Celtic Tarot Card Meanings

Introduction D.N. Frost

It is a great pleasure to reintroduce D.N. Frost who has graciously agreed to provide another guest post about the rich symbolism of nature used in Celtic tarot cards. She is a talented fantasy author, cartographer, and world builder with a passion for Celtic mythology and traditions. I’ve had the privilege of working with her to create a map and world for my current project on Apollo’s Raven.

Welcome D. N. Frost! I encourage everyone to learn more about her ongoing projects on mapping and world-building and her epic saga Tales of the Known World which you can download electronically from her site.

Guest Post: D.N. Frost |Celtic Tarot Card Meaning | Apollo’s Raven

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Hello there! My name is D.N.Frost, and I’m the fantasy author, cartographer, and world-builder behind the epic saga Tales of the Known World. I love delving into the mythology and traditions of different cultures, and this guest post for Linnea Tanner was inspired by my love of Celtic mysticism. Enjoy!

The world of the ancient Celts is teemed with layers of meaning and symbols drawn from nature. Many of these assorted myths and traditions were amassed in detail by Anna Franklin, a well-known Celtic Pagan authority in the British Isles. One of her books accompanied a Celtic-themed tarot deck, and though tarot only dates back to the 15th century, the book and cards are steeped in ancient Celtic heritage.

This Celtic Tarot card depicts a Celtic shaman, alone in the forest with his familiar, the wolf.

Celtic Tarot Card: The Shaman

Celtic Tarot Card: The Shaman

Wearing deerskin, this shaman sits at his cauldron, beating his bodhran drum to call to the spirits. He brews a potion that helps him engage the spirit world, and a few of the potion’s ingredients surround him, notably the sacred herb vervain.

The path of the Celtic shaman was strongly tied to the land and the cycle of the seasons. By honoring the spirits of nature and learning their wisdom, a shaman sought to transform himself and expand his awareness. Conscious of the subtle connection between all things, Celtic shamans recognized the sacredness within everything, allowing them to form a bridge between the spirit world and the human world.

This shaman is shown brewing a sacred potion called the Cauldron of Ceridwen, which was believed to inspire eloquence and prophesy in those who drank it. This magic potion contained a number of ingredients, including rowan berries, sea foam, “Taliesin’s cresses, Gwion’s silver, flixweed, and vervain” picked on moonless nights (Franklin, 83). This potion was also used to create the Gwin or Bragwod drink used in sacred initiations, though the initiates drank it mixed with wine and barley meal.

The Celtic goddess Ceridwen is said to have captured the wisdom of the Three Realms in her potion. She charged the youth Gwion to keep the fire going beneath her cauldron, and one day he splashed three drops onto his finger. When he put his finger into his mouth to soothe the burn, Gwion instantly became one with the past, present, and future of all things. The knowledge frightened him, and Ceridwen decided to test his worthiness by appearing as a terrifying beast. Gwion fled, taking on the forms of different animal familiars, and these animal spirits helped him integrate his new knowledge. The goddess continued chasing him until Gwion took the form of a grain of wheat, and Ceridwen ate him. Nine months later, she gave birth to him as Taliesin, meaning “radiant brow.”

This legend of consumption and rebirth symbolized how shamanic initiates had to be absorbed into the womb of the goddess before emerging wiser and forever changed. The harvest festival of Samhain celebrated the two aspects of this divine womb, both the dormant seed that lies within, and the wisdom shared from the spirit world. This celebration used the herb vervain, an ingredient in Ceridwen’s potion and one of the most sacred herbs for the Celtic druids. Vervain was only gathered on moonless nights when the “dog star” Sirius was rising, and Celtic lore associates the wisdom of this herb with the wisdom of the wolf.

Ancient Celts viewed the wolf with awe and respect. Considered very wise, the wolf only chose to share its wisdom with certain people, and many shamans sought the wolf as their familiar. The wizard Merlin was said to have an old wolf companion during his years as a forest hermit. The white wolf Emhain Abhlac once met the druid Bobaran, who threw three rowan berries at the wolf, three into the air, and three into his own mouth to receive the wolf’s wisdom. The Gundestrup cauldron shows a wolf beside the horned god Cernunnos, and the goddess Brighid is often shown with a wolf nearby. The wolf was a totem guardian of Britain, and one of Brighid’s four sacred animals.

According to the ancient Celts, the winter quarter of the year was ruled by the wolf. Winter was a dead time, a time of purification while the earth rested in darkness and grew ready for the rebirth of spring. This period stretched from Samhain in October to the Imbolc festival in February, which celebrated the goddess Brighid with a giant feast. In ancient Gaelic, the month of February was known as Faoilleach, which can translate to “the wolf month,” “the storm month,” or “the month of bleak death.” For the Celtic shaman, the wolf taught about instincts and psychic intuition, as well as the cyclical powers of the moon. The wolf’s wisdom guided shamans to trust their inner voice and to seek their answers within.

