Animals in Celtic culture
This article is about occurrence of each species of animals important to the Celts in documents of material culture (archaeological finds), but also about importance of these animals in Irish (mainly Irish) mythology in later years, as Irish sources are directly linked to Celtic culture and share similar characteristics. If you get interested in this topic, you can find exhaustive information provided in thematic paper: Animals in Celtic Life and Myth by author Miranda Green, Routledge, 2002 (Google eBook).
Celtic cult of bear followed older traditions. Bear was associated with strength, further life after death and with motherly care. Archaeological findings as well as mythology associate bear cult primarily with islands territory, however, bear teeth and figurines were found throughout the whole Celtic area.
Birds have always had something “supernatural” in them – thanks to their ability to fly, swim or snorkel, and because of their “disappearance” for long part of the year. In mythology, they served as messengers and bearers of messages, beings supremely good as well as bad; birds were frequent form of metamorphosis. A special place is occupied by eagle – a guide of god Taranis, a symbol of longevity and as a being able to predict the future. Birds can also be found on Celtic coins. An important position among archaeological findings and in mythology have ducks, geese, swans, owls, cranes, on territory of modern-day France cock; in the islands’ mythology there are ravens and crows very often.
Figures of a boar were found throughout the Celtic world, from Romania to Spain and from Ireland to northern Italy. It is associated with warriors who for example wore its figure on their helmets (there is an evidence of it on the Gundestrup cauldron). The Celts generally loved pork, as confirmed by findings as well as by literary evidence (Strabo). There are archaeological findings of boar bones from burials (bones of other animals are rather rarely found in the burials; the boar is probably related to the funeral feast), wild boar tusks were used as amulets (sometimes they were decorated with bronze). Boar is a frequent motif for gold coins minted in Central Europe at break of the 2nd and 1st centuries. Boar is connected with god Teutates. In the islands’ mythology it is a popular animal; whether there is a dangerous hunt, metamorphosis from human or origin of the boar in the Other world or specific magical boars that cause extensive damage (Welsh Twrch Trwyth having behind his ears scissors, razor and comb, that warriors in the story are trying to get (and they succeed but only at great cost) or Irish Torc Triatt and Torc Forbartach). An interesting archaeological find is a bronze figure of the goddess Arduinna riding the wild boar; this goddess apparently gave her name to forested Ardennes Mountains lying mostly in present-day Belgium and Luxembourg.
Symbol of cultivated nature, power (because of its ability to infuriate) and fertility (symbolism of third horn). It is not associated with any deity. Interesting is its role in the island Irish mythology: in story called “Táin Bó Cuailnge” (Cattle Raid of Cooley – which is the main islands’ mythological text preserved in several versions), there are black-brown bull Donn and white bull Finbennach – both are results of metamorphism of two magical swineherds. Donn is a giant, with human intelligence and magical abilities; in his day-long final duel with Finbennach Donn wins, but subsequently he causes massacre among his own people and his heart breaks. In one sentence, beginning and content of the story is Queen of Connacht Medb’s effort to gain Ulster bull Donn of Colley; however probably the most outstanding character in the story is epic hero called Cúchullain. Evidence of sanctity of bull (taurus) is reflected in some names, such as in particular of Celtic tribe of the Taurisci from Sava river; and in numerous findings of bull bones and skulls in burials. Probably the bull was often sacrificial animal. That is confirmed by text by Pliny the Elder from the 1st century AD that writes about a ritual, where white-clad druids cut off mistletoe from sacred oak, sacrificed two white bulls so a drink made of the mistletoe could cure any animal infertility and could heal all poisons. Bull can also be found on the famous Gundestrup cauldron – according to interpretation, bull is mortally wounded by hunter Smertul; the bull has sun with five spokes on its forehead, one of which is connected to a crescent moon. Besides bull, a cow was embodiment or attribute of maternal goddesses; in the islands’ mythology this animals is often supernatural, from the Other world or associated with fairies.
It occurs only in the islands’ mythology and only as strongly negative and hostile animal.
Already much older cultures linked this animal with the Mother Goddess. Even the Celts used amulets from deer antlers or teeth as a gift for the deceased (as a symbol of continuation of life after death – probably due to ability of does to sacrifice their lives in danger for their offspring). It is associated with fertility, changing of seasons, deer could be a kind of spirit of the forest, deer was a sacrificial animal. Deer is often portrayed with god Cernunnos as evidenced mainly from Gundestrup cauldron. Deer is a popular motif on ceramics, and it occurred as a motif on coins. In the Irish and Welsh tales it is one of the most common animals – whether as an object of metamorphosis, hunted animal or eg. as a gold fawn showing somebody a way.
