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The Fabrication of 'Celtic' Astrology
by Peter Berresford Ellis

Ed. N.: This article, previously published in The Astrological Journal (vol 39. n. 4, 1997), completes the first one, published in Réalta and then by C.U.R.A. My thanks to Maurice McCann for his kind help.

The Celtic 'tree zodiac' fabrications, the direct result of Robert Graves' invention of a tree calendar', have become an almost insurmountable barrier to any serious study of the forms of astrology that were practised by pre-Christian Celtic society. For fifty years, from the time Graves' published his book The White Goddess (1946), a veritable industry has been built up among his acolytes, which preach artificial astrological ideas based on Graves' spurious arguments. Some have even published books on what they fondly term 'Celtic Astrology', manufacturing a completely artificial 'astrological system'.

It has hitherto not been my practice to directly criticise Graves nor his acolytes. As a novelist and poet, Graves' work is much to be admired and his two-volume study of The Greek Myths (1955) is highly regarded. There is even much in The White Goddess that is praiseworthy. It can be said that Graves' work is a fascinating attempt at an anthropological and mythological study which, had he had some scholastic advice, might have resulted in an interesting contribution in the mould of Joseph Campbell's work.

However, when he asked for advice from a reputable scholar in the field of Celtic Studies and specifically Ogham research, he rejected it because it did not support his prefixed notions. As I have often pointed out, the old Irish proverb runs Oscar cách i gceird araile - in free translation, everyone is a beginner at another's trade or craft. Graves, as someone who studied Classics for one year at St. John's College, Oxford, 1913, before enlisting in the army (on his return to university he switched from Classics and took his degree in English Language and Literature), should have been the first to realise that to write a study on Greek mythology and its early linguistic expression without knowing a word of Greek was not only an impertinence but would lead one into all sorts of errors. Why did Robert Graves feel he was thus able to write such a study on Celtic mythology with a heavy reliance on linguistic interpretation when he lacked a linguistic knowledge to do so?

In fairness to Graves, he was not the first nor the last person to take the view that they can intrude into the field of Celtic culture, interpret it and pontificate on its philosophies without any knowledge of the Celtic languages in Old, Middle or Modern forms. Hundreds of books are written on Celtic mythology, culture and history by people who have not studied one word of a Celtic language. Of all the civilisations in the world, the Celts alone appear to have become fair game for anyone setting themselves up as experts but who wouldn't recognise a Celt if one greeted them on an Irish or Cornish road with 'Conas tá tú?' or Dêth da dhys!'.

There is an irony that, in the very year that Robert Graves published his work, Professor Thomas Francis O'Rahilly (1883-1953), one of the most erudite Celtic scholars of the age, published his monumental Early Irish history and Mythology. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studied, 1946. This work is one of real Celtic scholarship, which, I am afraid, makes Robert Graves appear as the untutored dabbler in an alien field that he unarguably was. Yet it is Graves who gets an international reputation for his fantasies while Professor O'Rahilly receives his accolades only in the world of Celtic scholarship.

In two recent lectures, given to the British AA Conference at Exeter University, in 1996, and to the Irish AA Conference, Co. Meath, in 1997, as well as an article in Réalta, August 1996, I simply demonstrated the astrological practices the Celts really used. I hoped this would be enough to show people how bogus the 'tree zodiac' idea was. However, old myths die hard and many people are still reluctant to admit that Robert Graves has misled them.

Robert Graves relied on 19th Century translations, and often very bad translations as well as texts that were quite counterfeit. Indeed, texts which were simply mere inventions. He was inclined to late 18th and 19th Century Welsh romantics ('gentlemen antiquarians)' rather than reliable scholars.

One of Robert's main sources was Edward Williams (1747-I826) who named himself Iolo Morganwg. Now a lot of positives things can be said for Williams as a poet but little for his scholarship. In furtherance of his claims Williams was prepared to exercise a fertile imagination and considerable literary gifts, even to the point of falsifying the sources of Welsh history and misleading his contemporaries about the nature of Welsh literary traditions. This had the result that many serious students laboured throughout the 19th Century under misapprehensions for which he, and he alone, had been responsible. Only when Celtic Studies began to be properly organized at university level, when serious scholars such as Sir John Rhys (1840-1915) become the first Professor of Celtic Studies at Jesus College, Oxford, in 1877, were the fabrications of Williams and his comrades identified and dismissed. Like Robert Graves, Williams or Iolo Morganwg, to give him the name he chose was a poet and should have stuck to his craft.

