When traveling, it’s easy to see new landscapes and animals, perhaps check them off a bucket list, snap a photo, then move on. But you’ll walk away with a deeper appreciation if you take the time to learn how local cultures have interacted with those landscapes and animals throughout time. This provides many opportunities to challenge your own belief systems and really experience a destination through the eyes of a local.
On our Scotland’s Wild Highlands and Islands trip, for example, having a basic understanding of Celtic animism can deepen and enrich your trip greatly. Animism includes the belief that all things in nature have a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, earth and underworld are connected, along with natural phenomena such as flora, fauna and the weather.
Celtic Animism: Connecting Nature and Culture
Animism is not and never was a religion. Instead, it is a way of experiencing the natural world. Animism is an expression of the energetic connections that are believed to flow through all things, connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness, shaping how humans can connect and interact with nature. Basically, the presence of the supernatural is integral to—and interwoven with—the material world.
In the time of the ancient Celts, the land was wilder and more forested. As agriculturalists, the Celtic people were much closer to nature than most Europeans are today. To live and thrive, they needed to use the abundant natural resources they had at hand—and to do this conscientiously, they created personal relationships with nature spirits. For Celtic animists, it was possible to live in harmony with these entities and even harness their power for the benefit of humankind. Rituals, offerings and “correct behavior” in this realm maintained an important balance between gods, spirits and humans.
For the ancient animists, springs, forests and mountains had spirit guardians or keepers, and some animals were believed to be messengers. Caves, hills, springs, rivers, lakes and bogs and other features of the landscape were seen as special places and at times the gateway to the “Other” (a sort of divine unknown). Celts who practiced animism made shrines and sanctuaries in or near such places and also in nemeta, special sacred groves of trees (often of ash or yew). These spots often served as social and ceremonial meeting places for a tribe or village. For animists, the trees of a nemeta symbolized the earth through their roots and the transcendental through their skyward-reaching branches.
Celts also saw the sun, moon, stars and weather (and its associated phenomena, such as thunder) as living entities that needed appeasing, honoring and acknowledging. Thunder was a biggie in animism, and inscriptions and iconography from the Roman period show that these spirits were actually personifications of natural forces—meaning, for example, that “Taranis” was not only the god of thunder but that he actually was thunder.
The Story of the Storm Hag
In Scottish mythology, a storm hag called the Cailleach was a different divinity associated with the weather—this time as a personification of winter who caused the first snows of the season by washing her plaid in the Gulf of Corryvreckan (“Coire Bhreacain” translates to “cauldron of the plaid”). This narrow strait is located off the west coast of mainland Scotland between the islands of Jura and Scarba.
The Cailleach’s plaid was so large it took three days to wash, and the roaring of the storm was heard 20 miles inland. The Corryvreckan is the third-largest whirlpool in the world, and flood tides and inflow from the Firth of Lorne to the west can convert the waters of the Corryvreckan to waves taller than 30 feet.
After the Cailleach finished her task, her plaid was pure white and covered the land as snow. The Greeks had Zeus, the Egyptians Amun-Ra, the Vikings Odin. But Cailleach was also known as Beira, Queen of Winter, and in Celtic animism, she was Scotland’s most powerful deity.
Why would Celtic animists worship a Queen of Winter who was always described as seriously ugly—a giant, one-eyed hag with white hair, crooked brown teeth and dark blue skin? Well, in primitive, ancient Scotland, winter was so long-lasting and intense that anyone would be foolish not to give it the respect it deserved. And in ancient societies like Celtic Scotland, the gods weren’t chiseled, handsome and heroic as in Greek mythology. The folk traditions of Scotland always reflected the interwoven relationship between humans and the natural environment, and nature here was often brutal and scary—just like Beira, whose throne was said to sit at the top of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom.
