Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology
A paper for Religion 375 at the University of Michigan
by Lars Noodén, 22 November 1992
Animals in Celtic and Welsh mythology are tied in with fertility and vitality, because they are living, moving, and growing. They also provide vitality and continued life for the tribes through their meat, skins, and bones. In addition, they are a connection to the realm of spirits and the gods. This connection is seen through their use in the hunt, search for secrets and wisdom.
Specific animals have specific associations depending on the characteristics of the type of animal. Birds, fish, serpents, deer, cattle, swine, and so on all tend to be used as symbols. Boars, fishes, serpents, birds, and herd animals are the most frequently described.
In addition to representing fertility and wealth, boars symbolize courage and strong warriors (MacCulloch, 356) for they are strong, dangerous, and very hard to kill. Their appearance in dreams and visions also indicates warriors. Isolt’s forewarning of the death of Tristan, a great warrior, came in a dream about the death of a great boar (Spector, 85-86). Statues of boars are occasionally found in the company of statues of armed warriors, (Powell, 176) further indicating an association between boars and warriors.
Great importance is attached to the bristles of the boar. Perhaps they are the distinguishing characteristic of the animal or symbolize its strength. For example, Fion is killed by stepping on a boar’s bristle after breaking a geasa against hunting boars (MacCulloch, 150). Some of the extraordinary boars, that King Arthur fights in Culhwch and Olwen, have bristles that are gold or silver. Conversley, when Menw tries to steal treasures from Twrch Trwyth, he is only able to take a bristle. The pig herders at the start of the Táin, Friuch and Rucht, are named after the bristle and the grunt of the boar, respectively. It is the bristle of the boar, Friuch, that proves to have the most power; in the end, Friuch reborn as Donn Cuilnge destroys Rucht as Finnebach Ai. The bristles of the boar are mentioned many other times implying that they are an important part of the animal.
Fish, salmon in particular, are associated with knowledge. The child that grew to be called Taliesin, the wise magician, was found in a fish weir. The significance of the salmon can be seen in many places. Gwyrhr questioned a series of wise animals, each one wiser than the previous, the oldest and wisest of all was the salmon of Llyn Llyw (Ford, 148-149). Cúchulainn used the hero’s salmon leap across the Pupils’ Bridge to get Scáthach’s stronghold in order to gain access to Scáthach’s advanced knowledge of arms. To gain the secrets Cúchulainn had to use the hero’s salmon leap to Scáthach herself in order to gain the secrets reserved for her family. Each leap in the land of sorcery brought Cúchulainn to greater knowledge. Their wisdom can also be passed on by eating. The magic salmon gain the power of wisdom by consuming the hazel nuts that drop into sacred springs (MacCulloch, 377). By symbolically eating the salmon of wisdom, Demne gained such enormous wisdom that he was renamed (Ford, 20). Perhaps this is at the root of the modern practice where children are told to eat fish to increase their intelligence.
Serpents and dragons symbolize trouble. Whenever they appear, strife and infertility follow. King Arthur’s troubles with the future of his kingdom are presaged by dreams of dragons and serpents at the time of Sir Mordred’s conception. King Arthur drives them out, but is wounded (Baines, 36). King Arthur is finally devoured by them in his last dream, subsequently his next battle is when Sir Mordred kills him. It is interesting to note that it is the appearance of a snake that initiates the battle. The swine herders before the Tain, Friuch and Rucht, ruin each other’s land with snow during their magical fight, while in the forms of dragons (Ford, 48). Dragons should be particularly troubling to a king, because the king is the symbol of the fertility of the tribe and its land and the dragons are the counter symbol, laying waste to the land and preventing new growth.
Birds are usually used to represent prophetic knowledge, (Davidson, 91) bloodshed, and skill. In an omen, birds can be either the message or the messenger. For example, Morrígan came in the shape of a bird to warn the Brown Bull (Kinsella, 98). The interpretation of their calls and movements can lead to knowledge of future events. Birds, especially ravens and crows, usually presage bloodshed and battle, when they are associated with it, sticking with the theme of prophesy. Deirdre’s dream of three birds drawing blood foreshadowed death and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was shedding rotting flesh and maggots while in the form of an eagle. The Irish war goddesses were said to call the ravens down to battle fields to feast on the flesh of the slain (Davidson, 98). Even normal, modern crows and ravens descend to feed on corpses along the road.
Birds can also be used to demonstrate a warrior’s prowess by their method of capture. Lleu Llaw Gyffes was so skilled he could hit birds with a stone without killing them outright (Ford, 101). Cúchulainn demonstrated even more prowess capturing birds skillfully, but his son, Connla was still more skilled. He could not only stun them with a stone, but also with only his voice (Kinsella, 39, 91).