This Celtic Tarot card depicts the warrior queen Boudicca of the equestrian Iceni people.

Celtic Tariot Card: The Chariot

Celtic Tarot Card: The Chariot

Boudicca led the Iceni tribe to fight the ancient Romans as they sought to conquer Britain. With woad spirals on her face, she cracks a whip from atop her chariot, drawn by one black horse and one white horse.

Horses were known as the chosen mounts of the gods, particularly the sun and moon deities. They symbolized the virility of the land itself, as well as strength and swiftness. The Iceni tribe derived their name from the word for horse, and Britain’s horse cults predate the arrival of the ancient Celts. Horses were shown on the earliest Celtic coins, and they were common god or totem creatures through the Iron Age and into the Bronze Age. For ancient Celts, horses represented the instinctive aspects of humanity, which often needed to be tamed and controlled. The horse’s master used the bit and bridle to control his horse, and this symbolized the intellect that tempered destructive impulses. While horses symbolized raw life-force, the reigns betokened the willpower and intelligence needed to harness this life-force effectively.

Fal, the Celtic god of horses and hounds, symbolized light within the darkness. In the cycle of the year, the northern quarter was called the Plain of Fal, associated with wisdom and truth. The Stone of Fal was the station of the yearly cycle connected with the winter solstice, when the midwinter sun was reborn. Ancient Celts believed this was when the horse goddess Rhiannon gave birth to her son. White horses represented the sun and were affiliated with the light of spring and summer. Like other white animals, white horses symbolized sky deities to the ancient Celts, while black animals were correlated with Underworld deities. Black horses, generally considered unlucky, were connected with the darkness of autumn and winter, as well as with the Underworld. They were an omen of death, symbolic of funerals and of chaos. A black horse was said to rule the twelve days of midwinter chaos between the old and new year.

Modern Celtic folklore still honors horses, and the horsing ceremonies of midwinter depict a play of death and resurrection. Also, May’s Beltane festival features the Hobby Horses of Padstow and Minehead. A black horse winds through town in a musical parade, and it falls to the ground whenever the music stops. Each time, the horse rises again when the music resumes, until the parade dies down at midnight. Then the sinister horse is considered truly dead, until it is born again in the fall.

This Celtic Tarot card depicts the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, England.

Celtic Tarot Card: Seven of Swords

Celtic Tarot Card: Seven of Swords

The hillsides of Britain are carved with many chalk horses, but this is the oldest carving, dating to around 1400 BCE. Sacred to both the ancient Celts and the earlier peoples of Britain, horses fostered the spread of Celtic civilization with their swiftness and strength.

Though ancient Celts carved the Uffington horse, the site was important to Britain’s Neolithic people. Well before the carving, the hill was part of a ley network said to harness dragon power. In fact, there is some dispute that the Uffington horse is really a dragon, since it looks down on Dragon Hill, where St. George allegedly slew a mighty dragon. It is said that nothing will grow where the dragon’s spilled blood poisoned the ground, and to this day there is a bare patch atop the hill. Near the head of the Uffington horse is a Bronze Age burial mound, and less than a mile away is a Neolithic burial chamber known as Wayland’s Smithy. There, legend has it, a magical blacksmith forged the shoes for the giant Uffington horse.

Ancient Celts believed that dead souls rode to the Underworld on horseback, and that horses carried living souls to and from the spirit world. Gods and shamans traveled through the axis mundi, or World Tree, and they tethered their horses to this tree before making the journey. Famously, the hero Conan traveled to the Otherworld on Aonbharr, the steed of the sea god Manannan. Aonbharr was said to make her rider invulnerable to any attack. According to Celtic lore, the white horse of the elf queen took Thomas the Rhymer to the land of the fairies, and Tam Lin stole a white horse to escape that fairy realm.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of the ancient Celts! For more fun with prophesy and magic, visit me at DNFrost.com, on Twitter @DNFrost13, and on my Facebook page.

My love of cultures and mythology inspired an epic fantasy saga.

Let me send you my free ebook today!

References

  1. Anna Franklin, The Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  2. Paul Mason, The Shaman; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  3. Paul Mason, The Chariot; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
  4. Paul Mason, Diplomacy: The Seven of Swords; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
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Caesar Second Invasion Britain

 

 THE STANDARD PATH of the mythological adventure of the hero is represented in the rites of passage: separation, initiation, and return—Joseph Campbell

 


Introduction

The unpublished epic historical fantasy [First Novel: APOLLO’S RAVEN] is envisioned to be a series set in Celtic Britain, Gaul (modern day France) and Ancient Rome prior to the invasion of Claudius in 43 AD. The first novel begins in 24 AD Celtic Britain (modern day Ken) when a Celtic warrior princess begins a perilous odyssey to help save her kingdom from rival rulers.

