Two Seasons, Three Worlds, Four Treasures, Five Directions: the Pillars of Celtic Cosmology and Celtic Reconstructionist Druidism
by Ellen Evert Hopman
As most of you are probably aware, the holiest river of Hinduism is the Ganges. But before the Ganges became the focus of religious belief and ritual there was another river that was likely an equally sacred river. That river was the Saraswati around which an entire civilization, known as the Harappan culture flourished from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE in the Indus River Valley of present day northwest India and Kashmir. Its major cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
The Harappan culture was highly advanced with writing, mathematics, metallurgy, dentistry, stringed instruments, three dimensional sculptures, urban planning, irrigation and drainage, public baths, boats and canals, and a population that was larger than the two kingdoms of northern and southern Egypt combined. It was a culture that traded widely and lived in peace. Their language was most likely a type of Dravidian.
This culture faced an environmental catastrophe when the climate changed, the rains failed, and their sacred Mother River, the Saraswati dried up. By approximately 2000 BCE the holy river that had run through the heart of this civilization was gone and the Harappan culture began to disperse. What remained of the Harrapan culture was absorbed or conquered by Proto-Indo-European or Sanskrit speakers.
Evidence suggests that some of the Harappan peoples moved from Northwest India south into the subcontinent while other Harappans moved northeast into China and Tibet. There is also mounting evidence that yet others of them may have moved west – all the way into Western Europe. What evidence do we have to support this theory? As physical evidence we have the famous Gundestrup Cauldron that was found in a Danish bog in 1891. The provenance for the cauldron is still debated but it was constructed in the first or second century BCE. Despite coming from a Danish bog the cauldron depicts a horned deity surrounded by exotic creatures such as elephants and lions and seated in a yogic pose. The horned deity is Celtic; we know this because he is wearing a torc or neck ring, which is a Celtic symbol of noble status, and holds another torc in his hand. Yet the horned figure closely resembles the Harrapan Mohenjo-Daro depictions of Shiva Pashupati, the Lord of the Animals.
In Hindu depictions of Shiva he is often shown meditating with a serpent around his neck to illustrate his absolute fearlessness. Similarly the Gundestrup horned deity is shown clutching a serpent.
(See Images from my article “Encounters with the Horned God” in Bond of Druids: A Druid Journal, Summer 2008 http://www.rdna.info/danac/2-bodsummer2008.pdf
Further parallels can be found between European, Vedic and Indus Valley cultures and I will speak primarily about the Celts because that culture is most relevant to my own faith which is Druidism.
The sacred mother river along which Celtic culture developed called the Danube is named for the Celtic Goddess Danu. The same Goddess gave her name to the Don River, the Dneiper, and others. Danu is also an early Hindu Goddess of the primeval waters. In the Rig Veda she is called the mother of the Danavas, or the Children of Danu.
The Celtic peoples developed a caste system of the “Nemed” or “Sacred” class of Druids who were the equivalent of Brahmins, warriors who were equivalent to the Kshatriyas, farmers and producers, and slaves who did the same menial tasks as the “Untouchable” castes of India. In common with Hindu and Vedic cultures where until the tenth century, one could move up or down the social ladder, advancing in status as one gained education or skills, the ancient Celtic caste system was fluid providing opportunities for advancement and also loss of status depending on education and other circumstances.
The Celts and Hindu-Vedic peoples shared other similarities such as the primacy of triple deities. In Celtic religious thought the most powerful deities were always personified in threes; the triple Brighid for example, who was the most popular pan-Celtic Goddess. She was personified as three Brighid’s; Brighid the Patroness of smiths and the forge, Brighid the Patroness of healing and Brighid the Patroness of poets. Similarly there was Lugh Samildanach, the God of every art, who was born as one of triplets. The triple War Goddess known as The Morrígan was often personified as three ravens, three crows or three Great Queens named Morrígan, Badb, and Nemain. The Land Goddess of ancient Ireland was a triple deity; Banba, Fodla and Ériu. In Celtic Gaul the Matronae were the “Triple Mothers” who brought the blessings of plants, food and healthy children to the tribes. Thus the number three implied High Gods, divinity and completion.
(See image of Gaulish Matronae from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bibracte_Deesses.jpg)
These triple deities can be compared to the Hindu Trimurti; Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu and to the Tridevi; Shakti, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Druidic religious and philosophical teachings were similar to Vedic and Hindu beliefs as well. The Druids taught the doctrine of reincarnation according to contemporary witnesses and historians. Pomponius Mela reported that the Druids taught reincarnation to strengthen the courage of the warriors. He wrote that; "One of their dogmas has become widely known so they may the more readily go to wars: namely that souls are everlasting, and that among the shades is another life."
