Celtic mythology

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Celtic mythology, is the myths, lore and legends of the Celts, and the religious basis of the Iron Age Celts. Like other Iron Age Europeans, the early Celts maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure. Among Celtic peoples in close contact with Rome, such as the Gauls and Celtiberians, their mythology did not survive the Roman empire, their subsequent conversion to Christianity, and the loss of their Celtic languages, although ironically it is through contemporary Roman and Christian sources that what we do know of their beliefs has come down to us. In contrast, those Celtic peoples who maintained either their political or linguistic identities (such as the Gaels and Brythonic tribes of the British Isles) did transmit at least vestigial remnants of the mythologies of their Iron Age forebears, which were often recorded in written form during the Middle Ages.

Historical sources

Because of the scarcity of surviving materials bearing written Gaulish, it is surmised that the pagan Celts were not widely literate—although a written form of Gaulish using the Greek alphabet was used (as evidenced by votive items bearing inscriptions in Gaulish and the Calendar of Coligny). Furthermore, Caesar attests to the literacy of the Gauls, but also wrote that their priests, the druids, forbade using writing to record anything of religious significance.[1]

Rome introduced more widespread literacy and broke the power of the druids in the areas it conquered; in fact, most inscriptions to deities discovered in Gaul (modern France), Britain and other formerly (or presently) Celtic-speaking areas post-date the Roman conquest. And although early Gaels in Ireland and parts of modern Wales used the limited Ogham script to record short inscriptions (largely personal names), more sophisticated literacy was not introduced to Celtic areas not conquered by Rome until the advent of Christianity; indeed, many Gaelic myths were first recorded by Christian monks, albeit without most of their original religious meanings.

Julius Caesar's comments on Celtic Religion and their significance

The classic entry about the Celtic gods of Gaul is the section in Julius Caesar's Commentarii de bello Gallico (52–51 BC; The Gallic War). In this he names the five principal gods worshipped in Gaul (according to the practice of his time, he gives the names of the closest equivalent Roman gods) and describes their roles. Mercury was the most venerated of all the deities and numerous representations of him were to be discovered. Mercury was seen as the originator of all the arts (and is often taken to refer to Lugus for this reason), the supporter of adventurers and of traders, and the mightiest power concerning trade and profit. Next the Gauls revered Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Among these divinities the Celts are described as holding roughly equal views as did other populations: Apollo dispels sickness, Minerva encourages skills, Jupiter is in charge of the skies, and Mars influences warfare. In addition to these five, he mentions that the Gauls traced their ancestry to Dis Pater.

The Problem with Caesar's 'Equivalent' Roman Gods

As typical of himself as a Roman of the day, though, Caesar does not write of these gods by their Celtic names but by the names of the Roman gods with which he equated them, a process that significantly confuses the chore of identifying these Gaulish gods with their native names in the insular mythologies. He also portrays a tidy schema which equates deity and role in a manner that is quite unfamiliar to the colloquial literature handed down. Still, despite the restrictions, his short list is a helpful and fundamentally precise observation. In balancing his description with the oral tradition, or even with the Gaulish iconography, one is apt to recollect the distinct milieus and roles of these gods. Caesar's remarks and the iconography allude to rather dissimilar phases in the history of Gaulish religion. The iconography of Roman times is part of a setting of great social and political developments, and the religion it depicts may actually have been less obviously ordered than that upheld by the druids (the priestly order) in the era of Gaulish autonomy from Rome. Conversely, the want of order is often more ostensible than factual. It has, for example, been noticed that out of the several hundred names including a Celtic aspect testified in Gaul the greater part crop up only once. This has led some scholars to conclude that the Celtic deities and the related cults were local and tribal as opposed to Pan-Celtic. Proponents of this opinion quote Lucan's reference to a divinity called Teutates, which they translate as 'tribal spirit' (*teuta is believed to have meant 'tribe' in Proto-Celtic). The apparent array of divine names may, nonetheless, be justified differently: many may be mere labels applied to key gods worshiped in extensive Pan-Celtic cults. The concept of the Celtic pantheon as a large number of local deities is gainsaid by the numerous well-testified gods whose cults seem to have been followed across the Celtic world.