Another Welsh writer whom Robert Graves placed a great deal of faith in was Edward Davies (1756-1831) known as 'Celtic' Davies. He, too, was a poet, dramatist and collector of manuscripts who, with Iolo Morganwg, was an inventor of the 'druidic revival'. Robert Graves borrowed freely from Celtic Researches (1804) and The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809). But Edward Davies clearly had only an imperfect knowledge of Welsh and certainly was not qualified for the task of interpreting modern Welsh materials let alone Middle Welsh texts. Again, his work has not been taken seriously by Welsh or Celtic scholars since the mid 19th Century.

However, the person whom Robert Graves placed all his reliance on for the invention of his 'tree calendar' and the subsequent 'tree zodiac’ was an Irishman. Ruairí Ó Flaitheartaigh or, in Anglicized form, Roderic O'Flaherty (1629-1718). He was born in Co Galway and inherited Magh Cuilinn (Moycullen) Castle and estate. He did study under Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh, one of Ireland's great scholars who was killed at the age of 85 years by an English soldier when he was returning to Galway from Dublin. O'Flaherty himself also became a victim of the Cromwellian confiscations being driven out of his home. He decided to write a history of Ireland in Latin which he called Ogygia: seu Rerum Hibernicarum Chronologia & etc. (later translated as Ogygia, or a Chronological account of Irish Events (collected from Very Ancient Documents faithfully compared with each other & supported by the Genealogical & Chronological Aid of the Sacred and Profane Writings of the Globe). This was published in Latin in 1685. The English translation came out in 1793, translated by Rev. James Hely in 2 vols. One presumes that Robert Graves read the text in Latin.

Before coming to this work in detail, we should took at the title Ogygia because I have seen a recent book purporting to be on ‘Celtic astrology’ in which the author seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that Ogygia was a synonym for Ogham, the earliest form of Irish writing. They had not only failed to read this book but did not know their Homer. In the Odyssey Ogygia is the island of Calypso vaguely thought of as being an island to the west. It was O'Flaherty's cypher for Ireland.

In 17th Century Ireland, no Irish person could hope to circulate a book on the history of the country from an Irish point of view without incurring the wrath of the English conquerors. The 17th Century was the period when an all out attempt was made by the English administration to finally reduce the Irish nation, eliminating the ruling class, the intelligentsia and destroying the native law system. All books in Irish were to be destroyed and all native centres of learning were closed.

The Irish exiles resorted to publishing books in Irish during the 17th Century and 18th Century on the Continent in places such as Louvain, Paris, Rome and Antwerp. These books were then smuggled back into the country. Other writers, using Latin as a literary vehicle, had to use cyphers if they were speaking of Ireland. When Colonel Cathal O' Kelly wrote an account of the Williamite conquest of Ireland in 1691 he had to call it Macariae Excidum, or the Destruction of Cyprus - using Cyprus as the cypher for Ireland.

The title Ogygia, therefore, was O'Flaherty's cypher for Ireland and has nothing to do with Ogham. It should be pointed out that O'Flaherty's Ogygia was immediately criticised for its scholarship by such worthies as the Scottish Gael Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636-91), Dean of Faculty (1682) at Aberdeen, who established the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, which, in 1925, became the National Library of Scotland. By coincidence, the library contained a 16th Century text in Irish called ‘Ranna na Aeir’ (On the Constellations) which shows some of the realities of Irish cosmology. The arguments about O'Flaherty's claims became a running controversy into the 18th century, ending with a book published in 1775 entitled The Ogygia Vindicated by C. O'Connor of Dublin. None of these arguments seem to have been known by Robert.

O'Flaherty had included in his history what purported to be an essay on the understanding of the ancient Ogham alphabet, the earliest known form of Irish writing. The alphabet glyphs are represented by a varying number of strokes and notches marked along the edge of stone monuments. Nothing survives of Ogham beyond the inscriptions on stones, although we have references to it being written on wands of wood, much like the ancient Chinese recorded their earlier written works. The great bulk of inscriptions belong to the 5th and 6th Centuries. Of the 369 known inscriptions by far the highest number occur in the southwestern Irish province of Munster. One third of the total are found in Co Kerry alone.

