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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Celtic Healing Deities

(this is the hand out from my class on Celtic healing deities from Changing Times, Changing Worlds 2011. The beginning of the class we talked about how, IMO, instead of the common modern "cafateria" approach it is better to nurture a relationship with one or two specific deities associated with healing if a person is interested in being a healer or in having a healing-specific deity to call on. We talked about ways to do this including a client-type relationship, devotional work, offerings, setting up an altar for the deity, and establishing the expectations and boundaries of the relationship. After that we talked about several Celtic deities who were either known as healing gods or had healing shrines. Information was presented in a broad format to allow the individual to get an overview of the subject)
                               Celtic Healing Deities

Brighid – also Brigit, Bríd, Brig, Bric, Bride, Brigantia, Brigandu. A pan-Celtic goddess, in Ireland she was a deity of healing, poetry and smithcraft, sometimes seen as a single deity and sometimes as three sister deities. Her name may mean “exalted one”. Brighid is a goddess associated especially with childbirth and fertility, and any healing relating to issues around those topics, but she is often called in folk charms for any type of healing at all, from toothaches to blood in urine. Brighid was said to possess two great oxen who would cry out during periods of pillaging, as well as a boar who was called “king of the swine”; she was also strongly associated with sheep. As a patroness of farm animals she is often called on for healing animals, something that can be very useful in modern times. Brighid has a special healing well and site at Kildare and is associated with water that has healing powers, as well as a special talisman called a brat Bhride which is a small piece of cloth left out on Imbolc eve to be blessed by the goddess/saint which would then have healing properties throughout the year. Offerings to Brighid often include milk, butter, cheese, and bread, and in some cases chickens. Her special bird is the oystercatcher, which in Scottish is named Bridein, Bride’s bird, and Gille Bride, paige of Bride. The linnet is also special to the goddess and is named bigein Bride, little bird of Bride. Brighid’s flower is the dandelion.

Airmed –  also Airmid, Airmeith and Airmedh, she is the daughter of the healing god Dian Cecht and sister of Miach. Irish goddess associated with herbal healing. In one version of the story of the healing of the king Nuada by Miach, after Miach died Airmed found healing herbs growing from his grave and harvested them; she laid all the herbs out on her cloak and organized them to preserve the knowledge of their properties. Some sources say the herbs numbered 365, with one for each of his sinews and joints, and one for every possible bodily ailment. Many people today associate her especially with herbal healing. I have often used a mortar and pestle to represent her on my altar; she is also associated with the cloak or mantle, called a brat in Irish.

Miach – Irish god associated with restoring the lost limb of the god Nuada and healing physical injuries up to those that are immediately fatal. He is the son of Dian Cecht and brother of Airmed. In some versions of the story of his healing of King Nuada his father was so jealous of his healing powers that he dealt him four blows, the first three Miach healed but the fourth killed him; after this every healing herb in the world grew up from his grave and Airmed was organizing them when Dian Cecht scattered them (however in other versions Miach is not killed). This is a reflection of the belief that the plants that grow on a person’s grave hold some of their spirit, and so what grew from the grave of the healing god were all the healing plants in the world. Of course being a god his death was not permanent, but may have served the purpose of giving such plants to the world, in my opinion.

Dian Cecht – also spelled Dian Céacht, an Irish god associated with physicians, healing, and restoring the body. Dian Cecht was considered the supreme physician of the gods and possessed a well or cauldron into which the wounded could be placed and from which they would emerge restored. His name may mean “swift traveler” and he is called “the healing sage of Ireland” and “god of health”. He is the father of two other Irish healing deities, Miach and Airmed, and in the mythological cycle is referred to as having three brothers who are also healers. Not only a god of active healing but also of the knowledge of healing arts and of healing magic. He is known as a superlative healer of any method. Some say he created his great healing well by placing one of every healing herb into it, and in mythology he is known to heal grievous wounds and cure plagues in the guise of dragons. The cauldron or well could be used as his symbol, perhaps with herbs in it.

