The Celtic Cosmos
Unlike the Greeks and Romans, whose gods lived far from human reach, the deities of the Celts were ever-present, embodied in the natural world around them. The visible, everyday world was interpenetrated by the Otherworld, the abode of the gods, elemental spirits, and the souls of the dead.
The abode of the gods was delineated by three elemental domains, those of earth, sea (water), and sky. These domains of spirit were not distinct but instead operated in a continual state of flux and overlap.
The elements were both physical and spiritual — the domain of water, for instance, encompassed not only the oceans, wells, and streams, but was also the source of wisdom and inspiration. The lords of the sky provided not only sunlight for crops but also strength and vigor to warriors and heroes. The woodland creatures gave not only their flesh to those who consumed them but their qualities as well — the boar gave strength, the salmon wisdom, and rabbits, cleverness.
The elements were both the home and the substance of the gods. Goddesses of earth brought forth and nurtured the crops; gods of the sky brought rain and lightning, and so on.
The ubiquitous motif of the triskele, with its three interlocking and flowing spirals, originated as a solar symbol, an emblem of birth, death, regeneration. However, it also illustrates the interplay of the three worlds, as well as the labyrinthine path to the Otherworld.
Gods and goddesses all over Celtic lands appear in triplicate form. Two of the best-known are the Morrigan, a goddess of the battlefield who also had command of birth and death, and Brigid, the patron of artisans and a goddess of healing. Three-headed gods made their first appearance in prehistoric rock-carvings and persisted into Roman occupation, eventually associated with the god Mercury.
Celtic stories, poems, and even riddles are likewise divided into threes, a tradition that carried over in Christian times. It is widely believed that it was the Celts' threefold view of divinity that aided the ready acceptance of Christianity in Ireland.
Rebirth and Reincarnation
The body of Celtic mythology gives much evidence of Celtic beliefs in reincarnation and life after death. The Celts had an underworld similar in some ways to the beliefs of the Romans and Greeks, but all indications are that it was a place much like the everyday world. It is most commonly referred to as the Otherworld, for although its entrances are usually under the earth, it is believed to exist commingled with the world of men and can even be reached by sea. At certain times of the year, and in certain geographical locations, the veils or mists that conceal one world from the next could be broached, and both men and spirits could travel between them.
The Welsh Otherworld was called Annwn, the Isle of Apples, which came to be known later as Avalon and figures heavily in Arthurian legend. Although Arthur is portrayed as a Christian king, it is to Avalon where he is taken to die after being mortally wounded by his nephew Mordred.
There is also much evidence that Celts believed in reincarnation. Mythological stories abound with episodes of rebirth and reincarnation, especially in relation to water. A repeating feature of battle stories is the cauldron or spring of rebirth, by which slain warriors return to life.
Another kind of transmigration is hinted at in stories of gods and heroes who take the form of animals, often in succession. Many are reborn as humans after being consumed by women or goddesses, which gives some insight into the reverence the Celts had for animals.
For the Celts, the head was regarded as the seat of the human soul, the container of the life force. The head, therefore, had enormous talismanic properties. Severed heads were placed for protection at the entrances of homes and temples and buried at the base of bridges and at crossroads. Celtic warriors took great pains to collect the heads of fallen enemies. Heads, especially of the battle-slain, were among offerings made to the gods and are found in ritual deposits alongside offerings of animals and wares. The heads of friends and military leaders were also kept sacred, a practice that remained a frequent theme in hero's tales.
Celtic warriors were known to enthusiastically collect the heads of slain enemies, preserving them in oil in earthen jars and even nailing them over the lintels of doorways. Many a startled visitor to Celtic lands expressed shock when enthusiastic hosts showed off their treasured collections of captured heads. Historian Diodorus Siculus writes:
When the enemies fall, the Gauls cut off their heads and fasten them to the necks of their horses. They nail up the heads in their houses. They embalm in cedar-oil the heads of the most distinguished of their enemies and keep them carefully in a chest; they display them with pride to strangers.
The head in ancient Celtic art is also emphasized, sometimes exaggerated out of all sense of proportion. When the Celts depicted the deities as humans, they very often pictured them as gigantic, solitary heads — bodies were perfunctory, and often ignored.
The most famous Celtic talisman is the head of Bran the Blessed, a legendary god-king of Britain. Upon his death, the head of Bran was buried under the Tower of London to ward off foreign invasion. According to legend, it remained in place until the time of Arthur, who turned the head inward, as Arthur claimed to be Britain's sole protector.