How Nature Shaped Celtic Culture in Ireland

Published by Conor Mulvihill on

The ancient Celts in Ireland honoured the force of nature; they were animists meaning they had a world view that non-human entities – such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects-possess a spiritual essence. They also believed that humans could establish a rapport with these beings. The pagan Celts viewed the presence of the supernatural as central to, and interwoven with, the material world. Every mountain, river, spring, marsh, tree, and rocky outcrop was inspirited.

An explanation for this could be that while the polytheistic cultures of ancient Greece and Rome revolved around urban life, ancient Celtic society was predominantly rural and placed strong emphasis on producing and maintain crops and farmland.

In tribal territories, the ground and waters which received the dead were imbued with sanctity and revered by their living relatives. Sanctuaries were sacred spaces separated from the ordinary world, often in natural locations such as springs, sacred groves or lakes. The spirits of watery places such as lakes, rivers, springs, and bogs were seen as givers of life and as links between the physical realm and the other world. The tutelary goddesses Boann and Sionnan give their names to the rivers Boyne and Shannon, and the tales of these goddesses are the origin stories of the rivers themselves.

Meteorological patterns and phenomena, particularly wind, rain and thunder, were acknowledged as inspirited and propitiated. Tarabis or Tuireann in Irish was the god of thunder while Lugh or Lú in Irish is seen as the god of storms. The threefold goddess Brighid is linked to a number of holy wells and The Morrigan is associated with the River Unius.

The Celts believed that trees had spirits and revered certain trees. The most secret trees of Ireland were the bíle trees – old, sacred trees that stood in central area and were often the social and ceremonial meeting place for a tribe or village. The five sacred Bíles of Ireland were the Ash of Tortu, the Bole of Ross (a yew tree); the Oak of Mugna, and the Ash Dathi. These trees were associated with the five provinces then in existence.

The animals within the Celts environment similarly affected every area of their everyday life, from the economy to hunting and warfare, religious beliefs and rituals, in art and literature. Certain spirits were closely associated with particular animals. Some animals were held to be sacred in their own right; others were viewed as messengers of the spirits or gods.

Boars and Deer frequently appear in tales of the Celtic Otherworld, as it is in the hunt that the hero begins his journey. This motif is the basis for many of the myths attached to Finn mac Cumhaill and boar-hunts particularly feature heavily in Fenian literature. Throughout the lands under Celtic influence, boars appear to symbolise royalty, bravery and prowess in battle. Boars appear on coins and as bronze statues, warriors with boar shaped helmet crests appear on the Gundestrupp cauldron. The boar was often the main dish of warrior feasts.

Bulls and Cows formed the basis for wealth within the community and were seen as a symbol of the Land and of material wealth. Meat, leather, milk and dairy products were of intense value to the tribe.

Dogs are probably the animal most associated with mankind and understandably they appear in many myths. Dogs are viewed as having all the characteristics expected from a ‘best friend’ – companionship, protection and loyalty. The Celts, as already stated, were an agrarian people, and dogs were important in both hunting and the protection of flocks. Dogs also seem have been thought of as denoting great strength in a warrior, and ferocity in battle. Cunobelinus, Cuchullain, Cu Roi, Cynon, etc. all have names linking them to ‘hound’. The very Dogs of War. At the healing sanctuary Nodens (The Gaelic Nuada) at Lydney only one image of the God has been found, whilst at the same site many images of dogs were discovered. The dog was linked with healing, its saliva was thought to heal wounds until recently.

The Horse is firmly linked to a number of Celtic Goddesses, Epona, Rhiannon and Macha, and can be seen to be a symbol of sovereignty and political power. These three Goddesses are an example of the pan-Celtic Goddesses that had equine associations, were also Goddesses of Sovereignty, War, and Fertility, and probably served as a Psychopomp, carrying the dead to the Otherworld.

Deities assuming Bird Forms are common throughout I-E myths, particularly as the means for a God to seek a union with a mortal. The myth of Leda and the conception of Castor and Pollux have clear commonality with a number of Celtic Myths. The conception of numerous heroes, including Cuchulainn and Conaire, involve an Otherworld figure taking the form of a bird. In the tale of Aengus and Caer, the Young God transforms himself into a swan to unite with Caer, also in swan-form, who then returns with him to his palace at Brugh na Boinne.

The admiration and acknowledgment for a beast’s essential nature led easily to reverence of those qualities and abilities which humans did not possess at all or possessed only partially.

The traditions and beliefs of the Irish Celts associated with nature played a strong part in shaping Irish mythology, surviving after Ireland’s conversion to Christianity and playing an important role in Ireland’s cultural identity. Considering this it’s easy to see how Ireland’s myths and legends are famous around the world.

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Conor Mulvihill

Conor is Communications Assistant with the Irish Environmental Network. His background is in science and he has a masters in international relations.