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This article was first published in Réalta vol 3 no.3 1996

Early Irish Astrology: An Historical Argument

by Peter Berresford Ellis

In all histories of western astrology there is a curious omission. There are no references to early Irish, nor - indeed - ancient Celtic, astrological practices. In fact, the only serious scholarly study on Celtic astrology was published in a French academic journal in 1902 [1]. This dissertation, in the light of modem research, is open to debate.

The major reason for this neglect of the subject, at least during the last fifty years, has undoubtedly been the insidious influence of Robert Graves' The White Goddess (1949). This book has done singular disservice to those who seek to study the realities of Celtic cosmology and, especially, the practice of astrology. Graves was not a Celtic scholar. His highly imaginative inventions of the so-called 'tree calendar' and 'tree zodiac' inspired an outpouring of books purporting to be on 'Celtic astrology'. Graves and his acolytes have, unfortunately, seized the popular imagination but their 'tree zodiac' has nothing at all to do with the realities of the ancient Celtic world.

This is not the place to dissect Graves' inventions. This would take a lengthy article. In this polemic, I intend to confine myself to a brief outline of the historical reality of astrology in Irish society. Ireland was, and still is, part of the Celtic world. The Celts by the 3rd Century BC had reached their greatest expansion in Europe. They occupied a territory through Europe from Ireland, in the west, to the central plain of Turkey (Galatia), in the east, even as far as the sea of Azov, and north from Belgium, south into Italy, as far as Ancona, also south to Cadiz on the Iberian peninsula. They were one of the great founding civilizations of Europe; the first northern European civilization to emerge into recorded history.

Although we have many hundreds of texts and inscriptions in Continental Celtic languages dating from the 4th Century BC, our earliest survivals from the extensive literatures of the Insular Celts, the Irish and Welsh, do not start to date much before the 6th century AD.

Greek and Latin writers show clearly that the Celts were not only advanced in astronomy but that they were respected, especially by the Greeks, for their 'speculations from the stars'. Even the Romans, from Caesar to Pliny, paid tribute to their astronomy. One of the first to note that the ancient Celts believed the world to be round (not flat) was Martial (c. AD 40-103/4) who, himself, claimed Celtic ancestry.

The famous 1st Century BC Coligny Calendar, once thought to be the most extensive document in a Celtic language but now surpassed by other fascinating discoveries, has been dated to its original computation, by its astronomical observations and calculations. This highly sophisticated lunar and solar predictor was, according to the leading Celtic scholar, Dr Garrett Olmsted, first constructed in 1100 BC[2]. It is important to note that the concepts of the calendar find parallels in Vedic cosmology. We will return to this later.

It was the Greek Hippolytus (AD 170-236), using an earlier source, who stated that the ancient Celts foretold the future from the stars by ciphers and numbers after the manner of the Pythagoreans. Space precludes a discussion on the argument which took place among the Alexandrian School of Greek writers as to whether the Celts borrowed their ideas from Pythagoras or whether Pythagoras borrowed his ideas from the Celts. This fascinating argument among Greek scholars began in the 2nd Century BC and continued for some centuries. The concept that the Greeks borrowed from the Celts, found a leading advocate in the Athenian-born scholar Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150 - AD 211/216).

To turn to the position in Ireland, the evidence shows that the Irish, like the rest of the Celtic world, were also highly advanced in astronomical observation, particularly in the construction of calendars. One of the first Irishmen we can name as an acknowledged expert in this field was Mo-Sinu maccu Min (d. AD 610), the abbot of Bangor, Co. Down [3]. His pupil, Mo Chuaróc macc Neth Sémon of Munster, is recorded as having written a major work on astronomical computations. Alas, no copy of that seems to have survived but we do have a similar work by Cummian (d. AD 633), a professor at Clonfert, Galway [4]. Then we have a mid-7th Century astronomical text by Aibhistin (more widely called Augustin and once confused with Augustine of Hippo). Aibhistin was the earliest medieval writer to discuss the question of the tides in relationship to the phases of the moon [5].

