|CELTIC RELIGION - WHAT INFORMATION DO
WE REALLY HAVE
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From: Raimund KARL (email@example.com)
Subject: Celtic Religion - what information do we really have - Part 1-7
Date: Sun, 1 Dec 1996 10:54:40 - Tue, 10 Dec 1996 15:20:01
To begin with, lets first look at the sources
available to us: There are quite numerous sources available, contrary to
the usual belief that there is almost nothing actually there.
First, there are the archaeological sources. These are the only direct
source for the prehistoric part of the religion we are talking about.
The main elements we find here are sacred sites (being as well designed
cult centers with a certain layout like the "Viereckschanzen"
are, as there are "natural" places which were used to deposit
offerings) and the findings and objects that came down on us (including
as well bog bodies as graves, the objects found in ritual deposits and
depictions of gods, most of which are from the time of the Roman
occupation but which still tell us something about the Celtic religion)
Second, there are the epigraphic sources, i.e. inscriptions. Most of
those are from the time of the Roman occupation and as such their use is
partly limited, however, some are autochtonous and 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
Fourth, we have the Insular literature, including early British
histories (like those of Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth),
sociopolitical geographies like those of Giraldus Cambrensis as well as
Irish and Welsh tales. These sources are useable to get hints at how to
reconstruct earlier religious concepts as well as to how Celtic religion
might have looked in the Celtic countries not conquered by Rome during
the first few centuries AD.
Fifth, we have the folk traditions in the countries which still are
"Celtic". Even though heavily Christianized, many a
"pagan" deity of belief shows through these traditions, and as
such these can be used to reconstruct missing parts as well.
These sources can be analyzed and are additionally added by results of
such fields as linguistics, comparative IE studies, comparative
religious studies and general history, which all help by providing explanation
possibilities and construction and development models and possibilities.
I will now start this look at pagan Celtic Religion
with a survey of what we know about what we would call
"priestly" functions more or less
When thinking of Celtic religious functions, the first thing that
comes to ones mind is doubtlessly the "druid". In most of the
literature, and not only the popular but a good deal of the scientific
one as well, "priest" is equated with the term
"druid" when talking about the Celts. However, this is a gross
simplification. There's definitely more to Celtic religious functions.
DIFFERENT RELIGIOUS FUNCTIONS
To start with, definitely the term druid is, to a certain extent,
also a catch over 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), which gaulish cognate would
be "*velits", a cognate of is attested as a name for a
Germanic seeres, "Veleda".
This now leaves us with the following terms: Druid, Vates, Vergobretus,
Bard, and perhaps fili.
Let us take a look at what their jobs were.
The specialized function of the "druid" is described in
Strabo IV, 4 as the science of nature and moral philosophy (pro\s te physiology/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 catch over term for all the
The specialized functions may allow us to assume that the druids in fact
are the class who worked as medics and who were knowledgeable in herbal
lore as described by Pliny the Elder. A grave of such a
"druid" we know from the cemetery of Pottenbrunn, object 520,
which contained the burial of an adult male of the early La Te\ne
Period, which carried, additionally to the usual equipment, a medical
instrument and a propeller-shaped bone object of unknown function, which
could be an item used in rituals.
The function of the vates is described by Strabo as
"interpreters of sacrifices and natural philosophers"
(hieropoioi\ kai\ physiolo\goi). This fits quite well with what we know
of as the function of the Irish 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 calendar of
Coligny falls into their field of work (the Calendar has been
interpreted as a solar/lunar predictor by Olmsted), so the vates would
be the ones who were the astrologers and mathematicians amongst the
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 law cases, we may assume
that the Vergobretus was a similar function. As Caesar reckons the
judging in law cases to the druidical functions it can be assumed that
it was a "religious" function as well.
Not much has to be said about the bards. Strabo (IV, 4) describes
them as "singers and poets" (hymnetai\ kai\ poietai\), which
fits quite well with what we know about the Irish bards. As a possible
etymology for *bardos could be derived from the IE root *gur-d(h)o-s
which is translated as "Praise Giver" this function could have
been religious as well.
