Celts and Birth

Up until 150 years ago a baby had only an even chance of living past its 5th birthday, because so much of child birth was bound to death there are many superstitions and magical practices linked to childbirth, also many omens were used to provide future well being for a child by its parents.

To resolve the paradox of the Celtic Birth Myths, they must be regarded as symbols of the transcendental meaning of birth, of what birth is from the point of view of the unseen world. From an earthly standpoint a child is conceived inadvertently during the course of its parents' conjugal relations, without the intervention of any other agency. But from the point of view of the supernatural world, the child's birth is destined, the parents are chosen, the time and place are ordained, and the earthly life of the child is 'pre-figured' before he is conceived.

The hostility of earthly powers cannot prevent his advent; his mother has no choice and, in a sense, is violated. And in every conception there is a third factor. The child may derive its biological inheritance from its earthly parents, but it is also the incarnation of a supernatural essence. This doctrine, that a spirit enters the womb at conception, is widespread among both 'primitive' and highly sophisticated peoples. 'Man and the Sun generate man,' says Aristotle; 'Call no man father upon earth,' says St Paul, and according to St Thomas Aquinas, 'The power of the soul, which is in the semen through the Spirit enclosed therein, fashions the body.' The myths are concerned with this third factor, symbolized by the mysterious begetter and by the fructifying substance which is swallowed by the mother. In some of the stories, the begetter is a supernatural being - Lugh, Manannan, a bird-man, or one of the sidhfolk. In others he is the king or a stranger from another race.

Traces of rituals of this kind in the Celtic lands have survived both in the mythological literature itself and in later tradition. It is said that King Conchobar, who was regarded as a 'terrestrial god', was entitled to the first night with the bride of every Ulsterman, 'so that he became her first husband. According to oral tradition, Balor's two deputies exercised the same right. The Fenians had the option on the women of the tribe and claimed either a ransom or the right to cohabit with even a princess the night previous to her marriage. Boswell refers in ERIU, VOL. IV, to a Scottish laird who insited that the Mercheta Mulierum mentioned in old charters did really mean the privilege of a lord to have the first night with his vassals wives, and that on the marriage of each of his own tenants a sheep was still due to him. In Ireland, there are still 'widespread traditions of the days when landlords excercised the Jus Primae Noctis over their tenants' wives, and one hears of leases which contained clauses governing the right. As Mrs Chadwick has argued in her study of Pictish and Celtic Marriage in SCOTTISH GAELIC STUDIES, there is a great deal of evidence which 'suggests the right of a king or his Fili to beget childrenritualistically among married couples.

A belief in the fructifying potentialities of water has driven childless women throughout the ages to bathe and to drink at sacred wells in the hope of conceiving, and a belief in the embodiment of the supernatural essence in worms and flies seems to account for the fact that in Wales it is still said of a pregnant girl that she has swallowed an insect (pry') or a spider (corryn). Individual reincarnation is implied in most of the ancient tales, as there might be a hint of the rebirth of the begetter in the birthstories of Finn, Cormac mac Art, and Fiacha Broad-Crown, whose fathers were destined to die as soon as they had begotten their sons.