In early thought everything was a person, in the loose meaning then possessed by personality, and many such "persons" were worshipped—earth, sun, moon, sea, wind, etc. This led later to more complete personification, and the sun or earth divinity or spirit was more or less separated from the sun or earth themselves. Some Celtic divinities were thus evolved, but there still continued a veneration of the objects of nature in themselves, as well as a cult of nature spirits or secondary divinities who peopled every part of nature. "Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which are now subservient to the use of man, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honours," cries Gildas.556 This was the true cult of the folk, the "blind people," even when the greater gods were organised, and it has survived with modifications in out-of-the-way places, in spite of the coming of Christianity.
S. Kentigern rebuked the Cambrians for worshipping the elements, which God made for man's use.557 The question of the daughters of Loegaire also throws much light on Celtic nature worship. "Has your god sons or daughters?... Have many fostered his sons? Are his daughters dear and beautiful to men? Is he in heaven or on earth, in the sea, in the rivers, in the mountains, in the valleys?"558 The words suggest a belief in divine beings filling heaven, earth, sea, air, hills, glens, lochs, and rivers, and following human customs. A naïve faith, full of beauty and poetry, even if it had its dark and grim aspects! These powers or personalities had been invoked from time immemorial, but the invocations were soon stereotyped into definite formulas. Such a formula is put into the mouth of Amairgen, the poet of the Milesians, when they were about to invade Erin, and it may have been a magical invocation of the powers of nature at the beginning of an undertaking or in times of danger:
"I invoke the land of Ireland!
Shining, shining sea!
Fertile, fertile mountain!
Abundant river, abundant in waters!
Fish abounding lake!
Fish abounding sea!
Irruption of fish! Fish there!
Bird under wave! Great fish!
Crab hole! Irruption of fish!
Fish abounding sea!"559
A similar formula was spoken after the destruction of Da Derga's Hostel by MacCecht on his finding water. He bathed in it and sang—
"Cold fountain! Surface of strand ...
Sea of lake, water of Gara, stream of river;
High spring well; cold fountain!"560
The goddess Morrigan, after the defeat of the Fomorians, invokes the powers of nature and proclaims the victory to "the royal mountains of Ireland, to its chief waters, and its river mouths."561 It was also customary to take oaths by the elements—heaven, earth, sun, fire, moon, sea, land, day, night, etc., and these punished the breaker of the oath.562 Even the gods exacted such an oath of each other. Bres swore by sun, moon, sea, and land, to fulfil the engagement imposed on him by Lug.563 The formulæ survived into Christian times, and the faithful were forbidden to call the sun and moon gods or to swear by them, while in Breton folk-custom at the present day oaths by sun, moon, or earth, followed by punishment of the oath-breaker by the moon, are still in use.564 These oaths had originated in a time when the elements themselves were thought to be divine, and similar adjurations were used by Greeks and Scandinavians.
While the greater objects of nature were worshipped for themselves alone, the Celts also peopled the earth with spirits, benevolent or malevolent, of rocks, hills, dales, forests, lakes, and streams,565 and while greater divinities of growth had been evolved, they still believed in lesser spirits of vegetation, of the corn, and of fertility, connected, however, with these gods. Some of these still survive as fairies seen in meadows, woodlands, or streams, or as demoniac beings haunting lonely places. And even now, in French folk-belief, sun, moon, winds, etc., are regarded as actual personages. Sun and moon are husband and wife; the winds have wives; they are addressed by personal names and reverenced.566 Some spirits may already have had a demoniac aspect in pagan times. The Tuatha Déa conjured up meisi, "spectral bodies that rise from the ground," against the Milesians, and at their service were malignant sprites—urtrochta, and "forms, spectres, and great queens" called guidemain (false demons). The Druids also sent forth mischievous spirits called siabra. In the Táin there are references to bocânachs, banânaichs, and geniti-glinni, "goblins, eldritch beings, and glen-folk."567 These are twice called Tuatha Dé Danann, and this suggests that they were nature-spirits akin to the greater gods.568 The geniti-glinni would be spirits haunting glen and valley. They are friendly to Cúchulainn in the Táin, but in the Feast of Bricriu he and other heroes fight and destroy them.569 In modern Irish belief they are demons of the air, perhaps fallen angels.570
Much of this is probably pre-Celtic as well as Celtic, but it held its ground because it was dear to the Celts themselves. They upheld the aboriginal cults resembling those which, in the lands whence they came, had been native and local with themselves. Such cults are as old as the world, and when Christianity expelled the worship of the greater gods, younger in growth, the ancient nature worship, dowered with immortal youth,
"bowed low before the blast
In patient deep disdain,"
to rise again in vigour. Preachers, councils, and laws inveighed against it. The old rites continued to be practised, or survived under a Christian dress and colouring. They are found in Breton villages, in Highland glens, in Welsh and Cornish valleys, in Irish townships, and only the spread of school-board education, with its materialism and uninviting common sense, is forcing them at last to yield.
