The Celts and Timekeeping

ndlivestockLike many ancient peoples, Celts kept time for only one reason: their survival. Among ancient peoples, survival was credited to various Gods. Therefore, a part of people’s religious duties was to keep time for the ceremonies for the different Gods. For example, in Hawai’i, when the Pleiades rise at sunset (October-November), the rainy season began. At this time, people made offerings to Lono, God of Agriculture for bountiful crops.

The Celts were pastoral people who kept great herds of cattle. Raising cows meant knowing when it was safe to take them to pasture, and when to bring them inside for the winter. Also, people, who rely on cattle, need to know when the calving season happens and when to cull the herds for winter. Modern ranchers employ a cycle of calving in the spring, and culling in the fall. In the American West, where spring snows and fall blizzards often happen, having cattle die in unprotected pastures is a major concern.

According to Roman sources, the Celts divided their year into a light and dark half. The light half began after the calving season was over, and when it was safe to drive the cattle to upper pastures. The dark half started when the cattle had to be taken inside (mid-fall).

The current Neo-Pagan calendar of cross quarters (between the solstices and equinoxes) seems to fit the Celtic lifestyle – it follows calving, pasturing, culling, and over-wintering seasons for Britain. This modern calendar, which is devised from Irish myths, has important holidays at midwinter (Imbolc), mid-spring (Beltane), midsummer (Lughnassadh), and mid-fall (Samhain). The light half begins at mid-spring and ends at mid-fall. However, this cross quarter calendar is based on the sun, since solstices and equinoxes need to be tracked.

The most reliable and most common time-keeping method among ancient peoples was to use combination of a sun, moon, stars, weather, and natural phenomena. Since the Celts regarded themselves a part of nature, they would notice many things such as the annual salmon migration.

The Coligny Calendar, considered to be devised by the Celts, is a solar-lunar calendar. The sun and stars would accurately tell when the seasons will happen. Meanwhile, the moons and various events that occurred during the months gave a broader sense of the seasons.

The Celtic Tree Calendar: Real or Imagined

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Robert Graves, in his book “The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth” suggests that the Celts followed a calendar of thirteen trees. Graves noted that the letters of the Celtic alphabet (Ogham) formed seasonal progressions of trees according to the various moons. Graves reasoned that since trees reminded the Celts of the Sacred Triple Spiral (birth, death, and rebirth), they would be the most logical choice for time keeping. However, is Graves’ reasoning correct or simply a pet theory of his? To answer that question, one must determine if keeping time by trees is feasible?

Telling Time by Plants
In Maine (Northern New England (USA)), certain plants do appear at particular times. In addition, people do plan their activities around some of these plants. Late winter is heralded by skunk cabbage, which stinks up the forest. In early spring, “Sugaring time” commences when maple tree sap rises. People tap the trees and take the sap to nearby sugaring shacks to maple syrup for sale. Middle spring is time for burdock, a bitter green plant. People used to have roadside stands selling this plant as the first greens of the year. Berry picking season starts in late spring and lasts through fall. Strawberries ripen in May-June, raspberries in July, Blueberries in August, and Blackberries in September. October is the famous fall season in New England, when hillsides are afire with scarlet maple trees. Then the snow come and the rivers freeze over.

However, these seasonal markers are not always reliable. January thaws causes skunk cabbage to bloom early. May frosts kills berries. Frosts in Maine have happened as late as July. Most people use a combination of other natural signs for seasonal changes. For example, the rivers crack as the ice melts on them. The loud booming noises are heard by towns around. After the rivers are free of ice, the lumbering season can begin.

Celts and Trees
One major problem with Grave’s “tree calendar” is that the same trees often grow at different times in different climates. Celts living in Gaul and those living in Ireland would have varying seasons for their trees. In addition, not all the tree species of the Ogham were present everywhere the Celts lived. Graves seems to assume that Celts lived in only one place. In contrast, Julius Caesar reported that the Celts lived in Gaul as well as on the islands.

My conclusion is that Graves had pet ideas about the ancient Celts. Like many people with favorite ideas, he cherry picked the data to fit his conclusions. Although, his Celtic Tree Calendar is appealing and romantic, it does a disservice to the Celts. It obscures the truth about their lives and replaces it with drivel.

Graves’ Calendar
1. Beth (Birch) December 24 to January 20
2. Luis (Rowan) January 21 to February 17
3. Nion (Ash) February 18 to March 17
4. Fearn (Alder) March 18 to April 14
5. Saille (Willow) April 15 to May 12
6. Uath (Hawthorn) May 13 to June 9
7. Duir (Oak) June 10 to July 7
8. Tinne (Holly) July 8 to August 4
9. Coll (Hazel) August 5 to September 1
10. Muin (Vine) September 2 to September 29
11. Gort (Ivy) September 30 to October 27
12. Ngetal (Reed) October 28 to November 24
13. Ruis (Elder) November 25 to December 22

14. December 23 is not ruled by any tree for it is the traditional day of the proverbial “Year and a Day” in the earliest courts of law.

How Gods Find Followers: Intro

Since I follow several Gods, who are not as well-known as the Norse or Celtic pantheons, I often wonder how They get followers. Why are some Gods or pantheons are more popular than others? How do the lesser known pantheons go about getting devotees? Many Pagans follow Gods who are from the African Traditional Religions, Egyptian, Celtic, Greek or Norse pantheons. Meanwhile, various other Gods such as Inanna (Babylonian) and Astarte (Canaanite) are usually followed as individuals separate from their respective cultures.

One factor is that some of the more popular pantheons have Gods who actively recruit such as Odin and The Morrigan. Also, Sekhmet of the Egyptians recruits from the general population as does Dionysius of the Greeks. Within each of these pantheons are popular Gods such as Isis and Apollo, who also attract devotees. People will shift pantheons in their spiritual lives as some Gods come to speak to them, while other Gods leave. Odin and Sekhmet will often leave the person once they are settled in Paganism.

Another factor is that people are introduced to popular Gods such as Hecate in “Goddesses” books. These books often do bring people deeper into Paganism. However, many focus on the Goddesses as archetypes for self-empowerment, while others present the various Goddesses as aspects of the Great Goddess.

I have come to realize that the focus on individual Gods (Goddesses) in general Paganism hinders knowing some of the more obscure pantheons. Furthermore, Pagans often see Them as archetypes representing a part of a whole. To me, this is a paradox of extreme individualism and non-differentiation between Gods.

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My experience with the Acheulian Goddess reflects some of the common problems faced by the more obscure Gods. I was approached by the Acheulian Goddess because of my work with the Early Human Dead. I see Her in that context, as a Goddess of Homo erectus, the Goddess of Beginnings. I know of only few people who differentiate between the various Neolithic Goddesses. I suspect that it is because in general culture, They are lumped together. Moreover, few discussions of Neolithic religion present each of these Goddesses as being discrete from each other.

I have met people who follow the Goddess Path, who venerate Her with the other Neolithic Goddesses. They tend to think of Her as a facet of the Great Goddess. Outside of the Goddess Worshipers, She attracts few people.

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I am writing a series of posts on how various Gods recruit their followers. I find the topic fascinating, and hope that my dear readers will also. If anyone has any input to this topic, feel free to contact me, and we can discuss further.