Exploring Meaning: Celtic Animal Symbolism
Celtic symbols, such as the knot and the triquetra, are popular and used often in jewelry, decorations, even tattoos. The Celts were—and remain—highly artistic. But there is more to the culture than an appreciation of intricate designs. Nature was important to the Celts. They respected it, paid attention to it, and attributed symbolism to it. Each tree, from ashes to yews, represented something. For example, an oak symbolized nobility and constancy. A blackthorn indicated challenges and, when encountered, warned the person to prepare for coming conflicts. On the other hand, the evergreen holly, ruler of the dark half of the year according to Celtic mythology, was a sign of the ability to persevere through challenging times and to come out a winner. The role that animals played in Celtic symbolism is less well-known. Nevertheless, it is pervasive in the folklore. The Celts believed animals could be messengers from the Otherworld and seeing one meant something specific. Here are some examples.
Considered guides to the Otherworld, deer are a symbol of spiritual growth and the patience it takes to achieve that. They are reminders to treat others with kindness and to be gentle with yourself as well. The Celts drew an association between deer and the willow tree. Willows are flexible and adaptable, characteristics which will help one along the spiritual journey. The trees also are said to aid in obtaining psychic visions and in gaining clearer understanding which circles back to the idea of deer as guides to the Otherworld. The appearance of a deer reminds one to be alert and aware of one’s surroundings. A stag, however, is a sign never to give up, to keep going, and to refuse to be hampered by boundaries.
Like deer, horses are graceful and noble. Throughout the centuries, the Celts prized them highly and treated them with great respect. A symbol of transcendence, the horse was associated with the goddesses Epona and Rhiannon. The Celts also associated horses with war, but not with the strife, destruction, and death it brings. To them, the horse represented victory and the spoils that come with it. Horses symbolized power, courage, and confidence. The unicorn, Scotland’s national symbol, represented not only purity but unbridled strength, wild beauty, transformation, and fierce independence.
While Celts believed horses protected their riders (as long as the human treated them well), not all horses could be trusted. In folklore, faeries who appeared as water horses were treacherous. Kelpies and the Ceffyl Dŵr are shapeshifters who usually take the form of a horse to lure humans onto their backs with the sole purpose of murdering them. So, if you encounter a horse in a Celtic land, look at its mane. If you see seaweed tangled in it or water dripping from it, back away from the horse. Quickly.
Cows and bulls may not have the romance and allure of horses or deer, but they were more highly prized by the Celts than any other animal. Wealth and social status were judged by the number of cattle a Celt possessed. Unsurprisingly, then, cattle became a symbol of riches, luxury, and security. Bulls represented physical strength and strength of will. In addition, they were a symbol of virility. Correspondingly, cows represented fertility. The Druids also associated cows with the earth energy of the mother goddess.
In many cultures, dogs represent loyalty. This is true in Celtic culture too but dogs were seen as much more than faithful companions. The Celts trained dogs not only to hunt but to assist in battle. Because of this, dogs became a symbol of heroism. In fact, the nickname of one of Irish mythology’s great heroes—Cu Chulainn—referred to a dog. His name meant “Culain’s Hound.” In Celtic culture, dogs stand for persistence, courage, even fearlessness. In addition, they are symbols of protection and healing.
While they are generally viewed in a positive light, there are some scary dogs in Celtic folklore. The best known are the Scottish Cu Sith, the Irish Cu Sidhe, and the Welsh Cŵn Annwn. The Cu Sith was a hound the size of a large calf. It was covered with shaggy dark-green fur, had large, glowing eyes, and a tail that curled up. Some versions of the legend say the hairs of its tail were braided. Its name in both Irish and Scottish translates to “faerie dog.” The Cu Sith roamed the highlands and moors, silently hunting. It was a harbinger of death as it was believed to guide souls to the afterlife. Its howl was bone-chilling and deadly. According to lore, anyone who heard its howl had to run for shelter immediately as anyone who had not reached safety by the third howl would die. The Cu Sidhe is essentially the same as its Scottish counterpart except for the fur color. It’s black as is the Cŵn Annwn whose howl is said to portend death to anyone who hears it.
Cats get a bum rap in most western cultures. This wasn’t true among the Celts though—until Christianity came along and black cats became associated with witchcraft. They were said to be the guards of the Otherworld and represented mystery, wiliness, stoicism, and the ability to keep secrets.
One terrifying cat from Scottish folklore is the Cat Sith. A large black cat with fiery eyes, it steals souls of the recently deceased by walking over their corpses.
In both Irish and Scottish traditions, the salmon represents knowledge and, more importantly, wisdom. According to folklore, the Great Salmon acquired wisdom by eating nuts which fell from sacred hazel trees into the Pool of Knowledge. Finn MacCumhail, a young apprentice to the druid Finegas, was tending to a salmon roasting on a fire. Fat from the cooking fish spat at Finn, burning his thumb. Instinctively, he put his thumb in his mouth to soothe the pain. As a result, he took in a part of the Salmon of Wisdom into himself and grew up to be the greatest hero in Irish mythology.
A number of birds have symbolic meanings in Celtic culture. The Wren is one of the most joyful. It represents domestic happiness. Seeing a wren is a reminder to contribute to the common good and work towards peace and reconciliation. Quails are a reminder to stay grounded and to protect yourself by being alert and evading danger. Ravens and Crows are important symbols in the Celtic culture too and come up often in its folklore. Both are considered symbols of death and dying. The Irish goddess of war, the Morrigan, would shapeshift into the form of a raven and fly above battlefields. It was said that her cry would give her warriors courage while simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. Ravens were said as well to be the messengers between the living and the dead as it was believed they could fly back and forth between the two worlds.
Ravens appear at the death of two significant heroes of Celtic folklore. A raven alights on Cu Chulainn’s shoulder as he dies. In an alternative version of Arthurian legend, King Arthur doesn’t die but, instead, transforms into a raven. Because of this legend, many Welsh farmers up until the early 20th century, would not shoot ravens or even crows.
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