[Disclaimer: while I am a linguist, I am not an expert on Celtic languages (ancient or modern), and I cannot vouch for the translations offered below. Most of the information in this article comes from the book The Lost Zodiac of the Druids by Gregory Clouter, and it should be noted that the views and translations in the book are not those entertained by most scholars.]
That the ancient druids practiced astronomy and astrology is beyond doubt. It would be amazing if they did not, since practically all ancient cultures did. But beyond that, their astronomical knowledge is specifically cited by many of the Roman, Greek and Irish authors that describe them; and there are even a few archaeological finds that suggest it.
Primary among these is the Coligny calendar, discovered as little more than a pile of bronze fragments in 1897 — most likely smashed by Roman authorities during the suppression of druidic practice — and painstakingly restored piece by piece. Less than half of the calendar remains, but there is enough to clearly see a beautiful time-keeping system that aligned the sun and moon into a single calendar, and listed dozens of holidays, rituals, celebrations, and the like.
But if Gregory Clouter (The Lost Zodiac of the Druids, 2003) is right, the Gundestrup Cauldron puts the Coligny calendar to shame.
The Cauldron — an intricate silver bowl composed of plates depicting fantastic figures and scenes — has been an object of controversy since it was found in a Danish bog in 1891. It quite clearly shows gods and motifs associated with Celtic culture, and yet many scholars say that its style and expertise of silver craftsmanship places it firmly in Thrace (near the Black Sea). The figures and scenes on the cauldron are similarly mysterious and controversial. Someone appears to be dipping a hapless victim into a vat — who? Why? Is that antlered Cernunnos sitting there apparently in the lotus position, holding a torc in one hand, and a serpent in the other? It appears that a bust of a goddess is being carted about; who? Why? Is that a unicorn about to be stabbed in the throat by some kind of warrior? Who is that holding a cart’s wheel — and why is only half of the wheel shown?
In other words, the cauldron appears to show a random collection of animals, people, and objects jumbled together for no particular purpose.
Remind you of something?
If Clouter is right, then the cauldron is nothing less than a map of the druidic night sky, and as such is beyond priceless.
Orion, Taurus, and the Big Dog
The plate linked to here shows three great horned animals, each about to be slit in the throat by a warrior. Each of the three warriors has a dog at his feet, and above each great horned animal is some kind of floating cat or something. Clouter identifies the great horned animal as a bull (something most scholars agree with), the warrior with Orion, and the dog as Canis Major. The cat he does not mention, but it is right about where Aries and the Pleiades should be. Compare this image of the modern constellations:
The image on the cauldron is the mirror image of the sky, and repeated three times… but otherwise, to me at least, the match is striking. Particularly interesting is the way the figures are placed, and their relative sizes, matching extremely well what’s in the sky.
Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio/Ophiuchus
And is that Cernunnos there holding that snake? Clouter says yes, and identifies him with Ophiuchus, the shaman/snake charmer in the traditional system. Ophiuchus is a constellation that sits on the path of the planets, but usually is not given an official place in the zodiac of western astrology. Clouter suggests that Scorpio was the tail of the snake held by Cernunnos, making him a gigantic constellation.
Next to Cernunnos on the cauldron is a hound. Clouter suggests this corresponds to Libra (the scales). Interestingly, in the Coligny calendar, the month in which the full moon appears in Libra is called Cutios, the “House of the Hound.”
Next to the hound are two figures like lions, apparently at each other’s throats, locked in battle. Clouter associates these with Virgo and Leo. Note how, even though the cauldron’s rightmost lion is ‘backwards’, its curling tail on the cauldron matches the curling backwards question mark in Leo’s mane.
It must be said that the other figures on this plate don’t match the modern sky at all. Where one would expect to see the Eagle and some other dim constellations, we have a massive stag; and where one would expect to see Hercules and the Herdsman, we have another dog (?), and what appears to the untutored eye to be a Lakota chief riding a coelacanth.
Nevertheless, I think the matchup is remarkable, and it becomes all the more remarkable as Clouter piles on the correspondences around the rest of the sky. The great figure dipping the victim into a vat becomes Smertrius, “the immerser”, mapped to Aquarius, the water bearer, and Capricorn becomes the vat; and the horseman next to them becomes Sagittarius (the centaur — a different kind of horseman!). The squarish bust of the goddess on the cart becomes the Great Square of Pegasus. And the person grasping the half-wheel is interpreted as the solar deity (wheel) held fast by Esus, mapped to Cancer grasping Gemini (and yes, Gemini doesn’t look much like a wheel — that’s why the cauldron shows just HALF a wheel…).
Around the Sky
Here, then, is the Lost Druid Zodiac:
- Bull (Taurus) October / November
- Sky Wheel (Gemini) November / December
- Esus (Cancer) December / January
- Lion I (Leo) January / February
- Lion II (Virgo) February / March
- Hound (Libra) March / April
- Cernunnos (Ophiuchus / Scorpio) April / May
- Mounted Sky God (Sagittarius) May / June
- Sacrificial Vat (Capricorn) June / July
- Smertrius (Aquarius) July / August
- Chariot (Pisces) August / September
- Tail of Dog (Aries) September / October
The list begins with Taurus, because the Coligny calendar begins its year with the full moon in the Bull (which occurs in October or November sometime — when the Sun is in Scorpio). In fact, the new moon preceding the full moon in Taurus would be the date of Samhain, the druids’ New Year. For the curious, Samhain this year occurred on Oct. 28.
If you want to know what your Druid “sign” is in this system, you need to know where the moon was when you were born. If we still had a lunar calendar, or a lunar-solar calendar like the one unearthed at Caligny, you would just have to know what month you were born in; but unfortunately our calendar is only solar these days. Feel free to drop me a line with your birth day and year, and I’ll be delighted to look it up for you.
I myself am a Chariot, but I don’t know what that would mean to the ancient druids. Would it have the same watery associations as Pisces? Not on the face of it — although the month when the moon is in the Chariot was called Edrinos, “causes to run”, and running is certainly something that water and chariots both do. Any speculation on what these druidic signs “mean” astrologically has got to be very tenuous, at least when held up to academic scrutiny…
…But in the landscape of my spirit, in the Forest of the Horned God, I will make my own connections. It was only recently that I saw stars in meditation for the first time. Next time my inner eye looks up, I will see what manner of beasts and peoples crawl the heavens there.