To the Celts, time was circular rather than linear. This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. It is also reflected in their year beginning with the festival of Samhain on 31 October, when nature appears to be dying down. Tellingly, the first month of the Celtic year is Samonios, ‘Seed Fall’: in other words, from death and darkness springs life and light.
Caesar confirms this and offers an explanation (Conquest of Gaul, VI.18):
The Gauls claim all to be descended from Father Dis [a god of death, darkness and the underworld], declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids. For this reason they measure periods of time not by days but by nights; and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and new year’s day, they go on the principle that the day begins at night.
A lunar calendar
Another reason for the importance of night in the Celts’ reckoning of time lies in their regard for the moon and the feminine principle which it represents. Certainly there is some evidence that they observed the solar festivals of solstices and equinoxes, and especially the summer solstice. It is also true that the Druids’ most sacred plant, mistletoe, was associated with the sun. However, the waxing and waning of the moon was of far greater importance.
The Celts showed their respect for the moon by using euphemisms such as gealach - meaning ‘brightness’, and never referring directly to ‘the moon’. Manx fishermen followed this custom up until the nineteenth century, referring to the moon as ben- reine ny hoie - ‘queen of the night’. More persuasive, however, is the evidence to be found in the Celtic calendar.
The earliest-known Celtic calendar is the Coligny calendar, now in the Palais des Arts, Lyon. It dates probably from the 1st century BCE, and is made up of bronze fragments, once a single huge plate. It is inscribed with Latin characters, but in Gaulish. It begins each month with the full moon, and covers a 30-year cycle comprising five cycles of 62 lunar months, and one of 61. It divides each month into fortnights rather than weeks, with days designated - from observation - as MAT (good) or ANM (not good). Each year is divided into thirteen months.
The Coligny calendar achieves a complex synchronization of the solar and lunar months. Whether it does this for philosophical or practical reasons, it points to considerable sophistication.
The lunar months given on the Coligny calendar are as follows. The translations are based on those of Caitlin Matthews:
The 13th month, Mid Samonios, was duplicated. Since months began with a full moon, no consistent dates can be given.
The Celtic festivals
This cycle is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Celtic approach to time, and certainly the one that we can most easily follow nowadays.
The Celtic year began with Samhain. Celebrated around 31 October, it was a time of deliberate misrule and contrariness, rather like the Roman Saturnalia. It was also a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thought to be so thin that the dead could return to warm themselves at the hearths of the living, and some of the living - especially poets - were able to enter the Otherworld through the doorways of the sidhe, such as that at the Hill of Tara in Ireland.
At Samhain cattle were brought in for the winter, and in Ireland the warrior élite, the Fianna, gave up war until Beltain. It was a sacred time, whose peace was normally broken only by the ritualized battle of board games such as fidchell.
Our modern Hallowe’en stems from Samhain, and one explanation of the traditional pumpkin lanterns is that the Celts once placed the skulls of ancestors outside their doors at this time. The Christians took over the Celtic festival and turned it into All Saints Day. Even the modern English celebration of Guy Fawkes Day has echoes of the ancient fire festival.
Coming at lambing time, around 31 January, Imbolc (or Oimelc) celebrated the beginning of the end of winter. New lambs were born, and a dish made from their docked tails was eaten. Women met to celebrate the return of the maiden aspect of the Goddess. This survived into Christian times as the Feast of Brigid: the saint was a Christianized version of the pagan goddess who was the daughter of the Dagda . In the Outer Hebrides, Celtic Christian celebrations of this festival lasted into the twentieth century, with women dressing a sheaf of oats in female clothes and setting it with a club in a basket called ‘Brid’s Bed’.
Beltain, celebrated around 1 May, was another fire festival; but whereas Samhain was associated with going to ground, and withdrawing, Beltain burst forth with an abundant fertility. Cattle were let out of winter quarters and driven between two fires in a ritual cleansing ceremony that may have had practical purposes too. It was a time for feasts and fairs, for the mating of animals, and for divorces - possible arising from trial marriages entered into at Lughnasadh. Like Samhain, it was a time for boardgames - as well as for travel between the worlds: the legendary poet Taliesin is said to manifest at Beltain.
