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Astrology and Celtic Mythology by Janet Webber
Modern mythological and archetypal studies constitute a deep archaeology of the soul. In the Preface to their book The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford state that we are radically “influenced and motivated by impulses below the threshold of consciousness, both in our personal and in our collective life as members of the human race.” (1991 p xiv)
Myths are the meta-stories of the human race. They are not idle pastimes but potent disclosures about the human condition and the meaning of that condition. As a consequence of re-discovering sacred mythology we also engage with various archetypes clustered around each myth. Likewise archetypes are not simply models, or prototypes, of typical human response to the conditions of life, but patterns of being that lie at the very root or origin of each individual and the collective. (Moore 1996 p 193)
In re-claiming our mythological and archetypal heritage we are excavating the human soul and the soul of our ancestors, thereby moving towards a better understanding of ourselves. While our explorations may never fully reveal how ancient humanity really regarded their Gods/Goddesses, nor how they viewed their psychological and spiritual behaviour, our research can provide insights to the past and illuminate the present.
Astrology as a tool for inner growth and awareness has always relied on symbol, archetype and myth. The astrological chart, or horoscope, serves as a gateway to the sacred. To read a chart is to dialogue with both an individual’s major archetype(s) and their defining myths. Being an astrologer is therefore a privilege involving respect for a person’s story and their dominant archetypes.
However this also prompts the important question, “With which Gods do I communicate”? In many astrological texts and schools the ancient GrecoRoman myths and archetypes are the major sources used. Why is this so and does it matter?
Greco-Roman mythology is a written tradition. It was extensively studied, particularly by well educated “gentleman scholars” of the Renaissance and later periods. As an oral tradition Celtic myths were handed down through legend, folklore and fairy tale. They were viewed as less than respectable, non-verifiable and fanciful. Even mythography has both a culture and a class bias which should be taken into account when applying myth and archetype to any modern tool for self awareness.
It is also possible that the assignment of various Greco-Roman myths and archetypes to astrological signs and planets is both subjective and arbitrary. Many Greco-Roman Gods and Goddesses shared the names of various planets and constellations - although the connections are sometimes tenuous. There is no strictly verifiable reason why, for instance, the God Mercury/Hermes is the identifying myth for the planet Mercury. There are similarities in meaning, but as Guttman and Johnson (1993) demonstrate in their Mythic Astrology Mercury can be linked with the Egyptian Thoth, Jupiter, Apollo, Uranus and the Moon. Mercury could as easily be associated with the Muses as they represent various intellectual and communicatory functions.
However, perhaps it is not the personification of the archetype that is important, but the process of engaging with it. Alternatively, to differentiate between various Gods/Goddesses may be pointless, as ultimately all archetypes and myths dissolve into major themes and essential issues.
Generally speaking, it is hard to argue with these propositions. But throughout my astrological studies, and before I began studying astrology, I was drawn to my personal heritage, my ancient Celtic roots and its rich vein of myth and archetype as a way of understanding myself and my life. At the time my ancestors left the “United Kingdom” their Celtic Heritage was all but lost. While my Welsh grandfather hated being called English, the demands of the 20th Century, and survival in a harsh and inhospitable country far from England completed the process of loss of Celtic values, culture and language.
This body of work therefore constitutes, for me, a two fold archaeological expedition. Firstly I am re-discovering my lost heritage, secondly I am endeavouring to see if any of that heritage has meaning and application in my practice of astrology. In other words I want to see if the meaning of the zodiac and planets are enhanced by applying Celtic myths and archetypes to them.
Celtic vs Greco-Roman Mythology
This is not to say that Celtic mythology is better than Greco-Roman, simply different. This is due mainly to the fact that we are dealing with
- a different geographical location which profoundly effects the development of a culture’s myth and archetype,
- diverse histories and political and social systems,
- different languages which also effect the development and maintenance of a body of myths.
A Brief History of the Celts
According to Mike Dixon-Kennedy (1996) the Celts are thought to have originated in central Europe (The Upper Danube, the Alps, parts of France and south Germany) around 1200 BCE. They farmed, raised cattle, were skilled in working both iron and silver and had a highly evolved political, social and religious system. Socially they organised themselves into tribes clustered around a king or leader elected by the community.
