Notes on Celtic bird symbolism

From the Symbol Dictionary:

The Raven


Because of their dark coloring and gruesome dietary habits, ravens were emblems war and death, and sacred to the gods and goddesses of the battlefield, most notably the warrior-god Bran and the war-goddess Morrigan. The raven acted as psychopomp, tasked with escorting the souls of the dead into the Otherworld. The ravens were sometimes viewed as the reincarnation of slain warriors and heroes. Due to their close relationship with the gods, ravens were used for divinatory purposes and considered quite literally as the voices of the gods- the Otherworld deities Lugh and Midir are both accompanied by pairs of magical ravens. (This symbolism is echoed in Norse mythology, where the raven is the messenger of the father-god Odin) Images of three interlinked  ravens are emblems of the triple goddesses of sovereignty, particularly the Morrigan.

Unknown deity with raven, Isle of Mann

The raven was closely associated with the cult of the horse, and with the triple-goddesses of sovereignty. As Badb Catha, “battle-crow,” the raven was one of the three aspects of the war goddess Morrigan. Ravens often appear as evil omens on mythological tales, especially when appearing in threes or from the sea.

Hugin and Munin

Hugin and Munin (Norse, “thought” and “memory”) are the twin ravens of Norse mythology.  They are the servants of the Norse All-Father, Odin. According to legend, they are sent out each morning and report back to Odin each evening on the reports of the happenings of the world.

The examples above are adapted from a Viking picture stone from Gotland, Sweden, called the “Larbro” stone, which depicts scenes of the Norse Gods and the afterlife.

The Larbro Stone

The Swan  was revered by the earliest Celts who associated them with the sun, bearers of the chariot of the sun god. Numerous Celtic legends involve magical maidens who transform into swans; these are identifiable through the magical chains of precious metal they wear. Perhaps the most famous Celtic swan-tale is of the children of Lir , the Irish sea-god, whose children are magically transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother. Many Celtic goddesses could likewise shapeshift into swan form;the swan was the sacred bird of Angus, the Irish god of love;

CraneThe crane was sacred to early Celts, who left behind many votive images of the bird. Manannan Mac Lir, the Irish god of the sea, who had a magical bag made from the the skin of a crane who was his lover magically transformed. The underworld god Midir owned three cranes to guard his home, and to see three cranes is an omen of death. The crane was also an emblem of envy, and Irish legend has many stories of women transformed into cranes by rivals. The crane also features in Christian legends, where transformation into a crane is a common punishment for disrespecting a saint or as penance for a variety of sins.

One thought on “Notes on Celtic bird symbolism

  1. […] the more common imagery in local festivals.)  It is an also tantalizing coincidence that the raven, swan and crane were all sacred birds to both the Celts as well as the Japanese on terminuses on opposites of the Silk […]

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