Branches of Celtic mythology

Celtic mythology can be divided into a number of distinct, if related, subgroups, largely corresponding to the branches of the Celtic languages:

  • Ancient Celtic
    • Ancient Gaulish and British deities
  • Goidelic
    • Irish mythology
      • Mythological Cycle
      • Ulster Cycle
      • Fenian cycle
      • Historical Cycle
    • Scottish mythology and folklore
    • Manx mythology and folklore
  • Insular Brythonic
    • Welsh mythology
    • Cornish mythology and folklore

The gods of the ancient Celts

Though the Celtic world at its greatest extent covered much of western and central Europe, it was not politically unified nor was there any substantial central source of cultural influence or homogeneity; as a result, there was a great deal of variation in local practices of Celtic religion (although certain motifs—for example, the god Lugh—appear to have diffused throughout the Celtic world). Inscriptions to more than three hundred deities, often equated with their Roman counterparts, have survived, but most appear to have been genii locorum, local or tribal gods, and few were widely worshipped.

The nature and functions of these ancient gods can be deduced from their names, the location of their inscriptions, their iconography, the Roman gods they are equated with, and similar figures from later bodies of Celtic mythology.

The gods of Ireland

The oldest body of myths is found in early medieval manuscripts from Ireland. These were written by Christians, so the formerly divine nature of the characters is obscured. The basic myth appears to be a war between two apparently divine races, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians, which forms the basis for the text Cath Maige Tuireadh (the Battle of Mag Tuireadh), as well as portions of the great pseudohistorical construct Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of Invasions). The Tuatha Dé represent the functions of human society such as kingship, crafts and war, while the Fomorians represent chaos and wild nature.

The gods of Wales

The gods of Britain, also obscured by centuries of Christianity, have come down to us in manuscripts from Wales. Here the two main groups of former gods are the children of Dôn and the Children of Llyr, although any distinction of function between the two groups is not apparent.

The Dagda

The supreme god of the Celtic pantheon appears to have been the Dagda. This word 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.

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 with a club cut into the chalky soil. While this was probably produced in Roman times, it is likely that it represents the Dagda. In Gaul, it is speculated that the Dagda is associated with Sucellos, the striker, equipped with a hammer and cup.

The Morrigan

In the Irish branch of Celtic mythology, the Dagda's consort was known by various names. The most common of these was the Morrigan (pronounced as 'More Ree-an'; Queen of demons - sometimes referred to in the plural as Morrigna), but she was also known variously as Nemain (Panic) and Badb Catha (Raven of Battle). She was said to change into a crow or raven and gloat over the blood on the battlefield.

Belenus

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.

Lugh/Lug

The widespread diffusion of the god Lug (seemingly related to the mythological figure Lugh 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 was held in his honour.

Other gods

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.

Temples

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.

Celtic worship

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.

The druids

The druids, who have been romanticised in modern literature, were the largely hereditary class of shamans responsible for transmitting and practicing the mythological and religious traditions of the Celtic peoples. (The role of the druids may be compared to those of the Indian Brahmin caste or the Iranian magi, and like them specialised in the practices of magic, sacrifice and augury. Because of the similarities among these classes among divergent branches of Indo-European descendant cultures, it has been proposed that the role stems back to a similar class among the proto-Indo-Europeans.

The druids were particularly associated with oak trees and mistletoe (a parasitic herb that commonly grows on oak trees); perhaps they used the latter to brew medicines or hallucinogenic concoctions. To help understand the meaning, the word druid is often believed to come from the root word meaning 'oak', although this probable proto-Indo-European root may have had the general meaning of solidity. Bards, on the other hand, were those who sang the songs recalling the tribal warriors' deeds of bravery as well as the genealogies and family histories of the ruling strata among Celtic societies.