WHAT ELSE WE KNOW
Well, actually not much. We do not know which of the above if any
carried out which of the rituals we know or can guess at. However, we
know that, according to Caesar (BG VI, 14-2), "Many young men
assemble of their own motion to receive their training; many are sent by
parents and relatives. Report says that in the schools of the druids
they learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons
remain twenty years under training.". Additionally, as well
according to Caesar (VI, 13 and 14), they usually do not participate in
wars, they don't have to pay taxes, they elect for lifetime one out of
their midst to be chief druid (more or less the druid pope), a position
which is very honorable and therefore sometimes it is, if no decision
can be found, even fought about with weapons.
One of the most often cited statements about Celtic gods is that we
have over 300 of their names that came down on us, while we know
actually almost nothing about their functions. With this statement,
usually the idea is transferred that the Celts had an unbelievable large
pantheon which consisted mainly of local gods and demigods, with only a
few if at all gods in common. However, this is probably a
misinterpretation due to lack of knowledge.
THE 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 craftsmen's"
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
THE NAMES OF THE CELTIC GODS
Well, I already mentioned that we have over three hundred names for
Celtic gods. Lugos, Toutatis, Taranis, Cernunnos, Esus, Sequana,
Brigantia, Epona, Matrona, Noreia, Eriu, Govannon, Belenos, Mabon and so
on. It has been, for a long time, considered that the Celtic pantheon
was regionally split up, that Noreia was a tribal goddess for the
Norici, Sequana a tribal goddess for the Sequani, Eriu a tribal goddess
for the Erenn. This also seems to be true, but only to a certain extent.
As far as we can say by now, the Celtic gods had a lot of variants, the
most we can find here are local but it is also possible that some were
functional. This is nothing surprising in fact, if we look at other IE
pantheons we find that most gods in most pantheons have numerous, local
and functional, bynames and names. The Greek god Zeus had multiple
names, as is true for all the other greek gods. Iuppiter is also known
to us as Dispater, and under numerous other names. The Hindu gods all
have multiple names. The same is true for the Germanic gods. And if we
look at the gallo-roman inscription in which most of the Celtic god
names have been brought down to us we find, not really surprising, that
Mars is mentioned with over 50 Celtic god names, as Mars Toutatis, Mars
Ambiorix and others, while Apollo is going along with Grannos, Belenos
and others, while Taranis and others are attributed to Iuppiter.
Given this, it is most likely that the names of the Celtic gods that
came down on us, are, for the most part, the local and/or functional
bynames of gods whose "real" names probably were kept secret
or which blend in with the bynames. Only two gods can be identified
almost everywhere, being the god Lugos (Irish Lugh, Welsh Llew), whose
name we find from Spain to Germany and probably even further east, and
the mother goddess (matrona), of which we know her functional name, i.e.
mother, (old Gaulish matrona, Welsh Modron), and to which a number of
the female names we have can be attributed (Sequana, Noreia, Brigantia
and probably as well Eriu and Boand, and additionally we have some
"mother goddesses of places" like the Matronae Lugdunensis or
the Matronae Treverorum).
GODS AND THEIR FUNCTIONS
Now lets take a look at the more important godly functions
THE SKY FATHER
More or less, the Sky father 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 "Sky father"
- and is quite easily detectable in Greek Zeus Pater, Iuppiters byname
Dispater and the Vedic Dyauspita. In the Celtic World this function is
most probably fulfilled by the Ollathair (Great father), the Dagda,
whereby the Ollathair seems to be a reminiscent of the *Dieus-pater,
although its best cognate is found in the Germanic Odin
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
THE CONTROLLER OF THE LOWER REALM AND HIS CONSORT
This god usually is the one who is in charge of the other world
and/or who is ferrying the dead to there. The Gaulish name for this god
is "Sucellos" (the good striker), and he is equaled by Greek,
Etruscan and Roman Charon. He is usually depicted with a great hammer
and a dog by his side, and has a consort called Nantosuelta (either
translated as "sun-warmed valley", or as "who makes the
valley bloom", the second being suggestive of the Irish Bla/thnat,
probably meaning "Little flower", and Welsh Blodeued
"Flower-faced"). We also see here a close parallel to the
consort of Hades, Persephone. The dog which resides beside Sucellos
usually could be an equivalent to the Greek Cerberos, the Hell-Hound.
Equivalents in the Irish legend can be found in the Relationship between
Curoi Mac Daire and Blathnath (Cu Roi actually meaning "Hound of
the Plain"), especially given the fact that Curoi also appears as
the churl in the beheading game in the quarrel about the here'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.
