. 51; Guiraud, Les Assemblees provinciales dans l’Empire Romain.

[942] D’Arbois, i. 215, Les Celtes, 44; Loth, Annales de Bretagne, xiii. No. 2.

[943] RC xvi. 51.

[944] Strabo, iv. 4. 6.

[945] Dion. Per. v. 570.

[946] Pliny, xxii. 1.

[947] Greg, de Glor. Conf. 477; Sulp. Sev. Vita S. Martini, 9; Pass.  S. Symphor. Migne, Pat. Graec. v. 1463, 1466. The cult of Cybele had been introduced into Gaul, and the ritual here described resembles it, but we are evidently dealing here with the cult of a native goddess.  See, however, Frazer, Adonis, 176.

[948] Anwyl, Celtic Religion, 41.

[949] See Hartland, Science of Fairy-Tales, 84 f.

[950] Professor Rh[^y]s suggests that nudity, being a frequent symbol of submission to a conqueror, acquired a similar significance in religious rites (AL 180). But the magical aspect of nudity came first in time.

[951] Adamnan, Vita S. Col. ii. 45.

[952] See Gomme, Ethnology in Folk-lore, 30 f., Village Community, 114.


This is taken from Religion of the Celts.





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