Dog and Wolf
People of the islands (Ireland, Britain) distinguished one type of strong dog for fighting, tending cattle and hunting etc. (Irish Wolfhound), and second one – a kind of women’s pet. The first type was denoted by word “cu” – which occurs in many first names as well as surnames (the legend of Cúchulainn). Dog’s skills were regarded as supernatural, great importance was attached to ability of dogs to heal. Dogs were guides of several gods and goddesses. Dog was also a sacrificial animal, at the same time, however, it was also buried properly – probably as a guide to the Other world (dog figurines in graves could have the same meaning). On the Gundestrup cauldron, dog (or wolf) is displayed twelve times (probably the most famous depiction is the god Cernunnos separating deer on the left and wolf on the right. Dogs were also eaten by the Celts (maybe just some species designated directly to this purpose). Wolf, on its own, is linked with life (wolf willing to breastfeed even a human child – mythology) as well as with death (wolf devouring its victim).
They have rather insignificant role in archaeological findings, if they occur, then as a symbol to depict water. In the islands’ mythology they play significant role, with an important position of salmon (wisdom, immortality).
According to Caesar, it was a sacred animal of the British, but there is not much evidence for it. But sometimes hare occurs as a motif on archaeological finds, in folk superstitions (hare connection with the “mother goddess” or vice versa with witches) and in the islands’ mythology (the story of Ceridwen).
Importance of horse is not surprising by the Celts – warriors who used to ride horses or to pull chariots (two-wheels chariots made from the end of the 5th century). There were myriad of horse harness, horseshoes and spurs preserved. Horses were generally smaller than they are today, with average height of 125 cm at withers (although we also have documented use of higher, eastern types of horses with a height of up to 155 cm). Horse, however, served as food as well – but that could maybe happen only on special occasions during rituals. On coins, horse often occurs independently, but sometimes also with human head or other symbols. Motif of winged horse is no exception, as on Gundestrup cauldron, which accompanies a warrior standing before god Taranis. It was also a sacrificial animal, remains of horses were found as burial gifts (instead of live animals, figurines were also used). In Ireland, a specific ceremony had been kept for a long time – a intercourse of incoming king with white mare (description of it is found in text from the 12th century, by author Giraldus Cambrensis); the king was then bathed in a broth made of meat of this mare, that he then had to eat (for prosperity and good harvest of the country). Horse is associated with goddess Epona; the only deity taken over by the Romans from the Celts. We know about over 300 depictions and inscriptions with the name of the goddess of horses across region from Portugal to Bulgaria, from the British Isles to southern Italy. To a certain extent, features of Mother Goddess can be attributed to Epona. Interesting fact is a preserved ancient text containing a snippet by the Greek author Agesilaa, which tells of birth of Epona – allegedly her father was a man called Fulvius Stellus who hated women and her mother was a mare. Horse however remained associated with other gods too. In Irish mythology it is a common animal often with magical abilities and usually somehow connected with the Other world.
Ram was worshiped animal already in previous cultures as a symbol of pushingness, strength and fertility. In the beginning of La Tene period, it can be identified with the god Teutates, as evidenced by several artefacts of the 5th and 4th centuries mainly from the German territory, with representation of the god together with head of a ram or directly with a ram’s (instead of human) head. Similar documents were found in region from Gaul to the Balkans until the beginning of the 3rd century, when Teutates changes ram for a boar. However, even then, special objects from clay or iron were used by domestic fire with bull or ram’s heads that besides their purpose of kind of a (supporting) stand were also a symbol of hospitality and could have iconic significance. In the late Irish mythology ram plays rather minor role.
Snake (and “dragon”)
It often occurs in form of “a horned snake” or serpent with a ram’s head. Snake is very symbolic animal in many aspects, in terms of contrasts, life according to the seasons, reincarnation (skin shedding); snake accompanies gods associated with land, fertility and healing. Well-known mention of St. Patrick is about his cleaning Ireland from snakes – of which we can suggest that the snake cult in Ireland was very strong. When it comes to archaeological findings, circle coiled dragon or dragon’s head appear on coins – on so called “rainbow cups” minted in the 1st half of the 1st century BC in the westerly part of the Celtic region.
Finding on which it is shown so many animals (and gods) that it deserves its own paragraph. It is a silver (97%, partly gilded), 9 kg ritual cauldron found in 1891 in Denmark, it has a diameter of 69 cm and depth of 42 cm and was made some time in the 2nd-1st century BC; we do not know whether it appeared in the Germanic territory as a war prey or article of commerce. Some researchers believe it could be a work of the Thracian craftsman per order of Celtic tribe of the Skordisci who were attacked in year 118 BC by the Germanic tribe of the Cimbri.