O'Flaherty, in listing the Ogham characters, stated that each letter was supposedly named after a tree. This concept had been generally accepted by 17th Century Ireland and, as an authority, an early work entitled Auraicept na nÉces (The Scholar's Primer), claimed as a 7th Century Irish grammar written by a scholar named Longarad, was cited. The earliest surviving copy of the Auraicept is one in the 14th Century Book of Ballymote. This was compiled by Maghnus Ó Duibhgeánáin of Co Sligo in 1390 and therefore seven centuries after the Auraicept was said to have been originally composed.

Now Robert Graves, in looking at O'Flaherty's essay, saw that he had rendered the Ogham letters, with their so-called tree names, as 13 consonants and 5 vowels. However, the Book of Ballymote original, which he did not look at (even though it had been published by the Royal Irish Academy in 1887), actually carried a total of 25 letters. True, of course, five of these letters were called forfeda 'extra letters' invented at a later stage and not occurring in early Ogham. But this still left a total of 20 letters, 5 vowels and 15 consonants. However, Robert was quite happy with O’ Flaherty's 5 vowels and 13 consonants because he could allow his poetic imagination to come into play. Wasn't there a reference that the ancient Celts reckoned their year by lunar months? That would make 13 months. He ignored that this would mean the addition of a small fraction as well. He went further. Weren’t there, in reality, 13 constellations in the zodiac? Surely the 13 consonants meant not only 13 months but also 13 constellations? The tree names must logically be the ancient Irish names for the months and for the constellations, mustn't they? If Robert could find a means of placing his 13 chosen trees in some sort of seasonal order, he could have a tree calendar'. It was that simple. Soon the tree names, according to Graves’s acolytes, became the names of the constellations of the zodiac signs, corresponding to the names of the months.

Once he had made this curious leap' into the linguistic darkness, everything followed. 'I noticed almost at once,' boasts Robert proudly, 'that the consonants of the alphabet form a calendar of seasonal tree magic ...' (p165). I would add - not without an incredible bending of reality.

Robert was so overcome by his own erudition that he immediately wrote off to the then greatest living authority on Ogham, Professor Robert MacAlister of Dublin (1870-1950). Among his works is the monumental Corpus Inscriptionem Insularum Celticarum, Stationery Office, Dublin, 2 vols, 1945 and 1949, his classic study on Ogham. This still has a pride of place on my bookshelf. On p.117 of The White Goddess Graves actually admits to the following:

'When recently I wrote on this subject to Dr MacAlister, as the best living authority on Oghams, he replied that I must not take O'Flaherty's alphabets seriously: 'they all seem to me to be late artificialities, or rather pedantries of little more importance than the affectations of Sir Pierce Shafton and his kind.' I pass on this caution in all fairness, for my argument depends on O' Flaherty's alphabet... I feel justified in supposing that O'Flaherty was recording a genuine tradition at least as old as the thirteenth century AD.' (My italics are placed in the passage to underline the enormity of what Robert Graves has done.)

A Celtic scholar is stunned, not only by his arrogant dismissal of the world's leading authority, but his last sentence. If Robert Graves thought the tree alphabet tradition only went back to the thirteenth century AD (the Book of Ballymote is actually late 14th Century), and that is precisely what MacAlister was warning him about, for we cannot trace it back beyond that time, how is he conjuring its use and claiming it as a mystical druidic calendar used in pre-Christian times?

Presumably Dr MacAlister must also have been surprised at Robert Graves' argument' because Robert Graves' own grandfather, when President of the Royal Irish Academy, was leading authority on Ogham. Charles Graves had already dismissed the 'tree alphabet' an entirely spurious. MacAlister, like all Celtic scholars who had ventured into the field Ogham, was well aware of Charles Graves' work and, indeed, MacAlister cites it in his own study.

At this point, to understand the paradox, we have to look at Robert Graves' background. While Robert Graves was born in Wimbledon, London, in 1895, he was the son of an eminent Irish writer and poet, Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931). Robert had a relating problem with his father and was rather churlish about his Irish paternal family in his biographical work Good-Bye to All That (Jonathan Cape, 1929). On the other hand, he was proud that his mother was a von Ranke, of a Saxon noble family. One can perhaps read something into the line: 'My mother married my father it seems, to help him with his five motherless children.' A.P. Graves was a widower when he married Robert's mother and already had a large family. Robert felt a neglected son of the second marriage.

