Introduction – Celtic cosmology
To understand why Scottish folk practice includes a focus on nature – earth, sky and waters spirts and its animated world we need to understand the roots of this island and its associated cosmology. This post explores Scottish cosmology and “Celtic” and Gaelic cosmology ideas and hypothesis in an attempt to unpick some of the more modern elemental systems found in Scottish folk magic.
Scotland is a small part of a larger nation and has been influenced by many different cultures- some though war and raids some through colonisation and settling and then the march of empire – our people include the Picts, Geals, Britons, Norse, Normans, Saxons and Angles, Romans and finally the English. Scotlands cosmology of course has been impacted by all of these different philosophies and ways of life.
Each culture has left its imprint on the weave of Scotland folk magical practices.
Scottish folk magic practice and belief and Scottish cosmology is the child of these influences. You will find Trolldom, old English magic, black books amongst the moss troopers, Gaelic and Norse folk belief intertwined with Christianity and animism and polytheism.
We have no Lore keepers here. Lore also changes from place to place to village to village. No one holds the tradition in its entirety, (if people are claiming to it’s a big red flag. See folks like folklorist Micheal Newton for more about this). Tradition is held in piece meal fashion across various teachers, people and communities. Perhaps more completely in the traveller cultures of Scotland. To understand what our way of life was and how it relates to folk practices of the working-class people is a constant uphill struggle. Different beliefs and ideas are also heard in different areas from village to village to person to person to community to community – there isn’t a fixed way of doing things. Dogma isn’t a feature though we have some foundational ideas.
“The old people had runes which they sang to the spirits dwelling in the sea and in the mountain, in the wind and in the whirlwind, in the lightening and in the thunder, in the sun and in the moon and in the stars of heaven. I was naught but a toddling child at the time, but I remember well the ways of the old people. Then came notice of eviction, and burning and emigration and the people were scattered and sundered over the world, and the old ways disappeared with the old people. Oh they disappeared indeed, and nothing so good is come in their stead – naught so good is come, my beloved, nor ever will come”Carmina Gadelica – Alexander Carmicheal
No man is an island – Scotland is a melting pot
We do know, broadly speaking, these different cultures and their practices held a respect and relationship with the natural and otherworld world in common. They were conceived of differently of course but the mix of beliefs on our thumb print of an island are distinct but linked.
Listing the way these different influences wove together as cultural blending occurred is beyond the scope of this article. There are some amazing authors like Michael Newton “warriors of the word” who do an outstanding job of this for folks looking for more info especially from a Gaelic perspective..
I hope my ideas about Scottish cosmology provide a bit of evidence/context/background for the why of other practices found on this site, and the stories provide a basis for further exploration. I hope this roots you into a view of history, and provides you a place to explore these facts, we all deftly disguised as truth in our own minds, in a new way.
Our Scottish cosmology
The Link between humans, life and the earth, the sky and water were instinctively known.
This has mostly been expressed through animistic relational ways of life in Scotland such as Dútchas or the fairy faith. The three realms of earth, sky and sea were no exception to the animate and anthropomorphism shown to trees, plants rocks and animals and other areas of life.
Compared to the wealth and detail displayed in the cosmological system surviving in the written records of our Germanic neighbours and others we can only sketch the most general terms from classical sources, especially for the Gael.
Scottish Cosmology as found in Indo-European and Proto-Celtic.
The Proto-Celtic word *nemos means the heavens and comes from the Indo-European root *nem which means “bend, curve.” It is hypothesised the “Celts”, like many other cultures, thought that the sky was held up above the earth by pillars.
The Goidelic word for earth is talam (the Scottish Gaelic word is talamh) which originally meant “ground” or “bearer, upholder.” These pillars were often seen as trees or massive columns. The image of a sacred tree connecting heaven and earth, usually depicted as standing at the center of the world, appears in Goidelic literature and tradition. This symbol appears throughout the centuries. Interestingly, the Goidelic word for tree/wood comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that is associated with the concepts of tree, middle, and boundary in various Indo-European languages.
