Tag Archive: celts


Welcome back dear readers!  I present to you the second half of my little journey into exploring the ancient Celts and their way of life.

A Taste for Luxury

ART AND APPRECIATION The Celtic penchant for finely worked metal is evident in a harness plaque.

“Rich Celtic tombs filled with luxurious goods and fine Greek pottery and bronzes show the importance of trade in the Iron Age. Celts settled along trade routes, trading their own metals and metalwork, salt and salted meat, cloth, furs and animal skins and grain. They also acted as middlemen in the trade across Europe.

Trade Routes

The Celts depended on Europe’s river system for conducting trade, but archaeological remains also indicate the use of roadways. Wooden trackways were constructed across bogs in Ireland and Germany, and archaeologists believe the Celts made them as part of a roadway system for their wheeled wagons to carry trade goods across the continent.

The wagons could cover 18 miles a day and traders could halt for the night at regular stopping places.

Ships at Sea

A replica of an ancient Celtic long ship on the Clyde in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo Macleod.

The sea offered another route for Celts, especially those trading in the gold from Wales and Ireland, and tin, hunting dogs and slaves from Britain. Celtic ships, built of oak able to withstand the Atlantic Ocean, were so sturdily constructed that Roman ships had trouble sinking them through their usual tactic of ramming.

Wine for the Feast

An Attic black-figure amphora with Dionysus, circa 6th century BCE. This is attributed to the Priam Painter, active in Athens at that time.

Vast numbers of amphorae, or wine storage jars, found in the ruins of Celtic settlements display the Celts’ love for Italian and Greek wines, which they served at feasts. Greek amphorae and Italian barrels holding wine were transported by road and sea. Wine was so important and valuable that it was even buried with the wealthy so they could enjoy it at feast in the afterlife – the residue of wine was found in a bronze krater at the burial of the princess of Vix.

GREEK TRADE The Hallstatt Celts traded widely with Ancient Greece. Pottery, such as this amphora, was particularly desired. Greek historians were the first to write about the Keltoi. Roman historians later called them Gauls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stater coin of the Parisii tribe, 100-50 BCE.

MAKING MONEY

Coins were created in Lydia possibly as early as 640 BCE, and coinage spread quickly to Greece and into Europe, as it made trading so much simpler. Many Celtic tribes minted coins in their regional centers, mostly in gold and silver. Celts began by copying Macedonian and Greek coins, including the Greek inscriptions. Their coins showed riders on horseback and wild-haired charioteers. Gradually the Celts reduced these images to a series of dots and squiggles, so that the horse was only just recognizable in this typically Celtic abstract style.

The Metalsmith’s Art

A horse on an ornamental bronze axe (hatchet), from Hallstatt, Austria. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

The Celts were masters of metalwork – their skills far exceeded those of the Greeks and Romans. Metalsmiths decorated nearly everything, from the simplest cloak pin to swords. In the Hallstatt period, life-like images of people and animals were feature, but during the La Tène period decoration became increasingly abstracted.

 

Iron Age, 50 BCE - AD 50 From Desborough, Northamptonshire, England

A Hidden Face

Several beautifully decorated bronze Celtic mirrors have survived. One surface is polished to a high sheen, and the mirror was suspended by a hole in the handle when not in use. When the mirror found at Holcombe in England is turned upside down, a scary little face appears that cannot be seen when the mirror is held right way up – hidden faces were a favorite trick of the Celtic artists.

The decoration on the back of the mirror and pattern is very complex: a clover-leaf pattern is symmetrically repeated on the left- and right-hand side of the mirror. The pattern may have been laid out using a compass.

Recent archaeologists have suggested that mirrors should be seen as symbols of female status and power, making as significant a statement for women as swords did for men. [1]

 

 

 

The Basse Yütz flagons, which are very similar but not quite identical, are dated to around 500 BCE and demonstrate many metalsmithing techniques. The body of each flagon was hammered into shape from a flat sheet of bronze. The ducks and the animals were made by casting. The animals’ bodies are decorated with incising and punching. Coral and enamel inlay and color to the neck and base.