Animals and Animism
The Celtic animists set a great example of how to be present and pay attention in nature. They closely monitored the behavior of animals, sometimes finding guidance or seeing omens in their behavior. Animals were so important in Celtic animism that many gods and goddesses were named after them and cherished for embodying their characteristics. The ursine goddess Artio was named after the Gaulish name for “bear,” and the horse goddess Epona was named after their word for horse.
Animals such as stags or horses were admired for their speed, endurance, beauty and virility. Dogs were respected for being keen-scented and swift and for their great hunting ability. Snakes demonstrated the ability to shed their skins, appearing to renew themselves, and were seen as symbolic of renewal and eternal life. The Celts accepted that animals often possess attributes that humans do not, and by interacting respectfully with these animals, we can benefit from their powers.
Inspired by a Spider
The belief system of the ancient Celts was that this world was both wondrous and dangerous, basically a grand theater where life and death are played out all the time. It could be something as minuscule as a spider trapping and killing a fly in its web, but observant Celtic animists constantly tune into these moments of high drama.
For example, Robert the Bruce is well known in Scotland and across the world due to the part he played in the wars of Scottish independence. In 1306, he was crowned King of Scotland. After being defeated in battle right after being crowned, he went into hiding in the Western Isles. He hid in a cave for three months, struggling to come up with a plan for what to do next. Legend has it that he watched a spider constructing a web. The typically stormy Scottish weather made the spider’s work tricky, as raindrops destroyed the creature’s intricate work again and again. Against all odds, the spider finally succeeded with her web. Robert the Bruce was inspired so much by the spider’s efforts that he decided to get up and face another fight, inspiring his famous phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.”
Life and Death in the Hunt
The struggle of life and death is ever present, but never more so than when it comes to hunting. The hunted were respected and revered by the Celtic hunters, who realized it is the death of the hunted that gives life to the hunter—a cycle seen in nature over and over again. This made the hunt a sacred act, and the Celts would not hunt until they had sought the blessing of the gods. Sometimes they sacrificed domestic animals to the relevant divinities in payment for what they would take from the wild.
Hunting was also more than just a practical activity to provide a meal for hungry tummies; the killing of the animal and the shedding of its blood were said to bring nourishment and renewal to the forest and nature. In this mindset, it was necessary to respect and celebrate the life of the animal whose death helped to bring vitality and life back into the world while keeping the Celt alive. In some myths, the hunting of a sacred stag could even lead a hunter into the otherworld.
Selkies and Kelpies
There are some spirits that seem to be of multiple worlds—for example, Scottish selkies. Also known as “selkie folk,” selkies are mythological creatures capable of changing from a seal to human by shedding their skin as they step on land.
The legend of the selkie apparently originated on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, where selk is the Scottish word for seal. Tales once ran rampant of a man who found an enchanting female selkie sunbathing on a beach. The man stole the selkie’s skin and forced her to become his wife and bear him children. The selkie woman was often spotted gazing lovingly at the ocean. Years later, the selkie found her skin, changed back into seal form and escaped to the sea, leaving her own children behind. Some versions of the legend say that this momma selkie visits her children on land once a year, so keep that in mind if you see a large seal approaching the shore.
Another “not really this and not really that” mythical creature revered by Celts is the kelpie, a supernatural water horse that is said to haunt Scotland’s lochs and lonely rivers. It is usually described as appearing as a horse, but it is able to adopt human form. Some accounts state that the kelpie keeps its hooves when appearing as a human, leading to its association with the Christian idea of Satan. The kelpie supposedly appears to its victims as a lost dark gray or white pony—but weirdly has a constantly dripping mane. After convincing unsuspecting people to ride on its back, it drowns them in the water.
Regardless of your own belief system, a trip to the wilds of Scotland can be greatly enhanced by simply keeping your senses wide open to everything that crosses your path. Whether it’s a heavy breeze, a clap of thunder, a snake crossing your path, or a large seal returning to shore, try to pay heed to how the ancient Celtic animists might perceive the situation. This can help you as a traveler stay attentive and even more open to the power and wonder of the natural world.