The Celts, an ancient Indo-European people, reached the apogee of their influence and territorial expansion during the 4th century BC, extending across the length of Europe from Britain to Asia Minor. From the 3rd century BC onward their history is one of decline and disintegration, and with Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (58-51 BC) Celtic independence came to an end on the European continent. In Britain and Ireland this decline moved more slowly, but traditional culture was gradually eroded through the pressures of political subjugation; today the Celtic languages are spoken only on the western periphery of Europe, in restricted areas of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany (in this last instance largely as a result of immigration from Britain from the 4th to the 7th century AD). It is not surprising, therefore, that the unsettled and uneven history of the Celts has affected the documentation of their culture and religion.
Two main types of sources provide information on Celtic religion: the sculptural monuments associated with the Celts of continental Europe and of Roman Britain, and the insular Celtic literatures that have survived in writing from medieval times. Both pose problems of interpretation. Most of the monuments, and their accompanying inscriptions, belong to the Roman period and reflect a considerable degree of syncretism between Celtic and Roman gods; even where figures and motifs appear to derive from pre-Roman tradition, they are difficult to interpret in the absence of a preserved literature on mythology. Only after the lapse of many centuries–beginning in the 7th century in Ireland, even later in Wales–was the mythological tradition consigned to writing, but by then Ireland and Wales had been Christianized and the scribes and redactors were monastic scholars. The resulting literature is abundant and varied, but it is much removed in both time and location from its epigraphic and iconographic correlatives on the Continent and inevitably reflects the redactors’ selectivity and something of their Christian learning. Given these circumstances it is remarkable that there are so many points of agreement between the insular literatures and the continental evidence. This is particularly notable in the case of the Classical commentators from Poseidonius (c. 135-c. 51 BC) onward who recorded their own or others’ observations on the Celts.
The Celtic Gods
The locus classicus for the Celtic gods of Gaul is the passage in Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico (52-51 BC; The Gallic War) in which he names five of them together with their functions. Mercury was the most honored of all the gods and many images of him were to be found. Mercury was regarded as the inventor of all the arts, the patron of travelers and of merchants, and the most powerful god in matters of commerce and gain. After him the Gauls honored Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Of these gods they held almost the same opinions as other peoples did: Apollo drives away diseases, Minerva promotes handicrafts, Jupiter rules the heavens, and Mars controls wars.
In characteristic Roman fashion, however, Caesar does not refer to these figures by their native names but by the names of the Roman gods with which he equated them, a procedure that greatly complicates the task of identifying his Gaulish deities with their counterparts in the insular literatures. He also presents a neat schematic equation of god and function that is quite foreign to the vernacular literary testimony. Yet, given its limitations, his brief catalog is a valuable and essentially accurate witness. In comparing his account with the vernacular literatures, or even with the continental iconography, it is well to recall their disparate contexts and motivations. As has been noted, Caesar’s commentary and the iconography refer to quite different stages in the history of Gaulish religion; the iconography of the Roman period belongs to an environment of profound cultural and political change, and the religion it represents may in fact have been less clearly structured than that maintained by the druids (the priestly order) in the time of Gaulish independence. On the other hand, the lack of structure is sometimes more apparent than real. It has, for instance, been noted that of the several hundred names containing a Celtic element attested in Gaul the majority occur only once, which has led some scholars to conclude that the Celtic gods and their cults were local and tribal rather than national. Supporters of this view cite Lucan’s mention of a god Teutates, which they interpret as “god of the tribe” (it is thought that teuta meant “tribe” in Celtic). The seeming multiplicity of deity names may, however, be explained otherwise–for example, many are simply epithets applied to major deities by widely extended cults.
The notion of the Celtic pantheon as merely a proliferation of local gods is contradicted by the several well-attested deities whose cults were observed virtually throughout the areas of Celtic settlement.
According to Caesar the god most honored by the Gauls was “Mercury,” and this is confirmed by numerous images and inscriptions. His Celtic name is not explicitly stated, but it is clearly implied in the place-name Lugudunon (“the fort or dwelling of the god Lugus”) by which his numerous cult centers were known and from which the modern Lyon, Laon, and Loudun in France, Leiden in The Netherlands, and Legnica in Poland derive. The Irish and Welsh cognates of Lugus are Lugh and Lleu, respectively, and the traditions concerning these figures mesh neatly with those of the Gaulish god. Caesar’s description of the latter as “the inventor of all the arts” might almost have been a paraphrase of Lugh’s conventional epithet sam ildánach (“possessed of many talents”).
