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From: Raimund KARL (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: Celtic Religion - what information do
we really have - Part 1-7
Date: Sun, 1 Dec 1996 10:54:40 - Tue, 10 Dec
CELTIC RELIGION - WHAT INFORMATION DO WE REALLY HAVE
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 religiion we
are talking about. The main elements we find here are sacred sites (being
as well designed cult centres 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
preroman (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
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 christianised, 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 analysed 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
explanational possibilities and construction and development models and
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 one's 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 definitly 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 private ...".
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
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), whichs gaulish cognate
would be "*velits," a cognate of is attested as a name for a Germanic seeres,
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 specialised 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
The specialised 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 propellor-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 fa/ith, 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 calender of Coligny falls into
their field of work (the Claender 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
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 unbelieveable 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 "agroculturalists", and one the craftsmens" 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 Indoeuropeans, 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.
OF THE CELTIC GODS
Well, I already mentioned that we have over threehundred
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 godess for the Norici, Sequana
a tribal godess for the Sequani, Eriu a tribal godess 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 godnames,
as Mars Toutatis, Mars Ambiorix and others, while Apollo is going along
with Grannos, Belenos and others, while Taranis and others are atrributed
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 godess (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 atrributed (Sequana, Noreia, Brigantia and
probably as well Eriu and Boand, and additionally we have some "mothergodesses
of places" like the Matronae Lugdunensis or the Matronae Treverorum).
GODS AND THEIR
Now lets take a look at the more important godly
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 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 *tn-ro-s).
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 equalled 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 heroe'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 Germaic 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 (whith 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 controler 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) onehanded Nuadu, which we have equalled
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 Relam 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
The Earth mother (surprise, she actually exists in
Celtic mythology). It is usually this godess which was, together with the
Sky father, parent of all the other gods. This godess appears as a separate
godess in some IE pantheons (for instance Gaia in the greek mythology),
but also can meld with other female godesses, most often with the female
Upper Realm godess. 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 godesses
associated with rivers or springs which are the female godesses of the
Upper, Middle and Lower realm.
OF THE LOWER REALM
The godess 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 godess.
Additionally, she seems to be one of the aspects of the "godess of sovereignity".
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 godess
begets a god named "son", who later marries his aunt, the godess 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 assoviated with fire.
GODESS OF THE MIDDLE REALM
The godess of the middle Realm apparently had the
byname *Medhua "Intoxicatress" (from IE *medhu-). She seems to appear human
in form, and definitly is also part of the "godess of sovereignity". 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 godess 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 godess (as Nechtain does with Boand).
This god seems to be associated with water.
OF THE UPPER REALM
This godess is usually depicted as a horse. Her Gaulish
name is Epona "Horse Godess" (from IE *ekuo-na), but she has as her bynames
also the names *Rigana "Queen" (See also above for the Lower Realm godess)
and possibly some others like ?Catona? "Battle Godess" 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 godess with the Upper Realm godess (see Latin
*Maia "the Great, the Mother but also Sanskrit *Mahi "the Earth").
This godess as well is part of the "Godess of
FEW THOUGHTS ON THE "GODESS OF SOVEREIGNITY"
As we have seen above, all those four godesses are
very interwoven in their functions. In fact, it is questionable if they
are to be considered as separate godesses at all, or if they are not all
only aspects of the Earth Mother/Godess of Sovereignity complex. Simply
said, this is not decideable at the moment. It is also possible that due
to the very scarce evidence and a constant intermixture, these godesses
became, even though separate godesses, mixed to a certain extent by the
THE GOD OF
THE TREE FRUIT
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 shapechanges 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 rto
the Tain, also going through the shapechanges. In this, this figure fits
with the Avestan Tistrya and Apaosa and, more perfectly even, with the
THE GODESS OF WAR
Well know as a triplicate godess from Irish mythology
in the forms of Mo/rri/gan "Great Queen", Nemain "Battle Frenzy" and Babd
"Crow". These three godesses are also refered to as the tres Mo/rri/gna
"The three Great Queens", therefore the Mo/rri/gan may not be identical
with the Lower Realm godess, but also these might be three other aspects
of the tripartite godess/three godesses that are responsible for the respective
realms. The three battle godesses 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 [C]athubodva.
GOD OF ORATORY - THE CELTIC HERCULES
Apparently there existed a god in Gaul named Ogmios
who was equated with the Roman Hercules as statet 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 refered 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 ears.
- GODESS OF A PLACE
Additionally there existed godesses 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 godesses for instance for *Genava (todays Geneva in Switzerland),
Vienna (todays French Vienne) and numerous other places. A function of
the Irish Macha in that kind for Emain Macha is also likely.
"NYMPHS" - GODESSES OF SPRINGS
There also exist numerous godesses responsible for
springs. We know of an *Acionna "?Water Godess?", *Arvolcia "the very Wet",
"Prosperity" and others. Equal functions were probably fulfilled by the
godesses 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 godess.
"NYMPHS" - GODESSES OF THE LANDS
Equal to spring godesses we also know of godesses
which were attributed to certain parts of the countryside. For instance
we know of a godess *Ardbenna "Godess of the Ardbenna, the High Hills",
whichs name still is clinging to the Ardennes forest on the German/French
border and similar.
GENII - LESSER GODS / SPIRITS
The last type I'll be mentioning here are the socalled
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
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, Chech Republic, in the
springs of the Seine (the Gaulish Sequana), but also in the springs of
Roman Aquae Sulis, tody 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/godess were consciously sought.
In the Seine springs, for exaple, there have been found numerous models
of human body parts from various materials, which can be interpreted as
offerings to the godess 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 deductable 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 Te\ne Culture, La Te\ne 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, si the La Te\ne 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 Thames river.
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 midtwenties
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 forsome skeletal
finds (most often of females) in the gate area of some of the oppida, the
fortified sites of (mainly) late La Te\ne 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 socalled Nemeton or Drunemeton as related to us by the ancient authors,
fall into this category.
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 relativly
high altitude), something which could equally be true of such remenants
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 socalled
"Viereckschanzen". These are roughly rectangular wall and ditch constructions
that appear in the La Te\ne period from middle France to Eastern Austria,
covering more or less whole of the celtral 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 Yearcycle (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 separatly
at some time), namely (starting with the beginning of the year) Samhain,
in the current calendarical 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 translateable
as "the three nights of Summer", probably not meaning that they took place
in summer but denoting the final three nights of summer.
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 godess
who was associated with fire), there are hints that it also existed already
One of the rituals we know of taking place at
that feast was that the animals, especially the cows seemingly, were droven
between two fires. Probably this was a purification ritual, and rituals
associated with fire which exist in some parts of Europe may be remeniscant
of Celtic rituals. (Like the burning wheels who are run down a hill in
a village in Germany on the 1st of May).
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 godess 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 complex.
From various sources we can guess that a ritual existed
with which the child was accepted into the community of "humans" more or
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, approximatly the time when they start to
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
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 sovereignity
godess (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 probaly included the king
setting his foot into a "footprint" and some other ceremonies as well.
Besides of 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 "ritually
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 socalled
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 aqquired. 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 discribes 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
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 deponated somewhere
(for instance lead plates). There are some quite nice curses on them in
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 choosen 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
definitly 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 Unroofing Ritual, which seems to include such
a human sacrifice), definitly also had ritualistic components. We do not
know much of them, but we have at least one such ritual that can be reconstructed,
the socalled "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 recostructed, 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 Garotte, 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 "Druid prince".
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 strangualtion 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 archgaeology
as well. It definitly 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 definitly 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, approximatly 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 jewellery that they
probably had looked like chrismas trees when they were buried. Much of
this jewellery 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 remenants 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
childrens but also adults graves, but also in the way in which much of
the jewellery 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 occured
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
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 respectivly (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 relativly 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 believes 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 godesses 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 relativly 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 wellbeing of the king
reflected itself in the wellbeing 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
wellbeing. As such, a ruler had to be just, as injustice would immediatly
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.
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
godess of sovereignity, 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 impotant decisions for the future could
only be gained by reading the future in the death of a human sacrifice)
we do not know.
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 familiy 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 beleif is the one in what in Irish is called
"Geis", plural "Gessa", which could be best traslated 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 that".
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 sould 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
Eartch 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 Cuchullains
(foster)father, that there existed a belief that at the end of the world
the heaven would fall down on earth.