A Metalsmith’s Hoard

Gold torcs (neck rings) represent some of the finest work of Celtic artists. The magnificent Snettisham torc was plowed up in a field in Norfolk, England in 1950. It weighs 38 ounces and was made of eight twisted wires, each with eight stands, soldered into two hollow, decorated rings. A metalsmith buried the torc for safety with the rest of his stock – finished pieces, broken pieces and some scrap metal – but never retrieved.

The Great Torque, from Snettisham, Norfolk. Made of eight 'ropes' twisted together, each 'rope' has eight strands of gold

The Snettisham torc was made from electrum, an alloy of three parts gold to two parts silver.  Silver was more valuable than gold because it was rarer, and was thus used more sparingly.

 GOLDEN TREASURES

Vix torc

Many artifacts have survived in excellent condition because they were found buried in graves or tombs: gold torcs from Ireland and Hallstatt (above) and a horned helmet (below) are examples.

This Celtic horned helmet was found in the River Thames (near Waterloo Bridge), and dates from 150-50 BCE, during which time this area may have fallen within Cantii territory.

Journey to the Next Life

Careful preparation of burials for everyone from the most humble to the wealthiest Celtic is testimony to the belief in a life after death. Bronze funerary carts found in some Celtic graves show a Goddess directing the process leading the soul of the person into the next life.

“Poulnabrone Portal Tomb (dolmen) in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland ” (Photo credit: Jason Sturner 72)

HERE TO ETERNITY The portal tomb (above) with its large slab roof was especially prevalent in Ireland. Most people were buried with their prized belongings, such as this ceramic urn (above).

 

A ceramic urn found in the funeral mound of Lann-Tinikei at Plomeur, Morbihan, on the south coast of Brittany. Musee de Antiquities Nationales, Germain-en-Laye, France. Located in: Musee des Antiquites Nationales.

Ceramic urn discovered in a funeral mound at Plomeur, Morbihan, in Brittany. Decorated with juxtaposed stamped geometric shapes based on metal originals the pottery typifies the transitional period during the fifth century B.C. from the Hallstatt to the La Tene. Used as cremation urns they have been found in tumulus burial places, but mainly in flat grave cemeteries which often also hold standing stones carved into geometric shapes.

The Feast of Samhain Held in Ireland around November 1 each year, at the beginning of winter, the feast of Samhain celebrated the summer’s end. The Irish Celts believed that this was a time of chaos, when the division between the gods and mortals, and between the living and the dead broke down – those in the spirit world could then interfere with the living. This ancient Celtic feast is the origin of celebrating Halloween.

Horses and Wagons

Wagons were placed in graves to provide transport to the next life, although the horses were too valuable to be buried. Three sets of elaborate bronze horse-trappings could be put into a grave – one set for the owner’s riding horse and two for the draft horses that would pull the wagon

One of the most important and best documented excavations of a Celtic burial mound belongs to "The Prince of Hochdorf." At some time around 550 BC, a Celtic noble was buried under a mound in what is now Eberdingen-Hochdorf (Baden-Württemberg) Deutschland/Germany.

Rich burials, like those of the Hochdorf prince and the Mont Lassois (Vix) princess show the elaborate preparation of the burial of high-ranking Celts. Both include all the elaborate preparation of the burial of high-ranking Celts. Both include all the equipment for the feasts the Celts loved and must have looked forward to in the next life.

The Afterlife

Classical writers and the Irish poets recorded many ideas about the afterlife, including the concept of soul passing from one body to another, or of the soul continuing to control a person’s body after death. Celts thought they could enjoy a land of peace and harmony after death, though warriors could still enjoy the combat they loved on earth. Ancient records also make mention of a dangerous place where the dead might have to defeat terrifying monsters.

Phiale (offering plate) found at the princess of Vix tomb

ROYAL ACCESSORIES Found in the tomb of a princess, who lived in Vix, France, in the late 6th century BCE, were a phiale (left) made from silver and gold and a chariot (reconstruction below), in which the princess was laid for burial. At Himlingoje, Denmark, a woman was buried with precious possessions (click here).