An episode in the Irish tale of the Battle of Magh Tuiredh is a dramatic exposition of Lugh’s claim to be master of all the arts and crafts, and dedicatory inscriptions in Spain and Switzerland, one of them from a guild of shoemakers, commemorate Lugus, or Lugoves, the plural perhaps referring to the god conceived in triple form. An episode in the Middle Welsh collection of tales called the Mabinogion, (or Mabinogi), seems to echo the connection with shoemaking, for it represents Lleu as working briefly as a skilled exponent of the craft. In Ireland Lugh was the youthful victor over the demonic Balar “of the venomous eye.” He was the divine exemplar of sacral kingship, and his other common epithet, lámhfhada (“of the long arm”), perpetuates an old Indo-European metaphor for a great king extending his rule and sovereignty far afield. His proper festival, called Lughnasadh (“Festival of Lugh”) in Ireland, was celebrated–and still is at several locations–in August; at least two of the early festival sites, Carmun and Tailtiu, were the reputed burial places of goddesses associated with the fertility of the earth (as was, evidently, the consort Maia–or Rosmerta [“the Provider”]–who accompanies “Mercury” on many Gaulish monuments).The Gaulish god “Mars” illustrates vividly the difficulty of equating individual Roman and Celtic deities. A famous passage in Lucan’s Bellum civile mentions the bloody sacrifices offered to the three Celtic gods Teutates, Esus, and Taranis; of two later commentators on Lucan’s text, one identifies Teutates with Mercury, the other with Mars. The probable explanation of this apparent confusion, which is paralleled elsewhere, is that the Celtic gods are not rigidly compartmentalized in terms of function. Thus “Mercury” as the god of sovereignty may function as a warrior, while “Mars” may function as protector of the tribe, so that either one may plausibly be equated with Teutates.
The problem of identification is still more pronounced in the case of the Gaulish “Apollo,” for some of his 15 or more epithets may refer to separate deities. The solar connotations of Belenus (from Celtic: bel, “shining” or “brilliant”) would have supported the identification with the Greco-Roman Apollo. Several of his epithets, such as Grannus and Borvo (which are associated etymologically with the notions of “boiling” and “heat,” respectively), connect him with healing and especially with the therapeutic powers of thermal and other springs, an area of religious belief that retained much of its ancient vigour in Celtic lands throughout the Middle Ages and even to the present time.
Maponos (“Divine Son” or “Divine Youth”) is attested in Gaul but occurs mainly in northern Britain. He appears in medieval Welsh literature as Mabon, son of Modron (that is, of Matrona, “Divine Mother”), and he evidently figured in a myth of the infant god carried off from his mother when three nights old. His name survives in Arthurian romance under the forms Mabon, Mabuz, and Mabonagrain. His Irish equivalent was Mac ind Óg (“Young Son” or “Young Lad”), known also as Oenghus, who dwelt in Bruigh na Bóinne, the great Neolithic, and therefore pre-Celtic, passage grave of Newgrange (or Newgrange House). He was the son of Dagda (or Daghda), chief god of the Irish, and of Boann, the personified sacred river of Irish tradition. In the literature the Divine Son tends to figure in the role of trickster and lover.
There are dedications to “Minerva” in Britain and throughout the Celtic areas of the Continent. At Bath she was identified with the goddess Sulis, whose cult there centered on the thermal springs. Through the plural form Suleviae, found at Bath and elsewhere, she is also related to the numerous and important mother goddesses–who often occur in duplicate or, more commonly, triadic form. Her nearest equivalent in insular tradition is the Irish goddess Brighid, daughter of the chief god, Dagda. Like Minerva she was concerned with healing and craftsmanship, but she was also the patron of poetry and traditional learning. Her name is cognate with that of Briganti, Latin Brigantia, tutelary goddess of the Brigantes of Britain, and there is some onomastic evidence that her cult was known on the Continent, whence the Brigantes had migrated.
