Earth, Sea, and Sky: Liminality in Celtic Folklore

The Rule of Three

Stories from around the world seem to consistently come back to a simple refrain: all things (both good and bad) come in threes. There are three bears, three billy goats, three little pigs. Rumpelstiltskin gives the queen three tries to guess his name, and the prince finds Cinderella’s slipper on the third night.

Triplism is particularly present in Celtic mythology. The triskelion, a symbol consisting of three branches or “arms” spiraling out from a center point, can be found on many Iron Age Celtic artifacts. Although its exact meaning is subject to debate, from an artistic standpoint it provokes a sense of motion and cycles. It’s therefore quite possible that the triskelion represents the cycle between night and day, summer and winter, and life and death.

An Irish bronze dress fastener (6th century AD) displaying the triskelion.

Another striking example of Celtic triplism can be found in the triple goddesses of the Celtic pantheon. Most goddesses were not represented as a single entity, but instead as a cycle of three different manifestations. Although the exact names and identities vary through out the British Isles, one popular deity was Brigit. Although Brigit was technically a single goddess, the Celts worshiped her as three distinct personas–the healer, poet, and smith.

The three aspects of Brigit: from left to right, poet, smith, and healer.

These days, we prefer to think in dualities. Light and dark, order and chaos, even life and death. We’ve reduced our thinking to polarities–and, as a result, forgotten how to find those grey areas in between.

Life, Death, and the In-Betweens

Liminality is a term referring to in-betweens: the transitional phase of a ritual, or a physical, mental, or sensory threshold. Liminal spaces are passageways; they help us connect one phase in our lives to another. They aren’t meant to be lingered in, though. That’s why reality can start to feel a bit warped during long airport layovers or the dusk and dawn hours.

Doors, halls, and other passageways are some of the most notable physical manifestations of liminality. Photo by Yovko Lambrev (http://simplevisions.org/index.php?showimage=53) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
The concept of liminality is incredibly important in Celtic folklore. The festivals of Samhain (Halloween) and Beltane (May Day), for example, are celebrations of liminal periods.

Earth, Sea, and Sky

No examples of Celtic visions of liminality are more striking than their mythological cosmology. Celtic folklore is cyclical in nature, reflecting the dependency of the early Celtic people’s lives on the turn of the seasons and tides. So it follows that the three primary Celtic elements–earth, sea, and sky–are some of the most striking examples of cycles in nature.

This triad is not simply an overly simplified categorization of mythology, either–it seems to have been an intentional storytelling choice, present in some of the earliest renditions of Celtic fables we have today. In his history of Celtic religion and mythology, A Very Short Introduction: Druids, Barry Cunliffe quotes the ancient myth of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn:

A number of early Irish texts contain the triad sky, earth, and sea, such as the exclamation put into the mouth of the warrior Cú Chulainn: “Is it the sky that breaks or the sea that ebbs or the earth that quakes or is this the distress of my son fighting against odds on the Foray of Cúailnge?”

In a way, the relationship between the three domains was a simple one; just like the triskelion, they revolved around each other in unison, maintaining balance and the natural order. That isn’t to say that each element directly or precisely opposed the others. Instead, the earth and sky played the part of a simple duality–the sky represented the mortal realm (as Cunliffe wrote, it offered “the signs that chart the passage of time”), while the earth represented the timeless underworld.

And in between lay the sea–a liminal space providing balance between the warring elements of earth and sky.


Page Sources:

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

A Very Short Introduction: Druids by Barry Cunliffe

Celtic Gods and Goddesses by RJ Stewart

Exploring Celtic Civilizations: Cosmology by Michael Newton

The Crossroads: A Liminal Setting for Occult and Supernatural Activities by James Slaven

Encyclopedia Britannica: Brigit

Merriam Webster: Liminal