Historical and archaeological evidence supports the theory that Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55-54 BC helped establish Celtic dynasties in southeast Britain loyal to Rome. Political unrest of rival tribal rulers in 24 AD provides the backdrop to APOLLO’S RAVEN where the Celtic heroine first meets the great-grandson of Mark Anthony.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover


Caesar Second Invasion Britain

Political Support

Although Caesar’s first expedition to Britain in 55 BC had limited success, the Romans were wildly enthusiastic he had conquered the ocean by invading the island. It would be similar to the excitement of landing on the moon in modern times. The Roman Senate voted twenty days of thanksgiving to celebrate his accomplishment. The political support paved the way for his second campaign in Britain the following year in 54 BC.

Based on his experience from the first expedition, Caesar’s second campaign launched in early July 54 BC was on a grander scale. It is not clear from Caesar’s accounts whether the purpose of the second invasion was to conquer Britain, punish hostile tribes, or open the British Isles to more lucrative Roman trade. The unfolding events in his accounts suggest the primary objective was to establish pro-Roman dynasties that would subsequently be rewarded with lucrative trade for their loyalty.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar


Lessons Learned From First Invasion

Caesar documented what he learned from the first invasion that helped him effectively prepare for the second campaign. The primary lesson was the ocean, with its massive tides, racing currents, and variable winds, was a more formidable opponent that the Britons. These forces of nature wreaked havoc on Roman logistics. Further, he gained invaluable insight on the British fighting tactics, diverse populations, political complexities, and powerful rulers that helped him in the second invasion.

Chariot Battle Tactics

In the first expedition, Julius Caesar faced stiff resistance from fierce warriors that included approximately 4,000 chariot teams. His Roman Legion had not previously faced chariot fighting tactics. Although chariot racing was a popular past time in Rome, it was not used in Roman warfare.

Gallo-Roman Chariot Race Mosaic

Chariot Race Mosaic

Caesar describes chariot battle tactics as follows:

First, they drive in all directions hurling spears. Generally they succeed in throwing the ranks of their opponents into confusion just with the terror of the galloping horses and the din of the wheels. They make their way through the squadrons of their own cavalry, then jump down from their chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the chariot drivers withdraw a little way from the fighting and position the chariots in such a way that if their masters are hard pressed by the enemy’s number, they have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus, when they fight they have the mobility of cavalry and the staying power of infantry. And with daily training and practice they have become so efficient that even on steep slopes they can control their horses at full gallop, check and turn them in a moment, run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot with incredible speed.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Nonetheless, Caesar was able to overcome these obstacles with an established, well-disciplined army  against the more chaotic battle assaults by the various tribal leaders and their armies.

Roman Legion

Professional Roman Soldiers in Legion


Diverse Tribal Regions

Caesar describes the population along the southeast coast of Britain to be densely populated by Belgic immigrants of Germanic ancestry, who had crossed the channel from Gaul to plunder and eventually settle. The inhabitants of Cantium (modern day Kent), an entirely maritime district, were far more advanced than the inland tribes consisting of the original pastoral inhabitants who had their own traditions. Caesar’s first attack in Kent is not surprising given the long period of social relations between the peoples in Gaul and Britain. British war-leaders who had served in all Gallic wars against Romans were rewarded with gold coinage minted in Belgic Gaul.

Gold Coin of Suessiones

Gallo-Belgic Gold Coin

 

Coinage appeared as early as 125 BC in Britain. Early coins adopted the Greek design showed the head of Apollo and the horses and chariot on the reverse side. This design was eventually abstracted more in line with Celtic art. Low value bronze coins were minted in the Kent region to support the early first century development of their market economy. The bronze coins used by the Cantiaci tribe in this region were prototypes of those produced in Massilia (Marseille) that featured a charging bull. For the first time the British were exposed to writing in the form of Latin script. In the 70s and 60s BC other tribes in Britain followed the example of the Cantiaci and adopted coinage: the Atrebates in Hampshire/Berkshire and the Catuvellauni/Trivovantes north of the Thames.