The Gaulish Sucellos (or Sucellus), possibly meaning “the Good Striker,” appears on a number of reliefs and statuettes with a mallet as his attribute. He has been equated with the Irish Dagda, “the Good God,” also called Eochaidh Ollathair (“Eochaidh the Great Father”), whose attributes are his club and his caldron of plenty. But, whereas Ireland had its god of the sea, Manannán mac Lir (“Manannán, son of the Ocean”), and a more shadowy predecessor called Tethra, there is no clear evidence for a Gaulish sea-god, perhaps because the original central European homeland of the Celts had been landlocked.
The insular literatures show that certain deities were associated with particular crafts. Caesar makes no mention of a Gaulish Vulcan, though insular sources reveal that there was one and that he enjoyed high status. His name in Irish, Goibhniu, and Welsh, Gofannon, derived from the Celtic word for smith. The weapons that Goibhniu forged with his fellow craft gods, the wright Luchta and the metalworker Creidhne, were unerringly accurate and lethal. He was also known for his power of healing, and as Gobbán the Wright, a popular or hypocoristic form of his name, he was renowned as a wondrous builder. Medieval Welsh also mentions Amaethon, evidently a god of agriculture, of whom little is known.
Goddesses and Divine Consorts
One notable feature of Celtic sculpture is the frequent conjunction of male deity and female consort, such as “Mercury” and Rosmerta, or Sucellos and Nantosvelta. Essentially these reflect the coupling of the protecting god of tribe or nation with the mother-goddess who ensured the fertility of the land. It is in fact impossible to distinguish clearly between the individual goddesses and these mother-goddesses, matres or matronae, who figure so frequently in Celtic iconography, often, as in Irish tradition, in triadic form. Both types of goddesses are concerned with fertility and with the seasonal cycle of nature, and, on the evidence of insular tradition, both drew much of their power from the old concept of a great goddess who, like the Indian Aditi, was mother of all the gods. Welsh and Irish tradition also bring out the multifaceted character of the goddess, who in her various epiphanies or avatars assumes quite different and sometimes wholly contrasting forms and personalities. She may be the embodiment of sovereignty, youthful and beautiful in union with her rightful king, or aged and hideously ugly when lacking a fitting mate. She may be the spirit of war, like the fearsome Morrígan or the Badhbh Chatha (“Raven of Battle”), whose name is attested in its Gaulish form, Cathubodua, in Haute-Savoie, or the lovely otherworld visitor who invites the chosen hero to accompany her to the land of eternal youth. As the life-giving force she is often identified with rivers, such as the Seine (Sequana) and the Marne (Matrona) in Gaul or the Boyne (Boann) in Ireland; many rivers were called simply Devona, “the Divine.”
The goddess is the Celtic reflex of the primordial mother who creates life and fruitfulness through her union with the universal father-god. Welsh and Irish tradition preserve many variations on a basic triadic relationship of divine mother, father, and son. The goddess appears, for example, in Welsh as Modron (from Matrona, “Divine Mother”) and Rhiannon (“Divine Queen”) and in Irish as Boann and Macha. Her partner is represented by the Gaulish father-figure Sucellos, his Irish counterpart Dagda, and the Welsh Teyrnon (“Divine Lord”), and her son by the Welsh Mabon (from Maponos, “Divine Son”) and Pryderi and the Irish Oenghus and Mac ind Óg, among others.
The rich abundance of animal imagery in Celto-Roman iconography, representing the deities in combinations of animal and human forms, finds frequent echoes in the insular literary tradition. Perhaps the most familiar instance is the deity, or deity type, known as Cernunnos, “Horned One” or “Peaked One,” even though the name is attested only once, on a Paris relief. The interior relief of the Gundestrup Caldron, a 1st-century-BC vessel found in Denmark, provides a striking depiction of the antlered Cernunnos as “Lord of the Animals,” seated in the yogic lotus position and accompanied by a ram-headed serpent; in this role he closely resembles the Hindu god Siva in the guise of Pasupati, Lord of Beasts. Another prominent zoomorphic deity type is the divine bull, the Donn Cuailnge (“Brown Bull of Cooley”), which has a central role in the great Irish hero-tale Táin Bó Cuailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”) and which recalls the Tarvos Trigaranus (“The Bull of the Three Cranes”) pictured on reliefs from the cathedral at Trier, W.Ger., and at Nôtre-Dame de Paris and presumably the subject of a lost Gaulish narrative. Other animals that figure particularly prominently in association with the pantheon in Celto-Roman art as well as in insular literature are boars, dogs, bears, and horses. The horse, an instrument of Indo-European expansion, has always had a special place in the affections of the Celtic peoples. The goddess Epona, whose name, meaning “Divine Horse” or “Horse Goddess,” epitomizes the religious dimension of this relationship, was a pan-Celtic deity, and her cult was adopted by the Roman cavalry and spread throughout much of Europe, even to Rome itself. She has insular analogues in the Welsh Rhiannon and in the Irish Édaín Echraidhe (echraidhe, “horse riding”) and Macha, who outran the fastest steeds.
