CELTIC RELIGION - WHAT INFORMATION DO WE
To begin with, lets first look at the
sources available to us: There are quite numerous sources available, contrary to
the usual belief that there is almost nothing actually there.
First, there are the archaeological sources. These are the only
direct source for the prehistoric part of the religion we are talking about.
The main elements we find here are sacred sites (being as well designed cult centers
with a certain layout like the "Viereckschanzen" are, as there
are "natural" places which were used to deposit offerings) and the
findings and objects that came down on us (including as well bog bodies as
graves, the objects found in ritual deposits and depictions of gods, most of
which are from the time of the Roman occupation but which still tell us
something about the Celtic religion)
Second, there are the epigraphic sources, i.e. inscriptions. Most
of those are from the time of the Roman occupation and as such their use is
partly limited, however, some are autochtonous and pre-Roman (mainly such from
Southern Gaul and Spain).
Third, there are the historical sources from the diverse Roman
authors. Although these are often biased due to the author writing, his
knowledge, his political or other interests, the audience which he was targeting
his writings at and other influences as later interpolations, they give us more
or less first hand information (at least almost contemporary information).
Fourth, we have the Insular literature, including early British
histories (like those of Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth), sociopolitical
geographies like those of Giraldus Cambrensis as well as Irish and Welsh tales.
These sources are useable to get hints at how to reconstruct earlier religious
concepts as well as to how Celtic religion might have looked in the Celtic
countries not conquered by Rome during the first few centuries AD.
Fifth, we have the folk traditions in the countries which still are
"Celtic". Even though heavily Christianized, many a "pagan"
deity of belief shows through these traditions, and as such these can be used to
reconstruct missing parts as well.
These sources can be analyzed and are additionally added by results
of such fields as linguistics, comparative IE studies, comparative religious
studies and general history, which all help by providing explanation possibilities and construction and development models and possibilities.
I will now start this look at pagan Celtic
Religion with a survey of what we know about what we would call
"priestly" functions more or less.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
When thinking of Celtic religious
functions, the first thing that comes to ones mind is doubtlessly the
"druid". In most of the literature, and not only the popular but a
good deal of the scientific one as well, "priest" is equated with the
term "druid" when talking about the Celts. However, this is a gross
simplification. There's definitely more to Celtic religious functions.
To start with, definitely the term druid is,
to a certain extent, also a catchover term for all the Celtic religious
functions, Caesar for instance seems to use it in this kind in his excursus on
the Gauls in his De Bello Gallico, when he writes: (BG VI, 13-4) "To return
to those two classes: One of them is the class of the druids, the other one
those of the knights. The druids are concerned with the divine worship, the due
process of sacrifices, public and private, and in the interpretation of ritual
questions ... In fact, it is they who decide in almost all disputes, public and
On the other hand, the term druid is also used to describe a
specific religious function. We can at least identify one other religious
function, probably even more. For this, we can look at Strabo (IV, 4) quoting
Poseidonius: "Among all the tribes, generally speaking, there are three
classes of men held in special honor: the bards, the vates and the druids"
(B/ardoi te kai\ Oua/teis kai\ Drui/dai). This gives us at least the vates as a
second religious function, and it is possible that the bards are to be
considered as a religious function as well.
Additionally, it is worth noting that for all these three classes
we have equivalents in the Irish literature, where we find, additionally to the
druid (Ir. drui/ Gaul. *druids) the fai/th (Greek oua/teis, Gaul. *vatis) and
the bard (Greek ba/rdoi, Gaul. *bardos). Added to these in the function of
interpreter of "rectus" (law), which would, if we follow Caesar's
description above, as well fall into the "druidical" functions, would
be the Gaulish "vergobretus" (supreme magister), which contains the
same root as the Irish "breithem" (judge). Additionally there is the
Irish "fili" (seer, poet, priest), whose Gaulish cognate would be
"*velits", a cognate of is attested as a name for a Germanic seeress,
This now leaves us with the following terms: Druid, Vates,
Vergobretus, Bard, and perhaps fili.
Let us take a look at what their jobs were.
The specialized function of the
"druid" is described in Strabo IV, 4 as the science of nature and
moral philosophy (pro\s te physiologi/a kai\ ten ethiken philosophi/an). The
term "druid" itself is probably derived from IE *dru-uid- "highly
wise" - which might be the reason for why it was also used as a catchover
term for all the religious functions.
The specialized functions may allow us to assume that the druids in fact are the
class who worked as medics and who were knowledgeable in herbal lore as
described by Pliny the Elder. A grave of such a "druid" we know from
the cemetery of Pottenbrunn, object 520, which contained the burial of an adult
male of the early La Te\ne Period, which carried, additionally to the usual
equipment, a medical instrument and a propeller-shaped bone object of unknown
function, which could be an item used in rituals.
The function of the vates is described by
Strabo as "interpreters of sacrifices and natural philosophers"
(hieropoioi\ kai\ physiolo\goi). This fits quite well with what we know of as
the function of the Irish faith, whose job was to carry out the divinations.
The description of Strabo allows us to assume that also the vates were the
diviners, and as such probably also the calendar of Coligny falls into their
field of work (the Calendar has been interpreted as a solar/lunar predictor by
Olmsted), so the vates would be the ones who were the astrologers and
mathematicians amongst the "priests"
We know little about the actual function of
the Vergobretus, of whom we only have one short notice in the ancient literary
sources which only gives us that title. However, as the term has the same root
as the Irish breithem, whose function we know was judging in lawcases, we may
assume that the Vergobretus was a similar function. As Caesar reckons the
judging in lawcases to the druidical functions it can be assumed that it was a
"religious" function as well.
Not much has to be said about the bards.
Strabo (IV, 4) describes them as "singers and poets" (hymnetai\ kai\
poietai\), which fits quite well with what we know about the Irish bards. As a
possible etymology for *bardos could be derived from the IE root *gur-d(h)o-s
which is translated as "Praise Giver" this function could have been
religious as well.