Horses, cattle, and pigs represent fertility. Horse, cattle, and pig bones are found in Welsh and Celtic graves, (Powell, 28) indicating that they were very important to those cultures. The prosperity of the clan is reflected in the prosperity of its herds. Cattle were a major Celtic food source (Davidson, 52)and as such, would be proportionally important to the success and survival of the tribe. Later, pigs became added to the diet of the Irish. Horses were also seen to symbolize fertility. Davidson (54) Davidsondescribed rituals where the leader of the tribe mated with a horse. The bull, which is the leader of the cattle, symbolized the herd and its fertility just as the king would symbolize the clan and its fertility, thus joining the fertility of the horse with the tribe’s.
The theme of the hunt uses animals to pass to and from the realm of magic and the gods in Celtic and Welsh mythology. For example, during the excitement of the hunt, the chosen party pursues an unusually fleet of foot, magical prey out of the world of the mortals and into a place of magic. Other ways to enter the other world are by charm, like the song from magical birds (Ford, 71), or by spell, like the mist descending over land (Ford, 77). Wells, springs, rivers, and earthen mounds are some of the magical places that border with or co-exist in the other world. In these places, magic is much more prevalent and sometimes even time passes differently there.
The magical animals are noteworthy in appearance and get the attention of the hunter by their supernatural shape, color, speed, and power. There are many other examples of the pursuit of supernatural beasts throughout Celtic and Welsh mythology with the common characteristic being their unnatural, white color. While pursuing a large, white deer, King Arthur arrives at Sir Pellinore’s well, a magical site, without his hunting party or his horse (Baines, 37). Pryderi and Manawydan pursue a “gleaming white boar” (Ford, 80) which leads them and their dogs to a magical trap. The bright white animals from the other world sometimes have bright, glowing, red ears, but they are not a natural type of white or red. Prince Pwyll encounters king Arawn’s dogs from the other world. The dogs appear with “glittering bright white” and red ears that glitter as brightly as their white bodies (Ford, 37). Rhiannon arrives from the other world on her white horse at an earthen mound (Ford, 42-45).
Fertility and continuation of the clan was a major concern of the Celtic and Welsh peoples. Here again, animals figured strongly with fertility in Celtic and Welsh mythology. A prosperous tribe was indicated by healthy, plentiful animals.
A few animals are associated with infertility because their success is incompatible with the survival of the tribe. For example, dragons indicate lack of fertility. Two dragons were heard screaming on the island of Britain every May 1st, and this caused sterility in all living creatures of the land and water (Ford, 113-116). A dragon briefly ravaged Ireland, ruining the land and preventing daily activities (Spector, 17-18). The dragons had to be destroyed in order to restore the fertility of the land. No specific causes were given for the arrival of the dragons. A vague, magical power, but no clear purpose was given to the nine scores of birds that consumed the fertility of the fields of Ulster (Kinsella, 21). They just happened. So, it is quite likely that they are merely symbols of hard times. However, more earthly explanations, like revenge or a curse, have been the cause for destruction or loss of fertility. Under a spell, hoards of warriors disguised as mice ravaged Manawydon’s wheat, destroying the fertility of his land as revenge for Gwawl (Ford, 82-87).
Birth and rebirth are fertility. The Celts believed that souls were manifested as tiny animals or beings (MacCulloch, 160). Lleu Llaw Gyffes was grown from “some little thing” (Ford, 98-99). If such a magical being was eaten by a female, then it would grow until she gave birth to it. This is illustrated in the rebirths of Taliesin, Sétanta, Finnebach Ai, and Donn Cuailnge who were all consumed by their mothers as tiny creatures and then reborn. Taliesin had been Gwion Bach disguised as a grain of wheat (Ford, 164, 173) and Sétanta, later known as Cúchulainn, had been a vague, tiny creature in a drink, possibly the soul of the god Lug (Kinsella, 23). Both Taliesin and Cúchulainn had extraordinary abilities extending to the supernatural, and Taliesin even described himself as having previously been Gwion Bach. Friuch and Rucht changed into maggots, very small creatures, and were consumed by cows while fighting each other in a battle of magic. They became reborn as the extraordinary bulls Finnebach Ai and Donn Cuailnge. They continued to escalate their combat by involving the tribes of Ireland, suggesting at least partial survival of their personalities.
Animals are used to bring knowledge directly by speech, through what they symbolize, and through their use in rituals. Eating special animals provided Celts with knowledge. When Demne tastes by accident the salmon of wisdom caught by Finn Éces (Ford, 20) he gains such great wisdom that he is renamed. Davidson (143) mentions the use of animal hides to enhance the contents of dreams. However, the most common way of gaining knowledge from animals in Welsh and Celtic mythology was to talk with them or to interpret their actions.