There were major centers of population, the oppida (town), where traders assembled. Many of these tribal centers were built from fortified hill-forts. Structures in southeast Britain were set close together and included thatch-roof, round houses. Flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were plentiful. Interestingly, the Britons had a taboo against eating hares, fowls, and geese, which they kept as pets.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Powerful Tribes and Rulers

No doubt the preparation for the second invasion included political negotiations with powerful British leaders, one of whom was Mandubracius. He was a prince of the Trivovantes, a powerful tribe occupying the Essex region. Mandubracius fled to Gaul to put himself under Caesar’s protection after his father was killed in a conflict with his neighbor Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni. According to Caesar, the Catuvellauni had been in continual state of war with other tribes in the area.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Mandubracius was an invaluable source of intelligence about the complexities of the local politics and the primary centers of power in eastern Britain. He also provided information about the terrain through which Caesar would fight. Armed with this information, Caesar’s strategy was clear. He  would move with lightning speed through Kent to the Thames where he would meet Cassivellaunus. Caesar also planned to use Mandubracius as a political pawn to negotiate the prince’s reinstatement as ruler of the Trivovantes.

Redesign of Ships to Counter Tidal Changes

Due to the frequent tidal changes that Caesar encountered in his first expedition, he ordered his generals to construct smaller transports with shallower drafts for easier loading and beaching. The vessel’s beam was built wider to carry heavy cargoes, including large numbers of horses and mules. As a result of the redesign, the ships were difficult to maneuver and thus were equally fitted for rowing and sailing.

Ancient Roman Warship Model

Roman Warship Model


Landing Without Opposition

At sunset on July 6th, Caesar embarked from Portis Itius (modern day Wissant France) to Britain with a fleet of 800 ships that transported five legions (25,000 soldiers) and 2,000 cavalry. The tide turned the following morning and took the ships with it. As a result, the soldiers had to row the ungainly vessels without stop to reach the Kent coast (near Deal) by mid-day. Unlike the first expedition, there were no signs of enemy to oppose the landing. Caesar learned later the tribal forces had been dismayed to see the vast flotilla in the English Channel and thus decided to seek a stronger position inland to fight.

Without any opposition, Caesar’s ships anchored and a site was chosen for camp.

Pebble Beach Deal UK

Landing Site for Julius Caesar’s Flotilla (Deal UK)

Initial Conflict

With typical audacity, Caesar immediately marched his legions 12 miles inland in early morning darkness the next day to the River Stour near Canterbury. Shocked at the sudden appearance of the Roman army, Britons fell back to a formidable position in the woods which Caesar described as being fortified by immense natural and artificial strength. The hill-fort was strongly guarded by felled trees that were packed together. Possibly this site was initially built for tribal wars. The Roman soldiers locked their shields above their heads to form a testudo (tortoise) to protect themselves from missiles while they hacked their way into the fortress and drove the British forces into the woods. Further pursuit was forbidden by Caesar as the countryside was unfamiliar. He needed sufficient time to entrench his camp.

Hillside Coastal White Cliffs Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Britain


Storm’s Wrath

The following morning, the Roman pursuit of the British fugitives began in earnest. Again Caesar underestimated the powerful forces of the English Channel. A terrible storm along the coast tore the ships from their moorings and drove them ashore. When Caesar received the bad news about the shipwrecks, he abandoned his speedy advance which would have desolated the Britons He returned his army to repair the damages to his vessels.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

 

(To be continued)

References:

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Reprinted 2013; Oxford University Press, United Kingdom

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes  & Noble, Inc.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; 3rd Edition Reprinted by New World Library, Novato, CA.

Celtic Gods and Goddesses

Below is an article that was originally posted on APOLLO’S RAVEN Website: http://www.linneatanner.com/blog/celtic-gods-goddesses/

The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World—Joseph Campbell

Introduction

Previous posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN have provided an overview of Ancient Celtic religion and the pantheon of gods and goddesses. Although there are approximately 400 names of Celtic gods and goddesses which have been found throughout the vast area once inhabited by the Celts in Europe, from Ireland to Turkey, 305 of these names were inscribed only once. These were probably names of local deities. Only twenty names occurred with greater frequency and many of the Celtic gods and goddesses can be associated with Roman’s. The Celtic polyvalent deity did not have exclusive functions, but they were adept in all things. They also appeared in many polymorphic guises that included zoomorphic forms which combined human and animal attributes.

Below in an overview of Celtic gods and goddesses who were more widely accepted by the ancient Celts across all regions.


Celtic Gods and Goddesses

Belenus

Equated with Apollo, Belenus was the most widely venerated of the Celtic gods. The previous two posts in APOLLO’S RAVEN detail the mythology and festivals associated with Belenus.