WHAT ELSE WE KNOW
Well, actually not much. We do not know
which of the above if any carried out which of the rituals we know or can guess
at. However, we know that, according to Caesar (BG VI, 14-2), "Many young
men assemble of their own motion to receive their training; many are sent by
parents and relatives. Report says that in the schools of the druids they learn
by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty
years under training.". Additionally, as well according to Caesar (VI, 13
and 14), they usually do not participate in wars, they don't have to pay taxes,
they elect for lifetime one out of their midst to be chief druid (more or less
the druid pope), a position which is very honorable and therefore sometimes it
is, if no decision can be found, even fought about with weapons.
One of the most often cited statements
about Celtic gods is that we have over 300 of their names that came down on us,
while we know actually almost nothing about their functions. With this
statement, usually the idea is transferred that the Celts had an unbelievable
large pantheon which consisted mainly of local gods and demigods, with only a
few if at all gods in common. However, this is probably a misinterpretation due
to lack of knowledge.
SYSTEM OF THE CELTIC PANTHEON
A number of differing theories have been
issued about how the Celtic (and, most often the common IE pantheon) might have
been structured. The main theories follow the Dumezilian system, which
postulates a tripartite structure where one part of the gods is the
"warriors", one the "agro-culturalists", and one the craftsmen" gods as the common system behind the IE panthei. However, this
system has been often questioned. One of the most interesting new
interpretations is the theory lately issued by Garrett Olmsted (The Gods of the
Celts and the Indo-Europeans, Archaeolingua vol.6, Budapest 1994). He keeps the
tripartite system, but offers a new interpretation of the functions of the gods
of the different parts in assigning them to three mythical "realms"
which he, for simplicity, calls Upper, Middle and Lower Realm (which is probably
best visible in the Norse mythologies with Asgard, Midgard and Niflheim as
Upper, Middle and Lower Realm and in the Vedic System which says that 11 gods
dwell in the heavens, 11 on earth and 11 in the water), which however could be
called Sky, Earth and Water. A good hint at such a system could be found in the
diverse kinds of offerings used by the Celts: Cremation as sacrifices to the
Upper Realm gods, Burying in the Earth as sacrifices to the gods of the Middle
Realm and Deposition in Water as sacrifices to the Lower Realm gods.
THE NAMES OF
THE CELTIC GODS
Well, I already mentioned that we have over
three hundred names for Celtic gods. Lugos, Toutatis, Taranis, Cernunnos, Esus,
Sequana, Brigantia, Epona, Matrona, Noreia, Eriu, Govannon, Belenos, Mabon and
so on. It has been, for a long time, considered that the Celtic pantheon was
regionally split up, that Noreia was a tribal goddess for the Norici, Sequana a
tribal goddess for the Sequani, Eriu a tribal goddess for the Erenn. This also
seems to be true, but only to a certain extent. As far as we can say by now, the
Celtic gods had a lot of variants, the most we can find here are local but it is
also possible that some were functional. This is nothing surprising in fact, if
we look at other IE pantheons we find that most gods in most pantheons have
numerous, local and functional, bynames and names. The Greek god Zeus had
multiple names, as is true for all the other Greek gods. Iuppiter is also known
to us as Dispater, and under numerous other names. The Hindu gods all have
multiple names. The same is true for the Germanic gods. And if we look at the Gallo-roman inscription in which most of the Celtic god names have been brought
down to us we find, not really surprising, that Mars is mentioned with over 50
Celtic god names, as Mars Toutatis, Mars Ambiorix and others, while Apollo is
going along with Grannos, Belenos and others, while Taranis and others are
attributed to Iuppiter.
Given this, it is most likely that the names of the Celtic gods
that came down on us, are, for the most part, the local and/or functional
bynames of gods whose "real" names probably were kept secret or which
blend in with the bynames. Only two gods can be identified almost everywhere,
being the god Lugos (Irish Lugh, Welsh Llew), whose name we find from Spain to
Germany and probably even further east, and the mother Goddess (matrona), of
which we know her functional name, i.e. mother, (old Gaulish matrona, Welsh
Modron), and to which a number of the female names we have can be attributed
(Sequana, Noreia, Brigantia and probably as well Eriu and Boand, and
additionally we have some "mother Goddesses of places" like the
Matronae Lugdunensis or the Matronae Treverorum).
GODS AND THEIR
Now lets take a look at the more important
THE SKY FATHER
More or less, the Skyfather is the god we
are used to refer to as "the head of the pantheon". This god is
probably derived from a common IE god named *Dieus-pater, translated as
"Skyfather" - and is quite easily detectable in Greek Zeus Pater,
Iuppiters byname Dispater and the Vedic Dyauspita. In the Celtic World this
function is most probably fulfilled by the Ollathair (Great father), the Dagda,
whereby the Ollathair seems to be a reminiscent of the *Dieus-pater, although
its best cognate is found in the Germanic Odin "Alfodr".
The function of this god is that he is, usually, the progenitor of
all other gods together with the Earth Mother.
Depending on the religion this god is also the head of the
pantheon, or at least his father or grandfather and often also the god of
thunder and lightning. It seems that this deity is the Dagda in the Irish
mythology, while Gaulish mythology he seems to have been called Taranis
("the Thunderer, a cognate term to the Germanic Thorr from the IE root
CONTROLLER OF THE LOWER REALM AND HIS CONSORT
This god usually is the one who is in
charge of the Otherworld and/or who is ferrying the dead to there. The Gaulish
name for this god is "Sucellos" (the good striker), and he is equaled
by Greek, Etruscan and Roman Charon. He is usually depicted with a great hammer
and a dog by his side, and has a consort called Nantosuelta (either translated
as "sun-warmed valley", or as "who makes the valley bloom",
the second being suggestive of the Irish Bla/thnat, probably meaning
"Little flower", and Welsh Blodeued "Flower-faced"). We also
see here a close parallel to the consort of Hades, Persephone. The dog which
resides beside Sucellos usually could be an equivalent to the Greek Cerberos,
the Hell-Hound. Equivalents in the Irish legend can be found in the Relationship
between Curoi Mac Daire and Blathnath (Cu Roi actually meaning "Hound of
the Plain"), especially given the fact that Curoi also appears as the churl
in the beheading game in the quarrel about the hero's portion in Fled Bricrenn,
parallels can also be found in the Welsh Mabinogi in the story about Llew and
Blodeued. The apparent similarity of Arawn from Annwn with his beautiful wife
and his red-eared dogs to the position of Sucellos is also worth a note.
