The Book of Celtic Symbols: Symbols, Stories, and Blessings for Everyday Living, by Joules Taylor
CICO Books, 978-1-78249-824-7, 2020 (first published 2007)
The Book of Celtic Symbols: Symbols, Stories, and Blessings for Everyday Living by Joules Taylor is a comprehensive primer for those new to the Celts, as well as a concise work that provides insight into Celtic life for those of familiar with these people. The book “captures the essence of Celtic wisdom and shows how to bring its magic into our lives today.” 1 Joules Taylor, an established author and co-author, is well poised to open this world to us. I was espeically excited to read about their far-reaching traditions and belief system to better understand the sites I’ve seen in my travels.
Despite growing up in an Italian-American household, I have been inexplicably drawn to Ireland and have traveled there twice in the past five years. My knowledge of the Celts was literally learned on the spot in places such as Newgrange. I read this book with the deepen my knowledge of the Celts, and I certainly feel this happens page after page.
When I was in Ireland, I allowed the places to call me to them. I had no knowledge of Newgrange, a Stone Age monument in Ireland’s Ancient East and found it surreptitiously through highway signs. Wells and Brigid? I went to where I was pulled. Joules’ book puts all the pieces into place for me, and I now have a deeper understanding of the importance of the art and artifacts of the Celts. With no written language, these symbols were their means of communication. As Joules explains, “to the Celts, everything in life was symbolic.” 2
The book is divided into seven chapters: “The Celtic Year, Celtic Guides and Their Symbols,” “Ogham: Celtic Alphabet, Symbols from Domestic life,” “The Signification of Trees and Mistletoe,” “Animal Guides,” and “The Sacred Landscape.” All information is present in depth with colorful illustrations or photographs of actual Celtic metalwork or stonework (including those spirals found at Newgrange). The writing is concise and easily understandable. Each chapter is a deep-dive into the topic at hand. There’s even a bread recipe in the chapter, Symbols of Domestic Life. (I intend to try this recipe the next time I make bread this month.) As you see, there’s a variety of topics, content, and ways to connect to Celtic culture.
Just to provide some background, the Celtic culture flourished for almost three thousand years across Europe and the British Isles. It was eventually taken over by Romans as their empire expanded. What resonated most with me about the Celtic culture is the connection that the Celts had with the earth. “The Celts considered the land to be a goddess, their Great Mother, filled with mystery and peopled by gods and goddesses in the springs, rivers, wells, and caves, in the hills and trees.” 3
A practitioner of seasonal living, I enjoyed reading that the Celts lived in concert with the seasons. Their celebrations broke up the year into festivals, and they were ways to show gratitude and reverence. Their celebrations were incorporated into Early Christian life. The celebrations of Esotre/Ostara with eggs and hares symbolizing fertility and rebirth became Easter with its eggs and bunnies. I enjoyed learning that the Celts’ dark year, or new year, began with Samhain, akin to what is traditionally known as Halloween. Bonfires or bone fires, trick or treating, all have their start with the Celts. It was very interesting to learn the roots of these modern practices date back to the Celts.
Through Joules’s writing, I was introduced to goddesses and gods with whom I was unfamiliar, such as Modron and Sulis. Having visited Bath in England I liked learning that Sulis was the “local goddess of the springs at what is now known as Bath.” 4 Stevie Nicks sang of Rhiannon with Fleetwood Mac, but Joules brought this this beautiful woman to life for me. Associated with horses and the moon, she represents beauty, fidelity, and love. 5
I especially like Joule’s suggestions in the book that offered ways to incorporate Celtic traditions, celebrations, ceremonies, and activities into life today. Joules provides detailed descriptions on the origins of these celebrations/activities and how they can be used in daily life. As we approach Imbolc (January 31 – February 1) I have set about “spring cleaning” to prepare for the new year after which I will go for a walk in nature to look for signs of new life, buds on branches and birds building nests as Joules suggests. While today we generally don’t have a hearth fire burning continuously, and unfortunately (at least for me) don’t have a cauldron simmering all day to offer hospitality to visitors, I did learn ways to live more aligned to Celtic domestic life.
Despite the fact that the Celts did not use what we call the written word, they had a form of alphabet called Ogham based on characters. Joules allows a whole chapter to learning to use this alphabet. I’ll need to go back and spend time with this chapter to attempt a few communications. Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, I received Ogham symbols carved into various types of trees for my birthday. My daughter had become aware of my growing interest in Celtic culture and ordered a handmade set all the way from England! I look forward to using Joules book along with my tree Ogham to commune more with nature, especially the trees.
Which brings me to my favorite chapter in the book, “The Significance of Trees and Mistletoe.” It helped deepen the reason why my tree Ogham gift contained the twigs from the trees that it did. Joules detailed the indigenous trees that grew in Celtic lands and their importance. As Joules wrote, “all trees were sacred to the Celts.”6 Oak was probably the most sacred tree, a symbol of eternity. The birch was associated with eloquence, stemming from the belief that “Ogmios, the Celtic god of eloquence, wrote the first Ogham characters on a wand of birch wood.” 7 Mistletoe had medicinal properties and was associated with male fertility, and kissing under the mistletoe invoked blessings of the gods in matters of love. 8
Further more, Joules describes how the apple tree bore a fruit that was considered magical because it could be eaten raw and cooked. It was a symbol of immortality and afterlife, and was connected to Annwn, or the Otherworld.
“To some, Avalon may have been another name for Annwn, separated from the mortal world by the thinnest of unseen barriers.” 9 Avalon, the Isle of Apples, was thought to be a place where “there was no pain or distress and everyone was forever young and happy.”10
The book provided a serendipitous connection to another place I visited, Glastonbury, in England. Some consider Glastonbury to have been where Avalon was located. It truly is an otherworldly place. Joules writes that “Glastonbury was reputed to be a site of a Druid University.” 11
What I really appreciated about The Book of Celtic Symbols is Joules presented the information in a non-encyclopedic way. The writing felt relatable and invited me to explore the Celtic culture, even though I have very little former knowledge of the traditions. The illustrations and photographs of sacred symbols throughout the book enhanced the writing, visually prompting me to connect with the words on the page and further absorb all the fascinating things I was learning.
I highly recommend The Book of Celtic Symbols as a guide to learning about the Celts but more meaningfully, to incorporating some of their wisdom and beliefs into your life. Nature-based living, celebrating the cycle of the year, strong women, and blessings – all of which we could use of dose of today.
Anne Greco is a non-fiction writer who writes about her life experiences and travels with humor, keen observations, and the hope that her words will remind us that “we’re all just walking each other home.” Her book, Serendipity: Chance Pilgrimages, tells the story of Anne encountering her places of power. As she reconnects with herself at each site, Anne also develops a deeper understanding and appreciation of her connection to both the seen and unseen worlds. Learn more about her work here: http://annegrecowriter.com.