The Sky, in Scottish Gaelic Nem but has also now come to mean heaven. The heavenly firmament is bright and airy. Down below, the depths of the earth and the waters, by contrast, are deep and dark. Spirits generally reside in these extreme zones of heaven and the otherworld. The central region, “Middle Earth,” is inhabited by humanity. There of course spirits that indwell here too.
The Proto-Celtic term *bitu “world” connotes the place of “life” (Proto-Celtic *biwotūt) where mortal beings live (including humans and animals). There are two other Celtic terms whose derivations reveal contrasting associations.
Gaulish dubno and Old Gaelic domun share close kinship with the words for dark (Proto-Celtic *dubu), deep (Proto-Celtic *dubno), and water (Proto-Celtic *dubro). The Scottish Gaelic word for water is Muir. Deep and dark is found in the etymology is in the Welsh word Annwfn. Annwfn may originally mean “Un-World,” “Underworld,” or “Very Deep.” This is also found in the Scottish Gaelic Dubh meaning dark. Perhaps inking us to Donn the lord of the dead.
The term for the flat surface of the earth in Proto-Celtic is *albjo. *albjo is from the root *albho “white, bright,” suggesting a lit surface reflecting the sun. This etymology led to the name of Scotland as Alba.
How do we see this etymology played out then as symbols in our stories. Let’s dig a wee bit deeper.
There are mentions of cosmological ideas in medieval literature. One belief shared in our stories is a column at the center of the earth, an axis mundi. This central column supported the heavens but was destined to shatter, causing a cataclysm. This column story is found in the immrama, which are wonder stories or voyages that all involve travel over water.
In the Voyage of Máel Dúin – around the 1st – 8th century – Máel Dúin and his companions encounter many things of the weird on lots of different islands. One that stands out for our discussion is a giant column of silver, eight oar strokes in circumference, without a sod of earth about it only the endless ocean. They are unable to see its base or its top due to its great height.
Alwyn and Brinely Rees (1961) have proposed such wondrous voyages with their religious ideology and trappings are remnants of an early doctrine. They suggest they are potentially:
“the tattered remains of an oral book of the dead which proclaimed the mysteries of the world beyond death had at least partially been explored and the stations of the souls pilgrimage charted”Rees 1961
The idea of a central pillar is reminiscent of the Norse stories of a world tree. We can see these allusions ever present in Gaelic and Scottish society in terms of the Bile tree like the Fortingall Yew and the idea of centrality in the lore.
This tripartite nature of the cosmos is a feature of European society. I would argue from the etymology and other evidence). Where does our evidence come from for the Gaels and Scotland? How do these “pagan” survivals if any impact our folk magic and practices today .
To find out how the world is made we need to look to how the world will end.
The end times – examples of a tripartite world through cataclysm
It’s clear our ancestors feared a cataclysm. Strabpo writing in 335BCE says:
“Alexander received [celts seeking friendship] warmly and while they were sharing a drink asked them what they feared the most, thinking they would say him, they answered that they feared nothing except the sky might fall down on them but they honoured the friendship of a man like him more than anything”
Obviously, this is open to interpretation, but this idea is attested to in future writings.
Work exploring this tripartite nature of cosmology by Professor Tierney in 1960 in his paper “the Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius” quotes Aristotle (330BCE) and a couple of other Greek sources. His focus is on the bravery of a people. Conveniently for our discussion cosmology in his paper he list the “celts” were afraid of:
“the sky falling down, the earth shaking, and the waves of the sea rising, thunderbolts from the sky and fighting waves” .
Liam Mac MathHúna in his papers from 1997, 1999 and 2014 build on these idea. He suggests these are the key characteristics of the cosmology of the Geals and our Celtic forbears.
Mathúna suggests these stories from antiquity represent – just like their Gaelic descendants over a thousand years later –their steadfastness and their willingness to fight by boasting only COSMIC UPHEAVALS could prevent them from carrying out their intention. These cosmic upheavals are present in the Gaelic sagas we tell in Scotland and Ireland.