The Celtic culture was not a historical culture, in the sense that prior to contact with Mediterranean civilizations, the Celtic peoples recorded no written history. However, Celtic peoples did maintain an often intricate spoken history committed to memory and transmitted by bards. Similar to other pre-literate cultures (see, for example, the Vedas of India, which were transmitted for centuries solely by memorization in an archaic form of Sanskrit that had not been spoken as a vernacular for hundreds of years), bards facilitated the memorization of such materials by the use of poetic meter and rhyme.

In addition, there may have been a class of 'seers' or 'prophets'. Strabo calls them vates, from a Celtic word meaning 'inspired' or 'ecstatic'. It is therefore possible that Celtic society had, in addition to the ritualistic and thaumaturgical religion of the druids, a shamanic element of ecstatic communication with the underworld.

Significance of Prophecy in Druidic Ritual

Diodorus remarks upon the importance of prophets in Druidic ritual: ‘These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power…and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future.’ These Graeco-Roman comments are supported to some extent by archaeological excavations. At Ribemont in Picardy, France, there were revealed pits filled with human bones and thigh bones deliberately fixed into rectangular patterns. This shrine is believed to have been razed to the ground by Julius Caesar while he was subduing Gaul. At a bog in Lindow, Cheshire, England was discovered a body which may also have been the victim of a druidic ritual. The body is now on display at the British Museum, London.

Modern remnants

The indigenous Celtic beliefs and ways have had a large impact on the modern Celtic cultures. Mythology based on (though, not identical to) the pre-Christian religion was common place knowledge in Celtic speaking cultures up to today, though it is now dwindling. Additionally, many unofficial saints are believed in, such as Brìd in Scotland (Brighid in Ireland), which have the same names as known deities. Various rituals involving acts of pilgrimage to sites such as hills and sacred wells which are believed to have curative or otherwise beneficial properties are still performed.

Based on evidence from the European continent, various figures which are still known in folklore in the Celtic countries up to today or take part in post-Christian mythology can be known to have also been worshipped in those areas that did not have records before Christianity.

Some of these are:

  • Lúgh in Ireland and Lugus in Gaul (and Lleu in Britain)
  • Brighid in Ireland Brigindo in Gaul
  • Maponos in Britain and Gaul, and a likely related god Oengas Mac Og in Ireland
  • Nuada in Ireland and Nodens in Britain
  • Badh Catha in Ireland and Cathobodua in Gaul

Differences in the names are accounted by diversion within the languages of the different groups.

Druidism

Often the religious systems of the Celtic peoples are called 'Druidry' or 'Druidism'. This is very much a misnomer, suggesting only the Druids were involved in religion, or that they had a distinct religion. This is akin to suggesting that Catholicism is Bishopry. The Druids existed as a functional part within a larger framework, as priests for instance. There are now numerous systems which have either been made up whole, or attempt to revive Celtic beliefs, and more often a mix of both called 'Druidism'. A problem with calling an attempt at reviving Celtic beliefs Druidism however is that, again, it would be like calling a revived Catholicism Bishopry or Judaism Rabbiry. Doing so goes beyond simply misnaming the religion but suggests a fundamentally wrong (ahistorical) structure, such as a religion which consists entirely of priest figures, or is different somehow from people they serve. Since the religious system of the Celts was indisputably polytheistic, the religion is more accurately termed Celtic polytheism.

Some people of the modern Celtic cultures, and others descended from them in the Celtic diaspora, are attempting to revive what they regard as their indigenous religion.

The modern religion of Wicca created in the 20th century from numerous heterogeneous sources is sometimes mistakenly believed to be a Celtic religion, although any relationship thereto is based on modern borrowing of discrete facets derived from recent historical and archaeological findings.

Notes