DAYTIME 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 controller in him. If we add to this the
festival of Lughnasad we could assume that he was also the controller of
the summer half of the year. His mythical twin, the one who was the
ruler before Lugh, is in Cath Maige Tuired the (formerly) one handed
Nuadu, which we have equaled in the British deity Nodens. In the Gaulish
Context this deity seems to have been identified both with Mercurius and
Mars by the Romans, thus being more or less the "kings god"
and the "god of the tribe". Here we probably would have to set
most of the Mars-connected gods like Toutatis, Vellaunos.
Another function is the one of the youthful-savior-champion. This
role is fulfilled by Cuchullin in the Irish texts, and mixes to a
certain extent with the function of the Nighttime Upper Realm
controller. This god is the warrior champion of the tribe, probably also
the god to whom the diverse known Celtic warrior bands (like the
Gaesates) would pray. He is the one who protects the cattle of the
tribe, the one who goes into battle frenzy, who fights naked. His
Gaulish equivalent probably would be Esus.
The Earth mother (surprise, she actually exists in Celtic mythology).
It is usually this goddess which was, together with the Sky father,
parent of all the other gods. This goddess appears as a separate goddess
in some IE pantheons (for instance Gaia in the greek mythology), but
also can meld with other female goddesses, most often with the female
Upper Realm goddess. In the Irish mythology s separate Earth mother
figure seems to be preserved in the figure of Danu and Tailtiu.
She was usually also the mother of three goddesses associated with
rivers or springs which are the female goddesses of the Upper, Middle
and Lower realm.
THE GODDESS OF THE LOWER REALM
The goddess of the Lower Realm seems to have had a cowlike nature. It
was probably called *Guououinda "White cow" (from IE *guou- +
*uind-), *Matrona "Mother" (from IE *mater) or *Mororegni
"Great Queen" (from IE *moro- + *regni-) She was also capable
of shifting her form to an eel, snake, serpent or wolf, more or less the
animal goddess. Additionally, she seems to be one of the aspects of the
"goddess of sovereignty". Her Gaulish names seem to have been
S(t)irona "Heifer", Damona "Cow", but also Brigantia
"the High, the exalted pure one", Rigana "the
Queen", Matrona "mother", but also Sequana "the
Flowing" and Bovinda "white Cow". Her Irish equivalents
are for instance Boand (the Irish form of Bovinda), Brigit (equivalent
of Brigantia) and Mo/rri/gan (the Irish version of Rigana). Her Welsh
equivalent is Mordron (the mother).
Through intercourse with the sky father this goddess begets a god named
"son", who later marries his aunt, the goddess of the middle
realm. This son is the Gaulish *Maponos "Son", in Welsh this
is his cognate *Mabon "Son", and, as expected, Boand is the
mother of the Irish Mac ind O/c "young Son". This god seems to
be associated with fire.
THE GODDESS OF THE MIDDLE REALM
The goddess of the middle Realm apparently had the byname *Medhua
"Intoxicatress" (from IE *medhu-). She seems to appear human
in form, and definitely is also part of the "goddess of sovereignty".
Her Gaulish name probably was *Meduana "Intoxicatress" or
*Comedova (same meaning), and possibly also *Aveda "the flowing
(Water)" Her Irish form is known as Medb or Aife (one of Mebd's
This goddess also has a son with the sky father, called *nepots
"Nephew" (alternatives *Nepotulos, *Neptionos) or *Nebhtunos
"God of Waters", or Irish Nechtain-Freach (the son of Medb),
who later marries his Aunt, the Lower Realm goddess (as Nechtain does
with Boand). This god seems to be associated with water.
THE GODDESS OF THE UPPER REALM
This goddess 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
Goddess" and ?Imona? "Swift One". Her Irish equivalent is
Macha (which is also called Rigana "Queen"and Roech
"Great Horse", essentially a cognate of Epona). The byname
?Imona? of Epona could also explain the name Emain Macha, as ?Imona? is
cognate with Emain (from *Imonis). Her Welsh equivalent is Rhiannon
"Queen" (from *Riganona).
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 Sovereignty".
