Power Animals, Allies and Totem Animals
Working with animal powers formed part of my early magical training and has been an essential part of my work ever since. Shamans and traditional witches all over the world work with animal spirits. These spirits often represent a species as a whole: not a bear, but Bear. Through this connection, the shaman can call upon the strength of the bear, the swiftness of the horse, or the far sight of the eagle and so on. The animal protects the shaman, may instruct him, and becomes a vehicle for his soul in the Otherworld.
Most of these spirits take the form of untamed, rather than domesticated animals, usually wild game, such as bear, elk, seal, wolf, hare, deer etc. Wild animals come from the Lord of the Animals and are imbued with a mystical strength not possessed by tame animals, and it is this potency that shamans draw on to reach the Otherworld. Amongst tribal societies, hunting is more than the acquisition of meat, it is the gaining of supernatural energy, and is encircled with ritual observances and taboos. Wild animals have spiritual counterparts that can become guides and helpers in various ways. Shamans are often thought to be able to guide animals into hunter’s ambushes, for example. The San of South Africa had several types of shaman, one of which was the Shaman of the Game who wore a springbok cap and the deer were thought to follow the wearer of the cap. A San shaman explained how she kept a spirit springbok tethered; her heart’s springbok, and therefore she ‘owned’ all the springbok.[i] The incarnated animal spirit was the symbol of her power.
While some shamans seek alliances with the jaguar, the leopard, the wolf or lion, others seek relationships with deer, bison, birds and so on. The bond of the shaman with his animal allies is an entirely personal one, and is not shared by any group or family, though others in a group may have the same power animal. A shaman of South East Australia described encountering spirit animals:
“ …my father pointed to a Gunr (tiger-snake) saying 'That is your budian; it is mine also.' There was a string tied to the tail of the snake…He took hold of it, saying, 'Let us follow him.' The tiger-snake went through several tree trunks, and let us through. Then we came to a great Currajong tree, and went through it, and after that to a tree with a great swelling round its roots. It is in such places that Daramulun lives. Here the Gunr went down into the ground, and we followed him, and came up inside the tree, which was hollow…After we came out again the snake took us into a great hole in the ground in which were a number of snakes, which rubbed themselves against me, but did not hurt me, being my Budjan. They did this to make me a clever man, and to make me a Wulla-mullung. My father then said to me, 'We will go up to Baiame's camp.' He got astride of a Mauir (thread) and put me on another, and we held by each other's arms. At the end of the thread was Wombu, the bird of Baiame. We went through the clouds, and on the other side was the sky. We went through the place where the Doctors go through, and it kept opening and shutting very quickly. My father said that, if it touched a Doctor when he was going through, it would hurt his spirit, and when he returned home he would sicken and die. On the other side we saw Baiame sitting in his camp. He was a very great old man with a long beard. He sat with his legs under him and from his shoulders extended two great quartz crystals to the sky above him. There were also numbers of the boys of Baiame and of his people, who are birds and beasts.”[ii]
Witches call these spirit animals familiars, while in North America they are called power animals. The animal fetch or Dyr-Fylgja of Norse magicians was thought to accompany everyone through life. In Siberia an animal familiar is termed the Kyla or Chargi (animal soul).
In South America, familiars are known as nagual animals. To find his ally, an Aztec might go to the forest among the wild animals and enter into a trance. When he awoke, he would see his own animal spirit and seal a pact with it. Afterwards, he could assume the shape of the animal and travel long distances in its form. [iii] It is said that Aztec priests took morning glory seeds to release the nagual from within. Amongst the Maya, People could sleep in sacred incubation temples called Uaybil (from uay or ‘animal soul’/ ‘dream’) to encounter their power animals in a dream. [iv] Even gods possessed a nagual; Quetzacoathl was the Quetzal bird with lovely plumage; Tezcatlipoca, the god of night and magic, had the jaguar as his nagual; his spotted pelt represented the stars.
The cult of the jaguar is found all across Central America. Among the Mayan peoples, the word balam signified both ‘jaguar’ and ‘magician-priest’. These shamans were believed to turn into spider monkeys, owls, jaguars, coyotes and humming birds.
The word totem is different and implies a blood relationship or kinship between a person, a family or tribe and an animal. Those so related would be forbidden to hunt or kill their totem, or to marry a person with an inimical totem. Celtic tribes and individuals adopted animal totems, and were forbidden to kill or eat their animal kin. There are several tales of a hero being born with an animal twin who is bound up with his or her destiny, and having a geis (taboo) against killing or eating such an animal. If the taboo were to be broken, then his downfall was assured. Personal and clan totems evolved into the heraldic devices featuring animals that were used all over Europe in later periods.
The magician might have an animal helper that stays with him throughout his life or the animal may change as he changes. Some stay for years, others only a few weeks. He might have more than one:
(The ayami) has given me three assistants-the jarga (the panther), the doonto (the bear) and the amba (the tiger). They come to me in my dreams, and appear whenever I summon them while shamaning.[v]
Traditionally, the shaman’s costume represents his animal helpers. The Nganasan shaman's costume, for example, symbolizes an elk. It is sewn of elk hide with a metal figure of a hartshorn on its back. There are two bears on the costume, a she-bear and a he-bear, which the shaman ‘hitches to a sledge’ to take him into the Otherworld. There are also six goose head figures which take the shaman to the upper world, and three bird tails which help him dive beneath the waves to the realm of sick spirits which are held there, which the shaman will free, setting them on the bird-tail and tying them there so that they won’t fall off on the journey home. [vi]
Kathy tells me that birds often appeared as her allies, appearing spontaneously when needed. Once, as we meditated together, I had the sensation of something tugging at chest. Afterwards, Kathy told me that her eagle ally had appeared and used his beak to remove blockages in my heart centre.
One of the most important functions of a familiar or animal ally is to help you journey to the Otherworld, the mysterious realm beyond normal waking consciousness, and the journey would be dangerous without the help of the spirit ally. For example, a shaman might be led by a fox into tunnels beneath the ground to experience the underworld, or a bird familiar might take him on a spirit flight through the treetops, showing him things he couldn't see from the ground, or beyond, into the heavens.
Many Celtic heroes only succeeded in their quests when they turned to animals for help. During their quest to find the Mabon, Arthur's messengers conversed with the five oldest animals: an eagle, an owl, a stag, a blackbird and a salmon. Other heroes learned how to speak the language of birds, and thus were warned of dangers, or were told secrets by their feathered allies. By virtue of their special abilities, animals had access to the realms of the gods, and often served as their messengers. Other animals guarded sacred places and the entrances to the Otherworld.
The ancient Celts believed that everything contained spirit, whether human, animal, plant or place - nature was sacred. The Celts saw no great divide between humans and the rest of creation. In the Otherworld, human souls and animal souls dwelt together with the gods. Because animals possessed spirit, or soul, permission had to be sought from the gods before they were killed, and ritual reparation made. The Celts believed in transmigration of souls, which meant that the next life might well be lived in animal form.
Celtic gods are rarely depicted without their animal attendants, like Epona with her horse or Nodens with his dog. Other deities were shown with animal attributes such as horns and hooves as in the case of the Gaulish Cernunnos, or the ram horned British war gods Belatucadros and Cocidius.
Celtic religion and magic seems to have been intimately bound up with the powers of animals. Some creatures were considered so Otherworldy that sorcerers were needed to herd them- Celtic swineherds were also powerful magicians. Animal powers were deliberately sought and used in a manner we would describe today as shamanic. A character called the Wild Herdsman appears in Celtic tales as the Lord of the Animals, the guardian of beasts, a huge black man who had one foot, one eye in the centre of his forehead and a massive iron club.
Dreams of animals were thought to be prophetic. Arthur dreamed of dragons the night before his bastard son Mordred ('Sea Dragon') was born, and again on the night of his last battle. Oisin dreamed of a hornless fawn pursued over the waters of the sea by the red and white hounds of the underworld- the fawn was his own soul and the dream heralded his death. The Druids formalised the experience of prophetic dreaming, utilising animal powers, into a variety of rituals. One such rite involved the use of a bull's hide, spreading out the hide of a sacrificed animal, raw side up, on wattles of rowan wood (a plant of divination). The Druid lay down to sleep on the skin, and awaited whatever dreams should come.
Animals that appeared in strange circumstances, or that behaved in an unusual way were often considered messengers from the gods. The actions of ordinary animals were interpreted as oracles. The Druids closely watched the flight of birds and made predictions from the type of birds involved, and the direction they flew from. This is the origin of the children's magpie rhyme 'one for sorrow, two for joy etc.' The activities of other animals were also considered in the light of symbolic messages. The warrior queen Boudicca divined the outcome of a battle from the movements of a hare she loosed from her cloak.
The above is an extract from The Path pf the Shaman by Anna Franklin
[i] David Lewis Williams & David Pearce, The Neolithic Mind, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 2005
[ii] A. W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, London, 1904
[iii] Nigel Jackson, The Compleat Vampyre, Capall Bann, Chieveley, 1995
[v] M. Eliade, PP. 72-3, quoting Leo Stemberg, 'Divine Election in Primitive Religion' (1924),
[vi] Triinu Ojamaa The Shaman As The Zoomorphic Human
Equipped by nature for digging, badgers build extensive underground dwellings called setts, typically covering a thousand square feet. Some setts are hundreds of years old, and are passed on through the family, giving badgers the title 'the oldest landowners in Britain'. The badger is still called brock in many parts of Britain; a nickname derived from its old Gaelic name of brocc (or broch in Welsh). The seventh century Life of Columba refers to Pictish Druids as Brokan or Broichan meaning 'badgers'. This is probably because the badger lives under the ground, or is associated with prehistoric mounds, the dwelling place of gods and ancestral spirits. The badger is one of the sacred animals of the goddess Brigantia and a totem of the Imbolc festival when Celtic women gathered together to celebrate the rebirth of the spring, symbolised by the badger emerging from beneath the earth, just as new growth emerges from the ground. The Celtic shaman knew that the underworld was the source of wisdom. In the Welsh tale of Pwyll's courting of Rhiannon, a badger is mentioned as a guide during dreaming. Because of the badger's innate power and courage, Celtic warriors thought that badger grease made the best cure for wounds, working by a kind of sympathetic magic. Similarly Scottish clansmen wore sporrans made from badger skins and the MacIvor Clan wore badger heads and skins to invoke the beast's strength in battle.
Badger is single minded, dogged and determined, patiently removing obstacles that fall on the path he is accustomed to walking each and every day. He reminds you that these qualities are needed to progress or complete a task. Hard, mundane work will be needed to turn creative dreams into a reality. Badger is one of the strongest woodland animals and even when set upon by several dogs can hold his own against them. His defences are his fortitude and his indomitable will, even against overwhelming odds. He doesn't waste time on blame or regret, but stands his ground, tenacious and unyielding. If you feel powerless and angry, stop blaming other people: they can only make you feel what you allow them to. Go within yourself and find the power of Badger, centred, grounded and unshakeable.