Dixon-Kennedy writes that the Celts spread into Spain and Portugal in the 6th Century BCE and over the next 300 years moved into the British Isles, north Italy (they actually sacked Rome in 390 BCE) Greece and the Balkans. However they never established an empire as did the Romans, probably because they were comprised of separate, and sometimes warring, tribes. In the first Century BCE both the Romans and Germanic tribes defeated various Celtic tribes and the Celts were driven westward into the British Isles and in particular Ireland.
The Romans invaded Britain in 43 CE and proceeded to destroy the Celtic culture. They were first in a line of conquerors who devalued the Celtic way of life, imposing their own values, morals, customs and mythology of the Celts. After the Romans the Anglo-Saxons continued the destruction, with Christianity all but completing the process. It is acknowledged that history is written by the victors. The mythology of the victors are usually promoted while the conquered myths and archetypes are banished, another method by which Greco-Roman mythology was eventually given prominence in astrological circles.
While not the indigenous people of the British Isles, the Celts are Western symbols of resistance to the destruction of cultural beliefs by invading empires, similar to the current resistance of Native North Americans and Australian Aborigines. But, as with those cultures, those of us attempting to reconstruct a modern version of Celtic culture are continually blocked by historical misinformation and confusion.
As noted above, the Celts were an oral culture and any written records concerning them were made by Roman historians or Christian scribes. Each had their own agenda including the destruction of a conquered culture and the imposition of their own belief systems.
When trying to tease out Celtic religious and spiritual practices and beliefs I have come to think of them as “the meat in the historical sandwich”. They were obviously influenced by, and influenced, other cultures existing in Europe at the time they emerged. As they moved through Europe and Britain, settling in various places, they again were influenced by local cultural beliefs and practices. Finally their social, political and religious systems were considerably modified by successive waves of invaders - who in turn adopted some of their beliefs.
Once a sandwich is made it is difficult to separate the individual ingredients. Smears of butter or sauce will always adhere to the meat and either add to or detract from its flavour. So it is with Celtic mythology. Despite eager Celtophiles believing in a pure Celtic culture, Celtic scholars warn that its reconstruction is an impossible dream.
Despite this, there is reason for examining the signs and planets in terms of Celtic myth, not because it is better than Greco-Roman models but because it is different from the currently accepted model. I offer these stories in the hope that they
1. enrich our astrological understanding,
2. provide additional insight to those of us who do not have a Mediterranean ethnic heritage but whose ancestors dwelt in a very different geographical and social climate - note again different, not better or worse,
3. create further avenues for exploring the interface between mythology, archetype and astrology.
The Celtic Wheel of the Year
I want to begin our adventure into Celtic mythography by exploring the meaning of the signs in terms of the proposed Celtic Eightfold Festivals. I say proposed because it is not certain whether the Celts did actually celebrate these festivals. What is certain is that most Celtophiles, some Pagans and in particular Druids do, currently, observe these festivals. I believe their meaning and mythography fits nicely with the meaning of the signs of the zodiac. Mere fancy on my part? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
That the Celts held regular festivals which coincided with important seasonal and astronomical events is clear. While the actual form they took is open to conjecture, current scholars of Celtic culture and mythology believe these festivals are important both in terms of ancient Celtic culture and contemporary reclamation of that culture. What I record here can be argued with, added to, improved. My intention is not to provide a dogmatic body of knowledge but a forum for exploration.
There are 8 Festivals in the Celtic Year. Four of them are Solar and four are thought to be Lunar festivals. The approximate dates for each festival are included below, as well as their meaning and seasonal significance. Although I will begin this description with the Spring Equinox festival, the actual beginning of the Celtic year was at Samhain, on or about Oct 31 or November 1. Note that the dates are for the Northern Hemisphere.
Spring Equinox - March 21st
- The ancients knew that this was when the days and nights were equal. During this time life seemed to begin again. It was a time of renewal, rebirth and resurrection. The Celts celebrated having survived the extreme European winters by welcoming the Spring. This time is associated with the energy and high spiritedness of Aries. It is a Solar festival and is therefore thought of as Masculine. Energy is high, there is a desire to initiate action, we are instinctual, impulsive yet vulnerable. There is a sense of potential and promise.