Robert's father was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, with a brilliant academic career. A Doctor of Literature and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He joined the civil service in the inspectorate of education. He had a reputation as a poet and published forty books, mostly on Irish and Celtic folklore and mythology. The entire Graves family was one of the major literary and medical families of Dublin.

Grandfather Charles Graves (1812-1899) was also a graduate and a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. He became Anglican Bishop of Limerick but had pursued his academic endeavours as a professor at Trinity and become President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1861 as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1880. He was both Professor of Mathematics at TCD, and a leading authority on Ogham. He was an expert on the ancient law system of Ireland, the Brehon Law, and convinced the London Government to establish a Royal Commission to rescue, edit and translate the surviving texts, which was done through 1865-1901.

Because Robert was so dismissive of his Irish family in Good-Bye to All That, his father felt moved to write a rebuttal, in the form of his own autobiography, entitled To Return to All That which the same publishers, Jonathan Cape, published in 1930. In his book A.P. Graves said of his son's work 'Good-Bye to All That' calls for more corrections than I can enumerate

Perhaps, if Robert had had a better relationship with his father and paternal family, he might have avoided the gross errors of The White Goddess, for he might have been more conversant with his grandfather's academic work on Ogham. In 1876, Dr Charles Graves contributed a paper to the academic journal Hermathena (published by Trinity College, Dublin) on 'The Ogam Alphabet'. For the first time, he pointed out that surviving Ogham inscriptions had been written at the beginning of the Christian period and 'the extreme pagan theory could no longer be maintained'. He examined the claims made about Ogham in the Auraicept and the allied tracts on Ogham (not noted by O'Flaherty) such as Duil Feda ind Ogaim (Book of Ogham Letters) and a second text Duil Feda na Forfid (Book of Extra Letters). These texts did appear in George Calder's edition of Auraicept na nÉces (Edinburgh, 1917), which Robert had supposedly read and quoted from.

In the 'Ogham Craobh', as Dr Graves observes the 'Book of Ogham Letters' to be, he pointed out that it is claimed that the writing system was named after Ogma, the god of learning and literacy. In this tract the name of the twenty-five Ogham letters are listed. But the text disagrees on the origins of the names. This text says the letters were named after twenty-five distinguished students of Fenius Fearsaidh, the mythical king of Scythia who, in one tale, was the ancestor of the Gaels. The second texts says the twenty-five letters were named after trees. Dr Graves pointed out that the alphabet in these tracts was named after the first two letters (like the Greek alphabet) Bethluis and argues that Bethluisnin was a later assertion and he points out that the word nin was an artificial addition to the list.

We have already observed that the letters of the Bethluisnin were all called trees; and not only so, but the names of the respective letters are said to be the names of real trees and plants. We meet with this statement in all accounts of the Bethluisnin, whether ancient or modern. It will be found however, to be incorrect. It holds good only with respect to the name of some of the letters. Of several others it can be shown with certainty that they are not the names of trees or plants; whilst the remainder we can only say that it is possible that they have had such a significance.'

We shall come to what these artificial ‘tree names’ mean in a moment.

In the 1879 edition of Hermathena, Dr Graves returned with an even lengthier paper on the Ogam Beithluisnin, amplifying his arguments. His final paper on the subject was in the 1888 edition of Hermathena 'On the Ogam Inscriptions'.

Robert Graves certainly knew his grandfather was an authority on Ogham. In a reference in Good-Bye to All That, he says (p20) 'he was also an antiquary and discovered the key to ancient Irish Ogham script.’ Of course this was not actually true for the key to the script is contained the Book of Ballymote. It did not have to be 'discovered'.

O'Flaherty had, by either mistranscription, misinterpretation or other means, added his own distortions, to the fourteenth century text with its linguistic mistakes. How he arrived at a form of Ogham with five vowels and only thirteen consonants is open to question. But it was these thirteen constants, which were the central plank of Robert's theory. As he openly admitted in his book, without O’Flaherty’s rendering of Ogham, he would have no case at all.

More recently Professor Howard Meroney of Temple University, writing in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studied (Vol XXIV, 1949) contributed a paper on 'Early Irish Letter-Names' in which he takes the scholastic arguments about the tree names for Ogham a step further. Professor Meroney observes 'there has prevailed for hundreds of years a strangely erroneous opinion' that the letters were all named after trees. This strangely erroneous opinion was, he points out, perpetuated by the Rev. Patrick S. Dineen, in compiling his modern Irish dictionary Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla in 1927. Thankfully, this was not repealed by Niall 0 Dónaill when compiling the modem standard dictionary Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla in 1977.