Reconstruction of a Chariot Found at the Tomb of a Princess of Vix


Gifts to the Gods

Celtic God Cernunnos, holding and wearing torcs

Celtic religion is something of a mystery, but it is known that Celts worshipped both Gods and Goddesses and that their religion was based on nature. The Celts rarely built stone temples for their gods, as the Greeks and Romans did. Instead, they visited simple shrines in remote places, such as in clearings in the woods, and near lakes, rivers and springs, for worship and to make offerings.

Three Mothers

The Morrigan: Badb, Macha and Anu

Celts worshipped three mother Goddesses who are associated with war – Morrigan, Macha and Badb, who were known The Morrigna (the great queens). They were also Goddesses of the earth and fertility. The number three represented strength, and is common in art and beliefs.  The Goddess Brighid was another Triple Goddess worshipped by the Celts.

from "Celtic Gods Celtic Goddesses" by R.J.Stewart, artwork Miranda Gray.

GODDESS OF THE RIVER SEINE A bronze figurine of the Goddess Sequana in flowing robes on a boat with its prow shaped like the head of a duck.

GODDESS OF THE RIVER SEINE A bronze figurine of the Goddess Sequana in flowing robes on a boat with its prow shaped like the head of a duck.

At the Source of the Seine

The Goddess Sequana presided over a healing shrine at the source of the Seine in France. Pilgrims made offerings to the Goddess and stayed to be healed. Their gifts, or votives, often represented the part of the body to be healed – such as limbs, eyes, breasts and models or carvings of internal organs.

Discovered in 1937, this bronze figure of the goddess Sequana, riding a duck-shaped barge, may have graced a temple built in Roman times at the source of the Seine River, where sick pilgrims journeyed in search of cures. The statue is some eighteen inches high.

Into the Water

Celts saw water as a transition between this world and the next. In the 1st century BCE, Celtic people at Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales threw swords, spears, shields, chariot and horse harness fittings, trumpets, cauldrons and ironworkers’ tools into the water as an offering to the Gods. Some items had never been used.

The people might have been seeking protection against the advance of the Roman armies, or giving the Gods their spoils of war.

 

Janus Stone, Boa Island, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

The Janus Stone is regarded as one of the most enigmatic and remarkable stone figures in Ireland.  It is called a Janus-figure because it has two faces, reminding some of the Roman two-headed deity Janus, however, it is not a representation of Janus. It is thought to represent a Celtic deity and could represent a Celtic goddess as readily as a god, especially given the name of the island.

In Celtic culture, heads were very important because they were thought to contain a person’s spirit after their death. Severed heads were taken in triumph after battles. [2]

Cult of the Skulls Celts cut off the heads of enemies they had slain in battle and attached them to the necks of their horses. They believed the soul resided in the head and that the head of the enemy had magical powers – taking the head gave the warrior control over their enemy. They also nailed heads to their houses and gave them to temples as part of the spoils of war.

Celts Against Rome

By the 1st century BCE the Romans had most of Gaul under control. But in 58 BCE the Celtic Helvetii tribe attempted to migrate out of Switzerland, under pressure from the tribes of the north. As the Helvetii confronted Caesar’s forces, some Celts started to rebel under the leadership of Vercingetorix.

Although the Roman army was far more sophisticated, its Celtic opponents, such as the heroic Vercingetorix, had a reputation for fierceness on the battlefield.

"Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar", 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer

Vercingetorix’s rebellion ended in defeat because, despite the number and skill of his warriors, he couldn’t outdo battle-hardened Caesar. This young chief of the Averni was chosen to lead a confederation of Celtic tribes against Rome. Forced by Caesar to retreat into the town of Alesia, he eventually surrendered in 52 BCE, ans was taken back to Rome and executed six years later. Celtic culture gradually disappeared, and Europe – but not the British Isles – was gradually Romanized.

