It is well known that Wiccans hold special rituals during the full and new moons. Many Neo-Pagans and traditional witches observe certain lunar practices. For example, some spells are thought to be more effective when performed on a specific day of the moon’s cycle. What did the ancient Druids do and what can/do modern Druids practice? The moon, with its dramatic and observable changes, has held spiritual significance to many cultures all over the world, yet it is not something Druids within my own tradition seem to actively explore, at least not publicly. There are a few documented lunar rituals on the ADF website, and our founder, Isaac Bonewits, noted that some groves celebrate the phases of the moon (ADF Q&A).
I’ll begin by looking at the ancient Celts. As always, it is important to note that we have little information on what the ancient Celts believed due to a limited amount of pre-Christian documentation. Most of what is known comes from artifacts, the contemporary writing of antagonistic leaders or outsiders, and Christianized Celts. Details from the last two sources, especially, must be taken with a grain of salt.
Pliny the Elder wrote about the Gaulish Druids. His work includes the famous piece about Druids harvesting mistletoe on the 6th day of the moon (Ellis, Celts 54). Jean Markale analyzed the symbolism of the harvest ritual, noting that the sickle used to cut the plant would have been reminiscent of the crescent moon (Markale 131). Modern Druids from the Henge of Keltria equate this with the first quarter and celebrate the Mistletoe rite on such evenings. They explain that “mistletoe was known as `all heal,'” and take advantage of such evenings to perform remedial ceremonies. They have a second lunar ritual, the Vervain Rites.
Our other lunar rite is the Vervain Rite. The time of this rite was also chosen from classical descriptions of ancient Druidic practices. It was written that vervain was gathered when neither sun nor moon were in the sky. This occurs sometime during each night, except when the moon is full. We generally celebrate this around the 3rd quarter. This gives ample time for the rite during the evening hours. It also places this rite opposite the Mistletoe Rite in the lunar cycle. Vervain is said to be of aid in working magic. Thus, the Vervain Rite is our time for working magic. The purpose of magic in a Druidic sense is more like prayer. We work magic to help effect change in our lives. Druidic magic may involve contemplation, meditation, ritual or ecstatic dance (The Henge of Keltria FAQ).
Pliny’s writing aside, there is more evidence that the moon was important to the ancient Celts. The Welsh Goddess Arianrhod may have been a lunar deity. Some look to Proto-Celtic linguistics and argue that her name means silver wheel – an obvious reference to the moon (Wikipedia). Others are less convinced due to the variability of her name (Mary Jones).
Cerridwen is another possible Welsh deity with lunar associations. Etymologically speaking, her name may mean “bent white one” (Mary Jones), a possible reference to the crescent moon. When considering the symbolism of her transformations, a lunar link could be possible.
The Coligny Calendar may be the most concrete example we have of lunar observation among the ancient Celtic tribes.
Produced before the Roman conquest of Gaul, this calendar is far more elaborate than the rudimentary Julian calendar and has a highly sophisticated five-year synchronisation of lunation with the solar year (Ellis, Druids 230).
Peter Berresford Ellis also notes that Caesar and Pliny the Elder both commented on how the Gauls measured time according to nights and the moon.
Thus we have strong evidence for the moon as a time piece, but less on other ritual or magical significance. I am assuming that Carmina Gadelica will have more moon lore, albeit Christianized. The moon continued to play an important role in surviving folk magic which has inspired a plethora of modern magical traditions. The moon seems central to magical thought and I am hopeful to learn more.
Arianrhod. 13 April 2010. Wikipedia. 10 Aug. 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arianrhod>
Cerridwen. 2004. Mary Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia. 10 Aug. 2010
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