Animals played a significant role in the daily lives of ancient Celts. In Celtic mythology, the stories of animals, birds, humans, and gods are interwoven, providing a rich tapestry of stories that touched on important themes in their society, such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. The following is a brief overview of the role of animals in Celtic Mythology.
Adder, Snake (Nathair): The snake has long been associated with wisdom, reincarnation, and cunning. The poisonous adder of the British Isles has the same reputation. The Druids were known in Wales as Nadredd; in the Fold of the Bards, Taliesin says “I am a wiseman, I am a serpent”. The Druids carried an amulet called gloine nathair (serpent glass); although they said that this was formed by snakes, it was probably really an adder stone or blown glass. In the Scottish Highlands, the adder symbolized the Cailleach’s power. When you see a snake while on a shamanic journey, prepare to shed something in favor of something greater and better.
Badger (Broc): This animal is unyielding in the face of danger and is noted for its tenacity and courage. In the Welsh tale of Pwyll’s courting of Rhiannon, a badger is mentioned as a guide during dreaming. The badger will teach you to fight for your rights and defend your spiritual ideas.
Bat (Ialtag): Associated with the Underworld; as the bat’s radar helps it to avoid obstacles and barriers, so it can teach you to do the same thing.
Bear (Arth): Although the bear was native to the Isles, it is now extinct there. Evidence of its being a totem animal is found in many Celtic designs; although it is not mentioned in the legends. The word “arth”, which means “bear”, is the root word for the name Arthur. The bear was noted for its strength and stamina. It can help you find balance and harmony in your life, and the strength to do what is necessary.
Bee (Beach): The bee is usually mentioned in connection with honey and mead, which was made from honey. The bee is industrious, single-minded when performing a task, and fearless when defending its home.
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.
Boar (Bacrie, Torc): Important to the art and myths of the Celtic peoples, the boar was known for its cunning and ferocious nature. In addition to representing fertility and wealth, boars symbolize courage and strong warriors. Once common throughout the British Isles. A famous Irish legendary boar was Orc Triath, which the Goddess Brigit owned. In the Arthurian tales of the Mabinogion the boar Twrch Trwyth was a terrible foe to Arthur. The White Boar of Marvan sent inspiration to its master to write music and poetry. Their appearance in dreams and visions also indicates warriors. Isolt’s forewarning of the death of Tristan, a great warrior, came in a dream about the death of a great boar. Statues of boars are occasionally found in the company of statues of armed warriors, further indicating an association between boars and warriors.
Great importance is attached to the bristles of the boar. Perhaps they are the distinguishing characteristic of the animal or symbolize its strength. For example, Fion is killed by stepping on a boar’s bristle after breaking a geasa against hunting boars. Some of the extraordinary boars, that King Arthur fights in Culhwch and Olwen, have bristles that are gold or silver. Conversley, when Menw tries to steal treasures from Twrch Trwyth, he is only able to take a bristle. The pig herders at the start of the Táin, Friuch and Rucht, are named after the bristle and the grunt of the boar, respectively. It is the bristle of the boar, Friuch, that proves to have the most power; in the end, Friuch reborn as Donn Cuilnge destroys Rucht as Finnebach Ai. The bristles of the boar are mentioned many other times implying that they are an important part of the animal.
Bull (Tarbh): A common animal-figure in Celtic mythology, the bull symbolized strength and potency. Certain divination rituals required the sacrifice of a white bull. In the tale of the Tain Bo Cuilgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley), two special bulls are coveted by two rulers. The Taroo-Ushtey (Water Bull) is said to haunt the Isle of Man.
Butterfly: (Dealan-Dé: Many cultures cal butterflies the souls of the dead and the keepers of power. No negative energies will be experienced in any Otherworld area where you see butterflies. They will teach you to free yourself form self-imposed restrictions and to look at problems with greater clarity.
Cat (Caoit, Cat): Many of the Celtic legends pictured the cat as a ferocious, evil creature, but that may have been because cats at that time were untamed. However, it was considered a potent totem animal of several clans; Caithness was named after the clan of the Catti. In Ireland Finn mac Cumhail was said to have fought a clan of “cat-headed” people, probably Celts who wore cat skins on their helmets. The cat is a strong protector, especially when facing a confrontational situation.
Cock (Coileach): In several Celtic legends, the cock chases away ghosts and other night terrors by his crowing at dawn. It represents the power of the word to dispel negativity.
