§ 9. What gods did the Celtic people worship?
The Celtic people believed in a variety of gods and goddesses, and not every Celtic nation had exactly the same pantheon. The archaeological record in Gaul reveals 374 god-names, many of which were gods of particular tribes or localities. Sometimes the same god was known by different names, and many of the names were deemed too holy to pronounce aloud (thus the common oath: “I swear by the god my tribe swears by”). This taboo may also have been intended to prevent your enemies from invoking your own gods against you.
It is important to remember that in the pre-Christian times, the people believed in complex and imperfect gods who, like human beings, had personalities, interests, and feelings. A religious professional would be required to know these things in order to work with them and avoid angering them, thereby risking the welfare of the tribe. Because the Celtic Gods are similar to humans in disposition and temperament, they are so much more accessible and easier to understand. The idea that the gods might be makers of morality and judges of humanity is a foreign idea to most ancient European cultures. Some of the gods are simply the beings who live in and with natural forces, landmarks, special places, weather events, animals, trees, and so on, and who are controllers of their movements and dispositions. Others are the deities of particular tribes or nations, who sponsor that tribe and support it in various ways. A tribal deity may be seen as a distant divine ancestor, who confers special benefits upon the best of his mortal descendants. As a general rule, although there are exceptions, male deities look after human social affairs, and female deities dwell in landforms and the forces of nature. Each tribe had its own small group of local gods, although there were a few ‘rock-star’ deities embodied in the landscape of whole continents, or who were the progenitors and sponsors of whole nations.
In the chapters to follow, I will discuss some gods in detail, as the discourse requires. Here, I will briefly mention a few of them, which will give an impression of the diversity in the Celtic pantheon as well as some of the commonalties among the different Celtic nations.
• Lugh Lamh-Fada, the “Long Handed” or “Many Talented”, a god of the sun, of military victory, and of the harvest.
• Manannan, the god of the sea, and of passage to the Otherworld.
• Morrigan, a goddess of the Earth, and of sovereignty.
• Dagda, another god of the sun, and of tribal leadership.
• Brighid, a goddess of healing, midwifery, blacksmithing, poetry, and fire.
• Diancecht, a god of medicine and physicians.
• Ogma, a god of writing, knowledge, wisdom, and public speaking.
• Angus, son of the Dagda, god of youth, beauty, and love.
• Arawn, lord of the Annwyn, the Otherworldly realm of ancestors.
• Pwyll, lord of the kingdom of Davyd, and husband of Rhiannon.
• Arianhrod: She is the Goddess of Caer Arianhrod, sometimes identified with the constellation Coronea Borealis, which is where the souls of slain heroes go.
• Rhiannon, goddess of sovereignty associated with horses and the Underworld.
• Cerridwen, mother of the poet Taliesson, goddess of wisdom and old age.
• Lyr, god of the sea
From Gaul (including some equivalent Roman deities according to Julius Caesar):
• Lugh (Mercury), a god of the sun
• Belinus (Apollo)
• Taranis (Mars) a thunder god
• Teutatis (Jupiter) a “father” god
• Brigid (Minerva)
• Cernunnos (Dispater) a god of animals, hunting, fertility, and death.
• Epona, a goddess of horses and of motherhood.
§ 10. Did the Druids practice human or animal sacrifice?
For those who want to believe the answer is “yes”, there is plenty of literary and archaeological evidence to justify the belief. For those who want to believe the answer is “no”, there are plenty of other ways to interpret the evidence.
The Romans recorded that the Druids executed criminals and prisoners of war in religious ceremonies. This was no different than elsewhere in the ancient world. Julius Caesar wrote that such victims were tied into huge man-shaped effigies made of wicker and burned alive. The ancient historian Livy reported that when an army of Celtic Gauls attacked and killed a Roman army commander named Postumius, they killed him and made a chalice from his skull. Some accounts describe one person’s life being sacrificed so that a terminally ill noble would survive, thus indicating a belief in a cosmic balance of forces.