The bear cult is maybe the oldest religion in existence, featuring in the lore of all the countries of the north and far older than the type of shamanism of the cave temple period, which is reflected in the cave paintings of France and Spain. Alpine grottoes have been discovered, dating from around 100,000 BCE, which contain cave bear skulls and ceremonial hearths. It was often thought to be a god incarnate, a visitor from the realm of spirits, and the killing of a bear was a ritual act. The Celts certainly venerated the bear, and had several bear gods and goddesses. The words art and artos or math and matus mean 'bear' in the various Celtic languages. Thus we find the goddess Andarta (‘Powerful Bear’) and Arthur (from the Welsh Arth Vawr meaning ‘Great Bear’). As the bear is a fierce and powerful fighter, its name was also adopted by kings and warriors, while other legendary characters were designated 'son of the bear', implying that they had bear-like power, or perhaps that they were descended from a bear god.
The bear hibernates in the winter, entering a cave or some quiet, secluded place. It emerges in the spring, with the female often having given birth in the meantime, and appearing with cubs in tow. This led to the bear being associated with regeneration and rebirth, adopted as a solar symbol. The ancients believed that the sun sickened as the winter progressed, getting weaker and weaker as the hours of daylight diminished. Finally, at the winter solstice (the shortest day) it died and went into the underworld. At dawn it was reborn, emerging from the womb of the Mother Earth via a cave mouth, then growing stronger with each passing day. Many sun gods are said to have been born in a cave at this time. It seems likely that Arthur was originally a sun/bear god, with the solstice being called Alban Arthur or 'Arthur's Time' by modern Druids. The constellation of the Great Bear is known in Wales as 'Arthur's Wain' i.e. Arthur's wagon. The seven main stars of the Great Bear look rather like an old fashioned plough (which gives it its alternative name) with a crooked handle. The right hand side of the plough has two stars that point to the pole star Polaris, the last star in the tail of the Little Bear, and these are called 'the Pointers'. The Pole Star was used as an aid to navigation by travellers on both sea and land as the nearest star to the celestial 'north pole', around which all the constellations appear to turn. Following the Great Bear is the constellation of Boötes, the herdsman, with its brightest star Arcturus meaning 'Bear Keeper', a star held sacred by the Celts. When it first rises over the eastern horizon in January, it is a sign that spring is on its way. Arcturus is known as 'The One who Comes', rising not long after the winter solstice each year, just as Arthur is known as the 'Once and Future King' who sleeps until the day of his promised return. The Celtic goddess Brighid was styled 'daughter of the bear', because her spring festival of Imbolc follows the rebirth of the sun and rising of Arcturus.
The mythology of the bear is thus inextricably linked with its winter retreat into hibernation, going into the underworld, and its apparent renewal in the dreaming darkness. The bear seems to have been considered a protective spirit in the Otherworld realms of dreams and death. It is in the winter, in the gloom, that she finds renewal, just as it is during the most frightening and blackest times of our lives that the greatest spiritual growth occurs. Only then do we truly become aware of the infinity of possibilities that lie within us. When logical thoughts provide no answers, the path of inner knowing is illuminated. Remember that all life emerges from the darkness, as the seed grows form the earth, the child from the womb, and the creative idea from the unconscious mind. Bear protects travellers on the road to wisdom. She teaches the value of stillness and silence inside, where all true knowledge begins. The lesson of Bear is that strength comes from within- not from what you own, what you wear, what you say or even what other people think of you.
Wild boars once roamed freely through the forests of Britain and Ireland, and a legacy of this remains in the many places named after them such as Boarshill, Boarhunt and Wild Boar Fell. They became extinct in Ireland during pre-historic times, but not in England and Scotland until the seventeenth century. Today, they have been re-introduced in some counties.
Representations of boars in Celtic art tend to emphasise the erect bristles as a sign of aggression; indeed, the bristles were viewed as the seat of the creature's power and thought to be poisonous. The wild boar is tremendously strong, with a tough hide and curving tusks from both upper and lower jaws. It is capable of short bursts of high speed and has been known to attack pursuing horses, dogs and humans. Boar hunts were therefore very dangerous, a test of both skill and courage. Most Celtic tales of boars concern a hunt where the bravery and resources of the hero are challenged to the utmost, and during which he may be led into the Otherworld, or meet a supernatural character who demands his help.
A boar hunt is featured in the story of Culhwch, which means ‘Pig Run’. He had a geis (taboo) upon him that he should only marry Olwen, the daughter of the giant Yspaddaden ('Hawthorn'). Her father knew that when his daughter married, he would die, so he resolved to set the young suitor several impossible tasks before he would consent.One of these was the capture of the comb and scissors that lay between the ears of the monstrous boar Twrch Trwyth. After many adventures, the boar was forced into the River Severn where the comb and shears were taken from him. The magical ogham alphabet the comb and scissors are a cipher for spiritual knowledge and transformation. This is perhaps clearer in the Irish version of the story, in which the boar is called Torc Triath, the King of Boars, and is the companion of Brighid the goddess of poetry.
Boars were officially hunted in October, the fall of the year, associating them with dissolution and death, and the turning of the season into winter. In many legends it is a wild boar that kills the summer vegetation god: in Egyptian myth Osiris, lover of the goddess Isis; in Greek myth Adonis, the lover of the goddess Aphrodite; while in Irish myth a boar slew Diarmuid, lover of Grainne, the betrothed of Finn. Together they eloped, but the enraged Finn gave chase across the length and breadth of Ireland. Eventually the gods interceded, and Finn pretended to forgive the pair. Then one day he saw a means of exacting revenge, and invited Diarmuid to join him in a boar hunt at Samhain (October 31st). The boar they killed was Diarmuid's half brother, so the young man was doubly damned. Finn asked Diarmuid to pace the length of the beast, and in doing so, the young man stepped onto a poisoned bristle which pierced his heel, killing him. Note the time of year- Samhain, the start of winter when the vegetation god is destroyed by the forces of winter, represented by a wild boar.
The Celts venerated the boar and the pig as sacred animals connected with prophecy and magical powers; swineherds were considered magicians and were highly honoured. King Bladud himself tended a herd of pigs that led him to the healing springs at Bath in southern England, where he founded a city. Some grades of Druids were called 'pigs' and the flesh of certain red pigs was chewed in a divination rite called Imbas Forosnai.
Though pork or boar was the favourite meat of the Celts it was not part of their everyday diet, but seems to have been reserved for special feasts, especially winter festivals like Samhain and Yule. In Scotland, it was rarely eaten, and some tribes would not eat it at all. This may have been because of its association with death and the underworld; joints of pork were buried with nobles for use in the afterlife. The first herd of pigs was a gift from Arawn, the king of the underworld. There are many accounts of pork being served at feasts in the Otherworld, with magical beasts being killed, roasted, eaten and found alive the next morning. The 'good god' Dagda carried two pigs, one alive and one roasted, which never decreased in size, no matter how much was eaten. The sea god Mannanan had a whole herd of pigs that could be served in a similar manner. He explained that the meat would not boil in the cauldron until a truth was spoken for each quarter. Whoever ate them gained immortality. Thus, the boar was associated with truth, spiritual sustenance, resurrection and immortality.
Boars are ferocious, strong and courageous, so much so that only the bravest and most skilful hunters could kill them. When a boar appears in a Celtic tale, the hero is always presented with a challenge: a task that must be accomplished. He must be able, clever and brave- all the qualities of the boar itself. Boars prefer to run in straight lines, going straight for their goal without veering to the right or left. They are capable of bursts of great speed, short-lived, but incredibly powerful while they last. They don’t vacillate, but go straight to the heart of the matter and tackle it head on.
In the story of Mannanan's pigs, the meat will only cook in the cauldron if a truth is spoken for each quarter. The cauldron is a vessel of transformation, and the pork is spiritual sustenance, which can only be gained through truth. To lie or take the easy option is not the path of the hero, who must show both personal and moral courage when faced with a difficult trial.
For many ancient societies, the strong and powerful bull was the supreme symbol of earthly might, vitality and fertility. Though it can be combative, the mythological bull it uses its aggression against the forces of negativity, barrenness and winter. In Celtic symbolism, horns always represent power. There are even images of bulls with three horns, possibly indicating supernatural power, including one on a bronze mace discovered Willingham Fen in Cambridgeshire, showing a god with a wheel accompanied by the head of a three horned bull. Several others have been discovered at healing shrines both in Britain and on the Continent.
The solar deity Beli was called 'the loud roaring Beli', indicating bull-like attributes. In Celtic myth, the cart that pulled the sun across the sky was pulled by three oxen. The Druids revered the sky god as the potent father bull because he showered fertilising rain upon the earth mother, visualised as a nurturing mother cow. These concepts are paralleled in other mythologies. The Canaanite Baal took the form of a bull to mate with his sister who was in the form of a cow, while the Greek Zeus took the form of a bull to mate with Io, transformed into a bovine form. This association of bull and sky god goes further, with the sound of thunder supposed to be the hoofed feet of the god storming across the heavens.
Like the bull, the oak tree was sacred to sky divinities all over Europe, especially those who had control over thunder and lightning, such as the Celtic god Taranis. The sky god seems to throw his lighting at the oak more than any other tree, so many old oak trees are known as 'bull oaks'. When the Druids cut the mistletoe from the sacred oak at the Winter Solstice, they sacrificed white bulls. They believed that when the leaves fell from the oak in autumn, all of its power was transferred into the white mistletoe berries that represented the potent seed of the god.
The bull symbolises the masculine, solar, generative forces of the sky gods, and their earthly representative, the true king. The emblem of the bull is intimately bound up with the rites of kingship. A bull ceremony figured in the choosing of a king in ancient Ireland. At the tarbhfheis (‘bull-feast’) a white bull was killed then a Druid consumed some of its meat and soup, and went to sleep. Four other Druids sang a charm of truth over him to enable him to dream of the man who was to be the rightful king. For example, on the night before she was to marry the king of Tara, the princess Mes Buachalla was surprised in her bedchamber by the arrival of a bird. She was even more amazed when the bird threw off its feathers and became a man who made love to her. She married the king as arranged, but gave birth to the son of the bird-man. The child was called Conaire and put out to foster parents. When the king died, the Druids held a bull-feast to discover who should be the new king. They received a vision of a naked man at daybreak on the road to Tara, holding a sling with a stone ready in it. Meanwhile, Conaire's bird father appeared to him and told him to go straight away to Tara, not even delaying to get dressed. The Druids discovered him on the road and hailed him as the true king.