The denunciations of these cults throw some light upon them. Offerings at trees, stones, fountains, and cross-roads, the lighting of fires or candles there, and vows or incantations addressed to them, are forbidden, as is also the worship of trees, groves, stones, rivers, and wells. The sun and moon are not to be called lords. Wizardry, and divination, and the leapings and dancings, songs and choruses of the pagans, i.e. their orgiastic cults, are not to be practised. Tempest-raisers are not to ply their diabolical craft.571 These denunciations, of course, were not without their effect, and legend told how the spirits of nature were heard bewailing the power of the Christian saints, their mournful cries echoing in wooded hollows, secluded valleys, and shores of lake and river.572 Their power, though limited, was not annihilated, but the secrecy in which the old cults often continued to be practised gave them a darker colour. They were identified with the works of the devil, and the spirits of paganism with dark and grisly demons.573 This culminated in the mediæval witch persecutions, for witchcraft was in part the old paganism in a new guise. Yet even that did not annihilate superstition, which still lives and flourishes among the folk, though the actual worship of nature-spirits has now disappeared.
Perhaps the most important object in nature to the early Celts as to most primitive folk was the moon. The phases of the moon were apparent before men observed the solstices and equinoxes, and they formed an easy method of measuring time. The Celtic year was at first lunar—Pliny speaks of the Celtic method of counting the beginning of months and years by the moon—and night was supposed to precede day.574 The festivals of growth began, not at sunrise, but on the previous evening with the rising of the moon, and the name La Lunade is still given to the Midsummer festival in parts of France.575 At Vallon de la Suille a wood on the slope where the festival is held is called Bois de la Lune; and in Ireland, where the festival begins on the previous evening, in the district where an ascent of Cnoc Aine is made, the position of the moon must be observed. A similar combination of sun and moon cults is found in an inscription at Lausanne—To the genius of the sun and moon.576
Possibly sun festivals took the place of those of the moon. Traces of the connection of the moon with agriculture occur in different regions, the connection being established through the primitive law of sympathetic magic. The moon waxes and wanes, therefore it must affect all processes of growth or decay. Dr. Frazer has cited many instances of this belief, and has shown that the moon had a priority to the sun in worship, e.g. in Egypt and Babylon.577 Sowing is done with a waxing moon, so that, through sympathy, there may be a large increase. But harvesting, cutting timber, etc., should be done with a waning moon, because moisture being caused by a waxing moon, it was necessary to avoid cutting such things as would spoil by moisture at that time. Similar beliefs are found among the Celts. Mistletoe and other magical plants were culled with a waxing moon, probably because their power would thus be greater. Dr. Johnson noted the fact that the Highlanders sowed their seed with a waxing moon, in the expectation of a better harvest. For similar occult reasons, it is thought in Brittany that conception during a waxing moon produces a male child, during a waning moon a female, while accouchements at the latter time are dangerous. Sheep and cows should be killed at the new moon, else their flesh will shrink, but peats should be cut in the last quarter, otherwise they will remain moist and give out "a power of smoke."578
These ideas take us back to a time when it was held that the moon was not merely the measurer of time, but had powerful effects on the processes of growth and decay. Artemis and Diana, moon-goddesses, had power over all growing things, and as some Celtic goddesses were equated with Diana, they may have been connected with the moon, more especially as Gallo-Roman images of Diana have the head adorned with a crescent moon. In some cases festivals of the moon remained intact, as among the Celtiberians and other peoples to the north of them, who at the time of full moon celebrated the festival of a nameless god, dancing all night before the doors of their houses.579 The nameless god may have been the moon, worshipped at the time of her intensest light. Moonlight dances round a great stone, with singing, on the first day of the year, occurred in the Highlands in the eighteenth century.580 Other survivals of cult are seen in the practices of bowing or baring the head at new moon, or