Ammianus Marcellinus wrote; "The Druids . . . declared souls to be immortal" while Diodorus Siculus said; "The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them, teaching that the souls of men are immortal and live again for a fixed number of years inhabited in another body." And in the first century, Lucan addressed the Druids rhetorically with these words…”You tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and that death, if what you sing is true, is but the midpoint of long life”.
We can find yet more parallels between the sacred scriptures of the Celtic and Hindu religion. In “The Song of Amairgen” from the eleventh century "Lebor Gabála Érenn" ("Book of Invasions"), a book composed of a mixture of pseudo-history and oral lore passed down through the generations in which the poet declares;
“I am the Wind that blows across the Sea; I am the Wave of the Ocean; I am the Murmur of the Billows; I am the Bull of the Seven Combats; I am the Vulture on the Rock; I am a Ray of the Sun; I am the Fairest of Flowers; I am a Wild Boar in Valor; I am a Salmon in the Pool; I am a Lake on the Plain; I am the Skill of the Craftsman; I am a Word of Science; I am the Spear-point that gives Battle; I am the God who creates in the head of man the Fire of Thoughts…”
This can be compared to The Bhagavad-Gita where Sri Krishna says;
“I am the Self established in the heart of all contingent beings:
I am the beginning, the middle, and the end of all contingent beings too…”
“…Among luminous bodies I am the sun…among heavenly mansions I am the moon…and Meru among the high-aspiring mountains…of floods I am the ocean…of immovable things I am the Himalaya…I am the lion among beasts...the Ganges among rivers…I am endless time itself, and the Preserver whose face is turned on all sides…I am, O Arjuna, the seed of all existing things, and there is not anything, whether animate or inanimate which is without me…”
Added to all this is the fact that Celtic religion featured offerings to sacred fire, sacred water and trees, while Vedic ritual involved making offerings to sacred fire (Agni), and sacred water (Soma) and the use of a pole in their rites. The sickle was also a ritual implement used by both Druids and Brahamanic priests. The evidence is mounting that there is a common Vedic or proto-Vedic thread that runs through Indo-European religious beliefs.
So having explored the deepest tap roots of what I perceive to be our closely woven origins, now I would like to look at the basic principles of Celtic Cosmology as they are understood by modern Celtic Reconstructionist Druids of today.
The first principle is the division of the sacred year. For the ancient Celts there were only two seasons; summer and winter, or the light half of the year and the dark half of the year. The dark half began at Samhain or as it is known in modern times “Halloween” or “All Souls Day” while the light half began at Beltaine or as it is known in modern times “May Day”. These two festivals were the holiest days of the Celtic year, acting as portals between dark and light, between one state of existence and another. They were times of chaos and change when Spirits were said to move freely between the worlds and communication with dead ancestors was most easily achieved.
Both of these festivals were centered around the activities of cows. At Beltaine the cows were sent to their summer pastures in the hills, while at Samhain the cows were brought back to the comforts of their winter enclosures. At Beltaine the departing cows were ritually blessed by passing them between two sacred fires as they left the farm. The fires were supposed to be close enough that a white cow passing between them would have her hair singed brown. Cows were thought of as lunar, watery animals that produced the all important liquid called milk that would later make butter and cheese for the tribes. By passing the cows through the fires, water and fire were brought together which was seen as a powerful form of magic because the ancient Celts believed that the world was made of fire and water and wherever these two elements came together there was the possibility for transformation, creation and powerful change.
In between Beltaine and Samhain there were two other high festivals. Imbolc, which happened in early February, was held in honor of the great Triple Goddess Brighid. It was also a milk festival that celebrated the lactation of the ewes. Lughnasad was the celebration of the first fruits of the harvest. It was observed from late July to mid August, depending on when the new grain was ripe. At this festival horses, which were understood to be solar creatures of fire, were ritually cleansed by driving them through living water such as a lake or a stream and once again fire and water were brought together to empower the world. Horse races and other games of skill and competition as well as great fairs and poetry contests marked the occasion. This festival honored the God Lugh who was “master of every art” and his foster mother Tailtiu, who can be understood to represent the Earth Mother herself.