It is fashionable among some contemporary Druids to claim that Julius Caesar’s account of the Wicker Man is mere propaganda, designed to stir up support for his war in Gaul. Less easy to dismiss is the image on the inside of the Gundestrup Cauldron, which has a panel depicting a man about to stab a bull through the throat with a sword. This artifact corroborates Roman and Greek literary accounts of the “Bull Feast” in which animal sacrifice was a necessary part of the ceremony of inaugurating kings. Less easy to dismiss again is Ann Ross’ account of the “Lindow Man”, the bog body discovered in England, near the border of Wales on 1st August 1984. He had been simultaneously strangled, drowned, and clubbed. The absence of any signs of struggle on the body seems to indicate that he did not resist the sacrifice but rather agreed to it willingly. His last meal included a bit of burned bread (possibly the equivalent of “pulling the short straw”). All of these facts, among others, according to Ross, provide strong evidence that the Lindow Man was a Druid who agreed to be sacrificed in an (unsuccessful) attempt to prevent Roman armies from invading Britain. There are numerous other bog bodies discovered all over Europe, killed in similar ways and with evidence similarly pointing to a willing victim. Celtic scholar Miranda Green has described how the selected ‘victim’ would be treated like a king for as much as a full year before the sacrifice. He would be given all the best food and clothing, for instance, or permission to have sex with anyone he wanted. This may have been intended as an incentive for volunteers, or perhaps the result of a belief that high-status victims were more valuable than low status victims. If the latter is true, then it would be necessary to make the victim a temporary king to maximize the magic of the sacrifice.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the Scottish-born anthropologist James Frazer published The Golden Bough. This was the first major work of comparative mythology, the first to list the “laws of magic” as occultists know them today, and the first to suggest that the purpose of myth was not only to explain the world but also to effect change. Myth, to his mind, was tied to ritual: people connected with the gods and with the sacred powers of the world by re-enacting their mythologies in ceremonial dramas. The book is most well known for the description of the ritual sacrifice of society’s highest ranking member: the king. In his account, the murder of the king was a widespread custom. His idea was that the king was a sacred figure, the embodiment of a god, whose personal qualities were connected to the condition of the territory he ruled. In Frazer’s words:
…the king’s life or spirit is so sympathetically bound up with the prosperity of the whole country, that if he fell ill or grew senile the cattle would sicken and cease to multiply, the crops would rot in the fields, and men would perish of widespread disease. Hence, in their opinion, the only way of averting these calamities is to put the king to death while he is still hale and hearty, in order that the divine spirit which he has inherited from his predecessors may be transmitted in turn by him to his successor while it is still in full vigor and has not yet been impaired by the weakness of disease and old age.
As we can see, this death had a practical ritual purpose tied to the community’s desire for survival: it was intended to achieve a renewal of the world, in particular the revival of plant life, in order to prevent starvation. Some Sacred Kings were killed automatically after a certain amount of time (on his account, usually seven years), others were subject to challenges on regular occasions like annual festivals, still others were in perpetual danger from those who might kill him to take his place at any time. Some Sacred Kings were ordinary members of the community who temporarily substituted for the king after losing a bet, for instance by drawing a burned piece of bread from a basket. And some Sacred Kings were effigies or animals, so that no human being had to be killed. The spirit of the sacrificed king was then ‘reborn’ in the fertility of the plants and crops. Frazer had effectively shown that the death and resurrection of a god was a rather commonplace belief in the ancient world, and not something accomplished only by Christ. Frazer emphasizes that it was also accomplished by the Greek hero Adonis, for instance. It may be that the Celts accepted Christianity so readily because the idea of a sacrificed and resurrected deity was already familiar to them.
However, there is a great deal of controversy about this. Many of the details of Frazer’s work were disputed, and various inconsistencies led scholars to reject his account by at least the 1950’s if not earlier, at least insofar as it was claimed to be a factual account. His ideas about the logic of magic, and of the connection between mythology and ritual, remain respected. The bog bodies like the Lindow Man could have been convicted criminals or prisoners of war rather than willing victims. Finally, there is no evidence of human sacrifice in Ireland, though there is evidence of animal sacrifice there. And there is no evidence of the sacrifice of women, anywhere in Celtic world.
