At the heart of symbolism

(Irish) Celtic orientation and tradition

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Celtic orientation

In Gaelic language, “ichtar” means at the same time “down” and “North” whereas “twas” signifies simultaneously “up” and “South”. Similarly, “t-air”, East denotes the region which is in front whereas “t-iar”, West, is on the contrary, the region lying behind. As a result, the observer facing East gets South or the luminous world, devoted to living beings, on his right and North or the dark world, held for the dead and called “síd”, on his left (see the diagram below).

As the living kingdom is above the dead kingdom, South is “above” North. Therefore, Irish Celt gave the preference to the right in the living kingdom and to the left in the dead kingdom as attested by the internal surface representation of Gundestrup (located in Denmark) silver cauldron. According to a general analogy, the living kingdom is a reversed image of the dead one.

Death of the ordinary warrior and his re-birth as knight

Giving the preference to the right or South in the living world consists in conferring the pre-eminence to the luminous side in comparison to the dark side. Linking living and dead worlds, within an orientation facing East, results in considering rising (or setting) sun at solstices. The four points related to sunrise and sunset at solstices design a rectangle called the “solstitial rectangle”, the side ratio of which depends on the latitude of the observation place. This rectangle becomes a square when the latitude approaches the Northern tip of Ireland, a region recalling the Northern islands of the World, where the Celtic tradition has its symbolic source. At this latitude, sun precisely rises Southeast at Winter solstice and Northeast at Summer solstice. For more details regarding the determination of the angle between the diagonals of the “solstitial rectangle”, consult the position on celestial sphere.

Celtic festivals

According to the usual correspondence between space (or compass points) and human time (or seasons), the sun rises precisely at East and sets exactly at West at Spring and Autumn equinoxes (around 21st March and 21st September). So, Summer and Winter solstices (around 21st June and 21st December) correspond to South and North respectively. In line with this analogy, the “solstitial square” may be compared to the Irish Celtic “festival” calendar (see the following diagram). A gap follows between the Summer solstice sunset position and the beginning (or the end) of the annual cycle fixed on the 1st November. This gap could have only practical origins linked to the precision of astronomical observations at the time. Having more probably symbolic origins, it would stand for the “enclosed period”, on the occasion of the “festival” occurring with the beginning or the end of the annual cycle during which the “below” world, the world of renewing, fertilized the “above” world.

Celtic orientation and festivals
Solstitial square at the latitude of Northern tip of IrelandCeltic “festivals” calendar

According to the solar mode of the Chinese tradition (see orientation and tradition), the preference for the left or ascending path from Earth to Heaven lead to name yin before yang as in the famous yin-yang symbol. In the same line, within the Celtic tradition, darkness comes before clearness, night before day and the dark and cold year period is announcing the clear and warm one. In other words, the world of the dead and Gods has the precedence over the world of living.

The junction between both periods operates with two main yearly “festivals”: Samain on 1st November and Beltaine on 1st May. These two main yearly “festivals” are cut across by two other “festivals” falling midway within the dark and clear periods: Imbolc on 1st February and Lugnasad on 1st August.

  • Samain (“meeting”, “assembly”)
  • A complete “festival”, which gathers the human beings and people from the “síd”. Consequently, it requests the presence of representatives of the three functions of the Celtic tradition:
    - “sacerdotal” (priests or druids);
    - “warrior” (military nobility or flaith);
    - “productive” (craftsmen).
  • Imbolc (“lustration”, “shower”)
  • Apparently, the “festival” of the third function (“productive”). It may be linked with the celestial influence symbolized by rain or the descending phase of sun between Summer and Winter solstices, between North symbolizing the Otherworld and South representing the living world.
  • Beltaine (“light”, “fire”)
  • “Festival” of the first function (“sacerdotal”) where fire and light play a key role as solar symbols. It is the “festival” of rituals of passage between the cold and warm seasons, between obscurity and light, between symbolic psychic death and spiritual re-birth.
  • Lugnasad (“Lug's assembly”)
  • As such, Lug is all the gods and assumes all their functions. Here, the “festival” refers to his royal aspect. It honours the King, the intermediary between both other functions, as the distributor of outer and inner richness as well as good government of society and oneself.

In fact, as a multi-function God, Lug ruled also over Samain and Beltaine “festivals” respectively through his dark and luminous aspects.

Imbolc was completely eclipsed by saint Bridget Christian festival, heiress of Birgit, feminine Goddess who was also the initiator of “arts” (intellectual and manual works). As the least influential of all the “festivals”, it ends their succession according to their importance ranking, which is related in the following diagram:

Celtic “festivals” hierarchy

Samain, “festival” of integration of the dead and the living cycles proper to the dark world (Northwest);
Beltaine, sacerdotal “festival” proper to the luminous world (Southeast);
Lugnasad, royal “festival” as counterpart of the sacerdotal “festival” (Southwest);
Imbolc, craft function “festival” (Northeast).

This sequence, right-hand oriented, is composed of two axes reflecting the strong hierarchical structure of the Celtic society where the spiritual dominated the temporal:

The strong hierarchical structure of Celtic society and “festivals” tend towards the existence of a single gate, Samain, linking the world of the dead and the world of the living

The Samain-Beltaine axis symbolizes the spiritual or supra-human path. It refers to the knowledge of immutable principles outside any manifestation and directly transmitted to the druids from the Otherworld, the world of dead and gods.

The Lugnasad-Imbolc axis represents the temporal or human path. This axis is thereby related to the responsibility of implementing principles and action laws in the manifested world that the King received only from the druids.

According to the pre-eminence of the spiritual over the temporal, the Samain-Beltaine axis is relatively vertical in comparison with the Lugnasad-Imbolc axis.

Take down a particularity of the (Irish) Celtic tradition regarding both gates. Beltaine, as a peculiar sacerdotal “festival”, reflects more the achievement than the beginning of God path; Imbolc, as the “festival” of the productive function only, could not allow access to the human path on its own. So, the strong hierarchical structure of Celtic “festivals” and society tend towards the existence of a single gate linking the world of the dead and the world of the living, namely Samain, as attested by the internal surface representation of the Gundestrup cauldron. It symbolizes the death of the warrior in the ordinary state and his re-generation in the primordial state, represented by the “knight”, after his submersion into the immortal life elixir.

The recent archaeological works, that supposedly uncovered a representation of human sacrifices in the cauldron of Gunderstrup, are forgetting two things:

  • The initiation rites of the warrior are a sacrifice already where the death of the old man precedes the rebirth of the new man;
  • Any rite, sacrificial or not, obeys rules that poorly fit with the discovery of human and domestic remains at the bottom of the pits brought to light.

Of course, there is no question of denying the existence of human sacrificial rites among the Celts, but it is important to underline how rare they were. First of all, the Irish medieval literature states two or three cases only. Next, the discovery of human remains could better be related to non ritual massacres of injured or prisoners at the end of a fight between enemy camps.


  • Françoise Le Roux et Christian-J Guyonvarc'h:
  • “The Celtic civilization”, Ouest-France Publisher, 1990;
  • “The Celtic feasts”, Ouest-France Publisher, 1995.