Lycian_Apollo_Louvre

Belenus Equated with Apollo, God of the Sun and Healing


Cernunnos

Another popular god is the antler-god referred to as Cernunnos. He is the patron of the chase and the lord of the forest. Holed antlers discovered in Herfordshire UK appear to have been used as a human headdress, a practice widely presented in ancient cultures. Cernunnos was one of many zoomorphic (animal-like) gods. He is depicted on one of the plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Antler-God, Cernunnos; Panel on Gundestrup Cauldron


Epona

A zoomorphic goddess who is represented by a mare is Epona. Monuments to Epona are found all over from Wales through France and into the Rhinelands. Her popularity with the Celts demonstrates their high regard for the horse. Epona was also popular with the Roman cavalrymen. Associated with fertility, Epona is the epitome of the mother goddess. In studies of Welsh mythology, she may have been equated with Rhiannon—the divine queen. In Irish studies, Epona might be associated with Maeve, the queen of the Connacht and Macha of Ulstur.

Epona Flanked by Horses

Epona Flanked by Horses


Lug

Among the names of the Celtic gods that appear more frequently on inscriptions is Lug—the Irish Lugh,  the Welsh Llew, and the Gaulish Lugus. It is generally accepted that when Caesar spoke of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’, he was referring to Lugus—the inventor of the arts and crafts. Yet, there are elements of Lug’s character  that are also similar with Jupiter, Mars, and Hercules. He is associated with the spear as a Magical Weapon brought from the Otherworld.

Lug's Bloodthirsty Magical Spear

Lug’s Bloodthirsty Magical Spear

At Lugdunum (modern day Lyons, France), the Gaulish Celts celebrated the ancient feast of Lugus. Following the Roman conquest, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the feast was dedicated to the emperor. The same feast occurs in insular Celtic tradition on August 1st. In Ireland, the ritual is known as Lughnasadh, an agrarian feast in honor of harvesting crops.

The Irish Lugh was considered the greatest of all Celtic gods. The Dagda yielded command to him in the second battle of Magh Tuireadh. He is commonly known as Lugh of the Long arm or Hand. Of note, the Hindu perception of the sun rising, with its beams of light and its setting, was also likened to a great hand: “The god with the great hand stretches up his arms so that all obey.”  The Hindu solar deity, Savitar, also stretches out his hands to command day and night, suggesting a common Indo-European link.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda on Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron


Teutates, Taranis, and Esus

The 1st Century Roman poet, Lucan , writes the Celts had predominantly three gods: Teutates, Taranis, and Esus. Teutates was associated with the Roman god of trade, Mercury. The Celtic god of thunder, Taranis, is often equated with Jupiter; the Welsh word Taran means  ‘thunderer’. Esus was equivalent to the Roman god of war, Mars. His popularity among the Celts is evidenced by the number of Celtic names of gods joined to Mars on inscriptions.

God of Thunder, Taranis with Wheel and Thunderbolt, Equivalent to Jupiter

God of Thunder, Taranis with Wheel and Thunderbolt, Equivalent to Jupiter

The method of killing human victims in sacrifices depended on which god the offering was made to. Victims sacrificed to Teutates were drowned, to Taranis were burned, and to Esus were hanged. On the Gundestrup Cauldron, there is a figure held upside-down over what appears to be a pail of water, perhaps a sacrifice to Teutates. It should be noted that the names of these three gods were not widely found on inscriptions.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Victim Sacrificed by Drowning as Offering to Teutates; One Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron


Triplicate Goddesses

The concept of triplicate forms has roots in Indo-European mythology and philosophy. In Hindu belief, the Trimurti consisted of Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Maintainer or Preserver; and Shiva the Destroyer or Transformer. Pythagoras saw three as the perfect number of the philosophers: the beginning, middle and end. The ancient Greeks believed the world was ruled by three gods: Zeus (heavens), Poseidon (sea), and Pluto/Hades (underworld).  The Fates, the Furies and the Graces are example of triplicate goddesses who were found in Greek mythology.

Three Graces Greek Mythology

Three Graces Greek Mythology

As in the Greek religion, the Celts viewed humans as body, soul and spirit; the world they inhabited as earth, sea, and air; and the division in nature as animal, vegetable, and mineral. Celtic goddesses were also often portrayed in triplicate forms as described below.

Mother Goddesses

Mother symbols were worshipped in triplicate from. In Gaul the title matres or matronae was used. Mother Earth was the symbol of fertility and figures of children, baskets of fruitm and horns of plenty were found all over the Celtic world. From Vertault in Burgundy was a triple mother goddess sculpture with a baby held by one hand while the other holds a towel. A triad of mother goddesses are carved on a plaque that is displayed at the Romans Baths (Bath, UK).