In 58 BCE Julius Caesar was appointed to the governorship of Gaul. He had six strong Roman legions under his command, and he saw an opportunity to achieve great glory and acquire more power in Rome. Caesar was known for his speed and decisiveness in war and strategic brilliance as a general.

MILITARY TRIUMPHS Julius Caesar inspired his soldiers in battle. Here he leads his army into Great Britain (55-54 BCE).

Caesar’s Books To publicize his victories and glorify himself, Caesar wrote about his campaigns of 58 to 51 BCE. His book – de bello gallico or The Gallic War – recorded many details of Celtic society, not just war, in Gaul at the time. Caesar admired the strength and abilities of the Celtic warriors and said that “A united Gaul forming a single nation animated by the same spirit can defy the universe.”

Celts in Battle

The physical appearance of the Celtic warriors was intimidating for the Ancient Greeks who whose average height was shorter comparing to the Celts.

The ancient Greek writer Strabo said the Celts had noting on their side in war except their own strength and courage, and that they were easily outwitted. The tribes were evenly matched fighting each other and often contained combat to avoid a full-scale war. In battle their main tactic was to create fear and pandemonium among their opponents. However, the Celts were no match for the disciplined Roman army of experienced and strategic generals like Caesar.

The Noise of Battle

Celtic warrior weapons were the usual: swords spears hammers and axes as well as bow and arrows, long bows and booby traps.

Celtic warriors not only looked frightening; they also made a tremendous noise on the battlefield, yelling and beating their wooden shields to intimidate the enemies. Celts used the carnyx to add to the racket. Dozens of these trumpets – twice the height of the man carrying it, and with an animals’ head on top – made terrifying blasts.

Still to this day people with Celtic heritage are a very proud people as a whole and attempt to incorporate that what little information we have available into their daily spiritual lives. Various Neopagan groups claim association with Celtic polytheism. These groups range from the Reconstructionists, who work to practice ancient Celtic religion with as much accuracy as possible; to new age, eclectic groups who take some of their inspiration from Celtic mythology and iconography, the most notable of which is Neo-druidry.

And with that, this concludes our journey.  This was a very broad overview on a very large and in depth subject.  I hope that you’ve found some interesting information in this two part blog that would spark further research and investigation on your own.  At the bottom of this blog, I’ve included some links to some very good pages (in my opinion) that are packed full of detailed information.” (Excerpt from “The Celts – How the Barbarians Tamed Europe ” – Ancient Civilizations, by International Masters Publishers, pp. 10-19)

Suggested Links:

The Ancient Celts
Celtic Art
Celtic Culture
Celtic History: The Ancient Celtic Warriors of Europe
History of the Goddess Worshipers
The Lives of Ancient Celtic Women
The Power of Women in Celtic Society: Female Druids
The Religion of the Celts
Why Wicca Is Not Celtic 


Who were the Celts?  Where did they come from?  How did they live?  What did they believe?  Well, no one knows for sure what exactly happened in the beginning or what our ancient ancestors believed.  All we can do is attempt to reconstruct a lineage using similarities in art, what writing remains, and archeological artifacts.  Little would the ancient Celts know, that eventually their influences would have a major impact on the world, the Neo-Pagan and Wiccan religious movements.  This 2 part journey is to discover what we may of the Celts as a people, how they lived and how they tamed the West, Western Europe, that is.

Who Were the Celts?

“The ancient Celts lived in tribal societies throughout Europe for about eight centuries before the birth of Christ.  Ancient Greek and Roman writers described the Celts as ferocious warriors, but there was more to the Celtic civilization than warfare.  The Celtic people were also farmers, miners, traders and seafarers.  They produced vibrant works of art and exquisite jewelry, and at feasts their bards recited from memory the tales of their gods and heroes.