AND NIGHTTIME CONTROLLER OF THE UPPER REALM
The upper realm control seems to have been
split to be fulfilled by two gods, characteristically one of them is One-eyed,
the other one-handed. This is true for Vedic Va/runah and Mitra/h as well as for
the Germanic pair Odin and Tyr.
The Celtic equivalents for those gods are quite apparent. If we
look at Cath Maige Tuired, one of the most important texts for Irish mythology,
we see Lugh, the one skilled in all arts, as closing one eye while cursing the
enemy Fomorians, and the equaling of Lugh with Gaulish Lugh is not only apparent
but unavoidable, as Caesar tells us that the Gauls credited Mercurius (with
which Lugos is equated by the Romans) with the invention of all arts. As Lugh`s
name is probably derived from a Celtic root *lug with the meaning "burn,
enflame", we can possibly see the daytime Upper realm controller in him. If
we add to this the festival of Lughnasad we could assume that he was also the
controller of the summer half of the year. His mythical twin, the one who was
the ruler before Lugh, is in Cath Maige Tuired the (formerly) one-handed Nuadu,
which we have equaled in the British deity Nodens. In the Gaulish Context this
deity seems to have been identified both with Mercurius and Mars by the Romans,
thus being more or less the "kings god" and the "god of the
tribe". Here we probably would have to set most of the Mars-connected gods
like Toutatis, Vellaunos.
Another function is the one of the
youthful-saviour-champion. This role is fulfilled by Cuchullin in the Irish
texts, and mixes to a certain extent with the function of the Nighttime Upper
Realm controller. This god is the warrior champion of the tribe, probably also
the god to whom the diverse known Celtic warrior bands (like the Gaesates) would
pray. He is the one who protects the cattle of the tribe, the one who goes into
battle frenzy, who fights naked. His Gaulish equivalent probably would be Esus.
The Earth mother (surprise, she actually
exists in Celtic mythology). It is usually this goddess which was, together with
the Sky father, parent of all the other gods. This goddess appears as a separate
goddess in some IE pantheons (for instance Gaia in the Greek mythology), but
also can meld with other female goddesses, most often with the female Upper
Realm Goddess. In the Irish mythology s separate Earthmother figure seems to be
preserved in the figure of Danu and Tailtiu.
She was usually also the mother of three goddesses associated with
rivers or springs which are the female Goddesses of the Upper, Middle and Lower
OF THE LOWER REALM
The Goddess of the Lower Realm seems to
have had a cowlike nature. It was probably called *Guououinda "White
cow" (from IE *guou- + *uind-), *Matrona "Mother" (from IE
*mater) or *Mororegni "Great Queen" (from IE *moro- + *regni-) She was
also capable of shifting her form to an eel, snake, serpent or wolf, more or
less the animal goddess. Additionally, she seems to be one of the aspects of the
"Goddess of Sovereignty". Her Gaulish names seem to have been
S(t)irona "Heifer", Damona "Cow", but also Brigantia
"the High, the exalted pure one", Rigana "the Queen",
Matrona "mother", but also Sequana "the Flowing" and Bovinda
"white Cow". Her Irish equivalents are for instance Boand (the Irish
form of Bovinda), Brigit (equivalent of Brigantia) and Mo/rri/gan (the Irish
version of Rigana). Her Welsh equivalent is Mordron (the mother).
Through intercourse with the Skyfather, this Goddess begets a god
named "son", who later marries his aunt, the goddess of the middle
realm. This son is the Gaulish *Maponos "Son", in Welsh this is his
cognate *Mabon "Son", and, as expected, Boand is the mother of the
Irish Mac ind O/c "young Son". This god seems to be associated with
OF THE MIDDLE REALM
The Goddess of the middle Realm apparently
had the byname *Medhua "Intoxicatress" (from IE *medhu-). She seems to
appear human in form, and definitely is also part of the "Goddess of Sovereignty".
Her Gaulish name probably was *Meduana "Intoxicatress" or *Comedova
(same meaning), and possibly also *Aveda "the flowing (Water)" Her
Irish form is known as Medb or Aife (one of Mebd's bynames).
This goddess also has a son with the skyfather, called *nepots
"Nephew" (alternatives *Nepotulos, *Neptionos) or *Nebhtunos "God
of Waters", or Irish Nechtain-Freach (the son of Medb), who later marries
his Aunt, the Lower Realm Goddess (as Nechtain does with Boand). This god seems
to be associated with water.
OF THE UPPER REALM
This goddess is usually depicted as a
horse. Her Gaulish name is Epona "Horse Goddess" (from IE *ekuo-na),
but she has as her bynames also the names *Rigana "Queen" (See also
above for the Lower Realm Goddess) and possibly some others like ?Catona?
"Battle Goddess" and ?Imona? "Swift One". Her Irish
equivalent is Macha (which is also called Rigana "Queen" and Roech
"Great Horse", essentially a cognate of Epona). The byname ?Imona? of
Epona could also explain the name Emain Macha, as ?Imona? is cognate with Emain
(from *Imonis). Her Welsh equivalent is Rhiannon "Queen" (from
The name Macha may also indicate that here we have a melding of the Earth Goddess
with the Upper Realm Goddess (see Latin *Maia "the Great, the Mother but
also Sanskrit *Mahi "the Earth").
This Goddess as well is part of the "Goddess of Sovereignty".
FEW THOUGHTS ON THE "Goddess OF SOVEREIGNITY"
As we have seen above, all those four goddesses
are very interwoven in their functions. In fact, it is questionable if they are
to be considered as separate goddesses at all, or if they are not all only
aspects of the Earth Mother/Goddess of Sovereignty complex. Simply said, this
is not decidable at the moment. It is also possible that due to the very scarce
evidence and a constant intermixture, these goddesses became, even though
separate goddesses, mixed to a certain extent by the Celts themselves.
THE GOD OF THE
This god is depicted as a bull. It is a
twin god as far we can say, who has a white and a black form. The two twins seem
to be fighting each other, starting out as humans and going through a series of
shape changes until finally, when both are bulls, the dark one rips the white one
apart besides a sea. Its gaulish names are Tarvos Trigaranus "Bull with
three cranes", Tarvos "Bull" or Donnotaurus "Black
bull", the last one being a cognate of Donn Tarbh, another name for the
Donn Cuailnge, who fights the Finnbenach "White horned one" in one of
the preludes to the Tain, also going through the shape changes. In this, this
figure fits with the Avestan Tistrya and Apaosa and, more perfectly even, with
the Greek Zagre/ous-Dio/nysos.
THE GODDESS OF WAR
Well know as a triplicate Goddess from
Irish mythology in the forms of Mo/rri/gan "Great Queen", Nemain
"Battle Frenzy" and Babd "Crow". These three goddesses are
also referred to as the tres Mo/rri/gan "The three Great Queens",
therefore the Mo/rri/gan may not be identical with the Lower Realm Goddess, but
also these might be three other aspects of the tripartite Goddess/three Goddesses
that are responsible for the respective realms. The three battle goddesses can
shift into the form of a raven.
At least the Babd, who is also referred to as Babd catha
"Battlecrow", also in this form has a cognate in Gaulish gods names in
GOD OF ORATORY - THE CELTIC HERCULES
Apparently there existed a god in Gaul
named Ogmios who was equated with the Roman Hercules as stated in Lucianus's
Dialogi Deorum (Hercules 1,7). This god is cognate with the Irish Ogma mac
Elathan of the Tu/atha De/ Danann in Cath Maige Tuired, who is referred to as the
champion of the TD and credited with the invention of the Ogam alphabet. He
seems to have functioned as a god of oratory as well, Gaulish coins depict his
audience as tied by silver chains to him which connect his tongue with their
DEA LOCI -
GODDESS OF A PLACE
Additionally there existed Goddesses which
were "place-specific" in that they were seen as protectoresses and/or
mothers of certain places. They are considered to fall in the group of Gaulish
Matres, Matrones. We know such goddesses for instance for *Genava (today's Geneva
in Switzerland), Vienna (today's French Vienne) and numerous other places. A
function of the Irish Macha in that kind for Emain Macha is also likely.
"NYMPHS" - GODDESSES OF SPRINGS
There also exist numerous goddesses
responsible for springs. We know of an *Acionna "?Water Goddess?",
*Arvolcia "the very Wet", *Cobba "Prosperity" and others.
Equal functions were probably fulfilled by the goddesses after which rivers were
named like the Sequana, Matrona, Boand. We know for instance that at the spring
of the Sequana offerings were made to that goddess.
"NYMPHS" - GODDESSES OF THE LANDS
Equal to spring goddesses we also know of goddesses
which were attributed to certain parts of the countryside. For instance we know
of a Goddess *Ardbenna "Goddess of the Ardbenna, the High Hills",
whose name still is clinging to the Ardennes forest on the German/French border
GENII - LESSER GODS / SPIRITS
The last type I'll be mentioning here are
the Genii, sometimes also know as Genii cucullati "Hooded
Spirits" which could have had numerous functions. We know of Genii of the
"Neighbourhood", Gaul. *Contrebis which is probably cognate with Irish
contreb "community", Genii of the family, Gaul. *Vinotonos from the
Celtic stems *veni- "family" and the cognate of Irish tonn "wave,
surface, land, earth, skin" as well as placename genii like Artio "god
of the Bear (forest)", *Alisanos "god of Alesia", *Brixantus
"god of Brixantion", but also for tribes or their subunits like
*Allobrox "God of the Allobroges, *Menapos "God of the Menapii".
Basically, we can discern two kinds of
places "sacred" to the Celts. First, we have the natural sacred places
and, second, the artificial sacred places (called "sacred monuments"
from now on).
It is obvious from diverse archaeological
findings and finds that a number of natural places had a sacred character to the
Celts. Noteworthy is here, that basically all those places have an aspect of
PLACES IN CONNECTION TO WATER
The kind of sacred place most often used by
the Celts (at least seemingly), is one that has something to do with water.
The first kind of sacred places connected
to water, and probably also one of the more important ones, are springs. As we
have already seen while dealing with the gods, we know quite a great number of
Celtic "spring nymphs". This is mirrored by archaeological finds in
springs. Some of the most important Celtic hoards have been found in such a
situation, like the spring find from Duchcov, Czech Republic, in the springs of
the Seine (the Gaulish Sequana), but also in the springs of Roman Aquae Sulis,
today Bath in England. In many cases, these are springs that have curative
powers, and in the cases of the springs of the Seine and Bath it is also visible
from the archaeological finds that the curative power of the spring and its
related god/goddess were consciously sought. In the Seine springs, for example,
there have been found numerous models of human body parts from various
materials, which can be interpreted as offerings to the Goddess Sequana who
should cure the depicted body part.
This function of springs or wells is also hinted at in Cath Maige
Tuired (123), where the Physician of the TD heals the wounded in a well, upon
which he together with his two sons and his Daughter has chanted spells and in
which he had cast all herbs to be found in Ireland.
That lakes were places where contact to the
"Otherworld" was possible is well known from a lot of the epics. That
some of them were considered as sacred places as well is also deductible from
archaeological findings like the famous Lynn Cerrig Bach hoard, where a lot of
items had been cast into the lake. An equal interpretation has also been brought
forth for the namegiving site of the La Tène Culture, La Tène at lake
Newchatel, Switzerland, even though lately this has been questioned due to
another finding at the point where the Ziehl (a river) flows out of the lake
Neuchatel, where obviously a bridge was destroyed during a flood catastrophe
while a lot of persons where on it, the La Tène finds could have come into
the lake for the same reasons.
