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Birds: Messengers of the Otherworld - Their Celtic Symbolism


As I commented on previous posts, animal worship was very common amongst the ancient Celts.

According to their inward meaning, which may of course undergo transformations, they regarded animals as human souls or their embodiment, and also held totemistic and hunting cults.

This association of Spirit Animals or "Totems" is based upon the ancient Celtic belief that all life is related, the spirits of earth, water, air, and fire, the spirits of a place, the trees, the flora and the animals that they lived with side by side. Many ancient stories tell how the Druids could "shapeshift" into animal form even present on legends like the one of Ceridwen and Taliesin.

In the practice of their tribal religion Celts have chosen to adopt a personal spirit animal helper, which has special meaning to them. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth.

The Celtic clans had banners on which were displayed the picture or symbol of their clan animal, as with the banners of the Fianna. Individual devices were painted on shields and sometimes tattooed on the body. This may well be the origin of the heraldic devices that became so popular in later times.

We may also consider certain shamanistic practice by druids for employing swan feathers to make the ritual cloak of the Bards probably considering the swan as  “assistant spirit,” or even“guardian spirit” , clear reference to the shamanic ability of flight.

This connection to the realm of spirits and the gods, undoubtedly led their path in search for secrets and wisdom.

Nearly all shamanic cultures believe in Animal Allies or helpers. These creatures have the appearance and many of the characteristics and behaviour patterns of ordinary animals, birds, and fish, but they can communicate with the shaman. Sometimes these animals become protectors and guides for the shaman, both while she/he is journeying in the Otherworlds and in the physical realm.

Other ways to enter the other world are by charm, like the song from magical birds (Ford, 71), or by spell, like the mist descending over land (Ford, 77). Wells, springs, rivers, and earthen mounds are some of the magical places that border with or co-exist in the other world. In these places, magic is much more prevalent and sometimes even time passes differently there.

Specific animals have specific associations depending on the characteristics of the type of animal. Birds, fish, serpents, deer, cattle, swine, and so on all tend to be used as symbols.

Animals in Celtic mythology are tied in with fertility and vitality, because they are living, moving, and growing. They also provide vitality and continued life for the tribes through their meat, skins, and bones. 

Celts have a particular connection with Birds, amongst other species. Birds are usually used to represent prophetic knowledge, bloodshed, and skill.

They play an enormous role in Celtic mythology, figuring as divine emblems and as messengers of the gods. Chief among the sacred birds of the Celts were the raven, the swan, and the crane, although numerous other birds including geese, ducks, and even owls were held sacred at various times. Many early images of Celtic deities depict them with birds in the place of hands, emphasizing the importance of the birds as divine servants.

In an omen, birds can be either the message or the messenger. For example, Morrígan came in the shape of a bird to warn the Brown Bull. The interpretation of their calls and movements can lead to knowledge of future events. Birds, especially ravens and crows, usually presage bloodshed and battle, when they are associated with it, sticking with the theme of prophesy. 

Birds can also be used to demonstrate a warrior's prowess by their method of capture. Lleu Llaw Gyffes was so skilled he could hit birds with a stone without killing them outright. Cúchulainn demonstrated even more prowess capturing birds skillfully, but his son, Connla was still more skilled. He could not only stun them with a stone, but also with only his voice.

Exceptionally magic or ancient animals speak the language of humans and can pass on their wisdom through speech. By and large birds are associated with speech. Branwen took an ordinary starling and taught it to understand enough speech to find her brother. Gwyrhyr & Arthur's messengers conversed with an eagle, an owl, a stag, a blackbird, and a salmon to learn ancient knowledge from them. 

A special understanding of the speech of animals can yield a great advantage. Some heroes have gained knowledge of the speech of birds, enabling them to be warned of danger or told secrets by the birds. Davidson mentions a less mythical middle-Irish manuscript describing how to determine the approach of visitors through interpretation of bird calls.

Animals appear as an omen by their appearance and activity through a symbolic message. The type of animal and their activity is the substance of the message. On the eve of his battle with Sir Mordred, King Arthur dreamt of being devoured by serpents, dragons, and other water beasts. The serpents and dragons alone mean great troubles within the land. King Arthur was destroyed by this mass of troubles, because the next day, he was defeated in a battle during the civil war with Sir Mordred (Baines, 497-498). 

Another example of an omen is Deirdre's dream of the three great birds. They arrived bearing honey and left with blood, symbolizing treachery on the part of king Conchobar (Pilkington, 177). Movements of smaller animals, such as birds and rabbits, have also been interpreted to divine the future (Davidson, 11, MacCulloch, 219, 247).

Celtic Bird Allies

·        Blackbird (Druid-dhubh, Lon Dubh):
Legend says that the birds of Rhiannon are three blackbirds, which sit and sing in the World Tree of the Otherworlds. Their singing puts the listener in to a sleep or trance which enables her/him to go to the Otherworlds. It was said to impart mystic secrets. 

·        Crane (Corr):  
 At one time the crane was a common animal in the British Isles. One late Celtic tradition, apparently originated after the arrival of Christianity, is that cranes are people who are paying a penance for wrong-doing. The crane is associated with the Cailleach and Manannan mac Lir, who made his crane bag from its skin. The crane, with its colors of black, white, and red, was a Moon bird, sacred to the Triple Goddess. Magic, shamanic travel, learning and keeping secrets, reaching deeper mysteries and truths

·        Crow (Badb, Rocas):
This animal is to treated with care. Along with the raven, the crow is a symbol of conflict and death, an ill-omen associated with such Goddess as Macha, Badb, and the Morrigan. The Irish word for crow is badb, which is also the name of a Celtic war Goddess. Although the crow was ill-omened, it was also considered to be skillful, cunning, single-minded, and a bringer of knowledge. It is of value when trickery is needed. It also teaches you to learn from the past, but not hold onto it.

·        Owl (Cailleach, Oidhche, Comachag):
These birds were most often associated with the Crone aspect of the Goddess. The word "cailleach" in the Scottish-Gaelic means "owl". The owl is often a guide to and through the Underworld, a creature of keen sight in darkness, and a silent and swift hunter. It can help unmask those who would deceive you or take advantage of you. 

·        Raven (Fitheach):
Take care when dealing with this bird. An important totem animal of the Celts. In Ireland the raven was associated with the battlefields and such goddesses as the Morrigu or later Welsh Morrigan, just as was the crow. The bird was connected with Bran the Blessed; in Welsh bran means "raven". Although its reputation is dubious, it is an oracular bird. It often represents the upsets and crises of life that are necessary for anything new to be created.
·        Seagull (Faoilleann):
Seagulls do not figure in Celtic legends. However, they are connected to sea deities, such as the god Manannan mac Lir and the goddess Don. Like other birds, they are messengers from the Otherworlds.

·        Swan (Eala):
A mystical bird who figures in several Celtic stories. Its feathers were often used in the ritual cloak of the Bards. Swans are connected with music and song. Swans also help with the interpretation of dream symbols, transitions, and spiritual evolution.

·        Wren (Dreathan-Donn, Dreòlan):
A sacred bird to the Druids, its musical notes were used for divination. As with many other birds, the wren was considered a messenger from the deities.


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