The Celtic year was a lunar year divided into twelve months, beginning with Samhain, with an occasional extra month to balance out the extra day of the solar year. Months began on the full moon, which is easier to see on cloudy nights. The first century CE Gaulish Coligny Calendar (see chart) observed a 30 year system of five 62 lunations and two intercalary months. Each month was divided into two parts, MAT (good) and ANM (not good), each of which was a fortnight. Reckoning was by nights; each “day” was a night and a day, i.e., from sunset to sunset. Thus the four lunar festivals, Samhain, Imbo/c, Beltene and Lughnasad begin on the eve of the date given and continue through to the eve of the following day. Dates given are based on modern usage, whereas, in the Celtic year the actual dates were based on the date of the full moon. The solar festivals were based on the positions of the sun and remained fixed. The eve of Samhain is known as Hallow’en, or All Hallows Eve, when the crossovers between the Otherworld and this world were opened so that the spirits of the dead could walk the earth to complete their unfinished business. The eve of Beltene is also known as May Eve, which in Insular tradition is the night of fairy reveling. May Day is the name now given to the day which follows May Eve. Imbolc is the celebration of mid-winter and Lughna Sadh is the festival of the “high sun”, or mid-summer’s eve. This festival has been Christianized into the Feast of St. John the Baptist who is believed to have been born on the eve of mid-summer. All the lunar festivals were “fire festivals”, pastoral in nature, and given to great celebrations.
In ancient Celtic tradition only two crosses were known: the four equal-armed diagonal St Andrew’s cross and the horizontal/vertical Roman cross. On the Coligny Calendar the Roman cross depicted the solar Calendar and the St Andrew’s Cross, the lunar calendar. The 4th c. St Vincent of Spain records that the Continental Celtic festivals where flaming wheels (which depicted the Roman Cross superimposed upon the St. Andrew’s Cross) were rolled into the river, the idea being that if the flaming “solar wheel” made it to the river unimpeded it would assure a bountiful harvest. It is thought that the Christian Celtic cross is a carryover from the pagan solar wheel with the Roman cross branches being extended.
The four arms of the solar cross point to the four sacred paths, or directions of nature: west, north, east and south. In Irish tradition the four sacred directions of nature converged on Tara, the Insular sacred center of the gods and the root of invested sovereignty. Chartes in France, as well as other sacred sites make the same claim in Insular and Classic tradition. Each direction is associated with a lunar festival and quality or path:
South— Samhain and the arts (especially music)
East— Imbolic and prosperity
North— Lughnasad and war
West—Beltene and knowledge
In the Insular tradition, Ireland was divided up into five provinces with Tara in the sacred center. Each of the others reflecting the path proper for its direction from Tara. Hence: Connacht to the west = Knowledge, Ulster to the north = war, Leinster to the east = prosperity, and Munster to the south = the arts. It was these provinces that the Irish went to study a particular trait.
1 The only written Celtic calendar known to exist is the Coligny Calendar discovered at the end of the 19th c. at Coligny near Bourg-en-Bresse (Ain). It
consists of a huge bronze plate measuring 5′ X 3’6″, engraved with a calendar. The letters and numbers are of Roman form, however, the language is Gaulish.
It has been suggested that the calendar was drawn up by the druids in order to calculate the best times for certain activities.
2 Samhain is also known as Samonios (Romano-Celtic). Imbolc is sometimes spelt Oimelic and primarily an Insular festival, Imbolc was probably celebrated
for an entire month. Beltene is frequently spelt Beltain(e). In Ireland it was also known as Celtshamain and as a festival is peculiar the Insular tradition.
Lughnasad, while known on the Continent, had its most significance as a sacred festival, in Ireland. It is also known in its Christianized version as Lammas and
Hlafmaesse (Old English), meaning loaf-mass.
© Brigit’s Feast, Frank A. Mills 1998, 2016