Celtic Divination

By J. A. MacCulloch

Celtic Divination A special class of diviners existed among the Celts, but the Druids practiced divination, as did also the unofficial layman. Classical writers speak of the Celts as of all nations the most devoted to, and the most experienced in, the science of divination. Divination with a human victim is described by Diodorus. Libations were poured over him, and he was then slain, auguries being drawn from the method of his fall, the movements of his limbs, and the flowing of his blood. Divination with the entrails was used in Galatia, Gaul, and Britain. Beasts and birds also provided omens. The course taken by a hare let loose gave an omen of success to the Britons, and in Ireland divination was used with a sacrificial animal. Among birds the crow was pre-eminent, and two crows are represented speaking into the ears of a man on a bas-relief at Compiegne. The Celts believed that the crow had shown where towns should be founded, or had furnished a remedy against poison, and it was also an arbiter of disputes. Artemidorus describes how, at a certain place, there were two crows. Persons having a dispute set out two heaps of sweetmeats, one for each disputant. The birds swooped down upon them, eating one and dispersing the other. He whose heap had been scattered won the case. Birds were believed to have guided the migrating Celts, and their flight furnished auguries, because, as Deiotaurus gravely said, birds never lie. Divination by the voices of birds was used by the Irish Druids.

Omens were drawn from the direction of the smoke and flames of sacred fires and from the condition of the clouds. Wands of yew were carried by Druids—“the wand of Druidism” of many folk-tales—and were used perhaps as divining-rods. Ogams were also engraved on rods of yews, and from these Druids divined hidden things. By this means the Druid Dalan discovered where Etain had been hidden by the god Mider. The method used may have been that of drawing one of the rods by lot and then divining from the marks upon it. A similar method was used to discover the route to be taken by invaders, the result being supposed to depend on divine interposition. The knowledge of astronomy ascribed by Caesar to the Druids was probably of a simple kind, and much mixed with astrology, and though it furnished the data for computing a simple calendar, its use was largely magical. Irish diviners forecast the time to build a house by the stars, and the date at which S. Columba’s education should begin, was similarly discovered.

The Imbas Forosnai, “illumination between the hands,” was used by the File to discover hidden things. He chewed a piece of raw flesh and placed it as an offering to the images of the gods whom he desired to help him. If enlightenment did not come by the next day, he pronounced incantations on his palms, which he then placed on his cheeks before falling asleep. The revelation followed in a dream, or sometimes after awaking. Perhaps the animal whose flesh was eaten was a sacred one.  Another method was that of the Teinm Laegha. The File made a verse and repeated it over some person or thing regarding which he sought information, or he placed his staff on the person’s body and so obtained what he sought. The rite was also preceded by sacrifice; hence S.  Patrick prohibited both it and the Imbas Forosnai. Another incantation, the Cetnad, was sung through the fist to discover the track of stolen cattle or of the thief. If this did not bring enlightenment, the File went to sleep and obtained the knowledge through a dream. Another Cetnad for obtaining information regarding length of life was addressed to the seven daughters of the sea. Perhaps the incantation was repeated mechanically until the seer fell into a kind of trance. Divination by dreams was also used by the continental Celts.

Other methods resemble “trance-utterance.” “A great obnubilation was conjured up for the bard so that he slept a heavy sleep, and things magic-begotten were shewn to him to enunciate,” apparently in his sleep.  This was called “illumination by rhymes,” and a similar method was used in Wales. When consulted, the seer roared violently until he was beside himself, and out of his ravings the desired information was gathered.  When aroused from this ecstatic condition, he had no remembrance of what he had uttered. Giraldus reports this, and thinks, with the modern spiritualist, that the utterance was caused by spirits. The resemblance to modern trance-utterance and to similar methods used by savages is remarkable, and psychological science sees in it the promptings of the subliminal self in sleep.

The taghairm of the Highlanders was a survival from pagan times. The seer was usually bound in a cow’s hide—the animal, it may be conjectured, having been sacrificed in earlier times. He was left in a desolate place, and while he slept spirits were supposed to inspire his dreams. Clothing in the skin of a sacrificial animal, by which the person thus clothed is brought into contact with it and hence with the divinity to which it is offered, or with the divine animal itself where the victim is so regarded, is a widespread custom. Hence, in this Celtic usage, contact with divinity through the hide would be expected to produce enlightenment. For a like reason the Irish sacrificed a sheep for the recovery of the sick, and clothed the patient in its skin. Binding the limbs of the seer is also a widespread custom, perhaps to restrain his convulsions or to concentrate the psychic force.

Both among the continental and Irish Celts those who sought hidden knowledge slept on graves, hoping to be inspired by the spirits of the dead. Legend told how, the full version of the Tain having been lost, Murgan the File sang an incantation over the grave of Fergus mac Roig. A cloud hid him for three days, and during that time the dead man appeared and recited the saga to him.

In Ireland and the Highlands, divination by looking into the shoulder-blade of a sheep was used to discover future events or things happening at a distance, a survival from pagan times. The scholiast on Lucan describes the Druidic method of chewing acorns and then prophesying, just as, in Ireland, eating nuts from the sacred hazels round Connla’s well gave inspiration. The “priestesses” of Sena and the “Druidesses” of the third century had the gift of prophecy, and it was also ascribed freely to the Filid, the Druids, and to Christian saints. Druids are said to have prophesied the coming of S. Patrick, and similar prophecies are put in the mouths of Fionn and others, just as Montezuma’s priests foretold the coming of the Spaniards. The word used for such prophecies--baile, means “ecstasy,” and it suggests that the prophet worked himself into a frenzy and then fell into a trance, in which he uttered his forecast. Prophecies were also made at the birth of a child, describing its future career. Careful attention was given to the utterances of Druidic prophets, e.g. Medb’s warriors postponed their expedition for fifteen days, because the Druids told them they would not succeed if they set out sooner.

Mythical personages or divinities are said in the Irish texts to have stood on one leg, with one arm extended, and one eye closed, when uttering prophecies or incantations, and this was doubtless an attitude used by the seer. A similar method is known elsewhere, and it may have been intended to produce greater force. From this attitude may have originated myths of beings with one arm, one leg, and one eye, like some Fomorians or the Fachan whose weird picture Campbell of Islay drew from verbal descriptions.

Early Celtic saints occasionally describe lapses into heathenism in Ireland, not characterized by “idolatry,” but by wizardry, dealing in charms, and fidlanna, perhaps a kind of divination with pieces of wood. But it is much more likely that these had never really been abandoned. They belong to the primitive element of religion and magic which people cling to long after they have given up “idolatry.”



Excerpted from the author's Religion of the Celts, originally published in 1911.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by copyright law and may not be copied without express written permission. 



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Celtic Divination