Miranda Green identifies the close proximity that ancient Celts had with their environment. It was essentially a life that involved a close ineraction with nature. With foliate and zoomorphic designs Celtic artists took much of their inspiration from the plant and animal world to produce some of the most fantastic and original art in history. The Celts percieved supernatural forces in all natural phenomena to the extent that every tree, mountain, rock and river was seen to possess its own 'numen' or individual spirit. The sanctity with which elements of the landscape and natural phenomena was beheld further led the Celts to venerate animals dwelling in the land, and further becoming the objects or elements of elaborate rituals and the center of profiund belief systems. In some cases animals became the link between the ordinary and the divine sacred, or otherworld.
On the most basic level, animals (in Celtic mythology) are tied into fertility and vitality, as Lars Nooden points out. They also become channels of communication to the realms of the Gods and spirits. The origins of these beliefs may be shamanic. Certain animals are associated with specific attributes;
1) Boars represent fertility, wealth and courage.
2) Salmon represent knowledge and wisdom.
3) Snakes (and dragons) represent strife, trouble and infertility.
4) Birds represent prophetic knowledge, skill of for-seeing the future.
5) Horses, cattle and pigs (all domesticated animals) represent fertility, assurity, personal wealth and status.
The Celts firmly believed in rebirth and reincarnation as demonstrated by the story of Fintain and the Hawk of Achille. Some Celtic people believed that the soul of a person may be reborn as a very small animal, sometimes a fly or worm. Druids believed that the tiny and humble wren was the reborn soul of a human and was considered sacred, called 'Droo-in.'
In Christian Celtic myth the four evangelist (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are represented as animals; the winged man of the incarnation, the majestic lion, the sacrificial calf or ox, and the ascending eagle.
For me, the epitomy of the relationship between the Celt and the animal world is summed up by a 4th century AD monastic scribe, idly writing a poem in the margin of a manuscript ( a Latin commentary on Virgil) in which he compares himself and his pet cat:
"I and 'Pangur-Ban' my cat,
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind...
...So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban my cat and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his."
More than anything the Celtic view of animal life reminds us that we should perservere in maintaining a working relationship with the natural world order. Perhaps we are not 'the dominant species' but simply one element of a greater whole. We must repsect animals as beings with inherent souls and/or spirits, that can enhance our appreciation for the universe, our dialog and communication with the Gods, ancestors and spirits. If we take the life of an animal in order to preserve our own let it be done with dignity and due respect. All creatures should be awarded the honor that is due to them by reason of their simply existing.
Jain Zazek, The Art of The Celts.
Joelle Miller, Symbolic Meanings of some of the Animals Appearing in Celtic Art (From Celtic Myth and Magic by Edain McCoy):
Lars Nooden, Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology:
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth: