A Celtic Zodiac
By Dikki-Jo Mullen
St. Patrick’s Day decorations of bright spring green, lucky shamrock charms, fey leprechauns and mirth have replaced the sweetly sentimental Valentine’s Day hearts and cupids on my porch. The late winter days are gradually lengthening, illustrating astrology in action in the eternal seasonal cycle which guides human destiny. Thinking of the spring equinox when a new zodiacal year begins afresh I’ve been contemplating the many zodiacs which have been used for thousands of years to analyze how cosmic tides above reflect life on Earth. There is the Chinese twelve year calendar, various Native American medicine wheel zodiacs, the familiar Western or tropical zodiac and many more. Holidays and seasons highlight the rhythms which flow as planet Earth circles the Sun, all a part of the rich tapestry of astrology. The Celtic Zodiac is an especially intriguing and little understood system of astrology. In honor of the magic of springtime and new beginnings here is a glimpse at how this oldest of zodiacs might relate to your own life.
Each year at sunrise on the summer solstice hundreds of people, those fortunate enough to obtain admission, congregate in an open plain near Salisbury, England. Shivering in the predawn, the huge crowd struggles to glimpse a small space among the ancient circle of rocks. This annual gathering at Stonehenge is big news around the world. Each midsummers day, on June 21 or 22, millions more tune in to media coverage to watch as the sun rises to mark the longest day of the year by shining through an opening in the stones. The ritual touches some primal longing, perhaps reaffirming the continuity of life through the cycles of the Sun and Moon. Stonehenge is actually an astrology calculator. It gives silent testimony of the importance the ancients placed on following the important heavenly patterns.
The specifics of exactly how this early zodiac worked are murky, lost in time. However those who constructed Stonehenge were precise and well schooled concerning the celestial cycles. Various mystics, astrologers and mythologists have, over the centuries, attempted to unravel the meaning of not only Stonehenge but of other stone circles around Britain, Ireland and other places in Europe. These monuments from bygone times usually mark the longest, shortest and equality of days at the solstices and equinoxes. In 1948 Robert Graves published The White Goddess, an immense scholarly work dedicated to this topic. Graves gathered fragments of the early Celtic teachings and filled in the gaps with his own perceptions and conjecture. His efforts have often been criticized, but as is so often the case, the critics have been those unable to offer a better explanation. Graves developed a tree and plant zodiac, linked to the evidence left in early records, he claimed. Vaguely it is tied to the great stone circles and has been revised by a number of scholars ever since.
Does Graves’ version of the zodiac have merit or is it merely a bit of malarkey, a leprechaun’s pot of gold teasing us to follow a distant rainbow?
Here is an opportunity to consider, explore and decide for yourself. The Celtic Zodiac is used in a spiritual and esoteric sense, a ritual honoring of the seasons. Its message differs from what we think of as a typical astrological consultation, which might offer advice about love, a job, a move, etc. I like to think that both approaches have merit and deserve a place in our lives. During the past couple of years I have included the Celtic Zodiac in horoscope updates for my clients. The local astrology guild, a Unitarian Church and a social group called The New World Celts have all booked presentations about the Celtic Zodiac recently. Nearly everyone felt a connection to its message. It is like a simple Sun sign reading, whimsically correlating the qualities of the various months of the year with rhythms in nature. Graves begins the Celtic year on December 24, with the Birch Tree. This study is drawn from his work. Historians and mythologists find it controversial. I like to think that debate enhances the intrigue and enjoyment.
Signs of the Celtic Zodiac
Birch (Beth)- December 24 – January 20.
Following the winter solstice, this time marks deep winter. The graceful white tree is seen as fresh and cleansing. It is ruled by The Sun and is symbolized by both the Eagle and the Stag. Sacred to the deities Cerridwen and Taliesin, dream journeys to the realms beyond are taken as nature slumbers. A birch tree might be dressed as a woman and welcomed as an honored guest. The message is one of high aspirations and reaching for the growing and brightening light to come as the days begin to lengthen.
Rowan (Luis) – January 21 – February 17
This time span links to Uranus and is symbolized by the Dragon. The goddess Brigantia is honored. She is a thinker, a magical catalyst who makes things happen. Philosophical transformations and influencing the outcome of matters is the focus. The rowan tree is related to witchcraft. The twigs of the tree tied with red thread and hung in an entry way offer protection to all who enter.
Ash (Nion) – February 18 – March 17
The sea god Lir, planet Neptune and trident are the symbols of this benevolent influence. Shepherds crooks, baby cradles and hearth fires were often made of ash, to assure wellness and protection. Like a pure and translucent watercolor, this is a time to enjoy poetry and final moments of reverie indoors before spring begins. The message is one of self renewal and healing.