For the Celts there were three worlds that existed simultaneously and which were intertwined with each other to make up the whole of existence. The world of “Sea” or water was the underworld of the ancestors and the Sidhe or Fairies. This world was under the earth but could be accessed through water; hence offerings were dropped into water such as lakes, ponds, wells and streams, as gifts for the Fairy Realms and for the honored dead.
The world of “Land” was the sacred realm of plants, trees, animals, stones and humans. Some of the inhabitants of this world such as stones and trees were especially venerated because a stone could be half underground and half above ground and thus reside between two worlds, while a tree had its roots in the underworld of Water, its trunk in the realm of Land and branches that touched the Sky Realm. Offerings were made to sacred trees and stones to honor their existence between the realms. Deeply rooted trees such as ashes and oaks and stones that projected from the earth were understood to be liminal objects of power that could help a person to travel between the worlds. Rituals were performed in the presence of such trees and stones for this reason.
The world of “Sky” was the domain of the Sky Gods and Goddesses, of Thunder Gods such as Taranis and of the winged raven and crow emissaries of the Triple Goddess of Battle, the Morrígan. Solar deities such as Belenos and Aine were honored with fire offerings. Lugh and Brighid, who were Master and Mistress of Arts and associated with fire, were honored at the forge and at the fire altar. Offerings were made to sacred fires to reach the Sky Realm, because the fires carried the offerings upwards, via the smoke.
For the Celts the symbol that best encapsulated these three realms of existence was a tree, because of the tree’s ability to span the worlds. Every tribe had a Bíle or sacred tree under which oaths were sworn. Such a tree was simultaneously a church, a court house and a meeting place for elders, tribal leaders and Druids. The health and luck of the community was tied to the tree and the worst thing that could befall a community was to have their sacred tree cut down.
The three realms were also understood to exist within the human form. There were said to be three cauldrons within the human body; the “Cauldron of Wisdom” in the head, the “Cauldron of Motion” in the chest and the “Cauldron of Incubation” in the abdomen.
The Cauldron of Wisdom in the head was said to be born upside down in all people and was gradually turned upright by training and by divine intervention. The Cauldron of Motion in the chest was said to be born on its side in most people. It was the origin of emotions and of poetic art and had to be turned fully upright in order to achieve artistic mastery. The Cauldron of Incubation in the belly was the seat of warming, sustenance and health. In a healthy person it was said to be upright while in a sick person it lay on its side. This cauldron was turned completely upside down at death. These Three Cauldrons are comparable to three major chakras within the human body.
In the ancient poem “The Cauldron of Poesy”, another composition attributed to Amairgen White-knee, the three cauldrons are described in this manner;
“My perfect cauldron of warming
has been taken by the Gods from the mysterious abyss of the elements;
a perfect truth that ennobles from the center of being,
that pours forth a terrifying stream of speech…
The Gods do not give the same wisdom to everyone, tipped, inverted, right-side-up; no knowledge, half-knowledge, full knowledge --
What then is the root of poetry and every other wisdom? Not hard; three cauldrons are born in every person -- the cauldron of warming, the cauldron of motion and the cauldron of wisdom.
The cauldron of warming is born upright in people from the beginning. It distributes wisdom to people in their youth.
The cauldron of motion, however, increases after turning; that is to say it is born tipped on its side, growing within.
The cauldron of wisdom is born on its lips and distributes wisdom in poetry and every other art….
The cauldron of motion then, in all artless people is on its lips. It is side-slanting in people of bardcraft and small poetic talent. It is upright in the greatest of poets, who are great streams of wisdom. Not every poet has it on its back, for the cauldron of motion must be turned by sorrow or joy.
There are two divisions of joy that turn the cauldron of wisdom; divine joy and human joy….
By tradition the Tuatha de Dannan or the Children of Danu, flew in from the north bringing their four treasures with them; the Sword of Nuada, the Cauldron of the Daghda, the Spear of Lugh and the Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny.
Of The Sword of Nuada it was said that no one could escape it once it was unsheathed. But a sword was not just a battle implement in ancient times. A sword had practical uses such as cutting meat, hacking brush, digging, carving, reaping, cutting and shaping of objects. It was a symbol of wisdom, skill, creativity, honor, truth and discernment. In legends a noble sword uncovered truth and slayed falsehood.
The Cauldron of the Daghda was said to be a magical inexhaustible container of food from which no one left unsatisfied and Druids were said to be able to bring slain warriors back to life by dipping them into magical cauldrons of healing. Cups and drinking horns were related symbols that held magical and nourishing liquids from the Gods and which were containers for the magical wisdom of the Otherworld and the mysteries of nature. The legends of the quest for the Holy Grail are a remembrance of these mystical objects.