Cow (Bo): Once so important to the Celts that it was considered a form of currency or monetary exchange. Ancient Irish lords were known as bo-aire or cow-lord. The cow was sacred to the Goddess Brigit. The cow symbolizes contentedness, defending the inner child, and providing for daily needs.
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.
Deer (Fiadh) or Stag (Sailetheach, Damh): In its form of the White Doe or White Stag, the deer was often a messenger and guide from the Otherworlds. Following such an animal led the unsuspecting human into contact with supernatural beings. The antlered headdress of Cernunnos may have been copied by Celtic shamans as apparel in their rituals. THe deer represents keen scent, grace swiftness, and gentleness. There are ways of reaching your goals other than force.
Dog (Abach, Madadh) or Hound (Cù): Devoted hounds are often mentioned in Celtic myths, such as Bran and Sceolan which belonged to Finn mac Cumhail. Underworld hounds, such as the Welsh Cwn Annwn belonging to Arawn, are always white with red ears. The Underworld Hounds run down and punish the guilty. Dogs represent tracking skills, the ability to scent a trail, and companionship.
Dolphin: This creature was associated with sea deities. It deals with dreams and harmony, and recognizing an balancing the rhythms of your body with those of nature.
Dragon (Piastras (payshtha), Horm): The dragon in Celtic-British mythology has more varieties then the standard legged form; it is sometimes represented as a water serpent or worm-shaped beast. There are many references to serpents or dragons in Celtic myths. On many occasions the Fianna fought huge dragons in lakes. One likely center of the serpent (dragon) was the sacred site of Kildare, under the protection of the Goddess Brigit. Most cultures considered the dragon a benevolent dweller of caves, lakes, and the inner Earth. It was an ancient symbol of wealth. The dragon symbolized the power of the Elements, especially that of the Earth, but also of the treasure of the subconscious mind. It may appear at initiation. King Arthur’s troubles with the future of his kingdom are presaged by dreams of dragons and serpents at the time of Sir Mordred’s conception. King Arthur drives them out, but is wounded (Baines, 36). King Arthur is finally devoured by them in his last dream, subsequently his next battle is when Sir Mordred kills him.
Eagle (Iolair, Fireun): A bird noted for wisdom and long life in Celtic stories. The eagle represents swiftness, strength, keen sight, and the knowledge of magick. It helps you to see hidden spiritual truths.
Eel (Eas-Ganu): The eel is mentioned in several Celtic legends, on of which is the story of the two swineherds who battled through a variety of shape-shifting forms. In their final form as eels, the swineherds were swallowed by cows who later gave birth to magickal bulls. Cu Chulainn’s spear Gae-Bolga got its name from the eel. The Morrigan took on the form of an eel when she had a magickal battle with the hero. The eel symbolizes adaptability, wisdom, inspiration, and defense.
Fox (Madadh-Ruadh, Sionnach): In Taliesin’s Song of His Origins, the Bard says he assumed the shape of a satirizing fox, a reference to the cunning, slyness, and ability of the fox to make fools out of those who chase it. The ability to watch the motivations and movements of others while remaining unobserved yourself.
Frog (Losgrinn): In many cultures the frog is a symbol of shamanism and magick. It can teach you to leap swiftly from one level of consciousness to another, from this world to the Otherworlds. The frog can also help you find the courage to accept new ideas, nurture yourself, and find connections between ideas.
Griffin: This mythical beast has the head and wings of an eagle, and the body and tail of a lion. It teaches the shaman to combine various positive traits in strength, yet maintaining discretion and seeing the truth. The protective griffin symbolizes great magic and power.
Hare (Gèarr) or Rabbit (Coinean): An animal sacred to the Goddess Andraste in particular. Its movements were sometimes used for divination; Boadiccea used a hare this way just before her last battle with the Romans. Associated with transformation, the receiving of hidden teachings, and intuitive messages.
Hawk (Seabhag): Celtic oral tradition lists the oldest animal as the hawk of Achill. As with other birds, the hawk is a messenger between the Otherworlds and this world. However, it is of greater skill and strength than other birds. It symbolizes clear-sightedness and far-memory. If you hear a hawk cry during a journey, be alert to upcoming situations that need boldness and decisiveness to keep from being thrown off balance.
Hedgehog: This prickly little creature often shows a need for less defensiveness and seriousness.
Heron (Corra-Griothach): Many of the myths and attributes of the crane are shared by this bird.
Horse (Each): A popular totem animal of the Celts; sacred to the Goddesses Epona and Rhiannon. The horse was considered to be a faithful guide to the Otherworlds. It symbolizes stamina, endurance, and faithfulness.