Beltaine - 30th April
- This is the first of the so called Fire Festivals. It is a Lunar and therefore Feminine festival. This is a very sensuous time of the year, filled with excitement, warmth, beauty and promise. Summer was said to begin at this time and “Bel-fires” were lit to celebrate the season. Livestock were driven between the fires in order to purify them. Energy was high and people were busy with late Spring planting. This period is associated with Taurus. It was also a time associated with fertility, symbolically represented by dancing around the Maypole.
Mid-Summer - 22nd June
- Mid-Summer is another Solar Festival and is therefore Masculine, although it is associated with Cancer. It is, however, one of the most significant turning points of the eightfold cycle. One story says this was the time when the Oak King and the Holly King fought for supremacy. Although the Oak King (and the Sun) is at the height of his power he is banished by the Holly King. Another tradition holds that the Sun and the Moon fought at this time and that the Sun lost. This is of course associated with the fact that at mid-summer the Sun is closest to the earth and then appears to move away as the days become shorter and the nights longer. The Sun therefore appears to become weaker. However the season is still one of high energy, vigour, warmth and power.
Lughnasadh (Lammas) - 31 July
- This is another of the Fire festivals and is a Lunar or Feminine festival although it occurs during the period of the masculine sign of Leo. The harvest had begun and both human and animal food was gathered and readied for storage. However the Sun is still warm and this is a time of great busy-ness as preparation for winter begins. There is a sense of achievement as people can begin to see the fruits of their labour.
Autumn Equinox - 21 September
- The Autumn Equinox is another time signifying harmony and balance when the days and nights are of equal length. What has been achieved through Spring and Summer can be seen and appreciated. It is a Solar and therefore Masculine festival and is associated with Libra. This period is considered to be the time of final harvest, when the last fruits are gathered and people become aware of the need to prepare and share their resources in order to survive the oncoming winter.
Samhain - 31 October
- Samhain means “summers end”. It is the most important festival on the Celtic Calender and occurs when the Sun is in Scorpio. It is another Lunar Festival and is therefore thought of as Feminine. Keywords for this time are death, endings, loss, release, transformation, insight, hidden beginnings, descent, mystery. It was a time for remembering the dead and honouring their memories, as well as honouring the darkness - the “other-side”, the underworld, rather than fearing it. The Celts remind themselves of this every “Halloween” (which is really Samhain) a time when the veil between the worlds is thin and we can access the (inner and outer) spirits. It is the beginning of what would probably be a very long, cold winter. To the ancients winter represented a time of withdrawal. There is no escaping the fact that in those times a harsh winter could mean the very young and frail and the very old and frail might not survive. However the another Celtic belief is that the Goddess withdrew to nurture the growing child within, the Son-God who would be born on or around December the 21st.
Winter Solstice - 22 December
- This is, of course, a Solar, Masculine Festival. As mentioned the Sun was said to return or be reborn from the womb of the Goddess After suffering the longest night and shortest day of the year, humanity celebrated Yule, or Mid-Winter, and the return of the Sun. This festival was appropriated by Christians as the birth time of their Son of God - and subsequently became our Christmas. Once again there is a great battle between light and dark, so potently heralded by the earlier festival of Samhain. The Sun wins and Winter Solstice, or Yule is celebrated as a time of joy, mystery and wonder. It is associated with Capricorn.
Imbolc - 2nd February
- This is the time of the first spring thaw, when the snow begins to melt. This is both a period of release and letting go and a time when new beginnings are celebrated, although the weather is still harsh. It is a Feminine Fire festival in the Fixed sign of Aquarius. This is often a time of poetry, song and praise to the Goddess for survival of yet another winter. Light is beginning to increase at this time and there is the knowledge that spring is on its way.
There are two interesting features that emerge when linking the Celtic Eightfold year and the Cardinal and Fixed signs of the Zodiac. The first is that there are no festivals or rituals (that I am aware of) associated with the Mutable signs. Of course even the festival loving Celts could not have a celebration every month of the year! The timing of their festivals and their connection with the Cardinal and Fixed signs, while easily explained both astronomically and seasonally, does leave out the Mutable signs.
