Extent of Celtic polytheism
As the religion of the ancient Celts, the shifts in the fortunes of Celtic Polytheism coincided with those of its people. The Celts, like other ancient Indo-European peoples, practised a form of polytheism, which reached the apogee of its influence and territorial expansion during the 4th century BC, extending across the length of Europe from Great 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 Great 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 Western 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 century 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.
Three main types of sources provide information on Celtic polytheism: the minted coins of Gaul, the sculptural monuments associated with the Celts of continental Europe and of Roman Britain, and the insular literatures of Celtic mythology that have survived in writing from medieval times. All pose problems of interpretation. The pre-Roman coins of the 1st century BC and early 1st century AD bear no inscriptions, and their iconography derives partly from standardized Hellenistic numismatic prototypes and partly presents highly local emblems. 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.
Syncretism with other forms of polytheism
The locus classicus for the Celtic gods of Gaul is the passage in Julius 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 honoured 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 travellers and of merchants, and the most powerful god in matters of commerce and gain. After him the Gauls honoured 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.
Cosmology and eschatology
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 Tir na nOg “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 Greek mythology 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 Manannan mac Lir, 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 Llyr, 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. This appears in Welsh mythology as Annwfn (from *Andubnion, very deep level) and ruled by seemingly different gods Arawn (*Ariomans) and Gwyn ap Nudd (*Vindos).
According to Poseidonius and later classical authors Gaulish religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes—the druid, 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 word “druid” is often cited as meaning 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 labour 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.
Classical sources claimed that the Celts had no temples (before the Gallo-Roman period) and that their ceremonies took place in forest sanctuaries. Archaeology demonstrates this to be incorrect, with a large number of temple sites excavated. In the Gallo-Roman period, more permanent stone temples were erected, and many of them have been discovered by archaeologists in Britain as well as in Gaul.
Celtic polytheism was evidently sacrificial, practising various forms of sacrifice in an attempt to redeem, obligate or appease the gods. Human sacrifice was practiced in Gaul: Cicero, Julius 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.
A Druid (often cited as being from the Celtic: “Knowing [or Finding] the Oak Tree”) was a member of the learned class among the ancient Celts. They seem to have frequented oak forests and acted as priests, teachers, and judges. The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 3rd century BC.
According to Julius Caesar, who is the principal source of information about the Druids, there were two groups of men in Gaul that were held in honour, the Druids and the noblemen (equites). Caesar related that the Druids took charge of public and private sacrifices, and many young men went to them for instruction. They judged all public and private quarrels and decreed penalties. If anyone disobeyed their decree, he was barred from sacrifice, which was considered the gravest of punishments. One Druid was made the chief; upon his death, another was appointed. If, however, several were equal in merit, the Druids voted, although they sometimes resorted to armed violence. Once a year the Druids assembled at a sacred place in the territory of the Carnutes, which was believed to be the centre of all Gaul, and all legal disputes were there submitted to the judgment of the Druids. Caesar also recorded that the Druids abstained from warfare and paid no tribute. Attracted by those privileges, many joined the order voluntarily or were sent by their families. They studied ancient verse, natural philosophy, astronomy, and the lore of the gods, some spending as much as 20 years in training. The Druids’ principal doctrine was that the soul was immortal and passed at death from one person into another.
The Druids may have offered human sacrifices for those who were gravely sick or in danger of death in battle. Caesar said that huge wickerwork images were filled with living men and then burned, for which no other evidence has been found. Although the Druids preferred to sacrifice criminals, they would choose innocent victims if necessary. Caesar is the chief authority, but he may have received some of his facts from the Stoic philosopher Poseidonius, whose account is often confirmed by early medieval Irish sagas. Caesar’s description of the annual assembly of the Druids and their election of an arch-Druid is also confirmed by an Irish saga. It must be remembered that Caesar was at war with the Celts, and that all information is questionable because much of it was Roman propaganda.
In the early period, Druidic rites were held in clearings in the forest. Sacred buildings were used only later under Roman influence. The Druids were suppressed in Gaul by the Romans under Tiberius (reigned AD 14–37) and probably in Britain a little later. In Ireland they lost their priestly functions after the coming of Christianity and survived as poets, historians, and judges (filid, senchaidi, and brithemain). Many scholars believe that the Hindu Brahmin in the East and the Celtic Druid in the West were lateral survivals of an ancient Indo-European priesthood.
Bards and filid
A bard was a poet, especially one who wrote impassioned, lyrical, or epic verse. Bards were originally Celtic composers of eulogy and satire; the word came to mean more generally a tribal poet-singer gifted in composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds. As early as the 1st century AD, the Latin author Lucan referred to bards as the national poets or minstrels of Gaul and Britain. In Gaul the institution gradually disappeared, whereas in Ireland and Wales it survived. The Irish bard through chanting preserved a tradition of poetic eulogy. In Wales, where the word bardd has always been used for poet, the bardic order was codified into distinct grades in the 10th century. Despite a decline of the order toward the end of the European Middle Ages, the Welsh tradition has persisted and is celebrated in the annual eisteddfod, a national assembly of poets and musicians.
The Irish bards seem to have been the filid. A Fili ( Old Irish: “seer”, from the Proto-Celtic *welits) was professional poet in ancient Ireland whose official duties were to know and preserve the tales and genealogies and to compose poems recalling the past and present glory of the ruling class. The filid constituted a large aristocratic class, expensive to support, and were severely censured for their extravagant demands on patrons as early as the assembly of Druim Cetta (575); they were defended at the assembly by St. Columba. Their power was not checked, however, since they could enforce their demands by the feared lampoon (áer), or poet’s curse, which not only could take away a man’s reputation but, according to a widely held ancient belief, could cause physical damage or even death. Although by law a fili could be penalized for abuse of the áer, belief in its powers was strong and continued to modern times.