Triplicate Mother Goddesses Displayed at Bath UK Roman Baths

Triplicate Mother Goddesses Displayed at Bath UK Roman Baths


War Goddesses

The most famous war goddess, Morrigan is  interchangeable with Macha, Babd and Neiman. She embodies all that is perverse and horrible among the supernatural powers. In Irish literature, the story of Cu Chulainn features three goddesses—Morrigan, Macha and Babd— battle furies with an uncanny resemblance to Mcbeth’s three witches.

Babd is one of the triple-aspect goddess of war who would fly over warriors in battle and give out terrible screams, both to frighten and to incite them to even braver and mightier deeds. In this role, she is known as Badhbh Catha, the ‘battle raven’. It is claimed that she appeared above the head of the warriors during the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 A.D., when Brian Boramha defeated the Vikings. Babd is associated with sexual desire and fulfillment, as are all of the deities of war and battles. She is often guised as a beautiful young woman, but  can also take the form of a raven or a hideous hag. When Babd appears in the Ulster cycle and incites Cu Chulainn to his last battle, she takes the form of the raven and waits to pick his corpse clean.

Mythological Raven

Celtic Goddesses of War Can Take Shape of Raven


Macha
is the second aspect of the triple goddess of war who is featured in the Ulster cycle. One legend states that she was forced to race the King of Ulster’s horses while she was pregnant. She wins the race, but gives birth to twins as soon as she crosses the finish line. In her shame and anger, she curses the men of Ulster that, whenever they needed their strength most, such as on the eve of battle, they would be as weak as a woman in childbirth for nine days and nights. Like her sisters, she is associated with war and sexual gratification. She is closely connected with battle trophies of the goriest nature, especially severed heads, which were known as Macha’ s Acorn Crop.

Macha Curses Men of Ulstur

Macha Curses Men of Ulstur


Morrigan
is the third of the triple goddesses of war who appears in both the Mythological Cycle and the Ulster cycles, particularly in  the Cattle Raid of Cooley. She is seen as a weeping woman washing blood-stained shrouds at a ford in a river. This is an omen, particularly to a warrior on the way to battle. In one legend the Dagna encounters her washing blood-stained clothing in a stream. At the end of the legend, she gives a dire prophecy to the fate of humankind and the world. She is associated with war, grief, mutilation, shape shifting, and sexual gratification for its own sake.


Conclusions Ancient Celtic Religion

Ancient Celtic religion conjures both utopian and horrific images. The Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves. Their beliefs and philosophies are similar to the Greeks and Hindu Brahmins. Ancient Druids studied the nature of moral philosophy and believed the human soul is indestructible. Their belief in the immortal soul can be associated with the Greek Philosopher, Pythagoras, who was famous for his philosophy that the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations that included animals and plants.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

The Celtic belief in the soul ties in with their darker side of keeping enemies’ heads as trophies after battle. This practice was based on their belief that the head was the temple of the soul. Possessing an enemy’s skull was the same as capturing his soul and retaining its power. The soul is the continuation of the existence of a person and includes all of the functions of personality.

Stonework at La Roquepertuse Cult of Head

La Roquepertuse Gateway of Skulls

Finally, the Celts viewed the gods as their ancestors and creators who were more like supernatural


Upcoming Next Series

The next series of posts will discuss the rise of rival Celtic tribal dynasties in Britain between the time of Julius Caesar’s invasions in 55 – 54 B.C. and the final Roman conquest in 43 A.D. under Emperor Claudius.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

White Cliffs Near Dover Britain


References

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Steve Blamires,Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore & Rituals, 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.
  5. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Ancient Celtic Religion: Ancestral Gods and Mother Goddess


Myths of the Great Goddess teach compassion for all living beings. There you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth itself, because it is the body of the Goddess
—Joseph Campbell

 

Introduction

As we continue exploring the mystique of the Ancient Celtic religion, we discover their beliefs have similarities to the Greeks and Hindu Brahmins. The belief in the immortal soul can be tied to the darker Celtic side of keeping enemy heads so they can capture their power. There were 374 names of gods and goddesses recorded throughout the vast area once inhabited by the Celts in Europe, from Ireland to Turkey. Of these names, about 305 of these only occurred once and are thought to be names of local deities particular to each tribe. Only twenty names occur with great frequency in the areas where the Celts once resided and were often associated with the Roman pantheon of deities.

Unfortunately, written accounts by the Celts were sparse. Today, we must rely on Greek and Roman writers, Irish Christian monks, and archaeological artifacts to piece the Ancient Celtic religion together. Classical writers were biased by their perception of Celts being barbarians. Celtic myths written by Christian monks were heavily redacted to reconcile them with the Christian beliefs. Even though the evidence is fragmentary, we can glimpse some of the religious ideas and rituals connected with the pantheon of Celtic deities and their roles by studying the mythology and comparing it to archaeological evidence.