Were these the busiest periods of the year, when connection with others - a very mutable theme, was occurring? So far my reading reveals no information regarding this connection. Perhaps others have some insight into this?
The second thing to note is that four of the festivals are thought of as Masculine and four as feminine. Yet some of the masculine festival occurs when the actual sign is given a feminine signature and vice versa. This might not be so strange when you think about it. Most cultures have a concept of the feminine being contained in the masculine, and also the reverse, as illustrated by the Chinese Yin Yang symbol. It is no surprise that either the ancient Celts or neo-Celts have, as part of their world view, a conception of the masculine and feminine in equal but mysterious balance with each other, rather than in dualistic opposition that became a regrettable feature of modern astrology.
How Can this Information be Used?
The brief information given above only begins to help us understand the rich lode of material available from Celtic mythology. In order to demonstrate how this information can be used I will narrow my view and look more closely at the sign of Leo and the Sun.
In Greco-Roman mythology the Sun is often thought of as Helios or Apollo, while Leo is associated with a number of myths and archetypes, dominated, usually, by the image of the lion. In Mythic Astrology Guttman and Johnstone (1993 p 277) touch on Celtic mythology when they discuss the festival of Lughnasadh (which they call Lammastide). They say is not only a harvest festival but a funeral for the Sun-God who was killed during the Summer Equinox (when the Sun was “defeated” and became weaker.) They then go on to discuss other defeated Celtic heroes who can be associated with this time of the year.
While these associations are valid, my own exploration of both astrology and Celtic mythology has lead me to think of the mythic figure Mabon as a more satisfactory image for the meaning of the Sun within a chart.
Mike Dixon-Kennedy (1996 p 205) tells us that Mabon appears to be a universally worshipped Welsh God. He was also believed to be equated by the Romans with their God Apollo. As is the case with many other Celtic deities he passed into the Arthurian cycle of myths although his is one of the less popularly known stories.
Mabon was born to the Mother Goddess, Modron, herself an important deity. Her name simply means ‘mother’ while Mabon means ‘son’ (Dixon-Kennedy 1996 p 224). It is possible that as Great Mother, Modron was also a fertility and harvest Goddess, thus linking her with the period associated with the sign of Leo. When her son is three days old he is stolen from her. We can see from this story that Mabon’s disappearance comes from the ancient belief that the Sun is defeated and severely weakened at the time of the Summer Solstice.
In the later Arthurian cycle Mabon’s story involves Kai and Bedwyr who, at Arthur’s bidding, search for the Divine child. In order to find Mabon these heroes are helped by first an Ousel (European thrush, blackbird), then, in turn, a Stag, Owl, Eagle, and finally a Salmon (a fish regarded by the Celts as deeply sacred). The Salmon tells them the Divine Child has been imprisoned in Caer Loyw (Gloucester) for many years. When Kai and Bedwyr find him Modron tells them that only through fighting will he be released. They return to Arthur who “summoned the warriors of the Island.” Kai and Bedwyr return to Mabon carried on the shoulders of the Salmon, while Arthur and his men attack the castle. Kai breaks through the walls of the dungeon and liberates the son of the Great Goddess from his imprisonment. (see Matthews and Matthews 1994 pp 89 - 91)
The Divine Child is a recurring image in the spiritual beliefs of many cultures. He represents what is essential, good and innocent within us all. Each newborn is an emblem of hope, a focus for a new beginning and a blessing bestowed on a weary and cynical world. Yet within a very short time the inner self is lost or hidden behind a wall of prejudice, materialism or simply the grinding need for survival. In astrology the Sun represents our true inner identity, the part of us that can shine if allowed. yet despite the thousands of Sun Sign columns produced in papers and magazines each day many of us feel we understand our essential self less and less. Also, many astrologers struggle to explain the concept of the Sun to their clients. We all know it involves the father, the creative self, the identity, and our power to be and act in the world, but sometimes it is easier to talk about an errant Mars or an over active Venus than it is to find the words to explain the Sun. It is, after all hard to look into the heart of the Sun. We are easily blinded by it, forgetting that what blinds us is our own Divinity. No wonder Modron is hidden behind dark stone walls. And no wonder Arthur sends his most beloved heroes on a quest to find him. For with out the Sun we cannot survive.
