Personal interpretations of some Celtic myths and legends
2Tree of Life All trees are sacred to the Celts because their roots are in the underworld, their trunks in the earthworld and their branches reach into the skyworld. Legend has it that buried in the roots of the Tree of Life, a large and ancient oak, is a chalice protected by serpents which contains the life-forces of everything in the earthworld. In Spring these forces are absorbed by the roots and travel throughout the tree to be released by the newly formed buds. Birds collect the essences and distribute them worldwide. in the Autumn the process is reversed and the life-forces are returned to the chalice ready for another Spring.
3Recovery This Tree of Life image is based on a cerebral angiogram I underwent after suffering a brain aneurysm in April of 2002. After weeks of treatment and months of recuperation, I finally felt healthy enough to address my illness through my art. The very shape of the X-ray image and the implied symbolism of the Tree of Life legend ( continuation, hope for the future ) led me to create this personally meaningful image. I have used the intertwining of the celtic knot work as a metaphor for life’s journey. The knot work encloses golden rosettes which are in the form of spirals, symbolizing both the continuation of the journey and eternal energy. The golden colour of the rosettes represents the enduring optimism of the next sunrise and the continuing odyssey, where one never ceases striving to conquer the plains and mountains of life’s endeavours. Life’s journey is forever heading towards the next sunrise, never knowing what the future may bring. Birds are representative of freedom from the physical restrictions of earthbound life, and the ascent of the soul to the gods, either through mystical experience or death. Because they come from the skies they also assume the role of messengers from higher powers, whether for good or ill. One dark - and one light -coloured bird as seen here denote the dual nature of reality (darkness and light, life and death, etc.).
4Cernnunos As the archetypal spirit of nature, the image of Cernunnos can be found in Romano-Celtic worship sites throughout the Celtic lands. His role as an animal god and hunter was central to early Celtic religion and has been preserved in folklore and magic to the present day. The cult of Cernunnos was especially encouraged by the Druids in their attempt to regularize the local Celtic dieties into some sort of pantheon. It was their wish to establish him as a national, rather than a local diety. The Druids had some success as he was possibly the nearest the Celts got to a universal father god within their fragmented system of worship. He is portrayed on many Celtic artifacts and works of art as far back as they can be recovered. The Gundestrup Cauldron is probably the best known piece, containing, as it does, what has become the most widely published Celtic scene ever, a depiction of Cernunnos sitting cross-legged in the company of a stag and a boar, holding a torc in his right hand and a snake in his left. Cernunnos was invoked in many Celtic ceremonies and he appeared in many guises. He was the randy goat representing the fertility rites of Beltaine, a festival held on the first of May, which marked the beginning of the Celtic summer. He was also the master of the hunt who came to full power in late summer and early autumn. As the guardian of the gates to the Otherworld Cernunnos became associated with wealth and prosperity, although his earlier function had been of a nature diety holding sway over the woodlands, and animals, as well as the active forces of life and death, regeneration and male fertility. Cernunnos was of such importance to the Celts that the Christian church made him a special target of abuse, taking his image to be that of the Devil, deo falsus or “false god”. This was not a judgment on his attributes, but rather a device for frightening the European populace away from the Old Religion. His status as a fertility god is of much later origin, he has much less to do with sexuality than popular wisdom would suggest. He is the god of hunting, culling and taking, so that through selection and sacrifice, he is able to utilize the powers of fertility, regeneration and growth to purify and strengthen the animal kingdom. Stories of Cernunnos are sketchy and come largely from oral sources. Both his image and his name survive in present-day Britain. The former in many rituals and folk dances performed around the countryside, particularly the Abbots Bromley horn dance, and the latter in place names such as Cerne Abbas in Devon, and the legend of Herne the Hunter, a fabled antlered entity said to roam the Forest of Windsor.