Beltain was sacred to the god Belenos, the Shining One, whose name survives in placenames such as Billingsgate, and in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline - Hound of Belenus. In fact the word ‘Beltain’ derives from Bel-tinne - fires of Bel. As noted above, for the Fianna, Beltain heralded the start of the ‘fighting season’. De Jubainville, in his Irish Mythological Cycle, writes :
It was on a Thursday, the first of May, and the 17th day of the moon, that the [invading] sons of Mile arrived in Ireland. Partholan [chief of the next race of invaders] also landed in Ireland on the first of May ... and it was on the first day of May, too, that the pestilence came which in the space of one week destroyed utterly his race. The first of May was sacred to Beltene, one of the names of the god of Death, the god who gives life to men and takes it away from them again. Thus it was on the feast day of this god that the sons of Mile began their conquest of Ireland.
Beltain is the origin of pagan May Day festivities such as that of the Padstow Hobby Horse, and maypole dancing, of the ‘Queen of the May’, and of ‘well dressing’ - decking holy wells with flowers, as still practiced in some rural communities.
Lughnasadh was a summer festival lasting for as long as two weeks either side of the day itself, which fell around 31 July. It was said to have been introduced to Ireland by the god Lugh, and so was sacred to this god. The Romans identified Lugh with Mercury. At any rate, both are gods associated with skills, and this festival was celebrated with competitions of skill, including horse-racing. There was horse-trading, too; perhaps this is why the festival was also linked to the fertility goddess Macha, who dies in childbirth after being forced to race against the King’s horses. In Ireland the festival was associated with Emain Macha, in Ulster, but was held in various locations, including the royal fort of Tara.
We know less about Celtic celebrations of solar festivals. However, the solstices were probably celebrated. Miranda Green suggests that the fires of Beltain were ‘sympathetic magic to encourage the Sun’s warmth on earth’. She adds that Beltain, Lughnasadh and Samhain ‘celebrated critical times in the annual solar cycle’, and that pagan and Christian Celtic midsummer festivals involved rolling a flaming wooden ‘solar’ wheel down a hill and into a river. It is also significant that sun disks, solar chariot wheels and swastikas (whose arms are intended to portray a blazing, spinning sun) are important motifs in Celtic art.
Celtic astrology and tree calendars
Astrology is an art, or science, that focuses on the passage of time, and which emphasizes the unique nature of a moment in time. Much has been written about ‘Celtic astrology’. Classical writers - including Strabo, Caesar, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero and Pliny - comment on Druidic knowledge of astronomy and astrology. There is also evidence that the Druids understood the tides and that they cut mistletoe and other plants at particular phases of the moon. Peter Berresford Ellis puts forward a tentative case for a Celtic astrology, mentioning among other things the survival of astronomical terms such as dubaraith, meaning eclipse, into modern Irish. He suggests that if the Druids did use astrology in addition to various forms of divination, their astrology would have been lunar-based, as is Hindu astrology, which uses a system of 27 or 28 lunar ‘mansions’.
Another tantalizing point is the Coligny calendar’s designation of days as ‘good’ or ‘not good’. However, in the end there is no absolute proof, probably because of the Druidic aversion to keeping written records.
Similarly, there is no proof that the Ogham-based Celtic tree calendar popularized by Robert Graves actually existed, whatever poetic truth it contains.
A number of engraved copper-alloy fragments were discovered in 1897 in ancient silvan surroundings some fifteen miles north-east of Bourg-en-Bresse, France. They were quickly recognised as pieces of a single, large bronze tablet, which measured some 5 feet wide by 3½ feet in height (approx. 1.5 x 1 metres) when the fragments were reassembled. The restored tablet contains tabular information arranged in sixteen vertical columns, with what appear to be observations on the weather being systematically recorded.
The French archaeologist J. Monard studied the inscriptions for a number of years, and came to the conclusion that the Coligny tablet represents the best known example of a Celtic calendar. He further speculated that the information recorded on the calendar was compiled by Gallic druids who wished to preserve the ancient Celtic system of timekeeping, at the time when the Julian calendar was being rigorously enforced throughout the entire Roman empire, around the turn of the first century AD.
Several important features of the ancient Celtic calendar were revealed or confirmed on the Coligny tablet;
- The Celtic month started at the full-moon, rather than the new-moon, probably because the full-moon is easier to observe and record. Each month alternately contained 29 or 30 days, making a Celtic year 354 days in length.
- The calendar took into account the differing time periods taken by the moon and the sun to circle the earth (prevalent geocentric terminology used), and reconciled the differences by inserting an extra month on a regular cycle. This method of intercalation meant that most years contained twelve months, and approximately every third year contained thirteen months. This extra month was called Mid Samonios, and was intercalated between Cutios and Giamonios in the calendar.
