Birds: Messengers of the Gods
Birds play an enormous role in Celtic mythology, figuring as divine emblems and as messengers of the gods. Chief among the sacred birds of the Celts were the raven, the swan, and the crane, although numerous other birds including geese, ducks, and even owls were held sacred at various times. Many early images of Celtic deities depict them with birds in the place of hands, emphasizing the importance of the birds as divine servants.
Because of their dark color and gruesome dietary habits, ravens were especially connected with gods of war and death. But those same gods were also associated with growth and fertility, so ravens were also symbols of new life. It was the raven that accompanied the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and portraits of the deceased often depicted them with the bird. Ravens were sometimes viewed as reincarnated warriors or heroes — the Welsh hero Owain had an army of invincible ravens, which are sometimes interpreted as an army of reincarnated warriors.
The warrior god Bendigeitvran, better known as “Bran the Blessed,” was for a time the Welsh/British father god; his name means “blessed raven.” Bran's head is rumored to be buried under the Tower of London, where it protects England against invaders. A persistent superstition regarding the tower is that should the ravens who inhabit it flee, England will be without protection.
The raven was the ruler of the domain of air and therefore of communication; the cry of the raven was often interpreted as the voice of the gods. Images of the gods Lugh and Bran often depict them with birds alighting on their heads and shoulders, symbolizing this divine communication. (The Norse god Odin, who is sometimes compared to Lugh and Bran, has as his companions two ravens called Thought and Memory.) For this reason, ravens were favored by the druids for use in divinatory ritual.
The swan was revered by the earliest Celts, as far back as the Urnfield and Halstatt cultures. Although they are creatures of water, swans were, oddly, connected with the sun, sometimes even appearing as bearers of the chariot of the sun god. Swans and other water birds adorned numerous religious artifacts of the period, including many small statues and masks.
Curiously, virtually every Celtic tale of magical swans share another theme, a chain or chains of precious metal by which a magical swan is identified. In some tales, the chains are of gold and silver; in others, the chain is made of common metals. Many times the birds appear linked together in large groups. The theme is an ancient one, which is reflected by the appearance of chained swans on ancient Celtic and pre-Celtic artifacts.
Many of the later Celtic gods appear in tales as swans or with the ability to change into swans. The ability seems closely connected with women although in some stories male gods have the same power, invariably with a female of the same ability. As seen in the tale of Aenghus, both the god and his magical lover have the ability to transform into swans during the festival of Samhain. Sometimes, it is Deichtine, the lover of Cuchulainn, who takes the form of a swan. Yet another tale of Cuchulainn tells of a young girl who pursues the hero in the form of one of the great birds, but she is badly wounded when the god mistakes her for a potential dinner.
One of the best-known stories involving swans is the legend of Lir, the Irish sea god, whose beautiful wife dies giving birth to his children and leaves him bereft. Lir marries the sister of his deceased wife, but she is jealous of the attention he lavishes on his children and decides to do away with them. She accomplishes this by sending the children to swim and, while they are in the water, using a druid's wand to transform them into swans. The children are thus tragically enchanted for 900 years, yet they retain their intelligence and powers of speech.