The Julian calendar appears to have been introduced into Ireland by the end of the 5th Century AD, with the incoming of Christianity, displacing native calendars. But a most exciting recent discovery has been the 'lost' Irish 84-year Easter Table covering the years AD 438-521, found during the 1980s in the Biblioteca Antoniana, in Padua. This was the calendar, or computus, referred to by Colmbanus in his famous letter to Pope Gregory to support the Celtic dating of Easter [6]. It becomes clear from both calendrical studies and astronomical tracts that the forms of astrology being practiced in Ireland from the introduction of the Christian period would be substantially the same as those being practiced by the Greco-Romans at this time.

The Greco-Latin forms appear to have displaced the native Irish system when Christianity and Latin learning entered the country. This system was fairly well established in Ireland by the 7th Century AD from when our earliest surviving texts, on astronomy and related astrology, survive.

In the 12th Century AD the new Arabic learning swept into Ireland, carried there by returning Irish religious and scholars who had been teaching in the great universities of Europe such as Bologna, Padua and Montpellier. Father Francis Shaw SJ has pointed out that at this time the Irish medical practitioners, who were renown throughout Europe, adopted Arabic medical ideas. As Father Shaw says: 'Arabian medicine had for sisters Arabian philosophy and Arabian astrology' [7].

During the period of the 12th to 17th Centuries we find many works on Arabic astronomy and astrology being translated into Irish [8] and that the Irish astrological practices took on the Arabic forms which were also adopted by the rest of Western Europe. One of the areas in which scholars must do more work is with the countless untranslated and unedited Irish medical texts, an area where astrology was used. Before 1800 the Irish language contained the largest collection of medical manuscript literature surviving in any one language.

With the English conquests of the 17th Century, the native traditions of astrology were quickly stamped out and astrology became the province of the colonists and their culture. One of the last native works was written by a Jesuit priest from Co. Down, Father Manus O'Donnell SJ in the mid-17th century which was based on the Lunario of Geronymo Cortès, which has subsequently been translated, introduced and edited with notes and a glossary by F.W. O'Connell and R.M. Henry entitled An Irish Corpus Astronomiae (David Nutt, London, 1915).

We can trace this historical development of Irish practices in a linguistic mode in the earliest writings we find that the vocabulary used to name the zodiac, planets, the galaxy and constellations, were given in native concepts [9]. For example:

The constellation of Leo was known as An Corran, which means a reaping hook. Next time you look at Leo note the sequence of brighter stars rising above Regulus in the shape of a back-to-front question mark'?' which consequently resembles a sickle. Mars was called An Cosnaighe or 'the defender'. Venus was identified by at least three or four ancient names, as was Mercury. These survive in modern Manx; The Pole Star was An Gaelin - the beam that lights the way home. The Galaxy or Milky Way was called Bealach na Bo Finne (the way of the white cow). Of the sun and moon we have a surprisingly extensive vocabulary in Old Irish. There are five names for the sun and six for the moon, all native concepts.

Perhaps it is superfluous to add that these terms were also backed by the necessary mathematical technical jargon required for the practice of astronomy and astrology. One should point out that while this vocabulary still survives in Irish, the English equivalents are loan words from Greek, Latin and Arabic.

When the Greco-Latin ideas took firmer hold on the Irish perceptions, we note a change in the vocabulary. Native ideas of planets and zodiacal signs began to be dropped in favour of the Greco-Latin concepts and these were, at first, simply translated into Irish. For example:

Aries became An Rea or Reithe, a translation of ram (aries = Latin for ram and so on); thus the constellation of Cancer was known as An Portán, the crab. There being no concept of lion in Old Irish the word used for Leo here was - a large hound; while Virgo was Oighbhean, a young girl; Capricorn became Pocán, the goat; Sagittarius was An Saighead, an archer or soldier, and so on.

We can perceive areas where the native and imported concepts ran side by side for Orion was named An Selgaire Mhór (The Great Hunter) but the Belt of Orion was called Buaile an Bhodaigh (enclosure or belt or the enlightened). The final linguistic process in Irish took place after Arabic learning was introduced in the 12th Century and soon even translations of the names were dropped in favour of a simple Irish-ising of the foreign word. Therefore, Orion became Oirion, Aires was Airges, followed by Leo, Saigitairius, Mercuir, Uenir, Joib and Mars. The modern Irish astronomical vocabulary (in terms of names of planets, constellations and so forth) is now mainly made up of loan words just like the English astronomical/astrological vocabulary.