- The month was divided into two parts, a 'light' half, and a 'dark' half, each approximately of two week's duration; the division marked by the word Atenoux 'returning night' on the Coligny fragments. This confirms that the new-moon also played a part in the Celtic calendar, and very likely had some religious significance. This also bears-out the impression we get from the traditional Celtic folk-stories which maintain that the normal period of Celtic timekeeping was the fortnight.
- By extrapolation, the calendar also confirms that the Gallic druids maintained a thirty-year cycle of timekeeping, comprising five cycles of 62 lunations and one cycle of 61 lunations, during which period, eleven intercalary months would be added.
Two of the main Celtic religious festivals Beltain and Lughnasadh were indicated on the Coligny calendar by small sigils, and each year started with the month of Samonios, during which period the festival of Samhain was celebrated. A fourth major festival Oimelc, which occurred during mid winter, is not indicated on the tablet.
Though not confirmed by the Coligny inscriptions, we also know that in accordance with general Celtic custom, which was itself adopted from the ancient Greek observance, each day was reckoned to last from sunset to sunset; not midnight to midnight as our modern Roman calendar dictates.
England has a rich tradition of annual customs and festivals which include Yule, Lent, Easter, May Day, Midsummer, Harvest and Halloween, as well as many local minor festivals. The majority of published references on English folk tradition tend to attribute either Roman or Celtic origins to these annual events. For example, Yule is often identified with the Roman Saturnalia, and May Day with Florialia. However, it is the Celtic calendar that is most often used to explain the origins of the English traditional year.
The Celtic Calendar
The Celts are first recorded in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, who locates them in the area of the upper Danube. Later Roman historians referred to a number of peoples within their empire as being either Celts or Gauls. At their greatest extent, Celtic languages were spoken throughout what is now northern Italy, France, Spain, Britain and Ireland.
'No man will travel this country,' she said, 'who hasn't gone sleepless from Samain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning, from Imbolc to Beltane at the summer's beginning and from Beltane to Brón Trogain, earth's sorrowing autumn'.
The above passage comes from the 1Oth to 11th century collection of Irish heroic tales known as the Ulster Cycle.(1) During the wooing of Emer by the hero Cúchulainn, he is required to sleep for a year before she will agree to marry him. In describing the year Emer also provides the earliest reference to all four of the Irish pagan festivals, that marked the changing of the seasons. Three of these festivals' names have survived in Ireland and highland Scotland, as the month names for May, August and November. However, in later sources Brón Trogain is known by the name Lúgnasad.
|Surviving Old Irish Festival Names|
|Old Irish||Irish||Scots Gaelic||Interpretation|
In the 19th century during the 'Celtic Revival' these early Irish festivals were rediscovered by folklorists and academics who attempted to reconstruct a pan-celtic year, that was said to have existed not only in Ireland and Scotland, but throughout Britain and the former Celtic speaking parts of Europe. This 'Celtic Calendar' was believed to have included the winter and summer solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes, as well as the four recorded festivals that marked the changing seasons. In addition, it was thought that bonfires had been a central part of all these festivals, giving rise to the idea of the Fire Festivals. The resulting calendar has been used extensively since the 19th century to explain the origins of the English traditional year.
|Celtic Revival Calendar|
|Celtic Year||Date||Assumed Equivalent|
|Winter Solstice||21 December||Yule|
|Spring Equinox||21 March||Easter|
|Beltane||1 May||May Day|
|Summer Solstice||21 June||Midsummer|
|Autumn Equinox||22 September||Harvest|
However, this calendar has now been called into question by the work of Ronald Hutton.(2) He has pointed out that while Imbolc, Beltane, Lagnasad and Samain are found in the Goidelic branch of the Celtic language group (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic), they are not found in the Brithonic branch (Welsh, Cornish and Breton). Given the lack of evidence that these festivals were observed by the Celtic Britons, it is difficult to see how they could then have passed into English folk tradition. It should also be noted that the early Irish texts do not mention festivals on the solstices or equinoxes, hence the lack of Old Irish names for these.
The concept of the 'Celtic Calendar' is now so deeply imbedded in both popular and academic belief, that it is repeated throughout the literature on Celtic culture, history and archaeology, but with no reference back to original source material. So much so that many eminent archaeologists and historians have reproduced the calendar in their various works. Nevertheless, in Hutton's final conclusions he clearly demonstrates that the 'Celtic Year' is a modem scholastic construction.
|Celtic Months Names|
The English Year
The English or Angli are first recorded in AD 98, when the Roman historian Tacitus describes them in his study of the Germanic peoples the Germania.(3) Tacitus locates the Angli in what is now the border area between Germany and Denmark, part of which still bears the name Angeln. In the 5th century AD the Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) began to leave their homelands in north Germany and Denmark, and settle in lowland Britain following the collapse of Roman rule. Their arrival and settlement in Britain is described by the Northumbrian cleric Bede in AD 731.(4) The Anglo-Saxons called their new land Englalond and their language Englisc, after the Angles. While the nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlement is still hotly debated (folk migration versus dominant élitc), they were the first to identify themselves as being English.