Alder (Fearn) – March 18 – April 14
Called iron wood, this exceptionally hard wood has been carved to fashion blades, implements and arrowheads. Its emblem is the pentacle. Ruled by Mars, it is sacred to the god Bran and to King Arthur. Argumentative and challenging, its the trail blazer. Efficient, confident and focused on wasting neither time nor resources, this is a time to be active, to move forward with the spring equinox.
Willow (Saille) – April 15 – May 12
Ruled by the Moon, Willow relates to the goddess Morgan Le Fey and is symbolized by a serpent. It spans May Day, a time of coming of age, and festivals of greenery. Birth and reproduction motifs are present. Willow links to weeping while turning the tears of sorrow to tears of joy. Its time to heal regrets and release losses. The mood is one of observant perception of truth, to discover the silver lining behind the gloom and clouds.
Hawthorn (Uath) – May 13 – June 9
Vulcan, the craftsman, is the ruler of this sign. Symbolized by a beautifully rendered chalice, its the time of Govannan, a patron of artisans. Dwellings in a starry castle behind the North Wind, he gives the wisdom to see beneath appearances and also opens the eyes to new dimensions of beauty. It is said that bathing the face and eyelids with morning dew gathered from the Hawthorn in May will give both the gift of beauty and an ability to see the wee folk. Weave a wreath of the branches and display it to repel any wayward faeries, spirits or ghosts.
Oak (Duir) – June 10 – July 7
Strength and endurance are the gifts here. Reflect upon the doors and furnishings made of oak which have lasted a thousand years. This tree can grow to be large, honoring the triumph of the continuity of life and leaving a legacy. Pour a libation of wine over the roots to invoke the favor of oak, the crusader and spokesman. The symbol is a golden wheel. Ruled by Jupiter and linked with the god Dagda, this sign is about structure, roots and ancestry.
Tinne (Holly) – July 8 – August 4
With its cheerful red berries and sharp spines, this small tree was often planted around dwellings for decoration and to offer protection from intruders. The Earth, a flaming spear and the Sun god Danu as well as Habondia, an abundance goddess are associated with this cycle. Generosity, kindness and gratitude for all that is plentiful set the pace. Its linked with the celebration of Lammas, an early harvest festival.
Hazel (Coll) – August 5 – September 1
The rainbow fish is a symbol of the sign, providing a clue about this signs, tie to water sources, including rain. The planet Mercury and god Ogma suggest a link with numbers, rules and the value of analysis. Acquiring knowledge is the goal and discerning the truth. The quest for discovery extends to divination. Usually cut into a Y shaped wand, hazel is a popular choice for dowsers and diviners.
Vine (Muin) – September 2 – September 29
The graceful swan, planet Venus and Branwen or Guinevere are all sacred to this time, which spans the autumn equinox. Summer blends into autumn bringing a sense of resurrection. Autumn colors are celebrated with dance and music. The reward of the harvest ahead is promised. A sense of equality and justice prevails. The vine can be a source of delicious fruits, the delectable grapes are eaten whole or crushed to make delicious drinks. Vines were also cut to fashion shelters, baskets and other items to make life more pleasant.
Ivy (Gort) – September 30 – October 27
Perhaps the earliest house plant (think of an ivy covered cottage), ivy relates to happiness and hospitality. Ivy wood cups, holding ale, were often passed to welcome guests. Ivy grows in a spiral, it was traditionally added to wreaths to illustrate fidelity and attachment. The transformative symbols of the butterfly and Persephone, visitors who are reborn after visiting the underworld, as well as the benevolent goddess Arianrhod bring the message of Ivy.
Reed (Ngetal) – October 28 – November 24
Here is an emphasis on the inscrutable, the secret keeper. Stones, Pluto, the god Pwyll as well as Hecate, goddess of the crossroads are keynote associations. Its Halloween season. Reeds can be fashioned into pan pipes, musical instruments which might speak with the dead. Thatched roofs for shelter and other useful items can be created from these flexible branches. Its a time of preparation and uncertainty concerning what might be ahead with the winter to come.
Elder (Ruis) – November 25 – December 22
The elder is a healer with a solitary nature. The berries and leaves can be made into jelly, wine or tea; charms to cure warts, chills and various other maladies. The planet Saturn, ravens, and the god Pryderi are associations which underscore wisdom, self sufficiency and completion. The wise old man or woman archetype arrives with important insights to offer, before suddenly moving on.
Mistletoe (Nameless Day) – December 23
This lone day hovers between two worlds, straddling the past and the future. It marks the time as one year ends and another begins. There is a void quality which provides an opportunity to settle debts and right wrongs, to tie up loose ends in a sense. The dual faces of the Sun and Moon, like comedy and tragedy masks, give this day a dark and light twins motif. A tie to the benevolent goddess Larunda encourages peace. Once it was forbidden to argue in the presence of mistletoe, hinting at the custom of exchanging a kiss underneath it as a protector of passion.