During the early 20th Century, when there was a reawakening of interest in astrology, researchers, seeing this obvious loan word vocabulary, jumped to the wrong conclusion that there had been no native tradition of astronomy or astrology in Ireland. Both A.H. Allcroft (The Circle and the Cross, 2 vols, Macmillan, London, 1927) and Lewis Spence (The History and Origin of the Druids, Rider and Co, 1949) believed there was no advanced native traditions. The reverse was, of course, true. Indeed, as Dr Dáibhi Ó Cróinin has already pointed out in his excellent book Early Mediaeval Ireland 400-1200, Longman, 1995, the Irish astronomers were doing work, which was often far more advanced and accurate than their European counterparts [10]. The lists of astronomical sightings of bright stars, comets, eclipses and so on, recorded in the annals and chronicles are more accurate than in most other European documentation.

It would be bizarre if the early Irish had been highly advanced in astronomy at this period but did not practice astrology. The proof comes with our first surviving Irish astrological charts dating from the 8/9th Centuries. These are to be found in Swiss and German libraries like many Irish literary remains of this period. As an aside, we significantly find the signs of the zodiac carved on some of the Irish High Crosses, such as the early 10th century cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice [11].

Indeed, in Old Irish there were at least seven words for an astrologer. Rollagedagh (one who gains knowledge from the stars), fisatóir (one who gains knowledge from the heavens) - still found in Manx fysseree as a word for philosopher; eastrolach (one who gains knowledge from the moon), fathach (one steeped in prophecy), néladoir (one who divinates from the sky), an réalt-eolach (one versed in astrology) and réaltóir. To be pedantic, néladoir is argued as meaning a 'cloud diviner' but it is glossed in a 14th Century manuscript as 'astrologer' as are all these terms.[12]

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[1] L'Astrologie chez les Gallo-Romains, H. de la Ville Mirmont, Revue des Études Anciennes, Vol.4, 1902.     back

[2] The Gaulish Calendar: A Reconstruction from the Bronze Fragments from Coligny with an analysis of its function as a highly accurate lunar/solar predictor as well as an explanation of its terminology and development, Dr Garrett Olmsted, Dr Rudolf Habelt GmBh, Bonn, 1992.     back

[3] Mo-Sinu maccu Min and the computus at Bangor, Dr Dáibhi Ó Cróinin, Peritia, 1982.     back

[4] A Seventh Century Computus from the Circle of Cummianus by Dr Dáibhi Ó Cróinin Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. lxxxii (1982).     back

[5] On Augustin, an Irish 'writer of the 7th Century by Dr William Reeves, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol ii, 1861, and On the pseudo Augustinian treatise De Mirabilius & etc. by Mario Esposito, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol xxxv, 1918-20.     back

[6] The 'Lost' Irish 84 year Easter Table rediscovered, by Drs D. McCarthy and Dáibhi Ó Cróinin, Peritia, 6-7, 1987/8.     back

[7] Irish Medical Men and Philosophers by Francis Shaw SJ, in Seven Centuries of Irish Learning 1000-1700 ed. Brian Ó Cuív, Mercier Press, Cork, 1971.     back

[8] An example of one such text is An Irish Astronomical Tract, based on a Medieval Latin version of a work by Messahalah, edited by Maura Power, Irish Text Society, London, 1914. Also: Remarks on a Cosmographical Tractate in the Irish Language in the library of the Royal Irish Academy', Maxwell II. Close, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol vi, 1900-1902.     back

[9] The basic references for Old and Middle Irish vocabularies are: Dictionary of the Irish language: based mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1983; Cormac’s Glossary, trs. and annotated by John O'Donovan, ed. with notes by Whitley Stokes, Calcutta, 1868 and O'Davoreen's Glossary (c. 1554-69) ed. Whitley Stokes, Halle, Germany, 1904.     back

[10] 'The Chronological Apparatus of the Annals of Ulster AD 431-I 131', D. McCarthy, Peritia, 8(1994): see also Chronology of Eclipses and Comets AD 1 - 1000b3'D. Justin Schove, The Boyd ell Press, Suffolk, 1984.     back

[11] 'Notes on the Irish Zodiac Preserved in the Library of Basel', Henry S. Crawford, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol iv, 1925. and 'Illuminations and Facsimiles from the Ancient Irish Mss in the Libraries of Switzerland, Dr Ferdinand Keller, trs Dr William Reeves, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol iii.     back

[12] See note [9].     back