Celtic Cosmogony and Eschatology

As has often been lamented, the Celts left us no texts of their beliefs about the beginning and end of the world, nor of their beliefs on the afterlife or lack thereof.1 Instead, we must rely on classical sources of foreigners (read: Greeks and Romans), as well as the later records of Irish and Welsh monks, written centuries after the cultures had converted to Christianity. However, even with these limitations, some conjectures about paleodruidic cosmogony and eschatology can be made, and compared with their later counterparts (meso- and neodruidism).

Creation

Unlike the Germanic peoples2, the Celts, once converted to Christianity, did not record the creation myths of their pagan ancestors. This is unfortunate, since it leaves one only to conjecture what they might have believed. What we do know of other European creation myths, some have conjectured that the god Esus--and thus corresponding figures in other branches of Celtic civilization--was slayer of a cosmic bull which sat by the world tree in company of the Triple Goddess of the land in her bird form. From the body of the bull, the world is created, order instituted. The reasoning for this can be found in Tarvos Trigaranos, and so I will not repeat it here.

After creation of the universe, specific geographic features are usually attributed to the work of individual nature spirits--rivers are the result of a goddess drinking from a sacred well; mountains are the result of giants throwing boulders; and so on. Many of these ideas are reflected in various onomastic tales, such as the Dindsenchas and some passages of the Mabinogion.

There also appears to be a sort of "War of Heaven"--an idea also seen in Greco-Roman and Nordic myth. This is best seen in the war between the Fomorians (here in the role of Titans or Jotun) and the Tuatha Dé Danann (the gods); it may also be more obliquely seen in the antimosity between the Family of Llŷr/Annwfn and the Family of Dôn in the Mabinogion, though it has been greatly euhemerized.

A World Tree?

Though there does not exist a reference to a Celtic Yggdrasil, there is some outside evidence that there may have been a belief in such a thing, not the least being the importance of the tree in Celtic belief.

There are various references to sacred trees, called bile in Irish; or the nemetona where the druids would gather. On the Sailors' Pillar of Notre Dame, we see a depiction of the god Esus pruning a great tree; in a similar monument in Trier, we see Esus again at the tree, only now we also see the Tarvos Trigaranos motif combined with Esus in one scene. On the Gundestrup Cauldron, we see a gigantic figure standing by a great tree, dunking warriors in a cauldron, possibly the cauldron or well of rebirth associated with Bendigedfrân ap Llŷr or Dian Cecht. When Peredur reaches the Otherworld, the first thing he sees is "a tall tree by the side of the river, one half of which was in flames from the root to the top, and the other half was green and in full leaf".

Also, there is a story in Irish folklore concerning the Cloch a Bhíle--"The Stone of the Tree" at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. Made of stone and shaped like a tree trunk, it is said to represent a tree growing at the bottom of the lake. It is sacred to the goddess Aine and her son Gearoid Iarla. Were one to climb its branches, he or she could reach the Otherworld.

The poet Rufus Festus Avienus mentions a "Pillar of the Sun" (solis columna) at the source of the Rhône in his work Ora Maritima, of which only the first 700 or so lines survive. Though written in the forth century, the work itself is thought to borrow from sources which refer as far back as the 6th C. BCE.

Given the imporance of the tree in Celtic myth, as well as a few pieces of outside evidence, it is worth hypothesizing--but only hypothesizing--that the Celts may have believed in a World Tree upon which the axis of the world rested. Upon this axis, we can place the traditionally given three realms--the land, the sea, and the sky.3 Of the land and the sea, there are corresponding versions in the Otherworld. As for the sky, little is said in myth, though as we shall see below, it was believed that the only thing a Celtic warrior feared was that the sky should fall on his head.

The Otherworld

There is already an existing write up on this.

The Origin of Man and His End

No myths survive on the creation of man; what is often seen, however, is that like the Greeks, gods and men were often intertwined, and many demigods existed. According to Caesar, the Gauls claim descent from Dis Pater, lord of the underworld. Meanwhile, in Irish myth, we have Donn, descendant of Míl Espaine and ancestor of the Irish, who was drowned in the Kenmare Bay before setting foot in Ireland. His home--Tech Duinn--is referred to in the story Airne Fíngein ("Fíngein's Night-Watch), one of the tales from the Irish Cycle of the Kings. Tech Duinn--now Bull Rock, a rock island near the island of Dursey--may have been regarded as a land of the dead, or a meetingplace for the dead.