Nodens – also known in Wales as Nudd, or Llud Llaw Eirent (Llud the silver handed), sometimes equated to the Irish Nuada, and on the continent as Noadatus. A pan-Celtic deity synchronized with Mars, sometimes Silvanus, and in one case Neptune. His name may mean “Cloud Maker” or “Spirit of Water”. A god of healing who had a shrine in Gloucestershire where votive offerings where made of bronze objects representing the area of the body the person needed to be healed, particularly limbs and eyes. He is especially associated with amputees because he was believed to have lost an arm in battle, which was later replaced with a silver one, hence the epithet “silver hand”. His companion is a dog who can heal wounds by licking them. Besides dogs, he is particularly associated with salmon and trout which may make good offerings to him.

Sulis – also known as Sul, Sulei, and Sulla, she is synchronized with Minerva. Inscriptions at one of her sacred sites, the hot springs at Bath, imply that she may be a triple goddess, referred to as the Sulevi. Her/Their worship has been found from Switzerland to Britain and is always associated with hot springs. Sulis is associated with healing diseases and with childbirth. Coins and votive offerings were left on her shrines and in the water, generally after being purposefully damaged.

Belenus – another pan-Celtic god, he is variously known as Bíle (to the Irish), Bellinus (in Britain), Belen (Welsh), and also Belenos, and Bel. His name likely means “the shining god” and he is associated with the sun and sacred fire and synchronized with Apollo. Some authors think his healing associations may relate to his solar connection. He had temple sites in many parts of the Celtic world but a significant one at Burgundy where people would travel seeking cures for illnesses. Clay horses were left as offerings here to the God indicating that horses may have been one of his sacred animals. In a modern setting Belenus may be called on especially for illnesses, and I think, for issues that the sun is a good treatment for such as seasonal affective disorder. Images of horses could be offered to him as could written prayers.

Brighid: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
            The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin         
            Carmina Gadelica, volume 1 by Alexander Carmicheal
Airmed: Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
             The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Miach: Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
            The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Dian Cecht: Myth, Legend, and Romance: an encyclopedia of the Irish folk tradition by Dáithí  O hOgain
            Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
            The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Belenos: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
Sulis: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
Nodens: Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan


  1. Re: Miach's death. I've been wondering off and on about that (and the deaths of others of the Tuatha de Danann in the lore -- Lugh, Nuada, etc.) Given that the knee-jerk reaction of most people is to assume that whichever deity(ies) they believe in is immortal, do you suppose the deaths of the Tuatha in the lore was accurately written down by those transcribing the stories from their oral forms, or an insertion by the Christian scribes of the time to make the gods seem more fallible, and thus, not divine at all?


  2. The matter of Belenos is one of those in which I disagree strongly with Green. The etymology given by Peter Schrijver in "On Henbane and Early European Narcotics" (ZCP 51, pp.17-45, you'd have to pay to get the full article at that link, but there's some interesting stuff on the first page anyway) indicates that the name derives from a non-Indo-European root meaning approximately "henbane". Therefore, the likelihood is that this herb, used in herbal medicine to the modern day, gives its name to the deity. This would make the "Apollo" syncretism due to the healing nature of the god (Apollo's original characteristic), not due to the late attribution of solar characteristics from conflating Helios/Sol with Apollo.

    BrigidsBlest: As I always ask when people get on this subject, what do you think it means to say that a god "dies"?

  3. Jennifer - I have my own view on gods "dying", that is I don't think they do, but that's just my own opinion. I think such deaths are symbolic not literal. The Celts believed that the human soul was immortal, as far as we know based on the material we have, so why would they think less of the gods?
    Faoladh - we've talked about the dying gods thing before I think : ) Thanks so much for that reference - love it! - will definitely look more into that. It does make more sense than the solar connection...