That rivers had a certain sacred aspect is
obvious from the fact that a good number of them take their names from Celtic
gods, be it the Sequana, the Matrona, the Boyne or the Danube. Hints from
archaeology towards offerings can be deducted from isolated findings of
prominent standing, like the Battersea shield, that was recovered from the
That also boglands could have had
"sacred" aspects is also likely. A hint to this can be found in the
finding of Lindow man, a bog body discovered in Lindow Moss, England, of a man
in his mid-twenties that was killed in a threefold manner (the kind of death also
ascribed to some of the more famous British magicians/poets/druids like the
Southern Scottish Lailoken or Merlin).
PLACES IN CONNECTION TO THE EARTH
We know little of sacred places that have
to do with the earth, but that such existed are likely. It is, however, hard to
decide in this case if these were natural "sacred places", as
offerings at such places would probably have to have been interred in the earth,
which wouldn't happen naturally but had to be done artificially, most probably.
However, a number of isolated hoards that were found in the open countryside,
like the Snettisham hoard (more or less a connection of gold torcs), or hoards
at the edges of settled territory as they are known from Bohemia, for instance,
could be interpreted as such offerings.
An equal interpretation is possible for some skeletal finds (most often of
females) in the gate area of some of the oppida, the fortified sites of (mainly)
late La Tène dating. These skeletons are usually found below the walls in the
gate areas and look very much like human sacrifices to protect the gate.
Probably also the sacred grooves of the Druids, the Nemeton or Drunemeton as related to us by the ancient authors, fall into this
PLACES IN CONNECTION TO SKY (OR EARTH, TOO)
The last group of natural sacred places are
those which are most probably connected to the Sky (even though a connection to
the Earth is also possible). Into this category, fall sites like the Pass Lueg,
Austria, on which a Celtic Helmet (one of the most famous ones as it is the one
depicted on the Gauloise cigarette packs) was found, or maybe also the hoard of
Erstfeld, Switzerland, which is at the foot of the Great St. Gotthard pass over
the alps. These places could have been, like Greek Mount Olympus, been connected
to the skies (due to their relatively high altitude), something which could
equally be true of such remnants like the "Vierbergewallfahrt" (four
mountain pilgrimage) in Carithia, Austria, or the Croagh Patrick tour.
The second group of sacred places are the
sacred monuments. Here, we can also distinguish between some different groups.
That ancient monuments were considered
sacred places is beyond any doubt from the Irish and Welsh tales. One only has
to think of the Beliefs connected to places like Newgrange (Brug na Boinne). A
hint towards a similar belief of the ancient Celts can be found at the site of
the huge tumulus of Hochmichele, Germany, where a Viereckschanze (see below) was
erected directly besides the late Hallstatt tumulus.
The second type of sacred monuments are the
"Viereckschanzen". These are roughly rectangular wall and
ditch constructions that appear in the La Tène period from middle France to
Eastern Austria, covering more or less whole of the central Celtic area. Inside
of these rectangular wall and ditch enclosures, which also quite often had
elaborate gate constructions, there often appear deep pits which in some cases
still contained wooden statues of "gods" and a number of offerings.
Equal pits, but without the surrounding wall and ditch constructions, have also
been found on the British isles. Sometimes also small houses appear inside these
Viereckschanzen, which in some cases appear to be the precedessors of later
Still another type of sacred monuments,
even though connected to the above group, are the temples that have on occasion
been found in oppida, like in Manching.
It is also likely that the graves were
considered to be sacred places. In some areas of ancient Celtic culture the
graves were surrounded by fences, which makes them in some sort similar to
Viereckschanzen. Even though sacred, these graves have still been often enough
robbed by graverobbers only a few years after the burial. This may be explained
by simple materialism (a lot of the gravegoods probably had quite some worth),
but could also be interpreted as raids on the Otherworld as we know them from
the Irish and British tales.
It is quite possible that there existed
other sacred monuments as well. For instance it is quite likely from the Irish
tradition that places like Emain Macha, Tailtiu, Cruachan and Tara were such
sacred places. Although most of them also fall in the category of ancient
monuments it is possible that there were also some permanent residents at such
sites, in contrast to other "ancient monuments" like in Newgrange.
On rituals that were performed in Celtic
Religion only very little information has come down on us. However, we can still
guess at a few of those. Basically, we can discern between some different groups
of rituals. First, there are rituals performed at the seasonal feasts. Then we
know a little bit about transmigrational rituals (rituals falling into the field
of changes in ones life - often also called initiation rites, which only
incompletely describes this group as the death rituals have to be included in
this field). Third, we know of some divinatory rituals. Fourth, we know of some
rituals falling in the field of curative processes, i.e. the healing of wounds
or illnesses. Firth, we know about some "magical" rituals. Finally, we
have hints to some rituals which can't be put into any of those fields.
We know basically of four great seasonal
feast that were part of the Celtic Year Cycle (I will not go into detail as to
how these were situated in the year in ancient Celtic times, look for this at
analyses of the Calendar of Coligny - which I perhaps will treat separately at
some time), namely (starting with the beginning of the year) Samhain, in the
current calendrical system fixed to the first of November, Imbolc (today 1st or
2nd of February), Beltane (today 1st of May) and Lughnasad (in August, usually
equated with Lammas). We can be certain that rituals took place at those feasts,
however, we know only very little about them.
Samhain is the "Celtic new Year".
Rituals performed on this day (or these days) probably were protectional (as the
barrier to the Otherworld was thin at that time) ones, and probably such
remembering the dead. This feast is known already from ancient Celtic times,
where it is called "trinoux Samonis" or "tritinoux Samonis",
more or less translatable as "the three nights of Summer", probably
not meaning that they took place in summer but denoting the final three nights
We know almost nothing about Imbolc
rituals. The only hint is that it is also called Eumelc (first milking, more or
less), so it probably included rituals which had to do something with milk.