However, we must also not forget the teaching of reincarnation, which is often attributed to the Celts. It is unclear, however, if the Celts believed in a bodily reincarnation on this plain, or whether reincarnation took place in an underworld, less a land of the dead and more of another way of existing. What is certain, however, is that the Celts believed in an immortal soul. (See also Dian Cecht for a possible "Twelve Doors of the Soul".)

The End Times

In "The Second Battle of Magh Turedh", after the Tuatha Dé Danann defeat the Fomorians, Morrigan makes a prophecy about the end of the world:

I shall not see a world that will be dear to me
Summer without flowers
Kine will be without milk,
Women without modesty,
Men without valor,
Captures without a king...
Woods without mast,
Sea without produce...
Wrong judgments of old men,
False precedents of lawyers,
Every man a betrayer,
Every boy a reaver
Son will enter his fathers bed,
Father will enter his son's bed,
Every one will be his brother's brother in law....
An evil time!
Son will deceive his father,
Daughter will deceive her mother.

A typical depiction of chaos in the social order, but not necessarily reflective of what the Celts may have actually believed, or as to what the end entailed other than people sleeping around. It is no more useful, unfortunately, than The Prophecies of Merlin drempt up by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which also details the end of the world.

Thanksfully, we can look at other sources. According to Strabo, "{N}ot only the Druids, but also others as well, say that men's souls, and also the universe, are indestructible, although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them" (4.4.4). Moreover, the Greek historian Arrian tells a story about Alexander the Great: when asking a group of Celtic warriors, renouned for their ferocity, what they fear, they replied nothing in the world, except that the heavens might fall on their head.

If we accept the possibility that the Celts, like the Germanic tribes, believed that a pillar or tree held up the sky, and that the end of the world would come with the falling of this pillar/tree, we must then ask what would cause such a thing to happen. Again, there are no records, only suppositions. The Germanic Ragnarok has a second battle of gods and titans, the burning of the World Tree, the battle between the thunder god and the underworld serpent, and the eventual new world to come out of the chaos. The idea of a cyclical nature to the cosmos is also found in Hindu myth, with the ending of the Kali Yuga or "iron age", in which Vishnu will cease to be the preserver, Shiva will destroy the universe, followed by Brahma making a new world, beginning the next Satya Yuga (Golden Age). At the end of Kali Yuga, Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu, will set fire to the world to purify it of evil. This is strikingly similar to the depiction of Yggdrasil being set on fire, and to Strabo's comment that "fire and water will prevail".

The god most similar to Vishnu is Lugh Lamhfhada, god of many arts, who, like Krishna served Arjuna, served King Nuada in the battle with the Fomorians. Also, if we look again at the image of Esus, pruning--and thus preserving--the World Tree, we again see a similarity to the preserver Vishnu. And so, if Esus and Lugh are similar sorts of gods--and there are reasons to believe this--then we might assume that Lugh, who battled the dark forces of the Fomorians, and who gained the knowledge of agriculture from them, can be considered a sort of Celtic Vishnu. Like Vishnu, he also has incarnations, such as Cuchulainn (another warrior / charioteer).4

And so, we have Lugh/Esus, setting fire to the World Tree during an age of chaos. But let us also go back to the Sailor's Pillar of Notre Dame, where we have the Gallic god Smertrios (elsewhere Smertios), the serpent-slayer. Like the Hindu god Indra, Smertrios is a god of war (he is called Mars Smertrios in one inscription), and like Indra is apparently associated with killing a serpent--for Indra, it was Vritra in the form of a dragon. Let us then compare Smertrios to the Germanic Thor, who like Indra is the god of thunder. According to the Eddas, Thor will battle the serpent Jormungand at Ragnarok, killing the monster (though this will cause his own death). While the circumstances are different--Indra's battle lets free the waters of the world, while Thor's battle is an attempt to stop the end of the world--they are certainly related.