Professor Meroney pointed out that it was Charles Graves who had begun to attack the tree name interpretation and was later supported by Helmut Arntz in 'Das Ogam', in Beitrage zur Gesgichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (1935). Professor Meroney reexamines the evidence of Calder's version of Auraicept na nÉces, which actually lists ninety such alphabets most of them simple rearrangements of the standard Ogham form called certogam - correct Ogham (Auraicept 6033). He analyses the tree names and shows most to be nonsensical renderings as Charles Graves had first claimed.

In 1991 the latest work in the field, A Guide to Ogam by Dr Damian McManus, was published in the Maynooth Monographs series No 4. (212 pages). This has now become the standard work. McManus reemphasises that earliest form of Ogam script comprises a total of twenty characters (not eighteen as given Robert Graves from O'Flaherty). They were placed in four groups of five. A later fifth group of five was included in manuscript tradition but did not form part of the original nucleus and these forfeda 'extra characters' were designed to accommodate Greek and Latin characters not already accommodated by the existing twenty characters.

The characters were probably given names in the 14th Century AD (no earlier) for teaching purposes so that children could recognise them. I will not follow Messrs Charles Graves, Arntz, Thurneysen, Meroney and McManus in their detailed refutations of the 'tree alphabet' but I will merely content myself to a brief look at O'Flaherty's alphabet which Robert Graves was so enthralled with because of its thirteen consonants and thenceforth cleaved to this version as if it were writ in stone, ignoring the simple fact that all other sources give 15 consonants and five vowels.

Firstly, let us examine the 13 consonants, which modern 'tree zodiac' astrologers have taken from Robert Graves' interpretation. Three of O'Flaherty's consonants are not found in Old Irish or in original Ogham inscriptions. These are F, P and H. F is of comparatively late formation. It is commonly prosthetic. B interchanges with M, P and F, later F is introduced to replace some of the Bh and Chw sounds. P is not an Old Irish letter and comes in with Latin in late Middle forms. H was only introduced as an auxiliary letter to express aspiration, prevent hiatus and denote lenition; a dot was used in writing Irish script to denote it. Only in Latin loan words does H appear.

Of the names as given by O'Flaherty to the letters, and accepted by Graves without question, or even being knowledgeable enough to question them, only seven correctly correspond to Old Irish tree names. We should ask ourselves why a 17th Century Irish gentleman, who was not a linguistic scholar, should be considered as an infallible source simply because he was Irish?

Dr McManus echoes other scholars when he points out that the basic twenty characters of Ogham were not all named after trees. I'll confine the meanings given by Dr McManus to the letters Graves' actually uses, which are not tree names.

L = Luis (claimed as a rowan) either comes from luise (flame, blaze) or lus (plant, herb). It is not placed in a context that makes either derivation reliable. N = Nion or nin (claimed as ash) is a fork or loft. H = Uath (claimed as hawthorn) means horror or fear. T = Tinne (claimed as ash and sometimes holly) means a bar, rod of metal, ingot etc. M = Muin (claimed as vine) means neck or throat. G = Gort (claimed as ivy) means a field. R = Ruis (claimed as elder) is from the word for red.

As for the consonant: M = muin, the vine was not native to Ireland anyway, and when it was introduced, the Old Irish was finchí, a loan word from the Latin vin. The word muin was, as stated, neck or throat, which is still found in modern Irish muineál.

The letter 'P' does not appear in Irish until the early Middle Irish period, being adopted from Latin, and is given by O'Flaherty as P Pethboc, claimed as a dwarf elder. Of course, pethboc occurs neither in Old nor early Middle Irish. Peith-bhóg occurs in Early Modern Irish, either as a corruption of a Latin loan word or, as Professor O'Rahilly contends the 'p' might be an early modern softening of 'b' perhaps from beithe (birch). At least Robert Graves realised the fact that a 'P' could not possibly exist in the early Q-Celtic Goidelic form. The famous identification of the two forms of Celtic is P in Brythonic and Q in Goidelic. At least Graves was mindful of his Ps and Qs! But how could he fit P = Pethoc into his thesis? Admitting that it was not an original Irish letter he says (p184) that he believes it simply stood for the Irish NG and arbitrarily substitutes the form nGetal claimed as a name of the dwarf elder.