The change from nomadic hunter-gatherer to a settled agricultural lifestyle began in the Age of Taurus, from 4000-2000 BCE. This seems to have led to an association of the bull with vegetation deities. In earlier times, Taurus and not Aries was the first sign of the zodiac. Virgil said that 'the white bull with his golden horns opens the year', making the bull a symbol of the springtime. In the Northern Hemisphere, the constellation of Taurus disappears from the midnight sky from March to August (Old Lughnasa 12th August). The latter is a time associated with several vegetation gods with bull attributes, such as the Sumerian Dumuzi, the Wild Bull who is sacrificed and dies for his people, and the Egyptian corn god Osiris, and the 'bull-footed' Dionysus, the Greek vine god. A bull was certainly concerned with the Celtic Lughnasa festival, which marked the start of the harvest. At Loch Maree in Scotland, and Cois Fhairrge in Ireland, bulls were sacrificed at Lughnasa in honour of the ancient god Crom Dubh ('Dark Crooked One') as late as the eighteenth century. The hide of the bull would be preserved after the sacrifice, and sleeping in it was a rite of divination according to several Irish and Scottish accounts.
There appears to be a hidden meaning concerning a fertility or corn god in a tale which occurs in the Irish Ulster Cycle there the story of two bulls (actually two transformed men) over which a great war was fought. They met in battle with the dark one killing the white one and scattering its remains by dropping the parts from its horns. This recalls the scattering of the parts of the dismembered corn god. The Romans would sacrifice a bull and send the parts to different parts of the land
In Celtic myth, the bull is a creature of masculine power and potency, symbolic of the return of springtime and the fertility of the land. The bull is a creature of earth; he is grounded in the physical world, and acts powerfully within it. The bull knows who is he, where he has been, and where he is going. He sets off on his path with determination and energy, pursuing his goals until they are achieved. This sense of self and physical presence gives him his power. His stance is firmly rooted on the earth, feet spread wide, giving him unshakeable strength and stability. The bull is no follower of the herd, but a determined leader. He goes his own way.
Bull is a masculine influence in counterpoint to the feminine influence of the cow. He typifies fatherhood in all its aspects, perhaps especially in the sense of the guidance or mentoring.
Butterflies and moths both belong to the order of insects known as lepidoptera, a Greek word meaning 'scaled wing'. Lepidoptera have a five-stage life cycle: first an egg, then a caterpillar, followed by a pupae that matures into a chrysalis which, after a dormant period, breaks to reveal the butterfly. The ancients marvelled at the amazing transformation from a crawling worm-like creature that seems to 'die', become entombed, and then emerges as a glorious butterfly that spreads its wings and flies. Perhaps it isn't surprising that the life cycle of the butterfly, with its many transformations, became an allegory for the existence of a human, who at first crawls on the earth, dies, and emerges from the mortal shell as a transfigured soul. Depicting a creature with butterfly wings marked it out as a creature of spirit, and this is why angels and fairies are often depicted with butterfly wings.
The Celts suspected that butterflies might be human souls in actuality, and wore butterfly badges as a mark of respect for their ancestral spirits. It was said that the soul of a newly dead person could sometimes be seen hovering over the corpse in the form of a butterfly, and this was a good omen for the fate of the soul. However, in some cases the butterfly might be the soul not of a dead person, but of a dreamer or shaman, flying free while the body slept, and some say the soul-butterfly's ability to leave the body in sleep accounts for dreams. In any case, it was taboo to kill a butterfly, since it might mean destroying a human soul. The Celts saw the butterfly as symbol of renewal and rebirth. At the festivals where all torches and lights were extinguished and re-lit from a central bonfire (such as Samhain or Halloween), the brand was called a 'butterfly'.
Butterfly never appears as a personal power animal, but can be a wonderful spirit helper that shows the way to personal growth. She indicates a total transformation in your life. This might be very frightening, as we tend to cling to what is known, what feels secure. However, movement and development are necessary if you are to grow beyond what you are at this moment in time. If the caterpillar did not surrender itself to a painful change (paralleled by the shamanic crisis), it could never achieve its ultimate glory as a butterfly and take flight. You should not try to remain in any life phase forever, but recognise when the time has come to move on. It is important to accept that life has cycles and stages, some active and expanding, some passive and contracting. Sometimes you might experience rapid change, at other times nothing may seem to be happening but it is important to realise that, as deep within the chrysalis, radical alterations are taking place, even though you can't see them. Remember that it isn't possible to have everything at once, but each thing comes in its own time and season. Every stage of your life has its purpose and its own rewards. You need to understand what this phase is teaching you, and how you can use that knowledge to progress. You are not only sum of your life experiences, but also of how you have used the knowledge with which they presented you.
Cats were not usually sacred animals for the Celts, though there are numerous references to them in stories. But don't be fooled, these tales do not relate to the domestic moggie, which only arrived in Britain with the Romans, but to the wild cat, a larger and more aggressive creature with tabby markings that prefers to live in dense forests, hills and moor land. Though wild cats had become extinct in England and Wales by 1850, they are still found in the Scottish Highlands. We still use one of the Irish Gaelic words for cat, or 'puss'.
In Celtic narratives, cats are mysterious, often supernatural, and usually ferocious. The most powerful was Cath Palug, born in Anglesey of the magical white sow Henwen (an aspect of the hag goddess Ceridwen). It wreaked havoc about the land until King Arthur and his foster brother Cei destroyed it. Even now unearthly cats appear all over Britain, with newspaper reports of large cats frequently frightening the population.
Legendary cats often hail from the Otherworld. The Knowth fairy mound was the home of Irusan the King Cat, who was as large as a plough-ox and once bore away the chief poet of Ireland in revenge for a satire against him. The Celts held that looking into cat’s eyes would enable you to see the fairies, or see into the Otherworld. This strange supernatural reputation of felines may arise from their association with the moon. Cats' eyes change according to the levels of light, imitating the waxing and waning of the moon. Along with their nocturnal hunting habits, this made the cat a creature of the moon goddess. The Roman naturalist Pliny said that a she-cat would bear a total of twenty-eight kittens during her lifetime- the same number as the days of a lunar cycle.
Cats are sometimes the guardians of Otherworldy places. Maeldun set sail with several companions to avenge the death of his father. After many adventures, they arrived at a small island. Everywhere was deserted, but as they entered a house, they discovered a table set with wine and roast meat, piles of clean clothes and comfortable beds with warm coverlets. The only occupant was a little cat who played on top of four pillars. Maeldun saluted the creature, and asked if they could eat and drink, but the cat ignored him, making no sign as they ate their fill, and lay down to sleep for the night. Then, just as they were about to leave in the morning, Maeldun’s foster-brother helped himself to a piece of jewellery from the wall. Instantly, the cat transformed into a fiery arrow which pierced right through the man, turning him to ashes in seconds. Maeldun was careful to apologise to the cat for his brother's churlish and ungrateful behaviour, which ran contrary to all the laws of hospitality, and returned the jewellery to the wall. The cat's house was plainly in the Otherworld from which nothing should ever be removed if the inhabitants are not to be angered.
Because cats had a connection with the powers of both the moon and the Otherworld, they were considered oracular. At Clogh-magh-righ-cat in north western Ireland there was a shrine where a black cat lay on a throne of silver, uttering prophecies. The Irish Druids performed a ritual known as Imbas Forosnai, in which the raw flesh of a cat was chewed. Even today, old country folk view cats as predictors of the weather: if a cat washes its ears or sneezes, it is sure to rain
Cats have two associations with fertility. Firstly they can produce several litters a year, and secondly they prey on the rodents that can devastate the pantry or grain stores, thereby protecting both the home and the harvest. In some places, the cat was a representative of the corn spirit, and children trampling cornfields were warned the phantom cat would get them.
The cat was a totem of several Celtic and pre-Celtic clans and individuals. The Highlands was the centre of two Pictish clans, the Orcs (boars) and the Kati ('cat people') who lived in Kataobh ('cat country'), which is now called Caithness. The Mac Pherson clan is descended from cat clan ancestors and the chief's crest shows a wild cat with claws ungloved and the motto 'Touch not the Cat but a Glove'. In this case 'but' is a contraction of 'beout' - a warning not to touch the dangerous cat without a glove. The Chieftain of Clan Chattan is called Mohr an Chat ('the great cat') and there are many places in the Highlands that take their name from cats. One Irish King was called Cairbre Caitheann (Cathead) and ruled over the Milesians who were the Celtic invaders of Ireland. He was said to have the ears of a cat, which may mean that he had a cat totem, or wore a helmet or hood of cat skin. There is an Irish legend of an island inhabited by men with cats’ heads. The hero Finn mac Cumhail fought a clan of "cat-headed" (or cat hooded) people.
The cat is a creature long associated with magic, from the sacred cats of ancient Egypt to the archetypal storybook witch with her cat familiar. Aloof, knowing and mysterious, the cat’s eyes seem to promise secrets- no wonder the Celts thought you could see fairyland by gazing into a cat's eyes. We all need a little magic in our lives.
Cat is a paradoxical creature, capable of intense concentration when stalking her prey, but who also knows how to relax completely, curling up before the fire and falling asleep in seconds. She is a wild and bloody huntress, but can be playful and kittenish, a home loving lady who insists on high standards of personal hygiene. She is a sensuous creature who might purr at your feet or turn and scratch you. You might as well try to fathom the enigma of the moon goddess who is both virgin and crone, who creates and destroys, or understand the eternal mystery of woman, who is all of these things and more. She is much more than she seems. Cat reminds you that deep within you is a secret self, untamed by the world and its experiences, complex, individual, and needing to be fulfilled.
Whatever it is that you are hunting, whether it is a job, a lover, or knowledge itself, you can learn from Cat. She does not waste energy chasing here, there and everywhere- she might miss the clues that reveal her true target. She listens to every whisper on the wind, sniffs the air for every scent, and watches carefully for the slightest movement. She waits quietly until she sees what she really wants, and when it is within her grasp, she moves like lightening, and with one graceful pounce clasps it within her paws. Cat tells you that there is power in stillness, and beauty in dignity.
Introduced into Britain by the Romans, cockerels were quickly adopted into the mythology of the Celts. Julius Caesar reported Celts would not eat hare, geese or chickens as these were considered sacred animals. The name of ancient Gaul itself is derived from the Latin gallus, which means 'cock'. This designation was probably bestowed on the Gallic Celts because they were as fierce and aggressive as fighting cocks. The cock is still the emblem of France.
The magic of the cock lies in its famous dawn call. As well as being a kind of natural alarm clock signalling that it was time to wake and begin the business of the day, it was believed to chase away darkness, ghosts and the hidden powers of the night. This theme is echoed in many folk songs and stories where the cock-crow drives away visions of a dead lover, nightmares, magic spells and mischievous fairies such as the Welsh Tylwyth Teg. The Celts held their festivals from dusk until cockcrow, indicating that during the hours of darkness occult powers were strongest, and dispersed by daylight.
This ability to drive away evil made the cock an emblem of protection. The traditional weathercock represents a vigilant cockerel spirit placed on the highest part of the roof. To safeguard the newly harvested corn, a straw figure was fashioned in the shape of a 'corn cock' and placed on top of the rick. At harvest time a cock was killed with a sickle and buried in the fields to ensure the survival of the corn spirit, and its blood was mixed with the new seeds.
