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Early Irish Astrology: An Historical Argument

by Peter Berresford Ellis


In the Brehon Laws we find that astronomers/astrologers had to be qualified. The degree of foirceadlaidhe was a degree of the fifth order of wisdom, in which one had to prove their knowledge of astronomy and astrology. The earliest word for a horoscope in Irish occurs as nemindithibh, noted by Dr Whitley Stokes in the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus. Nem = heavens/sky while nemgnacht means a studying of the heavens, perhaps our earliest word for astrology. Indithem is an act of consideration.

For overwhelming proof that predictive astrology was practiced in ancient Ireland one only has to turn to the innumerable references in Irish mythological texts and what are rather disparagingly referred to as 'pseudo' histories, that is stories of early Irish history which fall in the scholastic mind in the grey areas between mythology and history. Stories are full of references of birth charts drawn up by Druids and also Christian religious. In one text attributed to the 7th Century is there a question asked of Cillin, which disproves the theory of some critics that the ancient Irish merely look for omens in the clouds. "Dénamh me an leársgáil na realtai. Cen uair rathciuil agam?" ("Make me a map of the stars. What hour will be auspicious for me?") Now the term leársgáil na realtai, a chart or map of the stars, makes it clear what is wanted - a horoscope.

Most important is the statement given by Felim Bocht Ó hUigiunn in the 14th Century: 'bi uair ag an impidhe na realt-eolais' - there is always a correct moment to ask a question from the stars (or to gain star knowledge). Any modern horary astrologer will tell you that much.

There is an 8th Century Irish poem which endorses the idea that the ancient Irish did not begin work on building houses until a right moment to start had been assessed by an astrologer. One verse says:

I have heard there was a house building
In Tuaim Inbhir
Nor is there a house more auspicious
with its stars
with its sun and its moon

To come to our most important question: it is pertinent to ask whether anything can be salvaged of the earliest Irish astrological traditions before the introduction of the Greco-Latin forms? It is still early days to make definite pronouncements but initial researches indicate that the ancient Irish, and, indeed, the ancient Celts, were practicing a predictive form of astrology which paralleled the early Hindu forms, that which we now called Vedic astrology. In other words, a study of linguistic concepts and early cosmological motifs and calendrical philosophies of both Celtic (inclusive of Old Irish) and Sanskrit/Vedic cultures give a path back to the common Indo-European roots of our cultures.

This is not at all surprising. Most readers will be aware of the Indo-European hypothesis and know that, of all the European cultures, Ireland has preserved more links with the Hindu branch of the Indo-European culture than any other western European people. The links between ancient Irish culture and Sanskrit/Vedic culture have been commented on by scholars since the 19th Century. As early as 1815 Adolphe Pictet had pointed out the links in De l'affinite des langues celtiques avec le Sanscrit. Professor Myles Dillon (1900-1972) was one of the leading pioneers in this fascinating field of study, showing the commons points in mythology, in social custom and, importantly in law. There are many points of reference in the Law of the Sénechus or, as it is popularly known these days, the Brehon laws and Hindu Laws [13]. But the common link of language is obvious.

As Dr Calvert Watkins of Harvard University has pointed out: "the Celtic languages, most clearly Old Irish, represent an extraordinarily archaic and conservative linguistic tradition within the Indo-European tradition.... The classical Old Irish nominal and verbal system of the eighth century of the Christian era is a far truer reflection of the state of affairs in Indo-European than is the Latin system of more than a thousand years before. In the syntactic domain of word order, the structure of the archaic Old Irish sentence can be compared only with that of the sentence in Vedic Sanskrit or the Hittite of the Old Kingdom." [14]

As early as 1895 Dr Heinrich Zimmer had observed corresponding cosmological perceptions in the earliest surviving Celtic calendar, that of Coligny, and Vedic cosmology. The final word confirming this appears to be Dr Olmsted's detailed analysis of the calendar. [15]

The idea that these 'signposts' might lead to the fact that ancient Celtic astrology and Vedic astrology also had a common link, another surviving parallel, was thrown into sharp relief by a small gloss on a 9th Century Irish manuscript at Wurzburg. The word budh was glossed by 'point of fire' and 'planet Mercury'. Certainly Cormac's 10th Century Glossary (an early Irish dictionary) explains that 'budh/bott' means 'Aine's fire'. Aine was an Irish deity, thought to be a moon goddess, although she appears in a male form as well as female. If budh was a name for Mercury then it places us close to the Vedic ball game.