Below is an overview of how the ancient Celts viewed their ancestral god and their belief that the Mother Goddess was involved in the creation of the universe.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover, Britain


Ancient Celtic Religion

Ancestral Gods

Caesar and the insular literature indicate the Celts did not look upon their gods as creators but as their ancestors—more as supernatural heroes and heroines. In the lives of these gods and heroes, goddesses, and heroines, the lives of the people, in their emerging patriarchal society and the essence of their religious traditions, were mirrored. The gods and goddesses were depicted as human and were subject to all the natural virtues and vices in an idealized form: love of nature, arts, games, feasts, hunts and heroic single-handed combat. Their intellectual powers were equal to their physical abilities. This depiction of gods as ancestors also appears in Hindu myth and saga.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Cernunnos, Antler-God of the Forest, Portrayed on Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

Pomponius Mela, a Roman historian at the time of Claudius 43 AD, states, “The Druids profess to know the will of the gods.” Hence, the Druids were viewed as the conduits between the moral and immortal world. There is an old Irish passage in which the Druids, like the Hindu Brahmins, boasted they had made the sun, moon, earth and sea. In Vedic mythology (historical predecessor to modern Hinduism), creation began with space (aditi) in which sky and earth were formed and were regarded as the original male and female elements.

Lunar Eclipse

Blood Moon


Mother Goddess

The ancient Irish bards deemed the river’s edge, the brink of the water, was always that place where wisdom, knowledge and poetry were revealed. Irish tales suggest the Ancient Celts believed creation evolved around the Mother Goddess.

Rhône River Hillside

Saône River Hillside Near Lyon, France

In one tale, the children of the Mother Goddess, Danu, arrive in Ireland to battle the evil Fomorri, whose own Mother Goddess is Domnu. The Irish epic tells of several struggles between the Children of Danu, representing darkness and evil, and the Children of Danu, representing light and good. Only after the Children of Danu break the powers of the Fomorri at the second Battle of Magh Euireadh did the good gods prevail. Interestingly, the Children of Domnu are never completely overcome or eradicated from the world.

The Children of Danu came from four fabulous cities where named Druids taught them skill, knowledge and perfect wisdom. Further, the Children of Danu brought special treasures from these cities:

  • Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) from Falias
  • Sword from Gorias (the forerunner of the famous Excalibur)
  • Spear of victory from Finias
  • The Dagda’s cauldron of plenty from Murias
Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

The Dagda is portrayed as the father of the gods in this epic tale. This is significant because The Dagda is Danu’s son by Bilé. As the sacred waters leave from the heavens, Danu waters the oak, Bilé’s male fertility symbol, and gives birth to The Dagda—the good god who fathers the rest of the gods.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

The Dagda Portrayed on Gundestrup Cauldron

Bilé is the Old Irish word for a sacred tree which was also used to denote a ‘noble warrior.” Bilé’s role in transporting the souls of the dead Celts to the Otherworld is significant. Transportation is usually via rivers like the Thames or out to the sea. He is, in essence, transports souls to the divine waters – his consort Danu, the Mother Goddess. Hence, Danu takes precedence as the primary source of life. More will be discussed below about the association of Bilé with Apollo.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; ‘Druid’ derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge”


Overview of Celtic Dieties

Celts did not visualize gods with exclusive roles. Not only did their deities have different functions – and therefore were polyvalent— they also appeared in various forms—and thus were polymorphic. Another common feature associated with these deities is votive offerings that were offered at lakes and rivers to win the favor of the gods. Their links with water, trees, and groves suggest the Celts worship earth gods as opposed to the sky gods of the Greeks and Romans.

Bath Roman Bath Britain, dedicated to Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva

Bath Roman in Bath Britain; Dedicated to Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva

Julius Caesar associated the Celtic gods in Gaul with Roman deities as follows:

“They [Celts] worship chiefly the god Mercury; of him there are many symbols, and they regard him as the inventor of all the arts, the guide of travelers, and as possessing great influence over bargains and commerce. After him they worship Apollo and Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. About these they hold much the same beliefs as other nations. Apollo heals diseases. Minerva teaches the elements of industry and the arts. Jupiter rules over the heavens and Mars directs war.”

Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom

Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom

Caesar also recorded the Celts in Gaul believed they were descended from Dispater, which the Romans associated with the god of the underworld and of the night. The 18th Century French Historian, Henri D’Arbois de Jubainville, identified the Dispater as the Celtic god Bilé (also known as Bel, Belinus and Belenus). His feast day was celebrated on 1 May (Beltane). As discussed above, Bilé appears to be a god of the dead and is portrayed as Danu’s consort.