We can now hypothesize that Smertrios may have had a similar role to Indra/Thor. Lugh/Esus sets fire to the World Tree while Smertrios (and his Irish and Welsh counterparts) battles a great serpent, which has held back the world's water.5 After the tree burns and the sky falls, the sea rises up upon the land, drowning the world. The land swallows up everything, and the world will be created anew, possibly by the Celtic equivalent to a Baldr figure--likely Maponos / Mabon ap Modron / Oengus mac ind-Og.


SOURCES:

Anonymous. The Book of Invasions. Vol. I-V. trans. R. A. S. Macalister. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1938-1956.

---------- The Mabinogion. various translations; the one I quote from is Lady Guest's, since it was at hand.

---------- The Poetic Edda. various translations; also on E2.

---------- The Rgveda. various translations.

Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein. University of Wales Press, 1966.

Caesar, Julius Gaius. The Gallic War. ed. & trans. H.J. Edwards. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Ellis, Peter Beresford. The Druids. Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.

Cross, Tom Peete & Clark Harris Slover. Ancient Irish Tales. Dublin: Figgis, 1936.

Diodorus of Sicily. The History Books. Vol. III: Book V. ed. & trans. C. H. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Ford, Patrick K. "Lludd and Lleuelys." The Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. ed. & trans. Lewis Thorpe. NY: Penguin, 1977.

MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. NY: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1973.

Maier, Berhard. Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. trans. Cyril Edwards. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1997.

Markale, Jean. The Druids. Inner Traditions, 1997.

Strabo. The Geography. Vol. II. ed. & trans. Horace Leonard Jones. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.


NOTES:

  1. Unfortunately, there is no good, general term for the people whom the Romans refered to as Germani, and who later divided into the various cultures of middle, eastern, and northern Europe--the Germans, the Austrians, the Prussians, the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the Icelanders, etc. So, as terms like Teutonic or Nordic do not seem adequate, I'm forced to rely on the old Roman model and refer to them with the still-inaccurate "Germanic", as that is the oldest name available. However, a case could be made for Teutonic, as it is ultimately derived from diot, the name which these tribes used to refer to themselves (lit. "the people" or tribe).

  2. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, according to Caesar, there was a prohibition against writing down religious teachings. (Though not against writing at all--instead, he says that the Celts used the Greek alphabet. Whether it was Greek or only influenced by the Greco-Phonecian alphabet isn't relevant for the question at hand.) Secondly, when this prohibition was lifted--that is, with the advent of Christianity--it seems that the gods had already been reduced to historical figures. Not surprising, as the writers were usually monks or at least scribes living in monestaries. The creation of the world having already been supplied by the Biblical Genesis, the original Celtic concepts were lost. Why this should happen, as opposed to the Scandanavians, who recorded their earliest myths, is beyond me.

  3. Supposedly, a common oath was that a man would keep his faith as long as the "the sky did not fall upon them, the sea did not rise to drown them and the land did not open to swallow them up."

  4. Of course, there is a difficulty in comparing gods of very distant cultures to one another, even though it is believed they have a common origin. There are also reasons to tie Lugh to the all-powerful sun god Savitar, whose epithet, "prthupani" means "of the large hand".

  5. It is important to bring up the later concept of the dragon symbolizing Britain, as evidenced in Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys. In Norse myth, the serpent Jormungand encircled the entire plain of Midgard. In the Hindu Vedas, Vritra's serpent-form enveloped the whole earth; indeed, his name is translated as "enveloper." In the story of Lludd and Lleuelys, Lludd's kingdom (Britain) has three plagues upon it, one of which are two battling dragons. Lludd, through the help of Lleuelys, is able to imprison the dragons and end the plauge. The dragons represented the Britons and the Saxons, but that's not the relevant issue here. What is relevant is that Lludd is equivalent to the Irish Nuada, and the British Nodons, a war god--like the Gallic Smertrios, like Indra, both of whom are dragonslayers. Lleuelys is thought to be equivalent to Lugh, again serving in his role as council to Nuada.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.