addressing it with words of adoration or supplication. In Ireland, Camden found the custom at new moon of saying the Lord's Prayer with the addition of the words, "Leave us whole and sound as Thou hast found us." Similar customs exist in Brittany, where girls pray to the moon to grant them dreams of their future husbands.581 Like other races, the Celts thought that eclipses were caused by a monster attacking the moon, while it could be driven off with cries and shouts. In 218 B.C. the Celtic allies of Attalus were frightened by an eclipse, and much later Christian legislation forbade the people to assemble at an eclipse and shout, Vince, Luna!582 Such a practice was observed in Ireland in the seventeenth century. At an earlier time, Irish poets addressed sun and moon as divinities, and they were represented on altars even in Christian times.583
While the Celts believed in sea-gods—Manannan, Morgen, Dylan—the sea itself was still personified and regarded as divine. It was thought to be a hostile being, and high tides were met by Celtic warriors, who advanced against them with sword and spear, often perishing in the rushing waters rather than retreat. The ancients regarded this as bravado. M. Jullian sees in it a sacrifice by voluntary suicide; M. D'Arbois, a tranquil waiting for death and the introduction to another life.584 But the passages give the sense of an actual attack on the waves—living things which men might terrify, and perhaps with this was combined the belief that no one could die during a rising tide. Similarly French fishermen threaten to cut a fog in two with a knife, while the legend of S. Lunaire tells how he threw a knife at a fog, thus causing its disappearance.585 Fighting the waves is also referred to in Irish texts. Thus Tuirbe Trágmar would "hurl a cast of his axe in the face of the flood-tide, so that he forbade the sea, which then would not come over the axe." Cúchulainn, in one of his fits of anger, fought the waves for seven days, and Fionn fought and conquered the Muireartach, a personification of the wild western sea.586 On the French coast fishermen throw harpoons at certain harmful waves called the Three Witch Waves, thus drawing their blood and causing them to subside.587 In some cases human victims may have been offered to the rising waters, since certain tales speak of a child set floating on the waves, and this, repeated every seven years, kept them in their place.588
The sea had also its beneficent aspects. The shore was "a place of revelation of science," and the sea sympathised with human griefs. At the Battle of Ventry "the sea chattered, telling the losses, and the waves raised a heavy, woeful great moan in wailing them."589 In other cases in Ireland, by a spell put on the waves, or by the intuitive knowledge of the listener, it was revealed that they were wailing for a death or describing some distant event.590 In the beautiful song sung by the wife of Cael, "the wave wails against the shore for his death," and in Welsh myth the waves bewailed the death of Dylan, "son of the wave," and were eager to avenge it. The noise of the waves rushing into the vale of Conwy were his dying groans.591 In Ireland the roaring of the sea was thought to be prophetic of a king's death or the coming of important news; and there, too, certain great waves were celebrated in story—Clidna's, Tuaithe's, and Rudhraidhe's.592 Nine waves, or the ninth wave, partly because of the sacred nature of the number nine, partly because of the beneficent character of the waves, had a great importance. They formed a barrier against invasion, danger, or pestilence, or they had a healing effect.593
The wind was also regarded as a living being whose power was to be dreaded. It punished King Loegaire for breaking his oath. But it was also personified as a god Vintius, equated with Pollux and worshipped by Celtic sailors, or with Mars, the war-god who, in his destructive aspect, was perhaps regarded as the nearest analogue to a god of stormy winds.594 Druids and Celtic priestesses claimed the power of controlling the winds, as did wizards and witches in later days. This they did, according to Christian writers, by the aid of demons, perhaps the old divinities of the air. Bishop Agobard describes how the tempestarii raised tempests which destroyed the fruits of the earth, and drew "aerial ships" from Magonia, whither the ships carried these fruits.595 Magonia may be the upper air ruled over by a sky god Magounos or Mogounos, equated with Apollo.596 The winds may have been his servants, ruled also by earthly magicians. Like Yahweh, as conceived by Hebrew poets, he "bringeth the winds out of his treasures," and "maketh lightnings with rain."