Curiouser and curiouser! This is a negative, dative and vocative form. According to Professor Meroney: The spelling nGetal points to an original getal, but no such word survives otherwise in Irish.' Dr McManus however thinks getal was a verbal noun of gonid wounds or slays'. I am of the opinion that this spelling getal, however, points to an original cetal. Already in Old Irish an eclipsed c-appears as g-, compare nach gein [-- nach n-cein]. And here 1 will disagree with my learned colleague Dr McManus because he overlooks a word in Old Irish gedal (if the dental d is rendered t) then we do have a word for the broom plant. In gedal, however, Robert has to loose his 'reed' and winds up with broom. The Old Irish for a reed is cuisle. It is from this word for reed that we get the word for a pipe and cuisleoir a piper because the reed is the basic component of the pipes. I think even those who are not linguistically minded are wondering why Robert Graves could assert this linguistic conjuring act, changing the spurious P = Pethoc = dwarf elder, to the equally spurious Ng = nGetal = which he claims as 'reed'? Your guess is probably as good as mine.

We can go on and point to the G whose tree name' given by O'Flaherty is supposed to be gort = ivy. but the Old Irish word for ivy is eidnen and the word gort actually means a field, as given above.

There are also inaccuracies with the 5 vowels. O'Flaherty and Graves comes out with: A = AiIm (claimed as pine or silver fir). It is not attested in any form. The word for a pine is actually G = Giúis. 0 = Onn (claimed as furze) is actually the ash tree while furze is A = Aiteann. U = Ur (claimed as heather or even blackthorn) means earth, clay or soil and sometimes as a green branch. The Old Irish for blackthorn is D = Draogean (incidentally a popular girl's name at that time). While the U = fráech is our word for heather. E = Eadha (claimed white poplar) and I = Idho (claimed as yew) are unattested although E = Edad would give us aspen but the word for yew is L = Lúr.

So, we see, that 'tree alphabet' is hopelessly confused and at odds with itself.

Among Celtic scholars, the evidence has been clear since the time of Charles Graves' pioneering work, that the 'tree alphabet' is a nonsense. Here is one of those situations where a lack of knowledge of the language Robert Graves was dealing with was fatal to his argument. Had he known some Irish, or, indeed, known about his own grandfather's work in the field, which any scholar would have been able to point out to him had he taken the trouble to ask, he would have realised the confusion. He blundered blithely on.

He was unaware or, worse, ignored, the fact that there is clear and ample written evidence of how the Irish from the 7th century really viewed the cosmos, made their astronomical observations and undertook astrological interpretation. I have pointed this out in Réalta. As the surviving Celtic calendar dated from the 1st century BC. found at Coligny in France in 1897, did not accord with his theories, Robert airily dismissed it as a Roman invention, asserts (p166/167): 'The Coligny system probably brought into Britain by the Romans the Claudian conquest ... The Coligny system had nothing to do with Roman calendrical methods and since its first examination in 1897, scholars have demonstrated its European origins and fascinating connections with the Vedic calendrical methods of India.

Of all Robert's assertions and statements, what I find the most worrying is misquotations in his work. Probably he merely 'lifted' these quotations from his questionable translators, but - perhaps egocentricity gets the better of him - for he implies that examining the originals or scholastic translations. For example, p.195, he quotes Sanas Chormaic, Cormac's Glossary, the 10th Century Irish/Latin dictionary of Cormac MacCuileannain (AD 836-908). The two essential renditions of the text are the 1868 Calcutta edition, translated and annotated by John O'Donovan and edited by Whitley Stokes (from Mss Codex A in TCD), and the 1913 edited version of it from the c. 14th Century Leabhar Buidhe Lecain (Yellow Book of Lecan) by Professor Kuno Meyer. I have both on my bookshelf. I checked Robert Graves’s four lines of explanation for Dichetal do Chennaib, used to support one of his claims. I did not find this quotation in either edition of Sanas Chormaic. The quotation did not exist at all in Cormac. This leaves one pondering what other misquotations have been made.

