Tiersymbolismus in keltischer Mythologie [Englisch]

       Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology


 A paper for Religion 375 at the University of Michigan by Lars Nood?n, 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 T in, 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). C£chulainn used
 the hero's salmon leap across the Pupils' Bridge to get Sc thach's
 stronghold in order to gain access to Sc thach's advanced knowledge of arms.
 To gain the secrets C£chulainn had to use the hero's salmon leap to Sc thach
 herself in order to gain the secrets reserved for her family. Each leap in
 the land of sorcery brought C£chulainn 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, Morr¡gan 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). C£chulainn 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, S?tanta, 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 S?tanta, later known as C£chulainn, had been a vague, tiny
 creature in a drink, possibly the soul of the god Lug (Kinsella, 23). Both
 Taliesin and C£chulainn 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 ?ces (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 C£chulainn, 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, Morr¡gan fought against C£chulainn using three different animal
 shapes in her efforts to gain an advantage (Kinsella, 132-137). 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.

 - * -

 Bibliography

 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

 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

 Ford, Patrick K., trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales.
 University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, USA, 1977.

 Kinsella, Thomas, trans. The Tain. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England,
 1969.

 MacCulloch, J. A. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. T. and T. Clark :
 Edinburgh, Scotland 1911.

 Pilkington, F. M., ed. "Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne." The Three Sorrowful
 Tales of Erin. The Bodley Head: London, England 1965. 127-232

 Powell, T.G.E. The Celts. New Ed., Thames and Hudson: New York, NY, USA,
 1980.

 Sharkey, John. Celtic Mysteries: The Ancient Religion. Crossroad: New York,
 NY, USA, 1975.

 Spector, Norman B., trans. The Romance of Tristan and Isolt. Northwestern
 University Press: Evanston, USA, 1973

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