Because it is credited with the power of driving out harm, the cock was also believed to have healing abilities and was associated with healer gods, particularly when those gods were also solar deities. It was held that a cockerel rubbed on the body and then cast out of the district would take the illness with it. Until quite recent times in many parts of Britain, medicine taken at cockcrow was believed to be more effective, showing the persistence of Pagan ideas.
Julius Caesar wrote in The Gallic Wars that the Britons kept chickens for sport, rather than meat. Despite its small size, the cock is a fierce and aggressive fighter (we still call slightly built boxers 'bantam weights' after a species of chicken). Put two cocks in a pen together and they will fight for dominance. Cockfighting was a popular pastime over most of the ancient world, with birds being specially bred for aggressive qualities. It was a cruel pastime, with sharp artificial spurs or small knives often attached to the birds' legs before the contest.
The sacrifice of a cock and a ritual cockfight was part of the Imbolc (2nd February) festivities in honour of the pan-Celtic goddess Brighid. Cockfighting was a part of the West Highland's celebrations at Candlemas (the Christianised version of the festival) well into the nineteenth century. Boys would take cockerels (called stags) to school and Coileach Buadha or 'victorious cock' was elected Candlemas King. The cock and hen seem to have been paired at the early spring festivals with the solar cock sacrificed at Imbolc to disperse the powers of winter and darkness, while at the vernal equinox hen's eggs were dyed red represented the new dawn sun.
As a solar creature the cock is also a bird of augury - daylight uncovers hidden secrets. A number of omens were derived their behaviour: if a cock behaves unnaturally, it is a very bad omen. If a cock crows early in the evening it means bad weather; when a cock crows at midnight a spirit is passing; in England it is a death omen if one crows three times between sunset and midnight. Crowing at other times is often a warning against misfortune. If a cock crows while perched on a gate, or at nightfall, the next day will be rainy. Cock is a solar animal, greeting the dawn, banishing night, and uncovering all that the darkness has concealed. He is a herald of healing, renewal and the positive energy of the light. His magic is a powerful force against negativity, whether this comes in the form of bad luck, depression or ill health; hidden secrets, worries and grievances brought into the light lose their power and become easier to deal with. With a determined yell, he shakes his feathers in the sun, calling upon you to recognise that a new era has begun and that it is time wake up and to get on the business of life, to move forward and embrace the future with enthusiasm.
The cock is definitely not a team player, he is arrogant, noisy and aggressive, and demands that he should be the one and only male within his territory; two cocks in a pen together and they will fight to the death. He is the epitome of the macho man, whom we still call 'cock of the walk'- just watch the way he behaves among his own private flock of hens. Remember too that we use the phrase 'cocky' to describe someone who is over confidant and heading for a fall.
In Britain, before the coming of the Romans, the main tracks across the country were cattle droves. When ancient peoples abandoned a hunter-gatherer life for pastoral and agrarian practices, cattle became immensely important. They played a vital role in the economy of the Celts as the source of meat, milk and cheese, of hide, bone and horn, while oxen pulled wagons and ploughs. Cattle were a measure of status and wealth, with the bride price and the price of slaves being set in cows. In Britain and Ireland, cattle raids were a common way of ensuring riches and power, and were not even considered wrong, but rather something of an occupational hazard. The Dagda ('Good God') had a cow called Ocean who could call all the cows in Ireland to follow her, which enabled his people, the Tuatha de Danaan, to recover all their stolen cattle.
The two great Celtic festivals of Beltane and Samhain centred around the needs of cows. At Beltane (May Day) cattle were driven through the ashes of the Bel fire to purify and protect them, before being taken up to their summer pastures. At Samhain (Halloween), they were brought down to sheltered winter feeding grounds, and any surplus animals were slaughtered, with black puddings and oatcakes made from the blood. Beltane fell when the seven stars of the Pleiades rose in the constellation of Taurus the Bull, and Samhain when the Pleiades set below the horizon.
For the Druids the bull represented the fertilising power of the heavens, while the cow was the productive abundance of the earth. The cow is a symbol of plenty, nourishment and nurture and is an attribute of many mother goddesses. Even the stars in the sky were thought to be droplets of milk from the Mother's breasts; in Lancashire the Milky Way is called 'the Cow's Lane'. In Welsh myth, the great mother was Madron, often depicted as a matronly woman holding a cornucopia (cow's horn) filled with fruit and grains. A Gaulish goddess called Damona ('Great Cow') was a mother goddess of healing and fertility. She seems to have had two husbands, Borvo and Moritasgus, both gods of healing springs.
In Ireland, the cow was connected with the water goddess Boanne (‘She of the White Cattle’), and was one of the four sacred animals of Brighid (the others being a wolf, a snake and a bird of prey). Brighid was a goddess of inspiration, healing, craft and fertility, with a cult centre in Kildare. She was born in the house of a Druid and raised on the milk of fairy cattle. Her cows were milked three times daily, providing an endless supply of milk. To invoke the female power of regeneration at Brighid's festival of Imbolc (2nd February), an image of a cow was made, and the person to be 'regenerated' (i.e. given spiritual or physical healing), was enclosed inside the image, later emerging from it in a ritual act of rebirth. Brighid's Christian replacement St Brigit was the patroness of cattle and dairy work, and is still prayed to for fertility and healing.
The Great Mother is also the harvester, the goddess of death, and the cow is also sacred to her death aspects. The Irish battle Morrigan once took on the form of a red cow to approach the hero Cuchulainn. She again appeared to him in the guise of a hag milking a cow with only three teats, and as a female charioteer dressed in red, driving a cow before her. In all these guises, she heralded his death, signified by the colour red, an emblem of the Otherworld. The cow is sometimes a psychopomp (a being that conveys souls into the Otherworld). Some believed that if a man gave a gift of a cow to the poor, at his death the spirit of the animal would return to guide him to the Otherworld.
According to Irish myth, the first cattle came from the Otherworld, the Land of the West. Otherworldly cattle are also common in British lore, recognised by their red or round ears. Sometimes a fairy cow would join human herds and would supply amazing quantities of milk, unless it was offended by some mortal slight, in which case it would return to the sea or lake from which it came. Cattle formed the dowry of the fairy lake maiden of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach in Wales, who married a poor shepherd. When he lost his temper and struck her, she returned to the lake taking all her cattle with her. However, the sons of the marriage became the legendary physicians of Myddfai, so here again we have the connection of cattle, healing and water.
Like her mate the bull, the cow is also associated with divination and prophecy. In the Mabinogion tale of The Vision of Rhonabwy a sleeper saw a vision of the court of King Arthur whilst lying on the skin of a yellow heifer.
In Celtic lore the cow represented Mother Earth who provides everything her children need- nourishment, love and protection.
The Crane was an important bird in Celtic mythology. Sadly, it no longer lives in the British Isles as it was hunted out of existence in the seventeenth century. The stork and heron share much of the lore of the crane, but only the heron is still found in Britain.
The Celts associated marsh birds with the supernatural; dwelling as they do in a misty 'place between places' that is neither land nor water. Liminal sites were deemed possible entrances to the Otherworld, such as Bri Leith, the fairy mound of Midir, where three cranes warned travellers to 'keep out'. They were sentinels at the castle of the sea god Manannan on the Isle of Man. It was commonly believed that the crane was the epitome of vigilance, standing on one leg and holding a stone in its raised foot; if the bird fell asleep, the stone would drop, waking it. The one-legged stance is also associated with shamans in Celtic lore.
Standing on the threshold of the Otherworld, cranes were counted birds of augury, foretelling events and heralding storms and rain. They were emissaries of the gods of death and might summon a human soul to enter the Otherworld. On church carvings, they were portrayed as sucking the breath (or spirit) from the dying. In Welsh legend Pwyll, the Lord of the underworld, took the form of a crane. Cranes were sacred to gods and goddesses who presided over the mysteries of death and re
Flying cranes are sometimes said to be the souls of the dead, or mark the death of the old year. The mating dance of cranes was once thought to be a magical ritual and the movements were imitated by human dancers. It was performed round a horned altar and represented the labyrinth- the twisting path into the Otherworld. In Greece, the crane dance marked the start of the New Year and the death of the old.
Cranes are solar birds, and when they returned in springtime, they were thought to bring the sun back with them. Standing by the waters, cranes and herons are among the first birds to greet the dawn. They catch many small fish to feed their young, and have the curious habit of laying them on the bank, tails together, in the form of a wheel. The wheel is the symbol of the sun and its passage through the year.
Cranes were very much associated with the hag goddess and her hoary wisdom. Miadhach, daughter of Eachdhonn Mor, was transformed into a crane. She lived to become one of the oldest animals who possessed all the ancient knowledge between them. In the tale of the ‘Hag of the Temple’, an old woman appeared with four cranes, the Cranes of Death, her sons transformed. They could only be released from the enchantment by the blood of a bull owned by the Cailleach Bheara (‘Hag of Beare’), a harvest goddess. Only the power of the Taurus the Bull and the return of spring could transform the Cranes of Death.
This association of the bull and crane is a common thread in Celtic mythology. A monument from Paris shows a large bull that stands before a willow tree, with two cranes on his back and one on his head, pecking at his pelt. A woodcutter hacks at the willow. The inscription over the bull reads Tarvostrigaranus ('The Bull with Three Cranes') and above the man is Esus ('Lord'). The willow is the tree of the hag goddess, lady of winter and death; who sometimes takes the form of a crane, while the bull represents virility, spring and life. It is possible that the monument depicts a seasonal allegory, with the cranes diminishing the bull's power (earth fertility) in the hag's season.
Two girls called Aoife and Iuchra both fell in love with Ilbrec, the son of the sea god Mannanan. Iuchra deftly rid herself of her rival by turning Aoife into a crane. In this form, Aoife lived on the Isle of Man for two hundred years, and when she died, her skin was made into a bag for Mannanan. It became one of his most important possessions, as he kept five magical items in it. Some suggest that these were the five letters of the ogham alphabet. The Druids kept their ogham lots in a craneskin bag, from which they would cast them to perform rites of divination.
The Celtic god Ogma was said to have invented ogham after watching the flight of cranes, the shapes of the birds against the sky giving him the idea for the angular letters. The same story is told of the Roman Mercury, the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth; it is interesting to note that as well as being gods of communication and writing, all these gods have a role as psychopomp, conveying souls into the Otherworld after death.
Crane keeps the secrets of magical writing. For our ancestors, the act of writing was far removed from what it is today. To write a character was to connect with the thing that character represented, and to call it into being. Many early alphabets were angular in appearance, since they had to be carved into stone, or scratched onto bark. The legs of the crane in flight are said to resemble these characters. For the Druids Crane Knowledge referred to secrets of the ogham alphabet and all that entailed. Each character was assigned a tree, plant, animal, bird and colour, each embodying a wealth of lore and learning. The god Manannan owned a magical bag made from crane skin. It contained the shears of the king of Scotland, the helmet of the king of Lochlainn, the bones from Assails's swine, the hook of the smith Goibne, a shirt and a strip from the back of the great whale. These were the vowels of the ogham alphabet and the strip of the whale represented the horizon, the stave on which ogham was written.