This image of the Divine Child is often visually reproduced on the Sun Tarot card. A naked, blond child rides joyously on the back of a Mare (his mother Modron, also known as Matrona and sometimes confused or associated with Rhiannon, a Goddess known to be associated with the horse). The Sun shines brightly in the background and in the Rider Wait pack a large orange banner blows in the wind.
This beautiful child, free from imprisonment, is the Divine child we are all meant to be. Mabon’s story is our story. Loved by a Divine mother, even she is unable to save us from the imprisonment of not knowing our true self, of having to hide who we really are in a hard and demanding world. When children are locked away in a dungeon we have a metaphor for hidden or unaccessed creativity plus the image of a self not actualised. Our desire for play, light and laughter is repressed and hidden behind dark stone walls.
Mabon’s father is unknown and unmentioned in this story. This echoes the modern psychological belief that those born with a Sun in Leo can experience father problems. However it could be that the true meaning of not knowing Mabon’s father is that ultimately neither mother or father can help us find our true self. It is a task we must face alone. Instead Mabon is helped by heroes willing to listen to animals.
Magical animals abound in Celtic stories. The animals who help Kai and Bedwyr all recount how long they had lived in the land yet know nothing of the Sacred child. However each of the animals know of another who might help. Finally the Salmon leads them to the imprisoned youth. The animals represent the three elements of earth, air and water. Only fire is missing. This is the element of inspiration, intuition, courage and the eagerness to be ourselves. Yet to reach Mabon Kai and Bedwyr must submit to being carried on the Salmon’s shoulders to enter the river, to touch and be touched by the element of water.
Fire and water are incompatible elements yet they both bring change. Again we have the image of Masculine (fire) and Feminine (water) blending as we did with the Eight Festivals. This seems to be a recurring theme in Celtic mythology. Neither the Sun or Leo are associated with water. They are symbols of the fiery, impulsive, energetic and heroic sides of our nature. But in order to access this part of ourself and release our creative inner self, we must, like Kai and Bedwyr, get our feet wet, and access our nurturing, compassionate, sensitive natures. One part of the hero (Arthur) must fight to release the child while the others must take a less obvious more mysterious route. We are also required to do both, to combine seemingly opposing elements in order to achieve selfhood.
The Celtic story of Mabon allows us to uncover the fundamental mystery of the meaning of the Sun. In order to release our essential self we need to be heroic. But true heroes don’t just fight, they also
- attune to the earth,
- listen to their instincts (represented by the sacred animals in the story)
Having done this they enter the final mystery. Through connection with the element of water they find compassion for themselves and others who are lost. Only then are they able to break down the walls of imprisonment and find the Divine Light, the magical child, the Sun.
The sign of our Natal Sun shows how we fight to access the inner light. Its house position shows where we fight. Both also show where we must find compassion and sensitivity. Only then can we harness the power that is the Inner Sun.
Mythology is useful in astrology when it helps us find the hidden, encoded meaning of the self. What ever myth or archetype we choose to use, the aim is en-lightenment. Favouring one mythological system can rob us of insights available through other, equally powerful, stories and characters.
Baring, Anne, and Cashford, Jules, 1991, The Myth of the Goddess. Evolution of an Image, Arkana, UK.
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. 1996, Celtic Myth and Legend. An A-Z of People and Places, Blanford, London, UK
Guttman, Ariel and Johnson, Kenneth. 1993, Mythic Astrology. Archetypal Powers in the Horoscope, Llewllyn Publications, Minnesota, USA.
Matthews, Caitlin, and Matthews, John, 1994, Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom, Element Books, Dorset, UK.
Moore, Thomas. 1996, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, HarperCollins, New York.
Copyright © 1998 by Janet Webber
All Rights Reserved
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: JANET WEBBER was a teacher before becoming a full time consulting astrologer. In 1997 she was co-winner of the Allan Johnson Gold Medal. She and her partner have recently opened The Australasian Academy of Astrology And Allied Arts so she can combine her teaching skills with astrology. She is interested in exploring the interface of Celtic myth and astrology and welcomes comments on the topic. She can be contacted at AstroAcademy@bigpond.com
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