A FEW THOUGHTS ON THE "GODESS OF SOVEREIGNTY"
As we have seen above, all those four goddesses are very interwoven
in their functions. In fact, it is questionable if they are to be
considered as separate goddesses at all, or if they are not all only
aspects of the Earth Mother/Godess of Sovereignty complex. Simply said,
this is not decidable at the moment. It is also possible that due to the
very scarce evidence and a constant intermixture, these goddesses
became, even though separate goddesses, mixed to a certain extent by the
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 shape changes
until finally, when both are bulls, the dark one rips the white one
apart besides a sea. Its gaulish names are Tarvos Trigaranus "Bull
with three cranes", Tarvos "Bull" or Donnotaurus
"Black bull", the last one being a cognate of Donn Tarbh,
another name for the Donn Cuailnge, who fights the Finnbenach
"White horned one" in one of the preludes to the Tain, also
going through the shape changes. In this, this figure fits with the
Avestan Tistrya and Apaosa and, more perfectly even, with the Greek
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 goddesses are also referred 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 goddesses
that are responsible for the respective realms. The three battle goddesses
can shift into the form of a raven.
At least the Babd, who is also referred to as Babd catha
"Battlecrow", also in this form has a cognate in Gaulish gods
names in [C]athubodva.
THE GOD OF ORATORY - THE CELTIC HERCULES
Apparently there existed a god in Gaul named Ogmios who was equated
with the Roman Hercules as stated in Lucianus's Dialogi Deorum (Hercules
1,7). This god is cognate with the Irish Ogma mac Elathan of the Tu/atha
De/ Danann in Cath Maige Tuired, who is referred to as the champion of
the TD and credited with the invention of the Ogam alphabet. He seems to
have functioned as a god of oratory as well, Gaulish coins depict his
audience as tied by silver chains to him which connect his tongue with
DEA LOCI - GODESS OF A PLACE
Additionally there existed goddesses which were
"place-specific" in that they were seen as protectors and/or
mothers of certain places. They are considered to fall in the group of
Gaulish Matres, Matrones. We know such goddesses for instance for
*Genava (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.
SPRING "NYMPHS" - GODDESSES OF SPRINGS
There also exist numerous goddesses responsible for springs. We know
of an *Acionna "?Water Godess?", *Arvolcia "the very
Wet", *Cobba "Prosperity" and others. Equal functions
were probably fulfilled by the goddesses after which rivers were named
like the Sequana, Matrona, Boand. We know for instance that at the
spring of the Sequana offerings were made to that goddess.
WOOD "NYMPHS" - GODDESSES OF THE LANDS
Equal to spring goddesses we also know of goddesses which were
attributed to certain parts of the countryside. For instance we know of
a godess *Ardbenna "Goddess of the Ardbenna, the High Hills", which's
name still is clinging to the Ardennes forest on the German/French
border and similar.
THE GENII - LESSER GODS / SPIRITS
The last type I'll be mentioning here are the so-called Genii,
sometimes also know as Genii cucullati "Hooded Spirits" which
could have had numerous functions. We know of Genii of the "Neighborhood",
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 place name 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
NATURAL SACRED PLACES
It is obvious from diverse archaeological findings and finds that a
number of natural places had a sacred character to the Celts. Noteworthy
is here, that basically all those places have an aspect of liminality.
SACRED 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 example, 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 "other world"
was possible is well known from a lot of the epics. That some of them
were considered as sacred places as well is also deductible from
archaeological findings like the famous Lynn Cerrig Bach hoard, where a
lot of items had been cast into the lake. An equal interpretation has
also been brought forth for the name giving 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, is the La Te\ne finds could have come into the lake for the
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
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).
SACRED 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
An equal interpretation is possible foursome 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 so-called Nemeton or
Drunemeton as related to us by the ancient authors, fall into this
SACRED PLACES IN CONNECTION TO SKY (OR EARTH, TOO)
The last group of natural sacred places are those which are most
probably connected to the Sky (even though a connection to the Earth is
also possible). Into this category fall sites like the Pass Lueg,
Austria, on which a Celtic Helmet (one of the most famous ones as it is
the one depicted on the Gauloise cigarette packs) was found, or maybe
also the hoard of Erstfeld, Switzerland, which is at the foot of the
Great St.Gotthard pass over the alps. These places could have been, like
Greek Mount Olympus, been connected to the skies (due to their relatively
high altitude), something which could equally be true of such remnants
like the "Vierbergewallfahrt" (four mountain pilgrimage) in
Carithia, Austria, or the Croagh Patrick tour.
The second group of sacred places are the sacred monuments. Here we
can also distinguish between some different groups.
That ancient monuments were considered sacred places is beyond any
doubt from the Irish and Welsh tales. One only has to think of the
Beliefs connected to places like Newgrange (Brug na Boinne). A hint
towards a similar belief of the ancient Celts can be found at the site
of the huge tumulus of Hochmichele, Germany, where a Viereckschanze (see
below) was erected directly besides the late Hallstatt tumulus.
The second type of sacred monuments are the so-called
"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 central
Celtic area. Inside of these rectangular wall and ditch enclosures,
which also quite often had elaborate gate constructions, there often
appear deep pits which in some cases still contained wooden statues of
"gods" and a number of offerings. Equal pits, but without the
surrounding wall and ditch constructions, have also been found on the
British isles. Sometimes also small houses appear inside these
Viereckschanzen, which in some cases appear to be the predecessors of
later Gallo-Roman temples.
TEMPLES INSIDE OF OPPIDA
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 grave goods
probably had quite some worth), but could also be interpreted as raids
on the other world as we know them from the Irish and British tales.
OTHER SACRED MONUMENTS
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
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 transmigration 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 separately 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
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 in Gaul.
One of the rituals we know of taking place at that feast was that the
animals, especially the cows seemingly, were driven between two fires.
Probably this was a purification ritual, and rituals associated with
fire which exist in some parts of Europe may be reminiscent of Celtic
rituals. (Like the burning wheels who are run down a hill in a village
in Germany on the 1st of 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 transmigration rituals. We know
little of them, but we can guess at the existence of some, starting with
the ritual of name giving, 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.
THE NAME GIVING
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, approximately the time when they start to
OTHER CHILDHOOD TRANSMIGRATION 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).
RITUALS 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
INITIATION TO KINGSHIP RITUAL
On this matter we probably have the best information of all the
rituals existing in Celtic religion. However, these rituals seem to vary
from place to place and in time. What is told to us about the
inauguration ceremony in Ancient Gaul is that the king to be is lifted,
standing on his shield, by his followers. The rituals connected to the
kingship in Tara, however, require the king to be to sleep with the sovereignty
godess (according to Giraldus Cambrensis who claims to have seen such a
ceremony in Connect 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 grave goods as
well, most probably also pointing at a ritual process in which the items
were put into the grave. This is especially visible in some areas of
Celtic settlement in certain time periods, where the items put into the
grave with the dead body are intentionally destroyed (often called
Another large group of rituals we know of as used by the Celts are
Divinatory rituals. Most of them are no longer reconstructable, all we
know is that the druids were able to predict the future from bird flight
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
BULL-SLEEP ("TARB FESS")
Another divinatory ritual known to us is the so-called Bull-sleep, in
Irish "Tarb Fess". In this ritual the faith (Gaul. vates)
overeats himself with the meat of a freshly killed bull (usually with
yellow skin) and then lays down to sleep on the hide of that same bull.
During the sleep he then has a prophetic dream.
Curative Rituals known to us have already been shortly mentioned in
connection to sacred springs. Obviously, the Celts attributed high
curative powers (even the power of rebirth) to the water. Hints to this
we find in the already quoted passage in Cath Maige Tuired as well as in
items like the "cauldron of rebirth" (the Grail of the
Arthurian tradition), as archaeology gives us hints in the findings of
models of body parts in the springs of the Seine. Obviously, Rituals
like immersion in "sacred" water and the offering of
equivalent models if the injured body parts was used as a curative
ritual (although we also know of surgery made by the Celts, up to the
surgical opening of the skull, i.e. trepanation).
We also know a "curative" incantation as allegedly used by
Miach, the son of Dian Cecht, to heal the severed Arm of Nuada, the king
of the TD. It goes: "joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew"
(Cath Maige Tuired 33).
The last great group of rituals are what I will call
"magical" rituals here, because I know no better term for it.
Suggestions are, however, welcome.
COLLECTION OF PLANTS RITUALS
The first kind of ritual in this group is described to us by Pliny
the elder in his historia naturalis, where he is also speaking about
curative plants used by the Druids and how they are acquired. This is
the source wherefrom the famous Mistletoe story stems, and from which is
usually deducted that the Druids wore white clothing (which I personally
very much doubt). Pliny describes how the druid puts the right arm
through the left sleeve of his clothing and cuts, with a golden sickle,
the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloth. He describes rituals to
collect some other plants as well, which include jumping on one leg
around it in the left-hand direction.
BLESSINGS AND CURSES
Also falling in this group of rituals are the blessings and curses.