Lizard (Dearc): One of the few reptiles recognized as helpful to the shaman. It symbolizes the shadowy plane of manifestation where events are constantly changing shapes and patterns. If you see a lizard on a journey, be alert to all below-the-surface activities going on around you.
Lynx: This creature is the keeper of deep secrets and hidden knowledge. It can help with divinatory skills and the development of psychic senses. Sometimes it symbolizes the need to look deeper within yourself and see what is hidden.
Magpie (Pioghaid): This bird deals with omens and prophecies; the mysteries of life and death.
Mouse (Luch): The mouse is often mentioned in Celtic folklore. In one Welsh story concerning Manawydan and Pryderi, a mouse is portrayed as the shape-shifted wife of the magician Llwyd. The mouse represents secrets, cunning, shyness, the ability to hide in times of danger. Its appearance often signals a need to pay attention to small details, such as the fine print in contracts or the double meaning in words.
Otter (Cù-dubh or Dòbhran): These animals were considered very magickal by the Celts. During the voyages of Maelduine, Brendan and others, these traveling Celts were met by helpful otters. The otter is a strong protector who helps with gaining wisdom, finding inner treasures or valuable talents, faithfulness, and the ability to recover from any crisis. Enjoy life instead of just enduring 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.
Pig (Muc): It was considered to be the magickal, sacred food the Tuatha de Danann and an animal of Manannan mac Lir. In the Mabinogion Pwyll received a gift of pigs from the Underworld god Arawn. The writings of Merlin say that he spoke with a little pig in visions. Symbolic of the spiritual food necessary to the shaman.
Rat (Radan): Rats are not mentioned in a favorable light in Celtic folklore, but hey have their place in shamanic journeys. Rats are sly, sometimes aggressive, creatures who can track down whatever they seek, defending themselves with great ferociousness.
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.
Salmon (Bradan): A very wise, magical creature in Celtic lore . A salmon of great knowledge is said to swim in the Well of Segais, eating the mystical hazelnuts that fall into the well. This salmon is said to be as old as time itself and knows everything past and future. When the Irish hero Finn mac Cumhail burned his thumb on a salmon and then put the thumb in his mouth, he gained shamanic knowledge. The salmon teaches you how to get in touch with ancestral knowledge and put it to practical use.
The child that grew to be called Taliesin, the wise magician, was found in a fish weir. Gwyrhr questioned a series of wise animals, each one wiser than the previous, the oldest and wisest of all was the salmon of Llyn Llyw. Cúchulainn used the hero’s salmon leap across the Pupils’ Bridge to get Scáthach’s stronghold in order to gain access to Scáthach’s advanced knowledge of arms. To gain the secrets Cúchulainn had to use the hero’s salmon leap to Scáthach herself in order to gain the secrets reserved for her family. Each leap in the land of sorcery brought Cúchulainn to greater knowledge.
Their wisdom can also be passed on by eating. The magic salmon gain the power of wisdom by consuming the hazel nuts that drop into sacred springs. By symbolically eating the salmon of wisdom, Demne gained such enormous wisdom that he was renamed. Perhaps this is at the root of the modern practice where children are told to eat fish to increase their intelligence.
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.
Sow (Airc, Muc): The Goddess Cerridwen is known as the White Sow. The sow was considered a very powerful creature in the Otherworlds, particularly the Underworld. As a creature of Cerridwen, it was associated with the Sacred Cauldron and the granting of inspiration; also a creature of death and rebirth.
Squirrel (Feòrag): This creature is always preparing for the future; it can show the shaman how to do this in a practical way. Sometimes its appearance heralds changes, even adversities. Plan ahead so that you have time, resource, and energy stored.
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.
Turtle: The turtle is a slow-moving, methodical creature, carrying its protection constantly with it. It can teach the shaman to be grounded, how to stay in tune with Earth energies, the wisdom of flowing with the cycles of life, and to be gentle with the body’s needs.
Unicorn (Briabhall): This mythic animal had the body of a white horse, the legs of an antelope, and the tail of lion; a single horn was on its head. It is the symbol of supreme magickal power. It teaches that every action is creation, so make every day counts. It also helps to understand the relationship between physical and spiritual realities.
Wolf (Madadh-alluidh): The wolf is a cunning, intelligent creature, capable of out-thinking hunters. It can teach you how to read the signs of Nature in everything, how to pass by danger invisibly, how to outwit those who wish you harm, and how to fight when needed. Sometimes the world, seen on a journey, will lead you to a spiritual teacher and guide.
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.