In Ireland, the sudden appearance of a crane heralded the cessation of hostilities in a war. If a warrior on his way to battle chanced to see one, he was doomed, since the sight of it would rob him of his courage. For this reason, cranes were often engraved on shields and pieces of armour to strike terror into the enemy. The crane was a hallowed bird and its meat was forbidden. Breaking this taboo would result in ill fortune, the loss of courage, illness, or perhaps even death. This prohibition was preserved in folklore well into the seventeenth century when Scotsmen would get rid of unwelcome guests by inviting them to eat the flesh of cranes.
The eagle's Gaelic names Iolair ['Guide to the Air'] and Righ na h-Ealtain ['King of the Bird World'] suggest the high regard in which it was held by the Celts. It was also called Suil-na Graine ['Eye of the Sun'], and it was a commonly held belief that eagles could look at the sun without blinking. Parent birds were said to initiate their fledglings by taking them close to sun to and those who blinked were judged unworthy and fell to their deaths.
The Celts thought that the eagle was very long lived, renewing itself periodically by flying to the sun and scorching its feathers, before diving into the sea and emerging as a young bird. In an Irish legend called The Voyages of Maeldun, the travellers visited the Island of the Eagle. One evening, a large bird appeared from the south west, carrying a branch on which were red berries, which it began to eat. It was a ragged old bird, with hardly any strength, so the men came out of hiding to look at it. Some of them ventured to eat the berries it dropped. This went on until two eagles arrived to preen its feathers and improve its appearance. The hoary old bird was starting to look better. Eventually, on the third day, the bird became much stronger and younger looking, and it rose up into the air before diving headlong into the lake. One of Maeldun’s companions decided to try the remedy for himself, and despite the warnings of his fellows, he jumped into the water. When he swam to the shore he found that all his aches and pains had disappeared, his eyesight was perfect, and his loose teeth were firm in his jaw once more. For as long as he lived, he never knew another day's illness.
In many tales, the eagle is in conflict with the serpent of the lower realms or Underworld, a symbolic struggle that represents the dynamic equilibrium between light and darkness, summer and winter, life and death.
As Eagle circles high in the air, riding the thermals, he sees the whole landscape spread out before him, but his sharp eye can pick out the tiniest detail below. This viewpoint gives him the ability to relate the particulars to the bigger picture. It may be that Eagle is telling you that you are too close to a situation to be able to see what is really going on. Or perhaps you are concerned with the minutiae of a topic, and have lost sight of the wider issues.
It may be that you [or someone close to you] are seeking wider horizons, longing to spread your wings and soar. In order to follow a dream you may have to give up what is comfortable and familiar- this may include ideas and beliefs as well as places or people.
Eagle is a messenger from the realms of spirit- he is the only bird that dwells in the sphere of the gods. For the Celts, the salmon and the eagle were the oldest animals on earth, repositories of all history and knowledge, and see-ers of all that occurred anywhere. Eagle knows all the secrets of the ancients and can reveal forgotten mysteries. Eagle brings a message from the highest powers, advising you to attend to your spiritual side. Feel the wind beneath your wings, know their strength, and allow your faith and courage to carry you to new heights.
The Eagle may be a predatory creature who will rend his victims into shreds without a second thought. He doesn't care what others feel or think but must have what he wants regardless. And he wants things- food, territory, and treasure to line his nest. The material is all-important. Have you come across an acquisitive eagle? Or are you in danger of turning into one?
The fox is a very ancient inhabitant of Britain, a highly adaptable creature that feels at home in many diverse environments, including towns and cities, where large numbers of foxes survive on what humans throw away.
The best known attribute of the fox is his cunning and devious nature. Foxes are supposed to hunt well away from their own dens to lay the blame on other foxes, and be able to blend in with the background or follow twisting and turning tracks to divert hunters. The fox's abilities were much admired by the Celts.
Foxes are gregarious creatures who meet frequently and communicate by sense and sound. They were once thought to be holding counsels. 'Fox' formed part of the name of men who were known for their skill in counsel: one Gaulish chieftain was called Louernius, or 'Son of the Fox' and Ua Leochann, a king of Scotland, was nicknamed An Sionnach or 'The Fox' for his adroitness.
There is a widely circulated story that foxes have an ingenious method of ridding themselves of fleas. Taking a piece of wool retrieved from a fence, the fox holds it in his mouth and swims into a pond or stream. As he goes deeper and deeper, the fleas scramble to stay above the waterline, going up to the shoulders, then the head. Finally, the fox ducks his head beneath the surface and the frantic fleas migrate into the wool. When he has achieved this objective, the fox lets go of the wool, and all his little problems float away.
Foxes were interred in ritual burial sites in both Britain and France, often in the company of deers or stags. Like the dog, the fox is associated with the Underworld, probably because during the winter both dog fox and vixen spend most of their time sheltering in subterranean earths within their territory. Fox earths, like badger setts, can be very ancient. Like other burrowing animals, the fox is thought to be a shamanic guide to the chthonic realms. The red fox emerging from his burrow at the winter solstice is symbolic of the rebirth of the sun. Its red colour also associates it with the element of fire and the strengthening of the sun at the spring equinox.
If Cat represents intuition, then Fox typifies analytical intelligence. Fox is cunning, a word that comes from the old Scottish word kenning, meaning 'to know' and possibly connected with the Gaelic cu or 'hound'- meaning that the fox has innate hound wisdom. If Fox comes into your orbit today, you need to look at something with logical detachment, and not let your emotions get in the way. Fox is cunning in counsel, and it may be that will receive good advice from a trusted friend or advisor.
Fox is versatile, adapting to many environments, and may be advising you that you need to be more flexible in your outlook. Maybe you need some fox magic yourself. Clever Fox can camouflage himself and outfox his pursuers by taking devious paths, and it is this that that helps him elude the hunter, not his strength or speed.
When the fox invades the hen house, he doesn't just kill the bird he wants to eat, but destroys every chicken in sight, in a wasteful and pointless killing frenzy. Fox may warn you that you are in danger of wasting or frittering away your resources, for no good reason. In some circumstances, he may indicate nervous exhaustion or illnesses brought about by stress.
Fox is reputed to be a charming trickster and with his wily speech, many enrapture an entire audience of geese before pouncing, and carrying one off. Be warned you that someone may be trying to trick you, attempting to convince you with clever words.
Frogs are only vocal during the mating season, in late February and March. The Celts thought that the croaking frogs were invoking the spring rains which cleansed and renewed the face of the earth after winter, regenerating and transforming it, watering the sleeping seeds so that they could burst into life.
In a similar fashion, water at healing shrines could wash away illness, purify the body and stimulate health. The Celts often identified frogs with the spirits that they believed inhabited such shrines. There is an ancient healing spring at Acton Barnett, in Shropshire [England], where the spirits of the well appear as frogs; the largest of the three is addressed as the Dark God.
The frog has another ability that connects it with healing- an ability to metamorphose itself second only to the butterfly. It begins life in the jelly-like eggs known as frogspawn, hatches as a legless tailed tadpole, then gradually changes into a frog, growing legs and shedding its tail. Though the tadpole needs to live in water, the adult frog leaves the pond as soon as its transformation is completed and, contrary to popular supposition, spends most of its life on land. This power of metamorphosis associates the frog with the power of shapeshifting, magic and the ability to transform the self.
There are many old tales in which a frog is a man in disguise, usually the unwilling victim of enchantment, but these tales might well be related to the shapeshifting abilities of the shaman. One fairy tale princess dropped her golden ball into a well. An ugly frog agreed to retrieve it for her, but only in return for a kiss. At first she refused, but when she relented, the frog turned into a handsome prince.
The association of the frog with creation appears all over the world: it is thought to resemble a foetus. The Sheela-na-gig ['Old Woman with Vulva'] may be derived from early images of a frog goddess. The vulva represented an opening to the Underworld womb of the earth goddess. Both frog and toad are also associated with the goddess of death and regeneration, the mirror image of the birth goddess.
Frog is a fertility symbol representing the creative power of the waters, the primal source of all life; she has a moist skin, which contrasts with the dryness of death. Water flows, nourishes and replenishes the earth. The power of Frog is concerned with cleansing and purifying, and with the free flowing of emotional energies. Frog may be telling you not to try to conceal your feelings, but to allow yourself to experience them fully, whether joy, anger, sadness or grief. Tears are water too, and have a power of their own. Emotional blockages and dammed up passions may cause problems later on, and can even lead to physical illness. Frog teaches you how to nourish your emotions, and how to maintain the flux of your energies.
The famous story of the frog that turns out to be a prince teaches us not to judge by appearances: the ugliest exterior may conceal a soul of pure goodness. In a society where the surface is accounted supremely important, we can easily forget, and fall into the trap of being superficial.
Frog also may be telling you that your emotions have got the better of you. You are wallowing in your misery on the bottom of the pond. Remember that negativity draws negativity. Frog is telling you that it is time to begin to deal with your problems. Seek help if necessary from a counsellor or healer. Make a list and decide what you do want in your life and what you don't and begin to act. With acting comes power. Frog is telling you that bright new life can come from the mud!
Hares are native to Britain, unlike rabbits, which were introduced by the Romans. The lore of the two animals is very different, as are their habits- rabbits are sociable animals, living in large groups, whereas the hare is solitary.
Caesar reported that hares were among the most sacred animals of the Celts, with killing and eating them being taboo. This restriction was lifted in the spring, when a ritual hunt and consumption was made. Until the end of the eighteenth century, an annual hare hunt took place near Leicester, in Central England, led by the mayor and corporation. This hare was an attribute of Black Annis, a fearful hag said to live in a cave in the nearby Dane Hills, and the hunt was once perhaps the ritual expulsion of the winter goddess, often symbolised by a white hare.
In contrast, the brown hare represented the coming of spring. Usually nocturnal, hares can be seen abroad in daylight during the mating season, boxing or leaping into the air, giving rise to the expression 'the mad March hare'. The hare has a reputation for lusty sexuality and fecundity. It is closely associated with the Saxon hare-headed fertility goddess Eostre, who carries an egg and gives birth to the whole of creation from her egg shaped womb. The terms oestrogen and oestrus are both derived from the name of this goddess, as is the name of the festival of Easter. All originate in the old Norse austr which means 'east'- the direction of the newly risen sun at the spring equinox. Our myth of the Easter Bunny originates in the ancient belief that the hare lays eggs and hunting these was a popular Easter pastime. The hare has another connection with fertility; in Europe, the hare is also associated with the corn spirit. Hares hid in cornfields until the final few sheaves were reaped; the last sheaf was called 'the hare' and its cutting 'killing the hare'.