Exceptionally magic or ancient animals speak the language of humans and can pass on their wisdom through speech. By and large birds are associated with speech. Branwen took an ordinary starling and taught it to understand enough speech to find her brother (Ford, 65). Gwyrhyr & Arthur’s messengers conversed with an eagle, an owl, a stag, a blackbird, and a salmon to learn ancient knowledge from them (Ford, 148-149). A special understanding of the speech of animals can yield a great advantage. Some heros have gained knowledge of the speech of birds, enabling them to be warned of danger or told secrets by the birds. Davidson (87) mentions a less mythical middle-Irish manuscript describing how to determine the approach of visitors through interpretation of bird calls.
Animals appear as an omen by their appearance and activity through a symbolic message. The type of animal and their activity is the substance of the message. On the eve of his battle with Sir Mordred, King Arthur dreamt of being devoured by serpents, dragons, and other water beasts. The serpents and dragons alone mean great troubles within the land. King Arthur was destroyed by this mass of troubles, because the next day, he was defeated in a battle during the civil war with Sir Mordred (Baines, 497-498). Another example of an omen is Deirdre’s dream of the three great birds. They arrived bearing honey and left with blood, symbolizing treachery on the part of king Conchobar (Pilkington, 177). Movements of smaller animals, such as birds and rabbits, have also been interpreted to divine the future (Davidson, 11, MacCulloch, 219, 247).
Shape changing is another theme generally involving animals. Sometimes humans are changed into the shape of other humans. Merlin, King Uther Pendragon, Pwyll, and King Arawn are examples. However, the forms changed into are most often those of animals. MacCulloch and Davidson make several references to people being changed into animals as punishment. This happens in the story Math Son of Mathonwy. Generally, the animal shape is usually taken voluntarily in order to guard something or to gain an advantage in combat.
Spirits and supernatural beings also take animal forms to guard something. According to Celtic myths, each holy place generally has a spirit guardian in the form of an animal. Each well, a spring, a river, a mound, or a grove often is likely to have its own spirit. Water places would have a guardian in the form of a fish (MacCulloch, 186). Gods from the other world can assume animal forms for other reasons, also. The god Lug may have become the small life that Deichtine consumed in order to become Cúchulainn, the guardian of the tribe of Ulster.
Battle while in animal form is commonly seen during a fight between two powerful opponents. The two pig keepers, Friuch and Rucht, assumed the shapes of many creatures to try to gain an advantage over one another after their rivalry escalated into a long fight (Kinsella, 46-50). On a smaller scale, Morrígan fought against Cúchulainn using three different animal shapes in her efforts to gain an advantage (Kinsella, 132-137). A warp-spasm itself could be considered a variation of animal form. His hair stands on his back arches lik an and he appears more monster than human in this stateKinsella, 77, 150-153, 195). Not all shape changes in battle are offensive. One example that describes shape changing in a defensive manner is Gwion Bach’s attempt to escape from Ceridwen by using different animal forms (Ford, 164, 173). Another is Lleu Llaw Gyffes’ escape from an assassination by fleeing in the shape of an eagle (Ford, 106-107).
In conclusion, the most frequently used animal symbols of the boar, fish, serpent, bird, and herd animals are closely connected with the physical well being of the tribe. Divination of future events and past wisdom can be gained through proper use of animals. Very powerful opponents take the shapes of animals for extra power. Spirits and supernatural beings also take animal forms, often temporarily, before being reborn to guard a land or clan and thus its fertility. Thus, animals symbolize the essence of fertility and vitality in Welsh and Celtic mythology.
Baines, Keith, trans. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. Penguin Books: New York, NY, USA, 1962. xi-xx, 22-43, 118-136, 472-512
Return to: King Arthur’s dragons and serpents, white deer, dreams of water beast as omens.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY, USA, 1988. 87, 90, 107
Return to: birds, ravens and battle, cattle as food for the Celts, Horses as fertility symbols, horse and tribe’s fertility, divination from animal movement, shape changing as a punishment, animal skins to enhance dreams, or birds as converyors of secrets.
Ford, Patrick K., trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, USA, 1977.
Return to: wisdom of the salmon, gaining wisdom through eating salmon, dragons as infertility, use birds to demonstrate prowess, bird songs or mist to leave mortal world, pursuing a magical boar into other worlds, supernatural dogs, Rhiannon’s arrival on a supernatural horse, dragons and sterility, and mice and hard times.
Kinsella, Thomas, trans. The Tain. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 1969.
Return to: birds as messengers, Connla’s use of birds to demonstrate prowess, flock of birds consuming crops of Ulster, small creatures as souls, shape changing in battle.
MacCulloch, J. A. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. T. and T. Clark : Edinburgh, Scotland 1911.
Return to: boars as symbols of strength and courage, boar bristles, salmon gain wisdom, tiny animals as souls, divination from animal movement, shape changing as a punishment, spirit guardians.
Pilkington, F. M., ed. “Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne.” The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erin. The Bodley Head: London, England 1965. 127-232
Return to: birds as omens in dreams.
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