Well, there's also not much known about
Beltane Rituals. The feast had to do something with fire (its translation is
"Fire of Bel", Belenos being one of the Gaulish gods associated with
Apollo which is probably a variant of the "Son of the Mother" god, the
son of the Lower Realm Goddess who was associated with fire), there are hints
that it also existed already in Gaul.
One of the rituals we know of taking place at that feast was that
the animals, especially the cows seemingly, were driven between two fires.
Probably this was a purification ritual, and rituals associated with fire which
exist in some parts of Europe may be reminiscent of Celtic rituals. (Like the
burning wheels who are run down a hill in a village in Germany on the 1st of
Lughnasad is also only attested for
Ireland. It was a harvest feast probably, the rituals carried out at this feast
probably centering about the marriage between the Earth Goddess and Lugh (See
the feast of Tailtiu) with a lot of contests of skill and strength, probably.
The next big group of rituals are the
transmigrational rituals. We know little of them, but we can guess at the
existence of some, starting with the ritual of namegiving, over various
initiation rites until adulthood was reached, the inauguration rites to kingship
also fall into this category, and finally the death rites are a part of this
From various sources we can guess that a
ritual existed with which the child was accepted into the community of
"humans" more or less.
This can be seen in the Mabinogi for instance, where the mother of
Llew has to be tricked into giving him a name and only then (and after three
other "initiations" he is considered to be a man), but also in the
fact that we do not find babies in Celtic graveyards usually. The youngest
individuals to be found in Celtic graveyard usually are no younger that 3 to
four years, approximately the time when they start to speak.
CHILDHOOD TRANSMIGRATIONAL RITUALS
What else can be guessed from the Mabinogi
text is that there were still some other initiation rituals until one could be
considered adult. We only have hints at such rituals for males, but it is likely
that they also existed in similar kind for females. What these other initiations
are for the male nobles (as Llew is) is obviously the initiations to weapons
(which is paralleled in the boyhood deeds of Cuchullin) and that he gets a wife
(also paralleled in the Cuchullin tales where Cuchullin is not allowed to marry
Emer until he hasn't had special training "initiation" with the famous
Scathach - in course of this initiation, however, he is primarily sexually
initiated - see also that his son stems from this episode).
TO BE ACCEPTED INTO A WARRIOR-BAND
At these rituals can be glimpsed from the
Finn saga. Here, acceptance into the Fianna requires the applicant to succeed in
a test which has many ritualistic elements. As such "warrior-bands"
like the Fianna are also likely to have existed in ancient Gaul (see to this the
Gaesates), equal rituals probably existed to be accepted into these bands.
TO KINGSHIP RITUAL
On this matter we probably have the best
information of all the rituals existing in Celtic religion. However, these
rituals seem to vary from place to place and in time. What is told to us about
the inauguration ceremony in Ancient Gaul is that the king to be is lifted,
standing on his shield, by his followers. The rituals connected to the kingship
in Tara, however, require the king to be to sleep with the sovereignty Goddess
(according to Giraldus Cambrensis who claims to have seen such a ceremony in
Connacht this means the king makes sex with a white mare, which is slaughtered,
its blood and flesh are put into a large vat in which the king to be bathes,
which is then cooked and then eaten by the people who are at the ceremony) and
has to fulfill a test by stepping onto the Lia Fail. In the kingdom of Dalriada
the ceremony probably included the king setting his foot into a
"footprint" and some other ceremonies as well.
Besides the actual deposition of the
dead body (be it inhumation, cremation or whatever method else), there were some
rituals which we can grasp from archaeology that were connected to death. These
included in almost any cases a big feast in the area of the graveyard, of which
sometimes still diverse animal bones can be located in the grave area, including
a piece of meat and a container with drink (most often probably beer or similar,
but in some cases wine, especially for richer dead). Additionally there were put
into the grave other gravegoods as well, most probably also pointing at a ritual
process in which the items were put into the grave. This is especially visible
in some areas of Celtic settlement in certain time periods, where the items put
into the grave with the dead body are intentionally destroyed (often called
Another large group of rituals we know of
as used by the Celts are Divinatory rituals. Most of them are no longer
reconstructable, all we know is that the druids were able to predict the future
from birdflight and similar things.
It is noted in historical sources that the
druids could predict the future from sacrifices. To do this, they would kill an
animal, or in cases of high importance also humans, and predict from their
Another divinatory ritual known to us is
the so-called Bull-sleep, in Irish "Tarb Fess". In this ritual the
faith (Gaul. vates) overeats himself with the meat of a freshly killed bull
(usually with yellow skin) and then lays down to sleep on the hide of that same
bull. During the sleep he then has a prophetic dream.
Curative Rituals known to us have already
been shortly mentioned in connection to sacred springs. Obviously, the Celts
attributed high curative powers (even the power of rebirth) to the water. Hints
to this we find in the already quoted passage in Cath Maige Tuired as well as in
items like the "cauldron of rebirth" (the Grail of the Arthurian
tradition), as archaeology gives us hints in the findings of models of body
parts in the springs of the Seine. Obviously, Rituals like immersion in
"sacred" water and the offering of equivalent models if the injured
body parts was used as a curative ritual (although we also know of surgery made
by the Celts, up to the surgical opening of the skull, i.e. trepanation).
We also know a "curative" incantation as allegedly used
by Miach, the son of Dian Cecht, to heal the severed Arm of Nuada, the king of
the TD. It goes: "joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew" (Cath
Maige Tuired 33).
The last great group of rituals are what I
will call "magical" rituals here, because I know no better term for
it. Suggestions are, however, welcome.
OF PLANTS RITUALS
The first kind of ritual in this group is
described to us by Pliny the elder in his Historia Naturalis, where he is also
speaking about curative plants used by the Druids and how they are acquired.
This is the source wherefrom the famous Mistletoe story stems, and from which is
usually deducted that the Druids wore white clothing (which I personally very
much doubt). Pliny describes how the druid puts the right arm through the left
sleeve of his clothing and cuts, with a golden sickle, the mistletoe, which is
caught in a white cloth. He describes rituals to collect some other plants as
well, which include jumping on one leg around it in the lefthand direction.