Apart from the breeding season, the hare is only seen by the light of the moon. Should he be disturbed by a nocturnal predator, such as a fox, he will use his great speed and manoeuvrability to escape. The hare, like the moon, stands for birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth. It is sacred to gods and goddesses of the moon and the patterns in the full moon are sometimes thought to resemble a hare. Celtic hunting and moon deities were often shown holding hares in their hands.
The moon shines in the darkness and is thus connected with intuitive knowledge and insight, powers that the Celts also attributed to the hare. Young hares are born with their eyes open and never again close them- or it was believed- even to blink or sleep. Boudicca, the warrior queen of the Iceni, released a hare from beneath her cloak while making an invocation to the goddess Andraste ['Victory'], to predict the outcome of her battles against the Romans.
If Hare comes bounding into your life today, he is telling you that this is the time to break free of restrictions, and be unconventional. The March hare is touched by a divine madness that urges him to express his inner passions. His is the anarchy that overturns dogmatic tradition and restrictions. This indicates a time of chaos, which clears the way for something new and sudden. It could herald a time of great energy and creativity for you, with inspiration coming from unexpected sources, but you will need to be flexible, and open to new methods and new ideas.
On a spiritual level, the hare is sacred to the gods and goddesses of renewal, the return of the spring, and the rising of the sun each morning.
Horse cults existed in Britain long before the coming of the Celts. The domestication of the horse changed the face of the world, enabling people to travel much further and improving communication between distant places. The Celts were expert cavalrymen, and the horse aided them in their westward journey of conquest across Europe. Horses were status symbols, and were never used as lowly beasts of burden. Eating their flesh was taboo.
Epona was the British and Gallic horse goddess whose worship was adopted by Roman cavalrymen. For the non-military sections of society, she was a mother goddess, an emblem of fertility, represented with mare and foal. Images of her have been found in Celtic graveyards showing that she was also a protector and guide of the dead. She carried a key that unlocked both the stable door and the gates of the Otherworld. Horse goddesses also rule as Queens of the Dead, rising between the worlds at will. The Celts believed that the dead rode to the afterlife on horseback. Epona's Welsh counterpart was Rhiannon, while the Irish horse goddess was called Macha.
Like the other horse goddesses, Macha represented the land itself and the power of sovereignty. Her golden hair was the corn at harvest time and her feast day was Lughnasa [1st August]. In early Ireland, a white mare was instrumental in the bestowing of kingship. An account as late as the twelfth century CE described the making of a minor king and how he must be symbolically reborn from a white mare. Stripped naked he had to crawl on all fours to the mare, like a foal. The mare was then slaughtered and cut up, the pieces boiled in a cauldron. The king got into the cauldron to eat pieces of the meat and drink the both. Finally he stood on the inauguration stone, was presented with a white wand and turned three times to the right, then three times to the left 'to honour the trinity'- in the original rites the trinity honoured would have been the triple sovereign goddess of the land.
Horse is a powerful creature, swift, faithful and strong, a symbol of the fertility of the land and the vigour of the sun. Magically, it is an attribute for all the major solar festivals of the year and the companion of many deities.
The appearance of Horse can signify journeys of many different kinds. It could be that you undertake a physical journey to a new place. Or it may be that you travel as the shaman does, between the worlds. Whichever type of journey the card refers to, it will be one during which your horizons are broadened, and where you make progress along your life path.
The power of Horse involves communication, maybe the kind of interaction that takes place between horse and rider in an instinctive partnership, or maybe dialogue on a more mundane level, by letter, telephone call, email or an important conversation. Horse is also a symbol of partnerships, reminding you that neither horse nor rider can achieve as much separately as together. A solitary horse will happily spend its time eating grass, but in coalition with a human will willingly pull a plough, a carriage, or carry a rider long distances. The strength of one aids the wit of the other, and of such alliances, perfect partnerships are made.
The horse will carry on, bearing its load, until it drops down dead of exhaustion. It may be that you are trying to do far too much for one person, or that the burden you are carrying is far too heavy for you. You need to stop and rest. It isn't weakness to ask for help when you need it- remember that two people together can achieve far more than two people separately.
Britain has three native lizards, the common lizard [Lacerta vivipara], the slow worm [Anguis fragilis] which has no legs and is sometimes mistaken for a small snake, and the sand lizard [Lacerta agilis].
All lizards have a residual third eye and in some species, this is capable of detecting changes in light conditions. This mystical third eye has given the lizard widespread associations with inner or psychic sight, whether through visions, divination or dreams. In Greek Hermetic tradition, it was associated with Hermes-Thoth who had a chariot drawn by lizards, showing its association with supernatural methods of discovering secrets. The ancient Greeks watched the movements of lizards on a wall as a form of divination.
Native Americans believe that it guards the gate of dreams, while the ancient Greeks associated it with Hypnos the god of sleep who communicated with humankind through dreams. It was a common practice to visit a healing shrine and undertake 'temple sleep' in order to receive a restorative dream, sent directly by the deity. Shamans believe that dreams are much more than the attempt of the subconscious to make sense of the day's events, and that one of the gates to the Otherworld lies through realm of dreams. This is guarded by the lizard, which makes the lizard a sought after shamanic ally.
For the Celts, the lizard was an animal of the sun, a representative of midsummer magic. Its name in Welsh [lleufer] and Gaelic [luachair] associate it with white light. The creature is sun loving, seeking out warm places to bask in sunshine. For the Celts, its pursuit of the light symbolised the soul's search for enlightenment.
Lizards are also emblems of resurrection. Some ancient authorities thought that they hibernated during the cold winter, going blind the emerging in the spring warmth, climbing an east facing wall and looking east to the sunrise, which restored their sight. In addition, the lizard is able to break off its tail which writhes and distracts any predator long enough to allow the lizard to make its escape. Unfortunately, a lizard can only do this once because the regenerated tissue is formed from cartilage rather than bone. Like the snake, the lizard sheds its skin, and grows a new one. Perhaps because of this ability, it is considered a creature of healing. The Irish once believed that a person who licked a lizard all over would be able to heal sores with his or her tongue.
Lizard is a peaceful creature and loves nothing more than to bask in the warmth of the sun. When he scuttles into your life, he may be telling you to slow down, to stop and enjoy the sunshine.
Lizard can see into the Otherworld and contemplates it as he dozes between waking and sleeping. The shaman believes that Lizard guards the gate of dreaming. He may be advising you that studying your dreams will be useful. Keep a book by the side of your bed, and record them as soon as you awake, even if it is only a feeling, or an impression that you remember. Over a period of time, you will notice patterns emerging that reveal your subconscious hopes and fears. Try to understand what your dreams are telling you.
Lizard is master of all the arts of divination. If you want to use tarot cards, oracles, runestones or the scrying mirror, you need the magic of lizard. He teaches the art of being able to shift the consciousness just enough to see as the seer does.
When lizard is threatened, he can lose his tail to save himself. Lizard sometimes suggests that a sacrifice must be made. Is there something that you need to let go of, something that is keeping you trapped in a certain situation or way of thinking? Or it may be that the path to knowledge demands sacrifices of its own- wisdom is not won without a price.
In every Celtic tongue the otter is called 'water dog', and shares some symbolism of the dog. There are numerous stories of otters befriending humans, with a loyalty akin to that of the dog. In the Irish story of the voyages of Maelduine, the crew alighted on the Isle of Otters. It was inhabited by a solitary human, cared for by numerous otters that fed him each day on the salmon they caught. The association of the dog with the otter is also seen in the Irish story of Cuculain who was under a geas not to eat dog meat. When he broke the taboo, he was killed, and an otter appeared to lick his blood.
The Celts prized otter skin very highly and used it to make waterproof items. The otter has rich, thick fur with two distinctive layers; the top layer is long and coarse, while the under-fur is fine and glossy, so thick it can't be parted. This inner layer traps a layer of air bubbles that prevent water getting in, and gives the otter its distinctive silver colour while it is swimming. Otter skin constituted the traditional bag for the Celtic harp and was also used as a lucky lining for shields, since it had a considerable reputation as a magical protector. This reputation persisted into later ages, when soldiers believed an otter skin would preserve them from bullet and sword, while a small piece of the skin kept a house from fire and made a powerful charm against drowning.
Otters are skilful hunters, and the Celts were particularly impressed by the speed with which the otter caught the salmon, a symbol of wisdom. Because otters are such dextrous hunters, clothing made from otter-skin was worn by human hunters as an act of sympathetic magic. Killing an otter was a magical act, undertaken with a three-pronged spear, the symbol of the water god.
Though it spends much of its time in the water, hunting and disporting there as playfully as any kitten, the otter rests and breeds on land with several resting places along the river called 'holts'. This dual nature, taken with its fluidity and deftness made the otter a popular form for shapeshifting magicians, and it was one of the forms taken by the goddess Ceridwen during her battle with Taliesin.
In European myth, the otter sometimes surfaces with a pearl or stone in its paws, the object of a quest. The otter often appeared as a guide to those undertaking voyages or quests.
Otter is a creature of earth and water and she teaches you how to balance these elements within yourself. You need to be practical to get things done, but you need to dream in order to know what is worth doing. A whole person knows how to work hard, but also how to play and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. If Otter swims into your life today, she may be telling you to stop being so serious and find some fun in your life. Otter is more than able take care of herself and her family, but she also knows the value of playing with her children and showing them affection. She may be a faithful friend who can make you smile at your troubles.
Otter is intelligent and inventive, curious enough to swim alongside a boat to determine what it is. She is a seeker after knowledge sacred to the sea god Mannanan, lord of deep magic. She guards many profound magical secrets. The jewel she possesses is the pearl of wisdom. She catches the salmon of knowledge by being fluid and quick.
Otters can be very wasteful, catching a fish and taking one bite out of it before discarding it. Are you wasting the earth's resources and causing pollution for selfish and lazy reasons? Do you start projects and fail to finish them?
Owls are very vocal in November and then fall silent until February; thus, they are believed to be the servants of the Crone Goddess of death and winter. In Scotland the owl is known as Cailleach which means 'Hag' and is linked to the Cailleach Bheur, the blue faced hag who strides across the land after Samhain, bringing the snow and frost.
All over Britain, the owl call was believed to be a death omen, especially if it was heard during the day, or for three nights running. An owl hooting at the birth of a child signified he would lead an unhappy life. In Ireland, the call of a screech owl foretold the death of kings. In most of Europe owls were associated with witches, who were thought to be able to turn themselves into the birds, so owls were often killed as a precaution. Owls had such a fearful reputation that people would not even touch a dead one.
In a Welsh Mabinogion tale, Llew married a woman made out of flowers. She was called Blodeuwedd or 'flower-face' and soon betrayed her husband with a lover, Gronw Pebyr. Together they plotted to kill his husband. However, Gronw only managed to wound Llew, who turned into an eagle and flew away. After being restored to human form by his magician uncles, Llew claimed his revenge, killing Gronw and causing Blodeuwedd to be turned into an owl. Blodeuwedd is a Welsh name for the owl- some say that the face of an owl resembles a flower. This story is really a parable for the changing seasons. The flower goddess of summer becomes the death goddess, or Cailleach of winter. Her two lovers are also summer and winter, who battle at the change of the season.