The Celts were an Indo-European and ethno-linguistically diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Roman-era Europe who spoke Celtic languages.  The earliest archaeological culture that may justifiably be considered as Proto-Celtic is the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture of central Europe from the last quarter of the second millennium BCE.  Their fully Celtic descendants in central Europe were the people of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture (c. 800-450 BCE) named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria.  By the later La Tène period (c. 450 BCE up to the Roman conquest), this Celtic culture had expanded over a wide range of regions, whether by diffusion or migration: to the British Isles (Insular Celts), France and The Low Countries (Gauls), much of Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula (CeltiberiansCeltici and Gallaeci) and northern Italy (Golaseccans and Cisalpine Gauls) and following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans in 279 BCE as far east as central Anatolia (Galatians). [1]

Click on this link, Timeline of the Celts: The Celts as a Proto-Historic People, to view the “resume” of the involvement of the Celtic peoples in Europe and with the Romans in Britain.

The core Hallstatt territory (HaC, 800 BCE) is shown in solid yellow, The eventual area of Hallstatt influence (by 500 BCE, HaD) in light yellow. The core territory of the La Tène culture (450 BCE) is shown in solid green, The eventual area of La Tène influence (by 250 BCE) in light green. The territories of some major of the late La Tène period are labeled.

Human head with ornamental hairdo on the face of a gold stater from the first coinings of the Parisii in Gaul.

The ancient Greeks named the Iron Age people of Europe the Keltoi.  The Celtic tribes were diverse but spoke Celtic languages and had a similar approach to social organization.

Understanding the Celts

Information about the Celts comes from archaeological finds and from the comments of ancient Greek and Roman writers, who were fascinated by their barbarian neighbors and recorded details of Celtic social customs. Celts did not record their own history so the names of towns or leaders are often unknown.

Men wore tunics and trousers of wool or linen, unlike the draped clothing of the Greeks and Romans.

Heroic Society

A warrior aristocracy, headed by kings and chieftains, led the Celtic tribes. Archaeologist have found spectacular tombs belonging to unknown Celtic aristocrats, including ‘the Hochdorf prince’ and the ‘princess of Vix.’ Within the Celtic tribe, the majority of members were farmers.  Between the aristocrats and the farmers was another class, consisting of craftsmen, bards and priests – the Druids.

Celtic Warriors

The ancient writers describe Celts as boastful, argumentative, fierce and quick to wage war.  The Celtic tribes were often on the move, shifting into new lands, and fighting each other frequently.  Chiefs led cattle raids against neighboring tribes to acquire their land, capture their cattle and take control of the population.

 

Reconstruction drawing of a Celtic feast in full flight in Iron Age Britain, by Chris Evans (English Heritage Graphics Team).

Feasts and Fables

The head of the tribe entertained his followers lavishly.  Men sat in a circle on the floor in a specific order, their shield bearers standing behind them, and their spearmen seated opposite.  Food was prepared in huge cauldrons or on spits and served with imported wines or local beer.  The tribe’s bards recited the legends of the tribe and its warriors to entrain the guests.

 

 

 

 

Boudica addresses her troops

Women in Society

The classical writers tell us that Celtic women were not only as tall as their menfolk, but rivaled them in strength as well.  Celtic women could enjoy high status and even act as ambassadors to prevent war; equally, they could incite war and lead their tribe into battle.  One of the most famous Celtic women is Bouddica, who led the Iceni and other British tribes against the Romans.

Fearsome Heroine

In around 60 AD, Boudicca led an uprising of the Iceni and Trinovantes tribes against the Roman occupation of Britain.  Although the Britons recognized women as heirs, the Romans did not.

The statue of the dying Gaul shows how some Celtic warriors went into battle – naked, wearing only a torc (neck ring), which they believed protected the wearer, and body paint.  In Britain, the Celtic warriors used woad to paint their bodies blue.  Warriors washed their hair in limewater to make it white and also stand on end – contributing to their frightening appearance.

The Dying Gaul is a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic work of the late third century BCE. Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Villages, Fort and Town

Most Celts lived on farms or in small villages.  In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Celtic leaders in different parts of Europe built vast hillforts.  Later Celts often lived in an oppidum, or fortified town, while in coastal Scotland they built defensive stone towers.