5Edain The daughter of King Ailill and Queen Medhbha of Connacht, Edain was described as the most beautiful woman in all Ireland. Her name means ‘Horse-riding Edain, and she is probably the Irish equivalent of the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona Midhir, a god associated with rebirth, who lived in the sidh of Bri Leith, sought Epona’s hand in marriage, to which she consented. However, Fuamhnach, Midhir’s first wife was so jealous of the beauty of Edain that she turned her into a pool of water, that turned into a worm and the worm into a beautiful fly whose music filled the air. Surprisingly, Midhir was quite content to have Edain remain around him, even in this strange form. Still enraged, Fuamhnach conjured up a strong wind that blew the fly to a far-away rocky coast where she lay helpless for a total of seven years until Oengus Mac In Og found her, placed her in a crystal bower and brought her back to Midhir. Edain’s travails were not over, however, as Fuamhnach once again caused a strong wind to blow her into a goblet of wine and Edain was subsequently swallowed. But even this did not signify the end for Edain Echraide. The woman who swallowed the wine became pregnant, and, 1,102 years after she had been first born she was reborn, and was this time simply known as Edain grand-daughter of Etar. When Edain came of age the second time around, Eochaidh Airemh became the King of Ireland, but, as he was unmarried his warriors refused to follow him. Learning of Edain’s uncompromising beauty, he took her as his wife. News of the marriage reached Midhir and the god realised that this must be the reincarnation of his long lost second wife, and he set off to Tara to reclaim her. Edain accepted the account, but refused to leave Eochaidh Airemh without his permission. The king refused his consent but swore to give up the girl if Midhir could beat him in a chess match. Eochaidh Airemh won the early games and, as a forfeit required Midhir to build a huge causeway across the bogs of Meath. After winning the final game Midhir claimed his former wife, returning to Tara one month later to collect her. However the king had barred all the doors against him so the god simply appeared in their midst, took Edain by the hand and flew up with her through the smoke hole of the great hall in the guise of a pair of swans. Eochaidh Airemh and his warriors set off in hot pursuit and, upon reaching the sidh of Bri Leith, began to dig it up. Midhir appeared to the company and promised to return Edain, whereupon he produced fifty identical women, all the exact likeness of Edain. The king chose carefully but the one he picked was his own daughter, also known as Edain, although some call her Ess. It was quite some considerable time before the king realised his mistake, and by that time Edain, or Ess, had borne him a son, the hero Conaire Mor.
6The Morrighan THE MORRIGHAN
The goddess of battle and procreation. She is a triple goddess, one of the myriad of triad dieties that clutter Celtic and other pagan cultures. Her individual aspects were Nemain,which means ‘Frenzy, Babdh which means ‘Crow’ or ‘Raven’ and Macha which means ‘Battle’.The Morrighan combines the energies of life and death, sexuality and conflict all in one powerful and terrifying diety. As separate entities, Nemain, Babdh and Macha each had their individual powers. Little is known of Nemain except that she is a crone goddess of battle and strife. Babdh is well recorded, in common with her sisters she could shape-change at will, sometimes appearing as a foul hag, sometimes as an alluring maiden but most often as a bird. She was often to be seen on the battlefield in the guise of a wolf, near those she had selected to die, or she could be seen flying above the fray in the form of a crow. Prior to battle she would usually be encountered beside a stream in which she was washing the armour and weapons of those who were about to die. The Babdh could alter the course and outcome of battles by use of powerful magic, a trait she shared with her sisters. Other shared traits were an affinity with water, an ability to change her shape at will and an insatiable lust for both men and gods. Macha was a daughter of Midhir, an Irish fertility goddess and a formidable warrior, who built the fortress named after her Emain Macha. It was the stronghold of the Red Branch Warriors and also the ancient capital city of Ulster, a prehistoric and probably ritual site, which is today known as Navan Fort. She is also associated with the city of Armargh, or Ard Macha, which became the centre of Celtic Christianity during the reign of England’s James the first. At this site she had an eternal flame dedicated to her which was attended by temple maidens. This task was later taken over by nuns who created a shrine to a local saint at her holy site. The combination of these three spirits created a potent force worthy of the name Morrighan, which means ‘Phantom Queen’. In my depiction of the legend I have tried to combine the strength of the diety, as shown by the overall form, with images associated with aspects of her character. Birds and serpents representing death, rebirth and sexuality, spirals for reincarnation, the yew as a symbol of death, a crow, weapons of war, a scythe, black dogs, also images associated with warfare and death. The three heads, whilst an obvious representation of the triad, are also intended to denote growth and procreation as they spring from the widow’s cloak.