Scottish cosmology and cataclysm found in our myths
An example of this can be found in The Book of Leinster in the Tain Bó Cúailnge. Ourr hero Cú Chulainn’s father utter the question:
“Is it the sky that cracks, of the sea that overflows its boundaries, or the earth that splits, or is it the loud cry of my son fighting against all odds?”
This question leads a man on a foray who breaks various taboos in trying to hustle up support for his son, he heads to Conchobar the king.
Conchobar the King is driven to act and utters these words:
“a Little to loud that cry,” said conchobor, for the sky is above us, the earth beneath us and the sea all around us, but unless the sky with its showers of stars fall upon the surface of the earth , unless the ground burst open in an earthquake, or unless the fish abounding, blue bordered sea come over the surface of existence, I shall bring back every cow to its byre and enclosure, every woman to her own abode and dwelling and after victory in battle and combat and contest”
This is Conchobar, carrying out his sacral kingship duties – putting thing to rights. That’s a whole topic in and of itself. What’s of interest to our exploration is his appeal to the cosmic triad.
Both characters appeal to the same system. At the original utterance it is saying the world is in upheaval and it’s the kings issue. In the second one, the king is saying there is no upheaval, things are in order and will be put right.
Scottish cosmological Triad?
In these sources the sky as a rule is first and then followed by earth and sea in different orders. Mathúna goes on to explain how the cosmic triad nem (sky), Muir (sea), talam (earth) is replaced by Christianity heaven earth opposition (nem – Talam). This opposition is a wee bit reminiscent as Nemeton to some scholars. Nemeton then meaning the word for sacred grove literally where “earth meets sky”.
This triad is important to note. I have found examples of this triad existing in folk magic charms in the Scottish Witchcraft trials, with some Christian leanings well into the 17th century. In my own personal folk practice, I use the triad found in christian prayer such as the an Trí Naomh as a syncretism for the cosmic triad. Others differ. Such is the way of the folk magic in scotland.
We find the motif again in other stories with relationships to Scottish ancestral spirits and three original cosmic animals. This lesser-known story involves a well-known Scottish figure An Cailleach.
In The story of the cold of May-day Monday – Luan Lae Bhealtaine.
Personally, I feel the salmon, the otter and the hawk are representatives of the idea of the tripartite cosmic order of things.
And perhaps in our story of the Cailleach these characters reflect the nature of the cosmos. A story of these cosmic creatures is found in Welsh stories. To my untrained eye the animals in the story are reminiscent of the animals found inhabiting Yggdrasil. I’m no expert on this though so take what I say with a pinch of salt.
To me this tripartite cosmology of sky, sea and land is REALLY important.
This understanding is old.
To our ancestors everything extended from these three realms. The whole of creation was formed from earth, sky and sea. Food, water and breath. We see the importance of this triplicity everywhere once we clock it. It is this idea of a cosmology we can draw on when exploring folk magic in Scotland.
This cosmological construct – or philosophy – represents a reason for a lot of the practices we hold important and the why of them.
It’s important in terms of Scottish cosmological thinking, historical Scottish folk magic understanding and animistic relation building. Everything in the world we inhabit is made of these three things, not the humoral theory we later adopted. It’s a way of working differentiating from the four elements system found in magical practice. Like Wicca, traditional witchcraft and Greek thinking and one of the keys to understanding more of our cultural history.
How this impacts and interweaves with your own practice though is entirely your own. These are just some of my thoughts and considerations I have which I thought I would share along the way.
- Carmichal, A (…) Carmina Gadelica. Vol 1 – 6
- De Vries, J ( 1963) la religion des celtes. Paris
- Mac Mathúna, L. (1997) ( the Christianisation of the Early Irish cosmos? Muir mas, Nem Nglas, talam cé
- (1999) Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos
- (2014) The Irish Cosmos revisited. Further lexical perspectives.
- Newton, M () the Warriors of the Word.
- Rees, A & B Rees ( 1961) Celtic Heritage : Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London.
- Smith, D. ( 2020) Earthing the Myths. Merrion Press.