DEFENSIVE – Living in an oppidum did not guarantee security.  However, the Celts were usually well prepeared for any situation, with an array of strong weapons of bronze and iron – including daggers, long swords, spears, javelins and bows and arrows – and a simpler weapon, the slingshot.

 

An artists impression of Maiden Castle during late Iron Age occupation, viewed from the western entrance, looking east.

Strong Defenses

The Heuneburg in Germany, Mont Lassois in France and Maiden Castle in England are all Celtic hillforts.  At Maiden Castle, walls and ditches that were 66 feet deep enclosed an area of 45 acres.  Hillforts were built in troubled times when Celts needed protection from other tribes shifting across Europe, as they often controlled the trade routes.  Nearby, burial mounds concealed rich funeral treasures.

 

 

 

Even the most practical items were made beautiful by Celtic craftspeople. This bronze-mounted wooden bucket is one example.

Life in an Oppidum

From the 2nd century BCE many Celts built fortified towns like wealthy Manching in Germany.  Manching’s 4.5 miles long walls enclosed 939 acres of land.  Five to ten thousand people lived here in single-story houses set on a neat grid of streets.  In the town’s manufacturing area the industries included iron-working, metal recycling and coin making, as well as jewelry, pottery, textile and glass making.  There were even some farming inside the town walls.

 

 

 

 

 

The Mousa Broch, one of Scotland's best preserved brochs. Courtesy of the Shetland Museum, Lerwick, UK.

Approximately 500 broches (stone-walled towers) have been found in northern Scotland and the northern islands.  These massive towers could be 50 feet wide, inside double walls that were 10 feet thick.  Mousa Broch in Shetland, the best-preserved example, is 44 feet tall.  Brochs housed a single family.

Miners at Work

Salt, silver, gold, iron, tin and copper – these essential Iron Age resources were all found in Celtic lands across Europe and the British Isles.  Valued minerals were essential to Celtic trade with the lands fringing the Mediterranean Sea.  The miners who collected and extracted them had a hard life, but their work has also resulted in some fascinating archaeological remains.

In the Salt Mines

The early Iron Age Celts were the first to mine the salt in Germany’s Salzburg Mountains.  Slaves dug tunnels reaching 980 feet underground, and the remains of their pine twig torches can still be seen in the mines today.  Salt gave the local rulers great wealth, but life underground was unpleasant and dangerous.  In 1734, the preserved body of one of the ancient Celtic miners was found; it had been well preserved by the surrounding salt.

Salzburg Mountains (Austria) seen from Bavaria (Germany)

Examples of fine Celtic metalworking include the bronze Witham Shield.

Collecting Iron

Collecting and working iron to make tools and weapons defines the Iron Age in Europe.  Iron is strong, much more easily found than the materials needed to make bronze, and easier to work.  It was often collected as lumps from bogs, for instance, and towns like Manching probably grew rich from collecting and working the local bog iron.

Fire and Water

Bronze, made from copper and tin, was used throughout the Iron Age. Copper was often found in extraordinarily hard rocks.  To extract the ore, the Celts used fire-setting: a fire was lit against the ore-bearing rock and, when the rock was hot, they threw water at it – the sudden change in temperature cracked the rock, making it break up.

Mines and Metal

The mountains above Hallstatt, were rich in salt, which the Celts exploited. In addition to mining, they mastered the art of bronze and iron metalworking.  A typical item was the spear tip often used by both men and women.

 

A very precious metal, tin, was essential for bronze making, is very rare in Europe.  It was thought to be so precious that it was even used to make beads for jewelry.

Tin from Cornwall, in southwest England, was probably already being traded across Europe in the Bronze Age, and the Celts continued to sail there to collect tin until the 1st century BCE.  Later, the Romans also mined tin in Cornwall.” (Excerpt from “The Celts – How the Barbarians Tamed Europe ” – Ancient Civilizations, by International Masters Publishers. pp. 1-9)

Next week, I’ll post the other half of this blog for the Pagan Blog Project focusing on the letter C. So… “C ” you next week!

Sources:

“The Celts – How the Barbarians Tamed Europe ” by Ancient Civilizations.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celts
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