The ancient Celts were animists. They honoured the forces of nature, believing that any animals, plants and inert beings possessed a spiritual essence. For them, every mountain, river, spring, marsh, tree, and rocky outcrop was in-spirited. Nowadays, some people still adore nature as a way to survive in the modern times.
While the polytheistic cultures of ancient Rome and Greece revolved around urban life and constructing the most impressive buildings, the ancient Celt society found the true meaning of life in nature. The original Celts were predominantly rural and placed strong emphasis on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. This can be the explanation as to why, living the simple life, they have been seen for centuries as the creators of Animism.
In ‘Tribes and Totem Animals’, Plant Doc gives an even earlier explanation of Animism that can be related to science. The documentary tells how our Homo ancestors began to eat more meat than any other primate. This change in diet enabled them to reduce the length of the digestive tract and increase the size of the brain. Very soon, the human mind began to associate the different species with their supposed powers, and so the totemic animals were born. The human brain’s capacity for abstraction meant we went one step further, seeing in animals the incarnation of spirits and gods. The human intellect sought to manipulate this magical world, and in the depths of ritual caves man drew the animals whose spirits could bestow their powers on him. The world would never be the same, a subjective reality had been born inside the head of the last primate. The bison would no longer be just an animal, from now on man’s companions in biological evolution also became part of his rites.This strange relationship between man and nature became a struggle for domination, a struggle which still continues today.
Bíle trees and sanctuaries
Some people feel a connection with trees. Actually, Aboriginal Australians think trees pump blood like us, all being one. In fact, trees have always been seen for many cultures as symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation and liberation, sustenance, spiritual growth, union and fertility.
Thus, the Celts believed that trees had spirits and revered certain trees. For them, these trees symbolized the earthly through its root, and the transcendental through its cup.The most sacred trees of Ireland were the bíle trees or Nementon – old, sacred trees that stood in the central area with a strong trunk and were often the social and ceremonial meeting place for a tribe or village. The five sacred Bíles of Ireland were the Eó Mugna (a yew tree), Bile Tortan (an Ash); Eó Ruis (another yew tree) Craeb Daithí (another Ash), and Craeb Uisnig (an Ash, too). In reality, these trees were associated with the five provinces then in existence.
According to classical sources, in tribal territories, the ground and waters which received the dead were imbued with sanctity and revered by their living relatives. Sanctuaries were sacred spaces separated from the ordinary world, often in natural locations such as springs, sacred groves, or lakes. Many topographical features were honored as the abodes of powerful spirits or deities, with geographical features named for tutelary deities. Offerings of jewelry, weapons or foodstuffs were placed in offering pits and bodies of water dedicated to these beings. These offerings linked the donor to the place and spirits in a concrete way.
Totems and spirit animals
The animals within the Celts’ environment similarly affected every area of their everyday life, from the economy to hunting and warfare, religious beliefs and rituals, in art and literature. Certain spirits were closely associated with particular animals. Some animals were held to be sacred in their own right; others were viewed as messengers of the spirits or gods.
Also, determined creatures were observed to have particular physical and mental qualities and characteristics, and distinctive patterns of behaviour. In Ireland, the Morrígan is associated with crows, wolves, and horses, among other creatures, and in Scotland Brighid‘s animals include snakes and cattle.
Furthermore, some tribal groups carried the name of a certain animal in order to show due veneration and worship. A horse, hare, hen, rooster and chicken were considered sacred animals that had attributes and uses in rituals, for which the consumption of their meat was prohibited. Hence, this admiration and acknowledgment for a beast’s essential nature led easily to reverence of those qualities and abilities which humans did not possess at all or possessed only partially.
Most relevant Spirit animals for the Celts
The traditions and beliefs of the Irish Celts associated with nature played a strong part in shaping Irish mythology, surviving after Ireland’s conversion to Christianity and playing an important role in Ireland’s cultural identity. Considering this, it’s easy to see how Ireland’s myths and legends are famous around the world.
- Boars appear to symbolise royalty, bravery and prowess in battle throughout the lands under Celtic influence. Boars appear on coins and as bronze statues, warriors with boar shaped helmet crests appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. The boar was often the main dish of warrior feasts.
- Deer (who shed antlers) suggest cycles of growth. In Ireland, they are sacred to the goddess Flidais, while in Scotland they are guarded by the Cailleach. The deer frequently appear in tales of the Celtic Otherworld, as it is in the hunt that the hero begins his journey. This motif is the basis for many of the myths attached to Finn mac Cumhaill and boar-hunts particularly feature heavily in Fenian literature.