Beltane Celebration

Bonfire During Beltaine Festival Celebrated 1st May

Writing a century after Caesar, the Roman poet Lucan gave particular prominence to the names of three gods: Teutates, Taranis and Esus. Taranis could be equated with Jupiter, as the name survives as toran in Welsh and torann in Irish which are interpreted as meaning thunder. Esus was considered to be equivalent to the god of war Mars.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

Celtic gods were often depicted with female companions. When patriarchy replaced the “mother goddess” concept, the new male gods had to consort with the old female river goddesses to retain continuity with the old beliefs. A raven, the Celtic symbol of death and battle, perches at their feet. The marriage of a chieftain god with a Mother Goddess was viewed as assuring the people of protection and fertility.

Mythological Raven

The Raven, Celtic Symbol of Death and Battle

After Christianity achieved dominance in the Celtic world, the ancient gods were relegated to dwell in the hills. In Irish, the word sidhe means mound or hill and denotes the final dwelling places of the Dé Nanaan, the Immortals, after their defeat by the Milesians. The ancient gods, thus driven underground, were relegated in folk memory as the des sidhe, the people of the hills or in later folklore as simply fairies. The most famous fairy is the banshee (bean sidhe), the woman of the fairies whose wail and shriek portends a death. Each god was allotted a sidhe or hill in Ireland by The Dagda before he gave up his leadership of the gods.

Bilé’s Association with Apollo

To judge from inscriptions, the most venerated god was Belenus who can be most closely equated to Apollo. There is evidence of his cult in southern Gaul and northern Italy, and he may have given his name to Beltane, the Irish festival celebrated on the first of May. Worship of him proved to be enduring. Ausonius of Bordeaux, writing in the 4th Century, mentioned a contemporary of his who was a grandson of Phoebicius, a temple priest of Belenus, and whose family bore names associated with the great Apollonian shrine at Delphi.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of Sun; Associated with Celtic God Bilé, also known as Bel and Belenus

There are many places named after Bilé throughout Europe. In London, Belenus’ Gate is known as Billingsgate (Bilé’s gate). Presumably the heads of the dead at the original Celtic settlement, and later at the Roman occupied city, were taken though this gate to the river Thames—tamesis, the dark or sluggish river. The human heads were used as votive offerings or simply placed for Bilé to transport them to the Otherworld. Hundreds of skulls from the Celtic period have been discovered in the Thames, around London, with other votive offerings.

As previously discussed in APOLLO’S RAVEN, the ancient Celts believed the soul reposed in the head, not in the region of the heart as Western Christians now have it. That is why the head was so venerated and prized. In one Welsh tale, the mortally wounded Bran the Blessed urges his companions to remove his head and take it back to the Island of the Mighty (Britain) for burial. It takes many years and Bran’s head eats, drinks, and instructs the soldiers on the journey back. The head is buried (legend has it that the site was Tower Hill in London) looking toward France so that, in accordance with Celtic custom, he could protect the land against invasion. Many other examples of talking heads of slain heroes are found in Celtic myth.

Stonework at La Roquepertuse Cult of Head

La Roquepertuse Doorway of Skulls

Connecting the many human skulls found in the Thames, together with exquisite swords, shields, helmets and other votive offerings, suggests the Thames could have been a sacred river for the British Celts, occupying the same role as the worship of rivers, springs or wells in Central India.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Bilé was incorporated in many personal Celtic names, the most famous being Cunobeline, who ruled just before the Roman invasion of AD 43. His name means ‘hound of Belinus’. He was later immortalized as the King of Britain in the Shakespearean play entitled, “The Tragedy of Cymbeline.”

To be continued

The next post will provide a more detailed description of the Celtic gods and goddesses.

References

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Steve Blamires, Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore & Rituals, 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.
  5. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Boyers, 1991Doubleday, New York, NY.

Ancient Celtic Religion: Apollo, God of Sun

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind…the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth—Joseph Campbell


Ancient Celtic Religion: Apollo, God of Sun

Historical and archaeological evidence provide both utopian and horrific images of Ancient Celtic Religion.The Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves. The Ancient Druids believed the human soul was indestructible and was a continuation of a person’s existence that included all the functions of personality. Warriors kept their enemies’ heads as trophies after battle based on their belief that the skull was the temple of the soul. Possessing an enemies’ skull was the same as capturing his soul and retaining his power.

The Celtic belief in the immortal soul was similar to that of Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who thought the soul transmigrates from one body to another (metempsychosis) and could include the bodies of animals and plants (reincarnation). Perhaps, this belief in reincarnation accounts for the Celtic mythology of shape shifting—the ability of an entity to physically transform into another being or form.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

There were other religious and philosophical similarities between the Celts and Greeks, both of whom were world travelers and traders. