(BEING CONTINUED FROM 1/07/14)
The supreme god of the Celtic pantheon appears to have been the Dagda. The name means the ‘Good God’, not good in a moral sense, but good at everything, or all-powerful. The Dagda is a father-figure, a protector of the tribe and the basic Celtic god of whom other male Celtic deities were variants. Celtic gods were largely unspecialised entities, and perhaps we should see them as a clan rather than as a formal pantheon. In a sense, all the Celtic gods and goddesses were like the Greek Apollo, who could never be described as the god of any one thing.
Because the particular character of Dagda is a figure of burlesque lampoonery in Irish mythology, some authors conclude that he was trusted to be benevolent enough (or ineffectual) to tolerate a joke at his expense.The supreme god of the Celtic pantheon appears to have been the Dagda.
Irish tales depict the Dagda as a figure of power, armed with a club and associated with a cauldron. In Dorset there is a famous outline of an ithyphallic giant known as the Cerne Abbas Giant with a club cut into the chalky soil. While this was probably produced in Roman times, it has long been thought that it represents the Dagda. This has been called into question by recent studies which show that there may have been a representation of what looks like a large drapery hanging from the horizontal arm of the figure, leading to suspicion that this figure actually represents Hercules(Herakles), with the skin of the Nemean Lion over his arm and carrying the club he used to kill it. In Gaul, it is speculated that the Dagda is associated with Sucellos, the striker, equipped with a hammer and cup.
In the Irish branch of Celtic mythology, the Dagda’s consort was known by various names. The most common of these was the Morrigan. Her name is pronounced in modern Irish as “More Ree-an”; in old Irish the ‘g’ was pronounced as a soft ‘gh’, like gamma in Greek. The name translates to ‘Great Queen’. Sometimes she is referred to in the plural as Morrigna, but she was also known variously as Nemhain (Panic), Macha, Anann, and Badhbh Catha (Scald-crow of Battles), among other names.
She was said to change into a crow or raven, also a horse, as well as she being an earth goddess, also soverignty, and a tutelary goddess – or goddess of the tribe. Macha has solar attributes, with her white horse, as a sun goddess. So, in essence, Morrigan is the “Queen of the Heavens” as well as Queen of the earth – so her powers extend to air and earth. Her battle aspect was discredited due to Victorian fallacy, as she is given the battle role for her reign over the battlefield giving the army of her favor aide, as well as military protection, and acting as the goddess of Soverignty, and not a battle goddess as so many Neopagans usually classify her. As well as her connections to the cauldron of rebirth, Daghda protects it, and it is said that those who partake of it never leave unsatisfied.
Belenus was a more regional deity, who was worshipped mostly in Northern Italy and the Gaulish Mediterranean coast. He was primarily a god of agriculture. A great festival called Beltane was associated with him.
The widespread diffusion of the god Lug (seemingly related to the mythological figure Lœgh in Irish) in Celtic religion is apparent from the number of place names in which his name appears, occurring across the Celtic world from Ireland to Gaul. The most famous of these are the cities of Lugdunum (the modern French city of Lyon) and Lugdunum Batavorum (the modern city of Leiden). Lug is described in the Celtic myths as a latecomer to the list of deities, and is usually described as having the appearance of a young man. His weapons were the throwing-spear and sling, and in Ireland a festival called the Lughnasa (Modern Irish lœnasa) was held in his honor.
The Celts also worshipped a number of deities of which we know little more than their names. Among these are the goddess Brigit (or Brigid), the Dagda’s daughter; nature goddesses like Tailtiu and Macha; and Epona, the horse goddess. Male gods included Cu Roi and Goibniu, the immortal brewer of beer.
Cernunnos (the Horned One) is evidently of great antiquity, but we know little about him. It is probably he who appears on the famous embossed silver bowl found in Gundestrup, Denmark which dates from the 1st or 2nd century BC. The Roman writer Lucan (1st century AD) mentions the gods Taranis, Teutates and Esus, but there is little Celtic evidence that these were important deities.
Some of these gods and goddesses may have been variants of each other; Epona the Gallo-Roman horse goddess, for instance, may well have developed into the goddesses Rhiannon, in Wales, and Macha, who was mostly worshipped in Ulster. Polytheistic peoples rarely care to keep their pantheons in the neat and tidy order in which scholars would like to find them.
Often it is said that the Celtic peoples built no temples, and worshipped only outside in groves of trees. Archaeology has long shown this is untrue, with various temple structures throughout the Celtic world being known. With the Roman conquest of parts of the Celtic world a distinct type of Celto-Roman temple called a fanum also was developed. This was distinguished from a Classical temple by having an ambulatory on all four sides of the central cella.
The early Celts considered some trees to be sacred. The importance of trees in Celtic religion is shown by the fact that the very name of the Eburonian tribe contains a reference to the yew tree, and that names like Mac Cuilinn (son of holly) and Mac Ibar (son of yew) appear in Irish myths.
Roman writers stated that the Celts practiced human sacrifice on a fairly large scale and there is peripheral support for this in Irish sources; however, most of this information is secondhand or hearsay. There are only very few recorded archaeological discoveries which substantiate the sacrificial process and thus most contemporary historians tend to regard human sacrifice as rare within Celtic cultures.
There was also a warrior cult that centered on the severed heads of their enemies. The Celts provided their dead with weapons and other accoutrements, which indicates that they believed in an afterlife. Before burial, they also severed the dead person’s head and shattered the skull, perhaps to prevent the ghost from wandering.
Priests from this class were in charge of a great deal of religious festivals, as well as organizing the calendar; a daunting task as the Celtic calendar is incredibly accurate, but required manual correction about every 40 years, meaning lengthy mathematic discourse.
There are many questions arising as to what calendrical practice was used by the Celtic people. Regarding this issue there are three primary schools of thought. These three theories all attempt to offer us a better understanding of the Celtic calendar. To use the term ‘Celtic calendar’ is somewhat inaccurate, as it were the Druids who were primarily concerned with calendar-keeping.
One of the most commonly accepted beliefs holds that the year was divided into thirteen months with an extra day or so the end of the year used to adjust the calendar. This theory states that the months correspond to the vowels of the Ogham or Celtic Tree Alphabet. For every of the months there was a designated tree. From this a ‘tree calendar’ wheel emerged
Most archaeologist and historians accept another calendar. This calender is represented by the surviving fragments of a great bronze plate, the Coligny Calendar, which originally measured 5 feet by 3-1/2 feet. This plate, found in eastern France, was engraved in the Gaulish language (similar to Welsh) in Roman-style letters and numerals. It depicts a system of time keeping by lunar months, showing 62 consecutive months with 2 extra months inserted to match the solar timetable. They appear to have worked with a 19-year time cycle that equaled 235 lunar months and had an error of only half a day.
The third school of thought is an amalgam of both of the others. The proponents of this last theory believe that the first calendar pre-dates the Coligny discovery.
It is from ancient writers such as Caesar that we learn that the Celts were to have counted by nights and not days and in reckoning birthdays and new moon and new year their unit of reckoning is the night followed by the day.
Ancient Celtic philosophy believed that existence arose from the interplay between darkness and light, night and day, cold and warmth, death and life, and that the passage of years was the alternation of dark periods (winter, beginning November 1) and light periods (summer, starting May 1).
The Druidic view was that the earth was in darkness at its beginning, that night preceded day and winter preceded summer a view in striking accord with the story of creation in Genesis and even with the Big Bang theory. Thus, Nov. 1 was New Year’s Day for the Celts, their year being divided into four major cycles. The onset of each cycle was observed with suitable rituals that included feasting and sacrifice. It was called The Festival of Samhain – linked with Halloween.
The Celts measured the Solar year on a wheel, circle or spiral, all of which symbolize creation and the constant movement of the universe Ð growth and development.
To the ancients, the heavens appeared to wheel overhead, turning on an axis which points to the north polar stars. At the crown of the axis, a circle of stars revolved about a fixed point, the Celestial Pole, which was believed to be the location of Heaven.
At the base of the axis was the Omphalos, the circular altar of the Goddess’ temple. The universe of stars turning on this axis formed a spiral path, or stairway, on which souls ascended to Heaven.
This Sunwise, clockwise, or deiseal (Gaelic), motion of the spirals represented the Summer Sun. The continuous spirals with seemingly no beginning or end signified that as one cycle ended another began Ð eternal life. The spiral’s never-ending, always expanding, motion also symbolized the ever- increasing nature of information and knowledge. Many of these symbols often also appeared in triplicate, a sign of the divine.
In addition, the seasons of the year were thought to be part of this cycle. In Gaelic, the names of the four seasons date back to pre-Christian times:
- 1. Earrach for “Spring”
2. Samhradh for “Summer”
3. Foghara for “Harvest” for Autumn
4. Geamhradh for “Winter”
Festivals – Law
The social structure of Iron Age Celtic society was highly developed. It was a tribal society that was bonded together by a complex system of laws and social customs. The established body of Law was known as ‘Fenechas’, the law of the Feine (Freemen), or more commonly, the Brehon Laws. This body served the People for centuries.
The most common body of Brehon Laws was codified in 438, by the order of Laighaire, a High King of Ireland. The proceedings by which this work was done by three Kings, three Brehona (Recitors of the Law), and three Christian missionaries. By this act Pagan Fil’ and Christian monks came together and worked out a set of laws that was workable for people of both religions. The body of that law has been transmitted to us in the volumes known as the Senchus Mor.
The body of Law known as Brehon Law, as contained in the Senchus Mor is a body of national law. However, national law was secondary to local law. Whether local or national it was the Brehons who acted as the recitors of the Law.
There has been some confusion about who acted as the judge. It was the nobility who acted as such. As stated the Brehons were the recitors of the Law. After the Brehon had recited the Law, only then could the King or Queen render a decision. This is why lore is replete with examples of the Kings or Queens Druid, actually the Ard-Fili, having the right to speak before the King.
If the Brehon, who was a member of the intellectual/skilled caste, recited the law incorrectly they were expected to forfeit their fee and pay damage costs. The Brehon laws were responsible for regulating how people interacted. Hospitality, etiquette and other things were set out in ways that left little room for doubt. The codes of behavior established in the Law was such that all members of a family had to adere to it.
Codes of behavior and levels of responsibility were laid down in the laws for each social group. The more responsibility a social group had, the more restrictions were placed on them. Status was determined by the ownership of cattle and a few other things. There was no concept of land ownership in early Celtic society. This stands in sharp contrast to the Roman and Anglo patterns.
Druids also carried out sacrifices of crops, animals, and during specific festivals, humans. In a Celtic society, people were not executed for crimes, except during these festivals. Such executions varied, depending on what god the execution was dedicated to. Among the most famous is the human sacrifices practiced in the course of Essus worship.
Essus was, more or less, a benevolent law god to many Celts, particularly Gauls. However, Essus worship also intoned a sense of merciless behavior toward repeated criminals, rapists, traitors, and other societal dregs. The offender, if found guilty, would be taken to the temple of Essus, where an oak would be growing through an opening in the temple roof. His stomach would be cut open, and he would be hung from an oak branch.
The Celts’ gods were often named after natural things. For example the source of rivers would often have their own goddesses, though rarely many gods. Another theme with Celt gods were triple deities; not only goddesses, but numerous gods. For example the Mothers of Britain, or Cromm Cruach’s slovenly, deific, and humanistic forms. The main deities of Celtic religion, contrary to much misconception, were usually male.
The world in some remaining myths is often depicted as having been forged by a god with a hammer, such as Dagda or Sucellos, who then poured all life from a magic cauldron or cup; a source of pre-Christian Holy Grail’ myths in Celtic societies.
While deities varied, several constant deities or demigods existed over a wide area. A great example is Lugos, a heroic sun god from Gaul and the southern, Gallic parts of Britain. He is also known as Lugh (in Ireland), Llew (in non-Gallic Britain), and Lug (among Celtiberians, who were not culturally true Celts). Early depictions of him exist as early as the Hallstatt era, suggesting him as one of the longest existing gods of Celtic religion.
Similar is the horse and fertility goddess, Epona, who was also worshipped by the Romans when they came to rule Gaul. She also seems to have existed from the early era. Finally, there is Sucellos, who is argued by some to have been the ‘creator of the universe’ in some Celtic religions. He is party to Dagda of Ireland, and was worshipped over an enormous area, including by non-Celtic peoples such as the Lusitani.
He was the patron god of the Ordovices tribe of Britain, and was built up by the Arverni and their allies to replace the druidic god Cernunnos, as the Gallic druids were allies of their enemies in the rule for Gaul; the Aedui. Other religious practices also existed; Celts seem to have universally removed body hair.
Some postulate this as religious, but was more realistically part of the Celtic propensity for cleanliness. Body hair kept dirt close to the body, and Celts were an extremely cleanly people, so this was unacceptable. However, Celts also took heads from dead enemies. This was definitely a religious practice in origin.
However, even post-Christian Gaels continued this practice into the middle ages; some Irish even took to scalping the heads that they took, so they could braid the scalp through rings on their weapons. The religious connotations by that point were slim, but it does imply that taking heads had incredible cultural importance to have persisted so long after the religious background had been removed.
Celts believed the soul resided in the head, and that capturing a head meant that one captured the soul of an opponent, and that when a Celt died, the dead whom he had collected would serve him as slaves for eternity.
(TO BE CONTINUED)