Usually, they invoke a god to do something to somebody else, and are
usually engraved into permanent material that is detonated 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).
THE TEMPLE UNROOFING RITUAL
From the druidesses of one of the French channel islands we know of a
yearly ritual, in which they unroofed their whole temple and then set up
a new roof in one day. If one of the druidesses let fall what she
carried of the roof, so it is said, she would be torn to pieces by the
others. In fact, seemingly, the druidesses tried to make each other (or
maybe also one of them that was chosen to previously) let fall pieces of
In many of the sacred places we know of depositions of items, which
have to be called "ritual depositions". During their
deposition definitely rituals were carried out, in some cases also
including intentional destruction of the sacrificed items.
HUMAN 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),
definitely also had ritualistic components. We do not know much of them,
but we have at least one such ritual that can be reconstructed, the so-called
"threefold death". This means that the victim dies of three
reasons at the same time. In the archaeological material we can see this
in case of Lindow man, the bog body from Lindow moss in England, which
was killed in such a ritual. As far as it can be reconstructed, Lindow
man had been hit in the head (with probably an axe), however, not strong
enough to let him instantly die. He was strangled with a 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 archaeology as well. It
definitely had a ritual meaning.
CELTIC RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
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.
BELIEFS IN CONNECTION TO CHILDREN
We know only very little about the beliefs connected to children.
What we can definitely say is that children were not considered to be
"real human beings" up to a certain age, probably up to the
age of 2-3, approximately the time when the child is starting to speak
in consistent sentences. We have no children in the graveyards that are
below this age, but we find them quite frequently in the settlements.
Connected to this "becoming a human" seems to be the giving of
a name to the child, as indicated in the 4th branch of the Mabinogi.
After this, however, the children appear frequently in the graveyards
and are often adorned with that much jeweler that they probably had
looked like charismas trees when they were buried. Much of this jeweler
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
The only other belief (though this as well may have been a secular
belief) that we know of is that it was seen as a bad omen if a father
was seen together with his son who was not already in the age of
carrying weapons (according to Caesar). This might indicate a religious
background for a system similar to the fosterage system known from the
Irish, which also finds its remnants in the upbringing of Lugh by
Tailltiu in the Irish mythological cycle.
APOTROPAIC (PROTECTIVE) BELIEFS
We can be quite sure that there existed apotropaic beliefs. This is
not only indicated by the frequent "amulets" found in children's
but also adults graves, but also in the way in which much of the jeweler
and weaponry was decorated. The images of animals and also human faces
(in the typical abstracted Celtic art style) can be seen as
"protective" symbols to ward off evil spirits.
That other similar beliefs existed is also confirmed by a passage in the
Tain Bo Cuailgne, where we hear that it was geas (prohibition) to the
Ulaid to drive with a chariot on a day where there already had occurred
technical problems with it (like the breaking of a wheel or similar).
Also interpretable as apotropaic beliefs are the rituals described by
Pliny the Elder for the Druids when collecting certain plants.
What we know about calendrical beliefs is probably the best
documented part of the beliefs (in form of the calendar of Coligny). We
can be sure that in ancient Celtic Religion the year was divided in two
main parts, the Winter half (starting with Samhain) and the Summer half
(starting with Beltane) (although some theories want to set Samhain in
the middle of the summer half, but that is probably nonsense). The other
two great feasts (Imbolc and Lughnasad), if they at all existed in
ancient Celtic Religion, seem to mark the respective middle of the
respective halves. Seemingly, the Summer and Winter half fought with one
another (in form of a white and a black bull, probably, but possibly
also in the form of some gods, look for this in the first branch of the
Mabinogi where the enemy of Arawn of Annwn is called Hafgan [i.e.
"Summer king" more or less]).
Additionally we know that the months and days had a "lucky"
and "unlucky" quality (Gaul. *matos=good, *anmatos=ungood,
bad). The Gaulish calendar divided the year into 12 months more or less
with 29 and 30 days respectively (and a month to make up for the lost
days every five years), of which the 29 day months were considered
"anmatos" and the 30 day ones were considered
"matos". There were, however "matos" days in
"anmatos" months and vice versa. What exactly this
lucky/unlucky connotation meant, and what result it had on actions taken
is not clear, but we can be sure that such a belief existed.