Boudi and the stem budh appear in all the Celtic languages. It means - all victorious, gift of teaching, accomplished, exulted, virtue and so forth. In Breton today, for example, boud means 'to be'. You will see the stem in the name Bouddica, more commonly referred to in English as Boadicea, the Celtic warrior queen of the Iceni who led an uprising against Roman rule in 60 AD The important thing is that the word occurs in Sanskrit and buddha is the past participle of the stem budh, to know or enlightened. This is the title given to Sakyamuni Gautama - the Enlightened One. What is important is that in the Vedas the planet Mercury is also known as budh.

Can the Celtic branch of Indo-European and the Sanskrit branch of Indo-European both retain this same concept? What other common concepts do the Celts and the Vedas have in common when observing the night sky? I believe that this research will eventually point the way to the earliest forms of Celtic astronomy and astrology. The Old Irish name for the month of July, incidentally, was Boidhmis (month of Boidh). Orion's Belt, as previously mentioned, was BuaiIe an Bhodaigh. And Budh na Saoghal was a term for 'world knowledge'.

But, as I stress, it is early days as yet. The research is ongoing and I am well aware that my good friend, Professor Gearóid Mac Eoin is currently is inclined to believe that budh in Irish is only a 'ghost word', an element deriving from bith 'world, life' often given as findbudh and which was misidentified by Micheál Ó Cléirigh, compiler of Foclóir no Sanasan Nua, the first published Irish dictionary, printed in Louvain in 1643. There is still much to sort out linguistically before we can draw the final line but these studies are demonstrating early Irish perceptions of cosmology.

Naturally, most astrologers would doubtless like to see, as final proof, a collection of specific early Irish, or Celtic, charts - comparable with surviving Greek horoscopes of Vattius Valens, or Critodemus or Antigonus of Nicaea. Such charts have still to be to be found and identified. I am not too sanguine about this. We are lucky that the 8th/9th Century Irish charts survive in Basel. A lot of early material was destroyed in the 17th and 18th Century during the concentrated attempts to suppress the Irish language and books and manuscripts. I doubt that we will find anything that predates the medieval period. That is not to say the situation is entirely without hope. [16]

The field of research is wide and there are, sadly, hardly any workers in it. To give an idea of the problem, the vast wealth of Irish language medical books are still fairly untouched by translators or researchers. Our knowledge of Irish mythology is based on some 150 tales. Professor Kuno Meyer and Dr Eleanor Hull have both estimated that there are a further 400 identified texts that had not been examined and that a further 50/100 which could still be hidden in libraries. This should give an idea of the enormity of the task to be undertaken in areas of Irish manuscript research. Texts in Continental Celtic are still being discovered. In 1993 a bronze tablet with 200 lines of legal material in Celtic was found in Northern Spain. So far, however, the Coligny Calendar remains our principal text from the pre-Greco-Roman period giving information on early Celtic cosmology.

What we can be sure of, at this time, is that the Irish (and the Celts generally) have a long tradition of astrological learning stretching back to a time before Christianity and the incoming of Greek and Latin learning. We can trace the development of Irish astrology fairly easily from the 7th Century AD, when our records in Irish and Hiberno-Latin begin to survive. But for anything prior to this period we must, at this time, turn to Continental Celtic remains.

One point cannot be over stressed; that this long and rich tradition of Celtic astrology has been sadly neglected and, albeit perhaps unwittingly, suppressed by those who would prefer to follow the fantasies and inventions of Robert Graves and his 'tree zodiac'. Until recently, in an Irish and wider Celtic context, we have not been able to see the star' for the trees!


[13] Celt and Hindu, Myles Dillon, University College, Dublin, 1973, and Celts and Aryans, Myles Dillon, Indian Institute of Advance Study, Simla, Navrang, New Delhi, 1975.     back

[14] 'Indo-European Metrics and Archaic Irish Verse', Calvert Watkins, Celtica (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), 1963.     back

[15]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

[16] On the Celtic Languages of Continental Europe, Karl H. Schmidt, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, Cardiff vol. xxviii, 1979. Gaulish and Celtiberian Poetic Inscriptions, Dr Garrett Olmsted, The Mankind Quarterly, vol xxvii, no 4, 1988.     back

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