by Searles O'Dubhain
I base my own beliefs and practices on three things: the wisdom of tradition, my own personal experience with the three worlds and the imbas that flows through me from the gods. I usually do not get offended when the issues are debated and the facts and opinions about the issues are presented. I do get irritated when my words are misused or twisted. I prefer to stick to the issues at hand, however, and being true to the spirit of that ideal, I will now continue to present the facts, experiences and imbas that I have been given regarding Celtic ritual, ritual space, treasures, hallows, and cosmology.
Celtic ritual is very much about sacred centers, whether these be the center of the self, the center of the home, the center of the tribe, the center of the land, or the center of the world. The first task in performing a Celtic ritual IMO is to determine which center is to be used and where that center is located. This was historically done relative to two things: the pathway of the Sun from East to West and the location of the Pole Star in the night sky. We need look no further than the many stone circles, ritual mounds and oppidum (containing their sacred centers - called Mediolanum or Nemetons), that are found within areas once (or still) inhabited by Celts to verify these alignments.
The best explored of such Celtic ritual centers is probably Gournay-sur-Aronde in Northern France (ancient Gaul). The sanctuary there was a rectangular enclosure of about 45 x 38 meters (about 150 x 125 feet). It was surrounded by a ditch and a wall with an opening in the Eastern wall about 3 meters (10 feet) wide. Inside the enclosure at its center was a series of nine pits (three pits to the West, three to the North, and three to the South). These nine pits surrounded a 10th larger, oval, central pit. These pits were used in ritual with evidence of the deposit of weapons and other objects being found in the surrounding pits and the remains of cattle sacrifice in the central pit. The sanctuary dates from around 400 to 300 BCE. The pit arrangement was itself set within a much larger structure (about 10 meters per side) whose post-holes aligned on the four cardinal points. A central post marked the center of this larger enclosure and it is thought that sacrifices occurred at the base of this post. No evidence exists that any representations of deities were every placed within this enclosure or used in the rituals that were performed there. It appears that the function of the ritual space was to conduct sacrifice.
The sanctuary at Gournay-sur-Aronde is not the only such example of a Celtic sacred enclosure and/or ritual space to be found or excavated. Many other examples exist throughout the Celtic world, with many being found throughout Europe and the British Isles. Another significant observation about sacred enclosures in this area is that many were originally circular, but were changed to square or rectangular at the time that Celtic culture predominated in the region. Most of these enclosures were also oriented on the four cardinal points and contained central posts and votive, sacrificial pits. It has been suggested by authorities in the field (notably Jean Louis Brunaux) that the change from the solar-oriented circular, Bronze Age enclosure to a quadrangular shape is evidence that the Celts continued the solar and circumambulatory nature of the earlier rituals while also including *astronomical* practices oriented on the cardinal directions. Warrior offerings were hung upon the outsides of these enclosures which could have been shields, spears, axes and swords. The Eastern entryway was most likely adorned with the heads of noted enemies (as evidenced by the remains found in this area of the sanctuaries).
What this archaeological evidence for Celtic ritual and sacred locations suggests to me is that their ritual was definitely oriented to the four directions and began from the East. Offerings were made to nine votive pits (suggestive of one for each du/ile). Sacrificial offerings were conducted on an altar at the base of the central pillar or post, with the remains being deposited within the larger central pit. The entire structure would have been approached from the East and circumnavigated a number of times (probably nine, if present Irish practice is considered a guide). I would further suggest that the orientation or focus of the ritual was probably to a direction that was propitious to the ritual working. I would also be so bold as to suggest that symbols were carved on the four cardinal posts and the central posts to further enhance their power and ritual significance. My final musing on the nature of such a structure is that it was also probably skillfully crafted, built to last and painted in the appropriate variety of Celtic colors for its functions.
A Celtic ritual space would surpass the cosmological and astrological significance associated with their gaming boards and would definitely have had both geometric and religious symmetry about the sacred center. This goes for the decoration of the sanctuary as well as the person but that is perhaps a matter to be better understood after we've investigated the nature of their ritual space in more detail and variety.
Other sites were associated with Celtic ritual than Nemetons and Mediolanums. Specifically, I am thinking about sacred wells, Springs, bile, stones, and the central fires of home and festival. People were also the center of ritual whether in personal prayer and working, sacrifice, healing or initiation. Some specific rituals that I know that included people as their central focus for the working were: the Banis Righ (the king), the Tarbh Feis (the dreamer), healings (as in the 'Sickbed of Cu/Chulainn'), and the Spell of Truth. In most of these rituals involving people, the subject was placed in the center and surrounded by four chanting Druids. Rituals involving trees included the Glam Dicenn, treaty signings, arbitrations and possibly initiatory and or sacrificial rites. Wells were mainly used for divination, votive offerings and healings. The use of the Well of Slane by the family of DianCecht comes to mind as this is located on my family's ancestral property near Cnogba. The healing ritual was accomplished by four chanting healers oriented about the well with the well serving as a healing bath for the sick and injured. The Well of Segais is an excellent example of a ritual involving divination and knowledge. It was also controlled by four operatives: Nectain and his three cupbearers. The Glam Dicenn involved seven Filidh and a Hawthorn tree as a central anchor to amplify and direct the curse that was being cast. In the case of all of these rituals, the center was the focus of the working and the ritual participants were oriented around that center in an appropriate formation.
In the tale, "The Settling of the Manor of Tara", Fintan defines all of Ireland as sacred space and lists the qualities associated with each province and each cardinal direction. We have seen that Celtic ritual space was oriented to the cardinal directions from our study of the archaeological evidence. We have also seen that ritual was performed by four participants around a sacred center. We have seen the importance of sacrifice and offering to Celtic ritual. We should be familiar with the custom of circumnavigating a ritual space toward the righthand path to honor the Sun, while travel to the left invokes the power of the well and the ancestors. We have heard that the Tuatha De Danann studied the magical arts under four wizards in four cities on four islands in the Northern parts of the world. We have heard that four treasures were brought from these cities as gifts by the People of Danu. Next, I will attempt to investigate what the lessons in the occult arts could have been from each of these four cities as symbolized by these treasures, cities and their rulers, but that will be the subject of yet another message.
To those that have different ways to honor the gods, the ancestors and the realms of existence, I offer my studies and my information. Use it or not as you chose to work within your own traditions. To those that would be consistent with what I believe our ancestors did, I ask for your insights and further enlightenment. To those that believe that the Celts had a cosmology similar to the many other Indo-European peoples, I say may your wisdom grow beyond the confines of the mundane.
"N' fili nad chomgne comathar nad sc'la uile."