The earliest description of the English (Anglo-Saxon) year is given by Bede in AD 725, who in a text on the church calendar, De Temporum Ratione, also described the Anglo-Saxon pagan year.(5) The year started at Yule (Geola) in the middle of winter, and was preceded by a festival known as Mothers Night (Modra Nect). Half way through the year was the festival Litha (Liða) in the middle of summer. The year consisted of 12 lunar months which approximated to those of the Julian calendar.
|Ærra Liða||Earlier Litha||June|
|Æfterra Liða||Later Litha||July|
|Ærra Geola||Earlier Yule||December|
Bede also described what he thought to be the origins of the month names. Yule was not only the name for the middle of winter but also the months before and after the festival. Next came the month of mud (sol) when cakes were offered to the gods. The following two months were named after the Anglo-Saxon goddesses Hretha and Eastre, the spring goddess. Then came the month when cattle had to be milked three times a day. The summer festival Litha, like Yule, was flanked by two months bearing the same name. Weed-month was simply the time when weeds grew most, and Holy-month when offerings were made to the gods. Finally came the month of the first winter full moon, and the month of blood when animals were slaughtered or sacrificed.
|Anglo-Saxon Seasons, Solstices and Equinoxes|
Bede goes on to explain that the pagan English year was divided into just two seasons, winter and summer. The earliest references to Lent and Harvest occur in 9th century texts. In Byrhtferth's Handboc, a scientific manual written in AD 1011, all four seasons are named as lengten, sumor, Hærfest and winter.(6) Lent being the season when the days began to lengthen and Harvest when the crops were gathered in. Byrhtferth also described the relationship between the seasons, the solstices and the equinoxes, and clearly interpreted the Latin word solstice as Midsummer.
Therefore, the Anglo-Saxon texts provide us with the names of the months, seasons, solstices and equinoxes. Many of these names have survived into modern English, and are found throughout the Germanic language group. This broad agreement among the Germanic languages, when compared with the Celtic languages, would suggest that a common year is more likely to have existed in the Germanic rather than Celtic speaking parts of Europe.
|Surviving Germanic Season and Festivals Names|
This commonality is also reflected in the English names for the days of the week. In the 3rd century AD, when Germanic soldiers were recruited by the Roman Legions, various Germanic tribes began to adopt the Roman seven day week with its days named after the planets. Saturday, Sunday and Monday were named after the same planets as their Latin equivalents, while Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were named after the Germanic gods Tiw, Weden, Thunor and Frig. When the Anglo-Saxons began to settle in lowland Britain during the fith century AD, they brought their week with them. These names have survived down through the centuries and are found throughout the Germanic language group.
|Germanic Day Names|
The historic sources clearly demonstrate that Yule, Lent, Easter, Summer, Midsummer, Harvest, Winter and Midwinter, all derive from the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Furthermore, these names are found throughout the Germanic language group, in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that have never been inhabited by Celtic language speakers. This would suggest that the major divisions of the English traditional year are of Anglo-Saxon rather than Celtic origin. These survivals from the Anglo-Saxon year must surely have provided the fabric into which later traditions, such as May Day and Halloween, have been woven. Future research could usefully re-examine received wisdom about the origins of English folk customs, many of which are assumed to have Celtic origins, but are not found in the Celtic regions of Britain or Ireland.
This article has been developed from two earlier published papers under a similar title.(7 & 8)
- KINSELLA, T. (trans). The Tain. Oxford, 1970. 272.
- HUTTON. R. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford. 1996. 408-11
- MATTINGLY, H. (trans). Tacilus, The Germanic. Penguin. 1970. 134-5
- KING, J. (ed). Beds, llistorical Works, 1. Loob. 1930. 68-74
- JONES, C. (ed). Bede, De Ternicorum Rations, XV.1976.
- KLUGE, F. (ed). 'Byrhtfer'd's Handboe', Anglia, V111. 1885. 298-337
- SERMON, R. T1w Mankind Quarterly. XL, 4. 2000, 401 A20
- SERMON, R. English Dance & Song, 63. 2001. 1, 3-4
Published, in Glevensis, Jnl 34, 2000.