- Beavers were seen to be skillful workers in wood. They were considered as preserver and benevolent creatures who protect people by building a dam that holds out invaders and monsters. On a spiritual level, this dam could redirect negativity too. In Northern tribes, Beaver symbols act as a charm for prosperity and success in the hunt. Among the Cherokee, children give their teeth to Beaver and sing this Spirit a song for good fortune.
- Snakes were seen to be emblematic of long (possibly eternal) life, being able to shed their skin and renew themselves. A symbol of rebirth, an awakening or renewal of oneself. The snake was also said to be a symbol of the search for balance, fertility and transformation.
- Bulls and Cows formed the basis for wealth within the community and were seen as a symbol of the land and of material wealth. Meat, leather, milk and dairy products were of intense value to the tribe.
- Dogs are probably the animal most associated with mankind and understandably, they appear in many myths. Dogs are viewed as having all the characteristics expected from a ‘best friend’ – companionship, protection, and loyalty. The Celts, as already stated, were an agrarian people, and dogs were important in both hunting and the protection of flocks. Dogs also seem to have been thought of as denoting great strength in a warrior, and ferocity in battle. Cunobelinus, Cuchullain, Cu Roi, Cynon, etc. all have names linking them to ‘hound’. They are the very Dogs of War. At the healing sanctuary Nodens (The Gaelic Nuada) at Lydney only one image of the God has been found, whilst at the same site many images of dogs were discovered. The dog was linked with healing, its saliva was even thought to heal wounds until recently.
- The Horse is the Celtic symbol for victory at war. It is firmly linked to a number of Celtic Goddesses, Epona, Rhiannon and Macha, and can be seen to be a symbol of sovereignty and political power. These three Goddesses are an example of the pan-Celtic Goddesses that had equine associations, were also Goddesses of Sovereignty, War, and Fertility, and probably served as a Psychopomp, carrying the dead to the Otherworld.
- Bird Celtic totem stands for freedom and transcendence. Birds have the power to soar up into the heavens, and so they represent the liberation of the human soul. Deities assuming Bird forms are common throughout I-E myths, particularly as the means for a God to seek a union with a mortal. The myth of Leda and the conception of Castor and Pollux have clear commonality with a number of Celtic Myths. The conception of numerous heroes, including Cuchulainn and Conaire, involve an Otherworld figure taking the form of a bird. In the tale of Aengus and Caer, the Young God transforms himself into a swan to unite with Caer, also in swan-form, who then returns with him to his palace at Brugh na Boinne.
In the Modern times, more spirit animals have been added with updated meanings. People do not see Totems as something to support you during war or harvest, but to guide and protect you during your lifetime in all aspects. They are meant to tell you why you are in this world, with your journey as far as it being something that is incredibly crucial to your being here.
But, how can I find my Totem?
In Jordana Van words, “I know they are my totems because: I know my personality, so I can combine the knowledge with it and realise which ones are and, secondly, they attract my attention. If you have an affinity for an animal, it’s always felt good on some level no matter how inexplicable, it’s because it is probably one of your spirit animals“.
We should not confuse Spirit Animals with Spirit Guides. The latter don’t represent an aspect of your personality; they do represent advice, wisdom. They don’t represent the transformation you’re going to be undergoing so much as they tell you how to get through it better. For example, hummingbirds would be telling you that you should be more flexible at that exact moment of your life. It is a spirit guide if you watch it in the news, it comes to your house, you see it in the internet story all the time…You’ll know it is a spirit guide because once you get the message, they leave.
Nevertheless, spirit animals accompany you during your lifetime. The fact is that there’s no recipe for finding ‘your totem’; they will just come to you, you just need to be awake and pay attention to the signs. In truth, holistic experts say every human should have from three to seven totems during her/his lifetime. They always appear for a reason; they represent a piece of your journey that is going to be incredibly definitive for you, but at the same time, they are also linked into aspects of your personality.
In my case, I realised about this connection with wolves in a moment of my life I was feeling completely lost and didn’t know how to or didn’t want to grow up and become an adult. I was feeling like I just wanted to run away from my hometown, which makes all the sense to this wild soul. Maybe I was too obsessed about Teen Wolf, but since then, wolves have been involved in relevant times of my life, even in my skin now. Nothing compares to the freedom and good vibes I feel every time I look at that cute wolf howling to the full moon.
For me, the wolf totem is a reminder to keep your spirit alive and trust your instincts to find the way that will best suit you. For those that may concern, in the spirit animal kingdom, the wolf symbolizes: sharp intelligence, deep connection with instincts, appetite for freedom, expression of strong instincts and feeling threatened, lack of trust in someone or in yourself. The main similarities I find with a Totem wolf are: the power of communication, the desire for freedom, the need to protect the ones around me; but above all, the perfect balance between being constantly in a ‘wolf pack‘ but also, to never feel lonely on my own, enjoying my journey while trying to discover my true nature. Find more information about Spirit Animals here.
Animism in contemporary literature
Nowadays, more and more people that are feeling all too consumed from this capitalist era believe in a closer relation with nature. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Coehlo. All those authors adored nature above all things and showed through words its power. Let’s have a deeper look at Emerson and Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Emerson, the man that inspired Nietzsche, Whitman and Thoreau is considered the father of nature for many people. His love for everything that surrounds us and the way he writes about it is simply out of this world. Also, the American essayist, poet, philosopher and transcendentalist is worldwide known for his altruism and his will to live despite the great difficulties that he experienced throughout his life (the death of his first wife who he adored and the fact that three of his siblings and his dad died right before Emerson’s eight birthday). What is more, in his old age, Ralph Waldo Emerson was nicknamed “the sage of Concord”.
Emerson left plenty of wisdom for this generation and the next, particularly his views on religion and self-reliance. His essays, like Nature (1836) and Self-Reliance (Essays: First Series), as well as his poems, are considered to be treasures of 19th-Century American literature, religion, and thought. Check some of his most popular quotes here.
Transcendentalism, which is very related to Animism, is the belief that humans can transcend – or move beyond – worldly sensations to reach deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. The following quotes are taken from Nature:
I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth.
Emerson talks about our inner child, the one we still mistreat sometimes, unconsciously speaking too mean to him so frequently. Children are the happy souls, the best part of ourselves. Even if we had a bad childhood, that big power of living the present every second was unexplainable. It will never come back, at least in the same way, we are very lucky though: only in the woods do we find that eternal happiness, it is our choice, it is always up to us. Mindfulness is the key.
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature
Two centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution was starting. Emerson and Thoreau preferred to support the abolition of slavery than locomotives. Human rights before technology and infrastructure. Even though they loved humans, they knew how to appreciate their loneliness, something modern people should start caring about. Stress, anxiety, depression…the consequences of ‘the comfy life’ are limitless. Grab your bag, wear your mountain boots and have a nice walk. Make it a routine. Your soul, mind and heart deserve it.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Thoreau is for nature lovers what a pint of Guinness is for Irish society. He just gives to ‘a simple life’ all the meaning. To respect the wilderness, to enjoy your solitude. To show the world how poor are the rich and how rich are the poor. In his words, “to be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”.
Henry David Thoreau, as his good friend Emerson, was an American naturalist, essayist, poet and philosopher. A leading transcendentalist, he is best known for his book Walden (which I personally considered my holy book, my favourite book of them all). Walden is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings during two years; and his essay ‘Civil Disobedience’, an argument for disobedience to an unjust state that was written while he stayed in prison for refusing to pay taxes that would be destined to the war against Mexico.
His most popular quote is the following one:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Carpe diem. Thoreau built a cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts with his own hands and some research to demonstrate how powerful a human can be. He only had a few kitchen utensils, some clothes and an orchard from which he ate seasonal vegetables and fruits. His bath, the Walden lake. His visitor’s room, his beautiful garden. His soul, fulfilled.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.
He went to Walden to think deeply about a world in which he feared thinking he no longer had a place. That is, the solution lay not in where he lived, but how. Walden is not a place but a philosophy: living deliberately turns out to be portable.
We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
In Laura Dassow words, author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life, “After witnessing the clearcutting of Maine’s forests, he asserted that trees have souls, in a passage deemed so outrageous that his editor censored it. No bright line divides social justice from natural justice; sometimes Walden is exactly where you need to go, because that’s where you can see how political injustice and environmental depredation share a common cause”.
I highly recommend that, apart from these two amazing authors, you should have a read to Walt Whitman and Paulo Coehlo, other two classic Animists authors. Also, if you are a wild soul which also likes films, check Into the Wild and Captain Fantastic out. Let your roots grow to where they belong. Live the present and enjoy the journey!
- Irish Symbols
- The Mythology of Samhain
- 5 Irish myths and legends
- Contemporary Irish literature – from 60s until today