Celtic Cosmology Part 1
I named my blog after this very important concept and today's post will explain the idea behind Celtic cosmology and how the Celts viewed their world.
In ancient Ireland people swore their oaths by saying:
"May the sky not fall,
May the sea not burst its bounds
May the land not open beneath me
So long as I keep my oath"
But where did this concept come from? What sources do we have for them and why is it so important?
Let's begin with a historical example. Nowhere is the concept of the three realms described more clearly than in The Cattle Raid of Cooley. In general, it is a story about how one woman Medb, the Queen of Connacht, decides to raid her arch-enemy, the Ulaid (Ulstermen), in order to capture their best bull - the finest animal in all of Ireland. The hero, Cú Chulainn, is forced to fight against Medb's men alone, his fellow Ulstermen being unable to fight because of a curse that has been laid on them.
Sualtaim, Cú Chulainn's father (also unaffected by the Cúrse, and by implication, not a man of the Ulaid himself - possibly explaining why Cú Chulainn is unaffected also), sees his son's efforts against the enemy, and goes to the Ulster king to try and persuade his men onto the field. Finding the king, Sualtaim cries: “Is it the sky that breaks or the sea that ebbs or the earth that quakes or is this the distress of my son fighting against odds on the Foray of Cuailnge?” Right away, Sualtaim invokes the concept of sky, sea, and earth - in this case to illustrate the point that either nature itself is being turned upside down, or his son’s situation is extremely dire.
John Shaw also gives many examples of this threefold division in some of the more recent folktales from Ireland and Scotland. Often the threefold division of land, sea and sky appears in tales that deal with how the world will end:
"One character, or two (in some variants a hen, in others human) receives a signal that the sky is about to fallon the earth, or simply the approach of death (bás) or doom (bráth). In some variants they are down by the shore, and are made aware of the impending disaster by being struck by an object falling from the sky. They set out to carry the news to others (animals or human) in succession, all of whom bear distinctive, often comical names, using a formula along the lines of: "Who has seen or heard it?" "My eyes have seen it, my ears have heard it, my soles have felt it." They form a growing procession as they go through the country until they reach a destination of sorts: in many variants a white horse carries them to a river where they are drowned."
Clearly, then, the three realms are seen to represent the natural balance and order. An imbalance in any or all of them would have apocalyptic results indeed, to an individual or a people.
|Triple Spiral - A symbol used to represent the Three Realms|
In ritual, Celtic pagans may open up with a Three Realms Blessing. A nice example can be found HERE on Ozark Pagan Mamma's blog. Most, also, do not create a 'sacred space'. This is contrary to what many people are used to in Wicca where the Greco-Roman idea of the four elements are used. In addition, Celtic pagans do not break down their universe into components such as correspondences and color charts and deities are not "used" during ritual for specific aspects. Instead all matter is seen as being interconnected and the Divine is inherent in everything.
Next week we'll take a look at each Realm individually in Part 2 of Celtic Cosmology.