The word cosmology has both a scientific definition and a philosophical/religious one. In science, it refers to the study of the origin of the universe and its structures and dynamics.
As a modern Pagan, and a lover of science, I see scientific cosmology as being not only true, but thrilling. The big bang, the expansion of the universe, the formation of planets and galaxies from swirling cosmic dust, the origin of heavy elements in exploding stars, the fact that we are all, quite literally, made of stardust, the awe-inspiring and terrifying inevitability of the heat death of the universe…these things are truly amazing and make me feel both inexpressibly small yet also unbreakably connected to everything.
In contemplation of the vastness of space, I feel the Sacred – not a God, but something much older than any concept of deity; Dante’s “love that moves the sun and other stars”.
Looking at the word cosmology from a mythic, philosophical, Druid perspective, we can uncover something of how the ancient Celts and pre-Celtic “proto-Druidic” people might have considered the cosmos to be structured. We lack a clear creation myth from these cultures, but we can draw out some threads. The alignment of megalithic and neolithic stone circles and burial mounds to solstices and equinoxes evidences a clear and precise understanding of astronomy and the apparent movement of the sun throughout the year. Their circular form hints at an understanding of orbital motion and our place in the universe. Combining awareness of these earlier stone structures with philosophical insights from the continental Celts by way of the ancient Greeks, Druids may well have had a sophisticated “scientific” cosmology as well as a mythic one.
The mythic cosmology of Druidry seemed to centre not on a “three worlds” division as often seen in Indo-European religion, where you have a vertical axis linking the Underworld beneath, the Middle world where we live, and the Upper world which was the home of the gods (see the Greek Hades/Earth/Olympus or the Norse Hel/Midgard/Asgard). While you can see this in some Celtic tales, where the ancestors are thought to live within the burial mounds for instance, the Celtic schema is often more complex. The sidhe, or faeries, were also thought to live in mounds and under the earth, spirits of the dead could ride through the sky, and the gods were found in mountains, sacred groves, lakes, oceans and just about anywhere. On top of that, the distinction between ancestor, faery, spirit and god is often a blurry and permeable one.
The more striking division in Celtic cosmology seems to be that of three realms: the Land, the Sea and the Sky. Unlike the three worlds, the three realms exist on a horizontal axis, or perhaps the image of a triskelion or triple spiral would be more appropriate. The three realms exist here, in this world. John Beckett points out that “we can see and touch the land, the sea and the sky – the three realms obviously exist in this world.”
Rather than a vertical hierarchy, this three realm cosmology points to a radical interconnectedness and a sense of liminality and permeability. Gods, ancestors, spirits, faeries, mortals, all dwell in each of these realms at once: we live on the earth, we sail and fish in the sea, we breathe the air. The realms are not distinct: at the shoreline, all three meet and move together.
Within modern Druidry, some groups use a vertical three worlds model, citing the Indo-European roots of Celtic culture as a guide. Others make use of the classical Greek division into the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In Druid College, we consider the Land, the Sea and the Sky with the sacred Fire at the centre of them all.
Iolo Morganwg, one of the founders of the 18th century Druid Revival, wrote of a cosmology of movement between three circles of manifestation: from Annwn, the cauldron of creation, life was said to move to Abred, the physical world, and then beyond to Gwynfydd, a form of afterlife that was also the start of a new journey. Beyond that was Ceugant, infinity itself. Whether Iolo’s cosmology was “authentic” to the ancient Druids, it remains an influential idea in modern Druidry today.
In the end, of course, all of these cosmologies are myths – they are not intended as literal descriptions of the universe and how it works. They rather tell us something about ourselves, and offer imaginative illustrations of our place in the world of nature. And as such, they should be worked with, adapted, developed, and above all “wild-crafted” to organically emerge in relationship with the land where you live, right now. What the ancient Druids may or may not have believed is far less relevant than your own connection with this land, that river, those mountains.
As Gordon Cooper of the Ancient Order of Druids in America writes:
“The creation and realization of a personal cosmology is an element critical for the aspiring druid…The best advice for many would-be druids is to throw out all references apart from the Farmer’s Almanac (or a copy of Sky and Telescope), get a thermometer and barometric pressure gauge, buy an astrolabe, a basic drafting set with compass, graph paper and protractor, maps and a good compass, a box of 96 crayons and art pads to record the changing plants and seasons in sketches, and to try sleeping under the open sky for as many nights as possible.”
Beckett, John: Unpopular Pagan Opinions: I Don’t Believe in the Three Worlds. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2018/01/dont-believe-three-worlds.html)
Cooper, Gordon: Wild-crafting the Modern Druid (https://aoda.org/Articles/Wild_crafting_the_Modern_Druid.html)
Greer, John Michael: The Druidry Handbook. Weiser, 2006.
Hopman, Ellen Evert: Two Seasons, Three Worlds, Four Treasures, Five Directions: the Pillars of Celtic Cosmology and Celtic Reconstructionist Druidism. (https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/other-paths/druidry-dharma/two-seasons-three-worlds-four-treasures-five-directions-pillars)