After the Christianization of Ireland in the 5th century, filid assumed the poetic function of the outlawed Druids, the powerful class of learned men of the pagan Celts. The filid were often associated with monasteries, which were the centres of learning.
Filid were divided into seven grades. One of the lower and less learned grades was bard. The highest grade was the ollamh, achieved after at least 12 years of study, during which the poet mastered more than 300 difficult metres and 250 primary stories and 100 secondary stories. He then could wear a cloak of crimson bird feathers and carry a wand of office. Although at first the filid wrote in a verse form similar to the alliterative verse prevalent in Germanic languages, they later developed intricate rules of prosody and rigid and complicated verse forms, the most popular of which was the debide (modern Irish deibide, “cut in two”), a quatrain composed of two couplets, linked by the rhyme of a stressed syllable with an unstressed one.
After the 6th century, filid were granted land. They were required not only to write official poetry but also to instruct the residents of the area in law, literature, and national history. These seats of learning formed the basis for the later great bardic colleges.
By the 12th century filid were composing lyrical nature poetry and personal poems that praised the human qualities of their patrons, especially their generosity, rather than the patrons’ heroic exploits or ancestors. They no longer strictly adhered to set rules of prosody. The distinction between the fili and the bard gradually broke down; the filid had given way to the supremacy of the bards by the 13th century.
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 Beltane (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.
Beltane, also spelled Beltine, Irish Beltaine, Beáltaine, or Belltaine and also known as Cétsamain, was a festival held on the first day of May in Ireland and Scotland, celebrating the beginning of summer and open pasturing. Beltane is first mentioned in a glossary attributed to Cormac, bishop of Cashel and king of Munster, who was killed in 908. Cormac describes how cattle were driven between two bonfires on Beltane as a magical means of protecting them from disease before they were led into summer pastures—a custom still observed in Ireland in the 19th century. Other festivities included Maypole dances and cutting of green boughs and flowers.
In early Irish lore a number of significant events took place on Beltane, which long remained the focus of folk traditions and tales in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. As did other pre-Christian Celtic peoples, the Irish divided the year into two main seasons. Winter and the beginning of the year fell on November 1 (Irish: Samain) and midyear and summer on May 1 (Irish: Beltaine). These two junctures were thought to be critical periods when the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were temporarily erased; on May Eve witches and fairies roamed freely, and measures had to be taken against their enchantments.
Cormac derives the word Beltaine from the name of a god Bel, or Bil, and the Old Irish word tene, “fire.” Despite linguistic difficulties, a number of 20th-century scholars have maintained modified versions of this etymology, linking the first element of the word with the Gaulish god Belenos.
In Ireland, the word “Beáltaine” is generally pronounced /ˈbʲɑlˠ.t̪ˠə.n̪ʲə/ (IPA) or b-YOWL-ten-ah.
The beginning of the month of Samhain (Old Irish samain), was one of the most important calendar festivals of the Celtic year. At “the three nights of Samhain”, held around the beginning of November, originally at plenilune, the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to mankind, and the gods played many tricks on their mortal worshipers; it was a time fraught with danger, charged with fear, and full of supernatural episodes. Sacrifices and propitiations of every kind were thought to be vital, for without them the Celts believed they could not prevail over the perils of the season or counteract the activities of the deities. Samhain was an important precursor to Halloween.
Cults within Celtic polytheism
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.
Cult of Lugus-Mercurius
According to Caesar the god most honoured by the Gauls was “Mercury (Greek: Hermes). ,” 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 centres were known and from which the modern Lyon, Laon, and Loudun in France, Carlisle (formerly Castra Luguvallium, “Fort Strong in the God Lugus”); Leiden in The Netherlands, and Legnica in Poland derive. Clearly Lugus, also called Lug, (from Celtic: *Lug- ambivalently meaning “Lynx,” “Oath,” “Deceiver” and “Moonlight”), was one of the major gods, whose cult was widespread throughout the early Celtic world . The Irish and Welsh cognates of Lugus are Lugh and Llew, 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 or Balor “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).
According to Irish tradition, Lug Lámfota (“Lug of the Long Arm”) was the sole survivor of triplet brothers all having the same name. At least three dedications to Lugus in plural form, Lugoues, are known from the European continent, and the Celtic affinity for trinitarian forms would suggest that three gods were likewise envisaged in these dedications. Lug’s son, or rebirth, according to Irish belief, was the great Ulster hero, Cú Chulainn (“Culann’s Dog”).
In Wales, as Llew Llaw Gyffes (“Llew of the Dexterous Hand”), he was also believed to have had a strange birth. His mother was the virgin goddess Arianrhod (“Silver Wheel”). When her uncle, the great magician Math, tested her virginity by means of a wand of chastity, she at once gave birth to a boy child, who was instantly carried off by his uncle Gwydion and reared by him. Arianrhod then sought repeatedly to destroy her son, but she was always prevented by Gwydion’s powerful magic; she was forced to give her son a name and provide him with arms; finally, as his mother had denied him a wife, Gwydion created a woman for him from flowers.
The variety of the attributes of Lugh Samildánach (“Skilled in All the Arts”) and the extent to which his calendar festival Lughnasadh on August 1 was celebrated in Celtic lands indicate that he was one of the most powerful and impressive of all the ancient Celtic deities.
(TO BE CONTINUED)