As well as its association with ill omen, the owl is a symbol of wisdom, linked with goddesses of wisdom, such as the Celtic Sulis, the Greek Athene and the Roman Minerva. The Celts believed that it was one of the five oldest beasts on earth [with the blackbird, stag, eagle and salmon], and thus possessed much ancient knowledge.
For a human, the night is a frightening place, its darkness representing all that is hidden and unknown. Owl has keen sight and hearing that enable her to thrive in a nocturnal environment, detecting her prey with ease. She can see what is concealed from human sight, piercing through the shadows that surround her. If owl swoops on her silent wings today into your life, it may be that you are about to uncovered hidden secrets.
Owl heralds a profound life change of a fundamental nature. This may be unwelcome, but it is a necessary transformation that sweeps away the old order completely, in preparation for something new. Owl's wisdom recognises the dark side: night, winter, the Underworld, illness, old age and death. These things are a needful balance- without winter we would not have summer, without darkness, we would not know light, without decay, there would be no new growth. These things are not evil, but part of the cycle of life, which must be understood and accepted as a whole. This is the realm of the Crone, the goddess of wisdom who points the way to true enlightenment. On rare occasions, this may be a symbol of initiation.
Owl may indicate that you feel surrounded by darkness and despair, without even a glimmer of hope to light it. You may feel that you have reached the limits of your endurance. However, listen to the wisdom of Owl. All things have a time to begin and a time to end. That is the way of things. It is only when we try to prolong the possession of something that is passing that we experience pain. Allow what is passing to fade into the past and embrace the future that is flowing towards you.
It was once a common sight to see ravens feeding on gibbet corpses. After a battle, they would descend on the field to feast on the flesh of the slain. The Celts believed that the raven was a bird of death, associated with war goddesses such as Morrigan, Badb and Nemain who could all take raven form, especially on the battlefield. Its carrion habits made it a natural attribute of deities of death and the Underworld. Small images of ravens were placed in wells and graves.
The raven's croak is distinctive, and the bird has been known to mimic human speech giving it an association with oracular utterance. It was thought to be the most prophetic of birds, having knowledge of public and private events. People are still spoken of as having 'the foresight of a raven': The Druids took omens from the flight of ravens. Celtic bards, being privy to many secrets, were occasionally called 'ravens' and their conversation ‘the motley jargon of ravens'.
The raven's association with shamanic vision is demonstrated in the Irish story of Da Choca’s Hostel [an entrance to the Otherworld] where King Cormac met Badb, in the guise of a red-clad hag who was washing the trappings of a chariot; the water ran red with blood. The crone, noticing the king, stood on one leg, closed one eye and pointed with one finger, declaring that she was washing the armour of Cormac, a doomed king. This posture is the classic pose of the shaman, who closes one eye to gain inner vision, and stands on one leg, so that he is between the worlds.
The raven is allied with the Welsh god Bran ['Raven']. After his death, Bran's head was taken to the White Mount in London, where it continued to prophesy and to protect Britain from invasion. King Arthur removed the head as a sign that he was solely responsible for safeguarding the realm. The Tower of London now stands on the site, and Bran's ravens still live there. It is said that if they ever leave the tower, Britain will fall to invaders. Naturally, they are well looked after.
In several areas of Britain, King Arthur was said to have taken raven form after death. The Spanish writer Cervantes reported ‘No Englishman would shoot a crow for Arthur’s sake’
Raven is the teacher and protector of seers and clairvoyants. His clear sight pierces the veils of past and future, and discovers the secrets of the present. The appearance of Raven is always an important omen. He may be advising you to take notice of portents and signs that will indicate what is happening around you, and the direction you should take. However, Raven is not purely a bird of instinct, he is also very intelligent and uses his resourcefulness to adapt tools for his use. The situation demands the use of both your insight and intelligence. Try to look at things clearly, and not let the issue be clouded by your emotions. You may need to take the long view of a situation and wait for things to develop at their own pace. Be prepared to respond quickly, be adaptable, and use whatever comes to hand to help you.
Ravens may prey on the weak and defenceless, picking the eyes from a living sheep and the flesh from ill and immobile animals. Has someone been preying on you? Or maybe you are the culprit? Raven doesn't mind picking over what others leave, and he may indicate benefiting from another's efforts, stealing their ideas and taking the credit. Or perhaps that you are treading a dangerous path, dabbling in magic without knowing what you are doing, or trying to harm others and in so doing have attracted negative energies to yourself. Raven may be a herald of conflict. There may be arguments and disagreements surrounding you.
The resourceful salmon is most famous for its strenuous journey upstream to its mating grounds, against seemingly impossible odds. It even leaps up waterfalls. But the cost can be very high. Not all the salmon make it, and of those that do manage to mate, none return; they die having made the supreme sacrifice. Their eggs hatch and after several years the young fish return, and the cycle begins again.
This determination is mirrored in the story of the fledgling warriors who applied for training at the school the warrior woman Scathach. One of these was Cuchulain, who travelled many miles to find her, eventually arriving at the Bridge of Leaps beyond which was the land of Scathach. There he saw many young warriors and princes of Britain and Ireland. He asked them how he could cross the bridge, but they replied that none of them had yet managed it, as the last two skills that Scathach taught were the leaping of the bridge, called the ‘hero’s salmon leap’ and the throwing of the Gae Bolg. Cuchulain decided that a series of leaps would be more effective than trying to jump across in one go, and with his fourth leap, he stood in the centre and with another, he had crossed it. Scathach was impressed and took him on as a pupil.
The Celts considered the salmon to be the oldest living creature, as old as time itself, and the most wise. The salmon that swam in Connla's Well were said to gain their knowledge by eating the Nine Hazels of Wisdom that fell from the Tree of Knowledge into it. With each nut they ate, another red spot appeared on their backs: those with the most marks were the cleverest fish. If a person were to catch and eat one of these salmon, the wisdom would be transferred to them. The idea that eating fish can increase cleverness is still with us; we continue to call fish 'brain food'.
Particular salmon were considered to be the guardians of the wells or pools where they lived. Some say that if one of these were to be killed and removed from its domain, it would later revive, and make its way back to it, sometimes adopting human form to do so. Like most water creatures, the salmon is associated with healing, particularly with the god Nodens who had many healing shrines at sacred springs and rivers. All traditions regard water as the element of life. The primordial waters are chaos but contain the potential of all life forms, and therefore fishes are associated with fertility and creation. They were eaten at the feasts of the mother goddess on her sacred day, Friday.
Salmon shows great perseverance and stamina in returning to his spawning grounds, overcoming many obstacles. He demonstrates that anything is possible if you are single minded enough to pursue it. However, Salmon's ability does not rely on blind courage- his determination is allied with wisdom. Instead of battling against the prevailing current, clever Salmon uses a reverse current to swim upstream. The journey of Salmon offers lessons for the human on his or her own difficult journey through life. If Salmon swims into your life today, it is to offer you some of his own particular magic. The Irish hero Cuchulain was said to be capable of the 'salmon leap', which enabled him to jump large obstacles, and Salmon tells you that it is sometimes necessary to take a great leap into the unknown in order to progress.
Individual salmon sacrifice themselves for the greater good: few make the spawning ground, and none return. Salmon advises you to weigh up the costs of a venture or situation, and estimate whether the price is worth it. Sometimes, making a huge sacrifice is worth the effort, even when it benefits others and not you
The snake was an important animal for the ancient Celts, and far from being the symbol of evil that it became amongst Christians, it was a creature that represented goddesses and gods, fertility, healing and renewal.
Snakes were companions of goddesses of healing, fecundity and abundance. Celto-Germanic mother goddesses were invoked on dedicatory stones decorated with snakes. The underworld womb of Mother Earth was regarded as the source of all life and the tomb into which all things were laid at death. The snake usually lives within the earth, inside the body of the Mother, and was considered to be aware of all her secrets. The coiled serpent represented her vagina.
Snakes were also depicted with deities of healing springs and wells, such as Brighid. Its movements are sinuous and wave-like, like the course of a river. Because the snake sheds its skin each year and appears renewed, it was thought to be immortal, and the epitome of healing and renewal.
In several stories, a monster snake appears as a trail that must be overcome by heroes such as Cuchulain, Fionn and Conall Cernach. In this case the smake was a symbol of the Underworld, depicted on the Jupiter Columns of Gaul as a representative of the chthonic forces [winter, darkness, death] at war with the solar powers [summer, light, birth]. This may be the origin of later dragon slaying myths such as that of St. George, though in earlier stories, the dragon would rise again every year, with the powers of winter and summer ruling in turn. A ram-horned serpent was shown in conjunction with Cernunnos, the horned god, and a symbol of chthonic and solar powers combined. Ram horned snakes also accompanied the Celtic Mars, a god of healing who combated barrenness and disease.
The snake has long been associated with sagacity, cunning and divination. It was commonly thought that having your ears licked clean by a serpent would enable you to receive oracular wisdom. The Druids were known in Wales as Nadredd or adders. The famous bard Taliesin declared "I am a wiseman, I am a serpent". When St. Patrick boasted that he had driven all of the snakes out of Ireland, he meant the Druids.
Because it sheds its skin and emerges renewed, Snake is as a symbol of life, death and rebirth into a new consciousness. Yogic principles tell us that the kundalini is the serpent fire that lies coiled within the root chakra at the base of the spine. The awakening of the kundalini snake, through careful practice and preparation, causes it to rise through the chakras, bringing with it enlightenment. The forced awakening of the kundalini in one who is not ready is extremely dangerous. Snake magic should be treated with care: its power concerns the deepest mysteries of life.
A snake with its tail in its own mouth represents the circle of eternity and the oneness of the universe. This tells us that all aspects of life and creation stand equally, even those things viewed as unpleasant and poisonous. If they are accepted as part of the whole, within the Dance of Life, they can be assimilated and transmuted to positive benefits. Those things which are 'poisonous', frightening and unpleasant, whether mental, physical or spiritual can be assimilated and transformed if one has the proper approach and mental attitude.
Snake may be telling you that you are blocking change through fear. Snake power is about healing on all levels, but you must have the courage to allow that healing to take place, shedding outgrown ideas, illnesses and restrictions.
The spider is the archetypal spinner and weaver, its web representing the pattern of life itself. It was associated with all spinning and weaving goddesses, those twisters of fate who spin the thread of human destiny, as well as the world, the stars, the cosmos and the web of energies that joins it all together. Such weaver goddesses were believed to have absolute sway over human destiny, and neither prayers nor pleas would move them; even the gods could not alter the decrees of the Fates. They were usually depicted as a triad with one who span the strand of life, one that measured its length, and one who cut the thread, the death goddess 'she who cannot be stayed'.
