The Celtic

Cosmos

The ancient Celts measured their cosmos in wheels, spirals, in the movement of the stars, and the rising and setting of the sun and moon.

To the Celt, the wheel or spiral was sacred: it symbolized creation and the constant spinning of the stars in the night sky. The seasons turned and returned each year like points on a giant wheel, and the stars in the heavens appeared to wheel overhead, turning on an axis which was the North Star. The Celts believed that the North Star was the location of heaven, and the apparent movement of the stars around this axis formed a spiral path, or stairway, on which souls ascended to the afterlife.

To the ancient Celt, continuous spirals that appear to have no beginning or end signified that one cycle was always beginning as one cycle ended. The continuous expanding motion of the spiral also symbolized the ever expanding nature of wisdom and knowledge. Many of these symbols also appeared in triplicate, which was seen as a sign of the divine.

The seasons of the year were part of this cycle. The Celts based their calendar on the cycles of the moon instead of the sun. The Celtic year consisted of 13 months, 12 of which were roughly the same as our modern months, and one extra three day 'make up' month leading into the new year. Each month was governed by a moon, and had a sacred Ogham tree associated with it.

In Gaelic, the names of the four seasons date back to pre-Christian times: Earrach for Spring, Samhradh for Summer, Foghara for Harvest, or Autumn, and Geamhradh for Winter.

The Celtic Calendar included two primary fire festivals. Samhain (the beginning of winter,) and Beltane (the beginning of summer,) marking the movement from the dark into the light time of the year. Two other seasonal fire festivals were also celebrated: Imbolc, and Lughnasadh.

The onset of each season was observed at the Albans (Solstices and Equinoxes,) although the central point of each season was celebrated and recognized by a Fire Festival.

The Celts were fascinated by magical 'in-between' places, such as shorelines, fords, doorways, etc. These places were neither in one state or another... thus they were places of power. The shore is neither dry land, nor is it the sea, yet it is the meeting place of both. If one were to view the land as representative of our solid, material world, and the sea as representative of the spirit world, we can see that the shore is a meeting place between one world and another.

The same is true of the 'in-between' times, or the portal holidays (holy-days) that were neither one season or another - waxing or waning. The 8 major holidays on the Celtic wheel were magical, powerful days outside of ordinary time. As such, they provided opportunities for Druids and ordinary tribesman alike to approach their supernatural ancestors, deities and divine the future.

The old Celtic festivals are still remembered today, if in different forms. Samhain is now commonly celebrated as Halloween. May Day, the modern observance of Beltane, is celebrated throughout the world, and Christmas is not actually the birth day of Christ, but a date chosen by the Early Christian Church and celebrated instead of (to replace) the older observance of the winter solstace. The early church hoped to convert greater numbers of people to the new faith by absorbing the primary pagan holidays into its own ritual tradition.

 


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Revised: November 17, 1998.