7Warrior This piece is about about beginnings and endings and life’s journey along the way:
The ravens are the bringers of life, death, and rebirth. They take the souls home to the Tree of Life to be protected in the cauldron containing life’s forces which are reborn each spring time. The tree with it’s new leaves coming forth represents Spring, a time of new beginnings. The weary warrior rests to replenish for another journey. The standing stones are representative of our past and time gone by, our history and links to the present. Glastonbury Tor rises high on the hill in the background with the dawning of a new day and new hope. The new green leaf foliage flows into the celtic knotwork symbolizing the beginning of a new journey on life’s continuum. The spirals and borders are indicative of the Celts love for decoration adding richness with balance, peace, and calm.
8Branwen Branwen, daughter of the Welsh sea god Llyr and brother to Bran the Blessed (or more correctly Bendigeid Vran) and half-sister to both Efnisien and Nisien, is the subject of one of the four main stories of the Mabinogion - arguably the most important of all the Welsh Celtic source texts.
In order to ensure peace between the Welsh and Irish Celts, Bran had consented to allowing Motholwch, the king of Ireland, to take Branwen as his wife. However, during the wedding celebrations Efnisien insulted the Irish king so badly that when the wedding party returned to Ireland Motholwch imprisoned Branwen in his castle kitchen, where she was made to work in the harshest of conditions as the lowliest of the kitchen maids.
During the three years of her imprisonment all contact with the Welsh was strictly forbidden for fear that Bran might hear of the cruel treatment of his sister. In desperation, Branwen caught and tamed a starling and, over time, taught it to speak. She tied a letter to the starling’s wing, and bid it fly over the seas to Wales to find her brother, the King of Britain.
On reading the message Bran immediately set sail for Ireland with a large and well-armed force. Such was the intensity of the ensuing battle that Ireland was laid waste with such destruction that only only seven of the invaders and five pregnant Irish women survived.
Bran was himself mortally wounded and before he died he ordered the seven survivors to remove his head and bury it under the White Mount in London, face towards France, there to serve as a guardian of the island. The White Mount is the site of the Tower of London.
Dwelling on the destruction that had been wrought in her name, Branwen died of a broken heart, and was buried at Bedd Branwen on the banks of the River Alaw. When the site was excavated in 1813 the cremated remains of a woman were found in a contemporary urn.
10Earth Mother The Celtic peoples of ancient Europe relied on the earth and the constant cycles of Mother Nature for their survival. Any variation in the patterns of the seasons could prove disastrous. It comes as no surprise, then, that earth worship and fertility symbolism formed a large part of their religious beliefs. The female deities, or Mother Goddesses, as they have become known, are mainly associated with the female principles of creativity, birth, fertility nurturing, and the cycles of growth. In the Earth Mother series I embody these abstracts in a succession of sculptures, using a variety of media to illustrate the ongoing pattern of birth, death, and rebirth. She is both of the earth and from the earth, both creation and creator. In her is embodied the past, present, and the future, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life. Ancient images meld with the pregnant hope of new beginnings and all that the earth gives to support us on our journey. She is, and always will be, the genesis of the Earthʼs bounty.
11The Watcher THE WATCHER
It is accepted without question that the Celtic races of ancient Europe nurtured an abiding belief in life after death. A number of scholars hold that the Celtic peoples could accept death with no trepidation because of the Druids, who taught that death was only a phase in a long and continuous journey, and that the soul, through many and various incarnations, would rid itself of accumulated, inherited impurities, until it finally achieves the goal of perfection. As with all ancient cultures, many symbolic elements are to be found in the Celtic artwork which has survived. In this highly personal piece I have combined a number of those symbols in an effort to illustrate that “passing on” is just as the phrase suggests, a transition from one stage of life to another, and constitutes just one part of a continually changing scene of many differing chapters.