BLESSINGS AND CURSES
Also falling in this group of rituals are
the blessings and curses. Usually, they invoke a god to do something to somebody
else, and are usually engraved into permanent material that is deposited
somewhere (for instance lead plates). There are some quite nice curses on them
Finally, I take a look at some rituals
which cannot be put into the above groups (at least not very well).
From the druidesses of one of the French
channel islands we know of a yearly ritual, in which they unroofed their whole
temple and then set up a new roof in one day. If one of the druidesses let fall
what she carried of the roof, so it is said, she would be torn to pieces by the
others. In fact, seemingly, the druidesses tried to make each other (or maybe
also one of them that was chosen to previously) let fall pieces of the roof.
In many of the sacred places we know of
depositions of items, which have to be called "ritual depositions".
During their deposition definitely rituals were carried out, in some cases also
including intentional destruction of the sacrificed items.
SACRIFICES AND THE THREEFOLD DEATH
Finally I come to the human sacrifices.
These (as already seen in the Temple Un-roofing Ritual, which seems to include
such a human sacrifice), definitely also had ritualistic components. We do not
know much of them, but we have at least one such ritual that can be
reconstructed, the so-called "threefold death". This means that the
victim dies of three reasons at the same time. In the archaeological material we
can see this in case of Lindow man, the bog body from Lindow moss in England,
which was killed in such a ritual. As far as it can be reconstructed, Lindow man
had been hit in the head (with probably an axe), however, not strong enough to
let him instantly die. He was strangled with a garrote, however, only as far as
this would not have caused instant death. After these two "killings",
he was thrown in a pool in Lindow moss, face downwards and unconscious,
probably, so that he as well drowned. So he died a "threefold death".
Similar deaths through three simultaneous reasons are for instance
also told about Merlin, and about the Southern Scottish "wise
man"/bard/druid Lailoken, who allegedly fell off a cliff onto a spike
standing out of a river, coming with his head under water so that he died from
the fall, from the spike and from drowning. This connection has led to the
assumption by some scholars that in case of Lindow man we might have found a
It is also noteworthy that this threefold death could be
interpreted as a death in all "Realms" as described for the gods. The
Upper Realm (the skies/air) is found in the fall of Lailoken and in the
strangulation of Lindow man, the Middle Realm (the Earth) is found in the spike
on which Lailoken lands and the axewound of Lindow man, and the Lower Realm (the
Waters) are quite obvious.
This practice is numerously attested by the
ancient historians, the Irish tales and hints towards it can be found in
archaeology as well. It definitely had a ritual meaning.
We know very little about the actual
beliefs that were a part of Celtic Religion. Those very few hints we have are
also not overly conclusive, but I'll try to say as much as is possible.
IN CONNECTION TO CHILDREN
We know only very little about the beliefs
connected to children. What we can definitely say is that children were not
considered to be "real human beings" up to a certain age, probably up
to the age of 2-3, approximately the time when the child is starting to speak in
consistent sentences. We have no children in the graveyards that are below this
age, but we find them quite frequently in the settlements. Connected to this
"becoming a human" seems to be the giving of a name to the child, as
indicated in the 4th branch of the Mabinogi.
After this, however, the children appear frequently in the
graveyards and are often adorned with that much jewelry that they probably had
looked like Christmas trees when they were buried. Much of this jewelry is
supposed to be of apotropaic (protective) function, to ward off evil spirits to
which the children seemingly were thought of as being more likely to fall.
Apart from this we know little. We may safely assume that the
passage from childhood to adulthood was connected with some beliefs, possibly
also initiation rituals, but we know nothing about those but that they existed.
The only other belief (though this as well may have been a secular
belief) that we know of is that it was seen as a bad omen if a father was seen
together with his son who was not already in the age of carrying weapons
(according to Caesar). This might indicate a religious background for a system
similar to the fosterage system known from the Irish, which also finds its
remnants in the upbringing of Lugh by Tailltiu in the Irish mythological cycle.
We can be quite sure that there existed
apotropaic beliefs. This is not only indicated by the frequent
"amulets" found in children's but also adult's graves, but also in the
way in which much of the jewelry and weaponry was decorated. The images of
animals and also human faces (in the typical abstracted Celtic art style) can be
seen as "protective" symbols to ward off evil spirits.
That other similar beliefs existed is also confirmed by a passage
in the Tain Bo Cuailgne, where we hear that it was geas (prohibition) to the
Ulaid to drive with a chariot on a day where there already had occurred technical
problems with it (like the breaking of a wheel or similar).
Also interpretable as apotropaic beliefs are the rituals described
by Pliny the Elder for the Druids when collecting certain plants.
What we know about calendrical beliefs is
probably the best documented part of the beliefs (in form of the calendar of
Coligny). We can be sure that in ancient Celtic Religion the year was divided in
two main parts, the Winter half (starting with Samhain) and the Summer half
(starting with Beltane) (although some theories want to set Samhain in the
middle of the summer half, but that is probably nonsense). The other two great
feasts (Imbolc and Lughnasad), if they at all existed in ancient Celtic
Religion, seem to mark the respective middle of the respective halves.
Seemingly, the Summer and Winter half fought with one another (in form of a
white and a black bull, probably, but possibly also in the form of some gods,
look for this in the first branch of the Mabinogi where the enemy of Arawn of
Annwn is called Hafgan [i.e. "Summer king" more or less]).
Additionally we know that the months and days had a
"lucky" and "unlucky" quality (Gaul. *matos=good,
*anmatos=ungood, bad). The Gaulish calendar divided the year into 12 months more
or less with 29 and 30 days respectively (and a month to make up for the lost
days every five years), of which the 29 day months were considered
"anmatos" and the 30 day ones were considered "matos". There
were, however "matos" days in "anmatos" months and vice
versa. What exactly this lucky/unlucky connotation meant, and what result it had
on actions taken is not clear, but we can be sure that such a belief existed.