When the 1961 edition of The White Goddess came out (I have used that edition for my page references), Robert Graves seemed rather peeved: 'Yet since the first edition appeared in 1946 no expert in ancient Irish or Welsh has offered me the least help in refining my arguments, or pointed out any of the errors which are bound to have crept into the text, or even acknowledged my letters.' Well, after Professor MacAlister’s experience in trying to save Robert from making a scholastic ass of himself, why should any Celtic scholar waste their time further? In ignoring Professor MacAlister’s sound advice, Robert had demonstrated sadly, that he was not interested in truth, only in getting support for his mythological concoction.

It would take a small volume to enumerate all the errors, in terms of Celtic scholarship, that Robert Graves made. Yet The White Goddess still retains an extraordinary hold on many people. More incredible is the rise of those claiming to practice a ‘Celtic astrology’ based on his false assumptions. There are too many modern myths about the Celts without this perversion of their astrological ideas and systems. Critical negativity is never the best way for scholarship to proceed but I do think it is necessary, at least at this point in time, for the modern astrological world to be warned against the proponents of the 'tree zodiac' myth.

The realities are far more exciting. Native Celtic cosmology and astrological forms were related to Vedic forms by virtue of the common Indo-European origin of the two civilisations. But at the beginning of the Christian epoch, the Celtic world quickly converted to the practise of Greco-Romano forms of astrology. The literary evidence is incontrovertible. In the 12th Century, Arabic learning and astrology swept into the Celtic countries, as it did with most other European cultures, and the Celts continued as part of mainstream western European astrological practice.

Had Robert Graves truly been interested in the realities of Celtic cosmology and paid heed to Celtic scholars, such as MacAlister, before he began to pontificate on his theories, then he would have seen an incredible wealth of available material dating back over 1500 years before his 'tree alphabet' reference came into being. There is an irony that Robert Graves placed such reliance on Welsh romantics who overlooked that the earliest surviving text in Old Welsh, dating to the 10th century, is an astronomical text in which the zodiac is discussed - and even the Welsh of the 10th Century were not talking about trees!

Our earliest surviving Irish zodiacal chart dates to the 8th Century AD. Our earliest surviving texts on astrology and astronomy in Irish and Hiberno-Latin date back to the 7th Century. Gaulish Celts, writing in Latin as a lingua franca, were writing about astrology far earlier. Repositories, such as Trinity College, Dublin, are replete with astrological charts, texts and materials, and this is just the tip of a large linguistic iceberg for many such texts also survive throughout repositories in Europe where the Irish from the 7th Century established monastic sites and churches and carried their vast literary endeavours with them.

Why is there a need to invent an astrological system for the ancient Celts when there is such ample evidence of a real one? The answer, I fear, lays in the stigma placed upon the Celtic languages by their conquerors; for the key to opening the door to this knowledge lies through the Celtic languages, particularly Irish which houses the biggest repository of material in the field. Most people, even those now setting themselves up as 'experts', are not willing to spend the time learning the Celtic languages with their Old and Middle forms. People always want a painless way to gather esoteric fruit and The White Goddess (perhaps unintentionally) supplied them with such a means; a quick fix, albeit presenting them with a fruit not merely flawed but which was a complete fabrication.

A group of Celtic scholars have now been working in the cosmological and astrological areas accumulating and assessing the substantial literary evidence, of which I have given some indication during the last year. This will soon be published. It is now time to put the dead wood of Graves' tree zodiac' into the fire where it belongs.

A Note on Ogham Script

Ogham inscriptions are not found outside the British Isles, and are predominantly found on carved ceremonial stones in west Wales and the southwest of Ireland. There are certain resemblances between Ogham and Runic alphabets, both having letters made with straight strokes branching out of a stem line. and both being divided up into groups or classes of letters.

The Ogham alphabet is termed 'Beth-Luis Nion', from the name of the first, second and last letters of the first group. It basically consists of twenty letters divided into four groups of five each (the 5 forfeda letters were a later addition).

Ogham alphabet


Biographical note: Peter Berresford Ellis BA (Hons) MA. NN. FRES is, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement 'the preeminent Celtic scholar now writing'. He is the author of thirty books on various aspects of Celtic culture and history. The recipient of many honours for his work, he has lectured on both sides of the Atlantic and is and has held prominent positions in many Celtic educational bodies.

To cite this page:
Peter B. Ellis: The Fabrication of 'Celtic' Astrology
All rights reserved © 1997-2001 Peter Berresford Ellis

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