GLASTONBURY TOR Situated in the Vale of Avalon, Somerset. The Celtic name for Glastonbury was Ynys Wittrin, or the Glass Isle. Rising strikingly, as it does from the surrounding plain it has long been thought of as a place with mystical qualities. It is said to be the home of Gwynn Ap Nudd, the Lord of the Dead, and is therefore seen as a portal between the world of the living and the Otherworld. The summit of the Tor is reached via a winding spiral path which forms a three-dimensional maze representative of the energy which flows through the earth along ley lines. It is believed that walking the maze on certain days of the year will invoke the power of the Serpent, symbol of knowledge and energy.
THE RAVEN In legend, the raven is deeply linked to the Crone Goddess Babdh (a name which means ‘Crow’ or ‘Raven’) and also to the Morrighan; the red-haired triple goddess combining the energies of life and death, sexuality and conflict in one all-powerful incarnation. In her guise as a raven, the Morrighan could be seen flying above battlefields, supposedly directing the conflict to control the outcome. When the battle was over the ravens were said to collect the ‘life-forces of the slain warriors and deliver them to the Tree of Life, there to begin the next stage of their journey.
TREE OF LIFE All trees were sacred to the Celts, not only as symbols of longevity and rebirth, but also because their roots lay in the underworld, their trunks in the earthworld and their branches reached into the skyworld. Legend has it, that buried in the roots of the Tree of Life, a large and ancient oak, is a chalice, protected by serpents. The chalice contains the life-forces of all things in the earthworld. In Spring (Imbolc) the contents of the chalice are absorbed by the roots and travel through the tree to be released by the new buds. Birds collect the essences and distribute them across the countryside. In the Autumn (Samhain) the process is reversed and the life forces are returned to the chalice, ready for another Spring.
SPIRAL The spiral is the natural form of growth. In every culture, past and present, it has become a symbol of eternal life. The whorls so predominant in Celtic carvings and paintings represent the continuous creation and dissolution of the world; the passages between spirals symbolise the divisions between life, death and rebirth. At the center of the spiral is complete balance where all three become as one.
DOLMEN Dolmens, consisting of two or more upright stones topped with a heavy horizontal capstone, were the burial places of the dead. Originally covered by a mound of earth, dolmen sites were considered sources of energy, where this world and the otherworld met. Druids gathered at these sites to perform ceremonies for the regeneration of the land and the well-being of the living.
STANDING STONES AND STONE CIRCLES Known as gallain in Irish, standing stones occur singly or in alignments. They were monuments to mark boundaries and burial places, and came to be regarded as memorials of famous legendary events. They were focal points for clan gatherings and festival celebrations, and their shadows were measured to plot the path of the seasons. Stone circles seem to have been used more for worship and ritual observances. They are often very particularly aligned with the points of sunrise and sunset on both the summer and winter solstices.
WATER Water has been regarded as a sacred commodity since time immemorial. The Celts appeared fascinated by rivers, lakes, bogs, springs and the sea. Water itself was seen as essential to life and fertility and as the life fluid of Mother Earth, it had a direct alliance with her powers. The constant movement of rivers, springs and the sea must have seemed magical. Water could be beneficial as a life-giver, healer and a means of travel, but it also could be destructive. Storms could not only ruin crops, but also, in association with thunder and lightning, cause more catastrophic damage. The sea could wreck ships with much loss of life. In an effort to influence its capriciousness the Celts made offerings to the water goddesses by throwing votive offerings into wells, lakes and rivers. The veneration of wells continued from the Iron Age through to the present day, and many are still visited for their curative powers. Customs, such as hanging a strip of cloth belonging to an ailing person close to the well, or throwing a small object belonging to that person into the well, are still practiced today, particularly in Ireland. Throwing a coin into a wishing well for good luck is a direct throwback to the veneration of wells and their guardian deities of the Celtic era.