To understand this phenomenon, it is important not to assume that ancient people held the same values that we do today. To the Celts, death was not the frightening, final thing it is to most of us born in the 20th century. It was a Druidic doctrine that the soul is immortal and that death is part of the cycle of someone’s existence. It follows that human sacrifice may not have been so repugnant to ancient people. Indeed a certain amount of violence may have been part of the meaning of the sacred — the violence of the warrior on the battlefield, the animals in the forest, the hunters who chase them, and the thunderstorm in the sky. Certainly, there were other forms of punishment in Celtic law deemed worse than death, such as banishment. If Julius Caesar had lied about the Wicker Man in order to fuel his propaganda effort, he would have been quickly exposed by other eyewitnesses and his credibility would have been ruined. If ancient cultures killed people for religious purposes, it would have been a very special and powerful ritual, performed only in times of serious need.
We today regard death as a negative thing, or even as an annoying interruption of the status-quo, if we acknowledge it at all. But Death is one of the most important facts and mysteries of human life. How we acknowledge this mystery, or how we fail to acknowledge it, tends to reveal our deepest spiritual commitments and our most strongly-held values. I think it cannot be denied that ancient Pagan societies had this dark side, the transformation of murder into one of their most important ritual dramatizations of myth and meaning. But it would be wrong to paint Druidry as nothing more than an elaborate death-cult. Obviously, there are no modern Druids who continue the practice of human sacrifice today.
§ 11. What Celtic temples and sacred places exist?
There are literally thousands of stone forts, earthwork rings, holy wells, stone circles, and other monuments scattered all over Europe. Unfortunately the majority of them are in ruins today, either through age and disuse or else from deliberate destruction. Still others have been “converted” to serve Christianity. The site of Gaul’s central Druidic stronghold, in what was then the territory of the Carnutes tribe, is presently the site of Chartres Cathedral. Another class of sacred places are those constructed by the pre-Celtic Neolithic people, which because of their monumental size remain numerous and reasonably intact to this day. The two most well known Irish sites of this kind are Tara and Newgrange.
Newgrange has many names: Cashel Aengus, Brugh Na Boinne, or the Wonder Hill. It is what archaeologists call a “passage grave” or “passage mound”. It is a large circular man-made mound of earth surrounded by a ring of kerbstones. A single (known) passage opens from its southeast face that leads into the mound to a central chamber. The passage is angled so carefully that direct sunlight can enter as far as the central chamber, some 80 feet inside the monument, only at sunrise on midwinter morning. Within a few miles from Newgrange are several other passage mounds, including Knowth, which has two passages aligned to sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. Other famous passage mounds include the Loughcrew Complex, elsewhere in Ireland, and Maes Howe in Scotland which also admits sunlight only on Midwinter morning.
The Hill of Tara is one of my favorite places in Ireland. Its serene grassy fields, great earthwork circles, and the extraordinary view over the countryside make it easy to feel like a king. It was, indeed, the seat of the national kings of Ireland. It is a low hill with gently sloping sides, and features a large concentration of earthwork circles and avenues. The largest earthwork enclosure, Rath na Ri (‘Fort of the King’) is over 100 meters in diameter, and inside it are two smaller earthwork circles and a passage mound. There are also six holy wells surrounding the hill, a massive royal avenue now known as the “Banquet Hall”, and numerous satellite mounds and enclosures. Tara is also the home of the Lia Fáil, (‘Stone of Destiny’), the upright standing stone on which Ireland’s kings were ceremonially confirmed. It presently stands in the Rath of the Assemblies, one of the two earthwork enclosures inside Rath na Rí. One of the translations of the name ‘Tara’ is ‘spectacle’ or ‘wide view’, since it affords an excellent view over the landscape of Ireland. Tara has been the center of religious and political power in Ireland for approximately four thousand years, and nearly 500 kings are buried in its vicinity. Its importance obtains even in the modern period: for instance, thousands of people attended a meeting called by Daniel O’Connell in 1843 to support his demand that the Act of Union with Great Britain should be repealed. And in 1916, the Declaration of the Republic was read out on Tara before it was read out on O’Connell Street, in Dublin. Some of Ireland’s most noteworthy public figures in the late 19th to early 20th century, including Arthur Griffith, Maude Gonne, W.B. Yeats, George Moore, and Douglass Hyde, all protected Tara from being excavated by the British Isrealite Association by standing in the way of the bulldozers. The British Isrealites were looking for the Arc of the Covenant, which they believed was buried under the earthwork circle now known as the Rath of the Synods. Although the hill is presently threatened by nearby motorway construction and the possibility of intrusive tourist “development”, it remains one of the jewels of the Irish landscape.