Sometimes the weaver was a solitary creatrix, as in Welsh legend, where she appeared as Arianrhod ['Silver Wheel'], the mistress of Caer Arianrhod, the Spiral Castle which is located in the circumpolar stars. The castle reflects the spiralling skein spun from her wheel, which is the revolution of the stars. Like other such goddesses, she has aspects as a goddess of death and the Otherworld. Souls resided in her castle between incarnations, while poets and shamans, seeking inspiration, journeyed there in astral form.
The spiral shape, which is the basis of the spider's web, is an ancient and almost universal symbol of the spiral maze of life, which travels inwards towards death and the centre where death [or initiation] take place, then outwards again in rebirth. Arianrhod is comparable with the Greek Ariadne, who led Theseus out of the underworld maze of the Minotaur by means of a thread.
A number of Celtic gods were depicted with wheels, and wheels decorated altars and tombstones. They represented the cycle of life, and the turning of the year. Spiders have eight legs representing the eight solar festivals, the four winds, the four directions and the symbol of infinity.
Because the spider is associated with powerful goddesses, it is unlucky to kill one. It preys on flies, symbol of corruption, evil and disease: If you wish to live and thrive, let the spider run alive. The golden money spider [signifying a gold coin] confers riches to anyone it runs over. It is considered very lucky if a spider drops from a ceiling onto your face.
The spider is the model of industry and perseverance. In 1305, Robert the Bruce was inspired by the persistence of a spider that tried six times to spin its web before it eventually succeeded on the seventh attempt. He took this as an omen, and went out to rebuild his forces, eventually making himself virtual master of Scotland.
Spider patiently spins her web with the skill of a craftsman, sometimes trying repeatedly until she has it right. She is the mistress of weaving, taking disparate stands and integrating them into a single design. She reminds you that with every action, you are weaving the shape of your life. Look carefully, and you will discern its pattern.
Spider is concerned with the twisting of fate, the turning of the wheel of fortune, and cycles of change. But don't misunderstand the word fate. Nothing happens in isolation but is connected to events that came before, and to events that will follow. You may be an individual, but you are nevertheless connected with the planet on which you live and the other life upon it through the Weaver Goddess's web of power. Your every action vibrates the web, affecting all that lies along the connecting thread. Through the web, every action will eventually return to you amplified, for good or ill. In other words, you construct your own fate, and are the instrument of your own justice.
Spider may indicate that you have become caught in a web of your own weaving. You will only escape its threads when you admit the truth.
The Celts considered all horned beasts to be sacred, counting the horns as powerful emblems of fertility. Antlers were amongst the earliest tools used to till the soil, while powdered stag antlers make one of the best fertilisers known. On a symbolic level, horns represent the potency and strength of the male animal. The aggressive clashes of the stags during the rutting season were much admired by Celtic warriors.
Unlike that other influential horned symbol, the bull, stags shed their antlers each year, just as deciduous trees shed their leaves. The stag is a solar animal, with its antlers sometimes shown curving like the rays of the sun. The growth of the antlers represents the sun's increase in summer and the shedding the loss of the sun's 'virility' in the winter.
The stag is inextricably linked with gods and goddesses of the hunt. The god Cernunnos is portrayed on the Gundestrup cauldron, dating from 300 BCE, as a seated figure with antlers growing from his head. He holds a snake in one hand and a torc in the other, showing that he is a god of winter and summer, sky and underworld, death and resurrection.. He is surrounded by the animals of the forest. A secondary illustration shows him as Lord of the Animals, holding aloft a stag in either hand. Cernunnos was an intermediary between the animal kingdom and man, a guardian of the gateway to the Otherworld. The stag god is at the same time the divine huntsman, the Lord of the Animals, and the god of the dead and keeper of souls.
Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, was out hunting one day when he chanced to meet Arawn, the Lord of the Underworld, who was hunting a stag. He failed to give way, which was a breach of hunting etiquette. He apologised and offered to make amends. Arawn agreed that he should swap places with him for a year, and at the end of it fight his enemy Hafgan ['Summer'] for him. So Pwyll ruled the Underworld for a year. The tale is plainly one of the solar forces of summer in yearly conflict with the chthonic forces of winter. The stag Arawn was hunting was Pwyll's soul.
Stag was one of the chief sacred animals of the ancient Celts. Its life cycle reflected the changes of the seasons and the fertility of the earth and the forest. He was considered one of the oldest animals, and possessed all the ancient knowledge of the earth itself. When Stag enters your life, he brings power in his wake.
In many an old tale, a mysterious white hart appears to the hero, challenging him to hunt it through the forest. The stag turns out to be his own soul, and the hunt a necessary lesson. The stag has appeared in your life today to call you to a quest. What is it that you must hunt? Your own true self. If you take up the challenge, Stag heralds a radical change on all levels of consciousness. He reminds you that the spiritual world overlays the material, interwoven with it as symbolised by the intertwined strands of the Celtic knot.
Choosing to follow the hart means action as opposed to inaction, change as opposed to maintaining the status quo, change and growth as opposed to stagnation and decline. Stag asks you to choose between self-determination and living according to the expectations of others, between the spiritual and the material, and between the needs of the soul and the urgings of the world.
The swan was held to be the king of water birds, and the only other bird the eagle thought it worthwhile to fight. Its sacredness is apparent in the taboo that is laid on killing it from Ireland to Siberia, with the penalty being great misfortune or even death. In Celtic myth, the swan was associated with the prophecy, poetry, dawn, the sun and water. It was the companion of gods and goddesses that combine the twin healing powers of sun and water, such as the goddess Brighid. Swans are also linked to thunder gods and folklore has it that swan's eggs will only hatch in a thunderstorm, requiring the lightening to strike the shell.
Swans were often depicted with solar discs suspended from their necks, or linked together by gold or silver chains. The latter generally indicated a human being under an enchantment, living in the guise of a swan. Kings, princes, knights and maidens are the subjects of such transformations in Celtic tales. The children of the sea god Lir were changed into swans by their jealous stepmother and had to spend nine hundred years in swan form, three hundred years at each of three places in Ireland. The children were restored when a prince from the north married a princess from the south and a church bell was rung in Ireland. Alas, they immediately died of old age.
In some stories, the song of a swan held magical properties that could make mortals sleep. It was once believed that the mute swan sings only once, just before it dies, hence the phrase 'swan song', meaning a person's final work. The song was associated with prophecy [i.e. the bird knowing its own death]. Swans are very much associated with the bardic mysteries with swan-skin and feathers being used to make the cloak of a Celtic poet. Celtic bards carried chains that they shook for silence, and this may be the origin of stories of swans wearing chains. The swan is still a bird connected with poets, and Shakespeare is referred to as 'the swan of Avon'. In this context that the swan is associated with solitude and retreat.
With the exception of one occasion, the swan is always representative of that which is pure and noble. The one time when it is baneful is when it is black, and is taken for a demon that pursues wrongdoers.
Mist was poetically called 'the swan veil' and at certain times, passing through the swan veil could grant one entrance into the Otherworld. Part of Swan's magic is concerned with crossings boundaries, those between one stage of life and another, such as the girl on the threshold of sexual awakening, the boy on the threshold of manhood, and other rites of passage such as marriage, childbirth, initiation and death.
In the Celtic tradition, Swan symbolises the eternal realm of spirit. She is the revealer of sacred things, a link to the world of the gods, a guide to the Otherworld. She may appear as a spiritual advisor or teacher, or may be the voice of your Higher Self, calling upon you to surrender to guidance by higher forces
Swan is the muse that inspires great poetry and music, the bird of the bards who wore her feathers in their cloaks. One of her gifts is eloquence; an enchanting way with words that inspires others. She is the patron of bards, singers, musicians, writers and poets.
Swans mate for life and are thus a fitting symbol of faithfulness and enduring love.
Throughout the world, the wolf is regarded with awe. In Britain, wolves were once very numerous. The wolf is a skilled hunter, and appears as the companion of several gods and goddesses of the hunt, such as the stag-horned Cernunnos, who is shown on the Gundestrup cauldron accompanied by a wolf.
Deserved or not, wolves have the reputation of being bloodthirsty killers. The Celts crossed their domestic dogs with wolves to produce a fierce fighting animal used in battle. Many warriors took 'wolf' as part of their names to denote ferocity, as did some Scottish clans like MacLennan ['Son of the Wolf'] and MacMillan ['Son of the Wolf Servant']. The wolf was sacred to the Gaulish war god Esus and the Irish battle goddess the Morrigan, who assumed both wolf and raven forms. Wolves and ravens range the battlefields in search of carrion; during war it was said that whoever lost the battle the wolf always won, feeding on the bodies of the dead.
In contrast, wolf packs are very loyal and care for their weakest members. When the hunters return from the kill, the first meat is offered to nursing mothers. Wolf mothers are supposed to be particularly kindly and nurturing, even adopting abandoned human babies. King Cormac of Ireland was suckled by a wolf. When he later became king, he retained his wolf companions, and was known as the ‘Irish Solomon’, the owner of a magic cup which shattered when three lies were told, and mended when three truths were spoken.
In February, the Romans held an early spring festival called the Lupercalia, dedicated to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. The celebration bore a marked similarity to the Celtic February festival of Imbolc, which marked the early stirrings of spring, and sacred to the goddess Brighid who had a wolf companion. In Celtic lore the wolf ruled over the winter quarter from Samhain to Imbolc. February was called Faoilleach which means 'the wolf month' or 'the storm month'.
The druid Bobaran once met the white wolf Emhain Abhlac. He threw three rowan berries into the air, three at the wolf, and three into his own mouth to receive the insight of the wolf.
The lone wolf walks in the darkness and howls at the moon. It knows the secrets of the darkness, including what is hidden in the unconscious mind. Night is the time to explore the mysterious, for psychic work, for dreams and dreaming, for gazing into the crystal ball, casting the runes, and laying out the cards. The druids slept on a wolf skin to inspire them with visions, while witches and shamans communicated with the wolf spirit when they needed inspiration.
The appearance of Wolf means that you have reached the point on your path when it is necessary to contact the inner plane teachers in order to progress, rather than relying solely on earthly teachers. Wolf comes as a guide to new knowledge, the kind that is gained by learning to trust yourself and your own inner voice, which in the silence, speaks as loudly as the howl of a wolf. Wolf teaches you to go deep within yourself for the answers.
However, Wolf is a social animal. Wolves care for the weakest members of their pack, and the entire clan participates in child rearing. Wolf is telling you that following your solitary path does not release you from obligations to society, that the knowledge you bring back from the world of spirit should be used to help others.
You may be familiar with the phrase 'a wolf in sheep's clothing', meaning that someone is not what he or she appears to be. Do not put your trust in appearances. The changeable moon the wolf howls at represents uncertainty and instability. You may be in the dark about some situation, and have to proceed blindly.