Such a belief is also found in one of the episodes to the Tain,
where Cathbad, when asked what this day is good for by Ness, mother of
Conchobor, he replies with: For begetting a king on a queen
THE SPIRITS OF
That a belief in spirits of nature existed
in Celtic Religion is relatively sure. The rituals used by the Druids to collect
plants as described by Pliny the Elder can, as well as containing apotropaic
elements, be seen as magic used to cheat the spirits of the plants collected
(for instance putting the right arm, which is the "dangerous" one,
through the left sleeve can be seen as a trick to make the plant believe it is
safe until it is too late). Partly, these nature spirits may have become the
small folk of the Irish legends.
If beliefs in such spirits influenced the daily routine in any way
we do not know.
CONNECTED TO HEALING
We know little about the beliefs connected
to healing but that it was performed by the druids. Seemingly, there were
multiple possibilities like making offerings to spring goddesses like we know
from the springs of the Sequana, then there is the possibility that there were
beliefs of dogs licking wounds (as indicated by the British god Nodens, who had
a connection to dogs that were licking wounds of injured), but also surgery
performed like trepanation (the opening of the skull) could have been connected
to a special belief (especially if we remember that the head had a special place
in Celtic beliefs).
Additionally it is obvious from various sources that curative
powers were ascribed to some herbs/plants.
CONNECTED TO KINGSHIP
Of old Celtic kingship we know relatively
little, but this can be made up by what we know from the Irish evidence.
Obviously, the main belief in regard to kingship was that the well-being of the
king reflected itself in the well-being of the land. A king that lost his perfect
appearance reflected this back on the land as well, be he scarred or going that
far that he had lost a limb. A physically "not perfect" person would
not be able to be king, due to this connection. However, this
"perfectness" not only was a matter of physical appearance, but also a
matter of mental well-being. As such, a ruler had to be just, as injustice would
immediately fall back on the country. Additionally he wouldn't be allowed to be
greedy, because if the king would not give his gifts with open hands, so would
nature not wield good crop.
CONNECTED TO GODS
We know little about that, except that
diverse gods had diverse functions. Apart from that, we only can say that some
members of the society would have a closer connection to one god than to most
others, like the shoemakers would (and we know this from one of the Celtiberian
inscriptions) tend more towards the god Lugos (which's equivalent Llew we find
as a shoemaker in the Mabinogi).
Apart from that we can be pretty sure that the "gods"
were living in an "Otherworld", similar to the Irish belief, and were
in some kind connected to the "mythical ancestors" of the people,
which can be seen in the assignment of old huge gravemounds as their
"palaces", which is true in Ireland (see only the example of
Newgrange), but also in Wales (Pwyll gets to know Rhiannon, his "Otherworld
wife", i.e. the Goddess of sovereignty, while he sits on Gorsedd Arberth,
a megalithic tomb), and we can assume something similar for the continental
Celts (as seen in the Viereckschanze next to the gigantic gravemound of
Hochmichele in Germany). Actually, these "gods" seem to have lived on
this planet in the past, and only after their death in this world became
"gods". In this way it can be seen partly as ancestral worship.
That offerings and sacrifices were deemed
necessary is evident from their existence alone. What beliefs especially led to
these practices (except the belief that important decisions for the future could
only be gained by reading the future in the death of a human sacrifice) we do
CONNECTED TO THE HEAD
As far as we can say the Celts had a
special reverence for the head. This is evident from the ancient sources, where
we are told that heads of enemies were kept as family treasures, and that such
heads would not be sold for their weight in gold, as we can find it in
archaeology, where we as well have monuments like the one in Roquepertuse, where
a stone portal was adorned with human skulls as we have often enough separate
skulls in the settlements and amulets made from human skullbones.
An equivalent belief can also be seen in the Tain, where Conchobar
keeps the brain of one of his enemies conserved in Emain Macha, which is later
stolen and used as a slingshot against him, which later causes his death.
That the head also had a special significance is also evident from
the Mabinogi, where Bran tells his companions to severe his head and take it
with them and after entertaining them for 80 years bury it in London with the
face towards the continent to ward off any enemies (which could also be seen as
an explanation for the human head depictions on artwork). BTW, this motive later
becomes part of the early grail legend.
What belief it exactly was that was connected to the head
(especially the severed head) is unknown, but it has often been speculated that
the head was seen as the part of the body that contained the soul, so it could
well be that the one who had the head of a person also had his soul.
That the Celts believed in some kind of
magic is evident. The most obvious belief is the one in what in Irish is called
"Geis", plural "Gessa", which could be best translated as
"Prohibition, Taboo". Such gessa could be anything from not eating
with three women to not hunting birds, but also could include tests in the kind
of "it is geis for you to not return here until you have done this and
Much has been already speculated about the
afterlife beliefs of the Celts, but almost all is based upon a short notice in
Caesar's De Bello Gallico, where he states: "The druids teach that the soul is immortal, that it moves from one to the other after death". This
has been interpreted as a belief in rebirth similar to the Hindu reincarnation
belief. However, it is more likely that what was really meant was a belief in
that the soul lives on in an Otherworld.
CONNECTED TO THE CREATION/END OF THE WORLD
We know almost nothing about the pagan
Celtic beliefs about the creation of the world and its end. It can however be
speculated, that the creation was seen similar as in most other IE religions as
the Earth mother giving birth to the world.
On the end of the world we equally have almost no information.
However, it can be guessed from statements as famous as "we fear nothing
but that the heavens may fall down on our heads", which we know was said to
Alexander the Great by Celts on the lower Danube as well as it finds itself in
the Tain as the famous last words of Cuchullain's (foster) father, that there
existed a belief that at the end of the world the heaven would fall down on
Raimund KARL (firstname.lastname@example.org) Dec 1996
This article originally appeared as a multi-part message
on CELTIC-L@Danann.hea.ie. If you want you may distribute it freely as long as
it is not used for commercial purposes and you include the email-address of the
author for responses. Minor mods in spelling have