Beliefs, Practices, and Institutions
Little is known about the religious beliefs of the Celts of Gaul. They believed in a life after death, for they buried food, weapons, and ornaments with the dead. The druids, the early Celtic priesthood, taught the doctrine of transmigration of souls and discussed the nature and power of the gods. The Irish believed in an otherworld, imagined sometimes as underground and sometimes as islands in the sea. The otherworld was variously called “the Land of the Living,” “Delightful Plain,” and “Land of the Young” and was believed to be a country where there was no sickness, old age, or death, where happiness lasted forever, and a hundred years was as one day. It was similar to the
Elysium of the Greeks and may have belonged to ancient Indo-European tradition. In Celtic eschatology, as noted in Irish vision or voyage tales, a beautiful girl approaches the hero and sings to him of this happy land. He follows her, and they sail away in a boat of glass and are seen no more; or else he returns after a short time to find that all his companions are dead, for he has really been away for hundreds of years. Sometimes the hero sets out on a quest, and a magic mist descends upon him. He finds himself before a palace and enters to find a warrior and a beautiful girl who make him welcome. The warrior may be Manannán, or Lugh himself may be the one who receives him, and after strange adventures the hero returns successfully. These Irish tales, some of which date from the 8th century, are infused with the magic quality that is found 400 years later in the Arthurian romances. Something of this quality is preserved, too, in the Welsh story of Branwen, daughter of Llr, which ends with the survivors of the great battle feasting in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, having forgotten all their suffering and sorrow. But this “delightful plain” was not accessible to all. Donn, god of the dead and ancestor of all the Irish, reigned over Tech Duinn, which was imagined as on or under Bull Island off the Beare Peninsula, and to him all men returned except the happy few.
According to Poseidonius and later classical authors Gaulish religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes–the druids, the bards, and between them an order closely associated with the druids that seems to have been best known by the Gaulish term vates, cognate with the Latin vates (“seers”). This threefold hierarchy had its reflex among the two main branches of Celts in Ireland and Wales but is best represented in early Irish tradition with its druids, filidh (singular fili), and bards; the filidh evidently correspond to the Gaulish vates.
The name druid means “knowing the oak tree” and may derive from druidic ritual, which seems in the early period to have been performed in the forest. Caesar stated that the druids avoided manual labor and paid no taxes, so that many were attracted by these privileges to join the order. They learned great numbers of verses by heart, and some studied for as long as 20 years; they thought it wrong to commit their learning to writing but used the Greek alphabet for other purposes.
As far as is known, the Celts had no temples before the Gallo-Roman period; their ceremonies took place in forest sanctuaries. In the Gallo-Roman period temples were erected, and many of them have been discovered by archaeologists in Britain as well as in Gaul.
Human sacrifice was practiced in Gaul: Cicero, Caesar, Suetonius, and Lucan all refer to it, and Pliny the Elder says that it occurred in Britain, too. It was forbidden under Tiberius and Claudius. There is some evidence that human sacrifice was known in Ireland and was forbidden by St. Patrick.
Insular sources provide important information about Celtic religious festivals. In Ireland the year was divided into two periods of six months by the feasts of Beltine (May 1) and Samhain (Samain; November 1), and each of these periods was equally divided by the feasts of Imbolc (February 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1). Samhain seems originally to have meant “summer,” but by the early Irish period it had come to mark summer’s end. Beltine is also called Cetsamain (“First Samhain”). Imbolc has been compared by the French scholar Joseph Vendryes to the Roman lustrations and apparently was a feast of purification for the farmers. It was sometimes called oímelc (“sheep milk”) with reference to the lambing season. Beltine (“Fire of Bel”) was the summer festival, and there is a tradition that on that day the druids drove cattle between two fires as a protection against disease. Lughnasadh was the feast of the god Lugh.