Such a belief is also found in one of the episodes to the Tain, where
Cathbad, when asked what this day is good for by Ness, mother of
Conchobor, he replies with: For begetting a king on a queen
THE SPIRITS OF NATURE
That a belief in spirits of nature existed in Celtic Religion is relatively
sure. The rituals used by the Druids to collect plants as described by
Pliny the Elder can, as well as containing apotropaic elements, be seen
as magic used to cheat the spirits of the plants collected (for instance
putting the right arm, which is the "dangerous" one, through
the left sleeve can be seen as a trick to make the plant believe it is
safe until it is too late). Partly, these nature spirits may have become
the small folk of the Irish legends.
If believes in such spirits influenced the daily routine in any way we
do not know.
BELIEFS CONNECTED TO HEALING
We know little about the beliefs connected to healing but that it was
performed by the druids. Seemingly, there were multiple possibilities
like making offerings to spring goddesses like we know from the springs
of the Sequana, then there is the possibility that there were beliefs of
dogs licking wounds (as indicated by the British god Nodens, who had a
connection to dogs that were licking wounds of injured), but also
surgery performed like trepanation (the opening of the skull) could have
been connected to a special belief (especially if we remember that the
head had a special place in Celtic beliefs).
Additionally it is obvious from various sources that curative powers
were ascribed to some herbs/plants.
BELIEFS CONNECTED TO KINGSHIP
Of old Celtic kingship we know relatively little, but this can be
made up by what we know from the Irish evidence. Obviously, the main
belief in regard to kingship was that the well-being of the king
reflected itself in the well-being of the land. A king that lost his
perfect appearance reflected this back on the land as well, be he
scarred or going that far that he had lost a limb. A physically
"not perfect" person would not be able to be king, due to this
connection. However, this "perfect ness" not only was a matter
of physical appearance, but also a matter of mental well-being. As such,
a ruler had to be just, as injustice would immediately fall back on the
country. Additionally he wouldn't be allowed to be greedy, because if
the king would not give his gifts with open hands, so would nature not
wield good crop.
BELIEFS CONNECTED TO GODS
We know little about that, except that diverse gods had diverse
functions. Apart from that, we only can say that some members of the
society would have a closer connection to one god than to most others,
like the shoemakers would (and we know this from one of the Celtiberian
inscriptions) tend more towards the god Lugos (which's equivalent Llew
we find as a shoemaker in the Mabinogi).
Apart from that we can be pretty sure that the "gods" were
living in an "otherworld", similar to the Irish belief, and
were in some kind connected to the "mythical ancestors" of the
people, which can be seen in the assignment of old huge grave mounds 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 sovereignty, while
he sits on Gorsedd Arberth, a megalithic tomb), and we can assume
something similar for the continental Celts (as seen in the
Viereckschanze next to the gigantic grave mound 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
OFFERINGS AND SACRIFICES
That offerings and sacrifices were deemed necessary is evident from
their existence alone. What beliefs especially led to these practices
(except the belief that impotent decisions for the future could only be
gained by reading the future in the death of a human sacrifice) we do
BELIEFS CONNECTED TO THE HEAD
As far as we can say the Celts had a special reverence for the head.
This is evident from the ancient sources, where we are told that heads
of enemies were kept as family treasures, and that such heads would not
be sold for their weight in gold, as we can find it in archaeology,
where we as well have monuments like the one in Roquepertuse, where a
stone portal was adorned with human skulls as we have often enough
separate skulls in the settlements and amulets made from human
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
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
That the Celts believed in some kind of magic is evident. The most
obvious belief is the one in what in Irish is called "Geis",
plural "Gessa", which could be best translated as
"Prohibition, Taboo". Such gessa could be anything from not
eating with three women to not hunting birds, but also could include
tests in the kind of "it is geis for you to not return here until
you have done this and 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 should 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.
BELIEFS CONNECTED TO THE CREATION/END OF THE WORLD
We know almost nothing about the pagan Celtic beliefs about the
creation of the world and its end. It can however be speculated, that
the creation was seen similar as in most other IE religions as the Earth
mother giving birth to the world.
On the end of the world we equally have almost no information. However,
it can be guessed from statements as famous as "we fear nothing but
that the heavens may fall down on our heads", which we know was
said to Alexander the Great by Celts on the lower Danube as well as it
finds itself in the Tain as the famous last words of Cuchullains
(foster) father, that there existed a belief that at the end of the world
the heaven would fall down on earth.