The Spear of Lugh was said to make its bearer invincible, it belonged to the bright shining God who was “Master of Every Art”. While Lugh was a great warrior he was also a magician, a goldsmith, a harper, a healer and many other things besides. His bright spear symbolized mastery of talents, the growth of wisdom, intense focus on a skill or an art, profound intelligence, the fire of Otherworldly inspiration, the fires of thought and the fire in the head.
The Stone of Fal or the Lia Fáil was the magical coronation stone that roared when the true king put his feet upon it. A “Lia” is a worked or inscribed stone, not a rough natural stone. With its base in the ground and its top in the air it is a boundary marker between one world and another just as the true king must be a bridge from this world to the divine realms. The color of the stone is grey, symbolic of wisdom and knowledge and a “Fail” is an enclosure or protective ring that surrounds and guards the kingdom. Thus this stone, which was said to reside at Tara and which was later taken to Scotland (and then purloined by the English crown) is an ancient stone that has been inscribed in a sacred and mysterious way so that it guards the kingdom. When the true ruler, one who is a wise and a true protector of the land approaches it will speak out clearly. Until then the stone will stay silent, holding its secrets and guarding their power for the rightful king who is to come.
There were as many as twelve directions that were recognized as significant by the Celts, we know this because there were twelve winds or “Airts” that were recognized for their unique effects upon the land and the people . But for religious purposes there were five major directions that are still found in the myths and stories .
The North was the direction of battle and fire; its emblem was the sword and its creature the eagle. It was the direction of warriors and of Gods. Winds from the north presaged strife and conflict.
The East was the direction of abundance and prosperity. Its emblems were wealth of all kinds; good earth, fine clothing, bees and honey, its creature the salmon.
The South was the Goddess direction, associated with water and creative arts such as music and poetry. Its creature was the sow, an animal that roots deep into the dark earth for inspiration and sustenance, bringing hidden treasures to light.
The West was the place of history keeping, story telling, of illumination, of inner fire, and of learning and of passing on the mysteries. It was the airy direction of the intellect. Its creature was the stag.
The Center was the fifth sacred direction that completed a ritual space. Its emblem was the stone, its creature the Mare of Sovereignty who symbolized the Goddess of the Land. It was the place of mastery and of rulership. Five was the number that implied a sacred whole.
These five directions are mirrored in the Mount Meru of Hindu Cosmology where the four continents are said to be arranged around a mythical central mountain whose roots penetrate the same distance under the ocean as its peak rises to the sky.
While Modern Druids of today are actively searching out the ancient proto-Vedic roots that the Hindu religion and the Celtic religion hold in common we are also turning to intact, living Earth Religions such as Native American traditions and Siberian Shamanism for clues as to how to revive the ancient European Earth-centered tribal ways. There are may parallels to be found in Native American fire altars, prayers to water, reverence for sacred animals, plants and trees, and the recognition that women as well as men can be tribal leaders, medicine people and clergy . It is an exciting time to be a participant in the Celtic Reconstructionist effort to reconnect with our ancient tribal ways and to honor the Earth and Her creatures.
Ellen Evert Hopman, Co-Chief Order of the Whiteoak (Ord na Darach Gile) www.whiteoakdruids.org
A version of this lecture is available as a DVD from EE Hopman, POB 219, Amherst, MA 01004, USA, for $20.00 plus $4.00 shipping and handling
Vist Ellen Evert Hopman online at http://www.EllenEvertHopman.com where you will find links to her books, videos, articles and Druid blog.
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indus_Valley_Civilization, under "historical context and linguistic affiliation" Accessed 09/2009
2. Zaehner, R. C. The Bhagavad-Gita, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973, P. 297
3. Judge,William Q., The Bhagavad-Gita , The Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, 1971 PP. 73-76
4. From excerpts translated by Erynn Rowan Laurie. See the full text and an updated version at http://www.madstone.com/Pages/cauldronpoesy.html
5. See this list of Winds in the Early Christian text ‘Saltair na Rann’, Canto 1, quatrains 12 to 24.
6. For a thorough discussion of these see Alwyn and Brinley Rees’ “Celtic Heritage”, Thames and Hudson, NY, 1994
7. For evidence on female Druids in ancient times please see “Female Druids” by Ellen Evert Hopman http://themagicalbuffet.com/blog1/2008/02/29/female-druids/