Gildas ii. 4.
Jocelyn, Vila Kentig. c. xxxii.
Trip. Life, 315.
LL 12b. The translation is from D'Arbois, ii. 250 f; cf. O'Curry, MC ii. 190.
RC xxii. 400.
RC xii. 109.
Petrie, Tara, 34; RC vi. 168; LU 118.
Joyce, OCR 50.
D'Achery, Spicelegium, v. 216; Sébillot, i. 16 f., 56, 211.
Gregory of Tours, Hist. ii. 10, speaks of the current belief in the divinity of waters, birds, and beasts.
Sébillot, i. 9, 35, 75, 247, etc.
Joyce, SH ii. 273; Cormac, 87; Stokes, TIG xxxiii., RC xv. 307.
Miss Hull, 170, 187, 193; IT i. 214; Leahy, i. 126.
IT i. 287.
Henderson, Irish Texts, ii. 210.
Capit. Karoli Magni, i. 62; Leges Luitprand. ii. 38; Canon 23, 2nd Coun. of Arles, Hefele, Councils, iii. 471; D'Achery, v. 215. Some of these attacks were made against Teutonic superstitions, but similar superstitions existed among the Celts.
See Grimm, Teut. Myth. ii. 498.
A more tolerant note is heard, e.g., in an Irish text which says that the spirits which appeared of old were divine ministrants not demoniacal, while angels helped the ancients because they followed natural truth. "Cormac's Sword," IT iii. 220-221. Cf. p. 152, supra.
Cæsar, vi. 18; Pliny xxii. 14. Pliny speaks of culling mistletoe on the sixth day of the moon, which is to them the beginning of months and years (sexta luna, quae principia, etc.). This seems to make the sixth, not the first, day of the moon that from which the calculation was made. But the meaning is that mistletoe was culled on the sixth day of the moon, and that the moon was that by which months and years were measured. Luna, not sexta luna, is in apposition with quae. Traces of the method of counting by nights or by the moon survive locally in France, and the usage is frequent in Irish and Welsh literature. See my article "Calendar" (Celtic) in Hastings' Encyclop. of Religion and Ethics, iii. 78 f.
Delocke, "La Procession dite La Lunade," RC ix. 425.
Monnier, 174, 222; Fitzgerald, RC iv. 189.
Frazer, Golden Bough2, ii. 154 f.
Pliny, xvi. 45; Johnson, Journey, 183; Ramsay, Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, ii. 449; Sébillot, i. 41 f.; MacCulloch, Misty Isle of Skye, 236. In Brittany it is thought that girls may conceive by the moon's power (RC iii. 452).
Strabo, iii. 4. 16.
Brand, s.v. "New Year's Day."
Chambers, Popular Rhymes, 35; Sébillot, i. 46, 57 f.
Polybius, v. 78; Vita S. Eligii, ii. 15.
Osborne, Advice to his Son (1656), 79; RC xx. 419, 428.
Aristotle, Nic. Eth. iii. 77; Eud. Eth. iii. 1. 25; Stobæus, vii. 40; Ælian, xii. 22; Jullian, 54; D'Arbois, vi. 218.
Sébillot, i. 119. The custom of throwing something at a "fairy eddy," i.e. a dust storm, is well known on Celtic ground and elsewhere.
Folk-Lore, iv. 488; Curtin, HTI 324; Campbell, The Fians, 158. Fian warriors attacked the sea when told it was laughing at them.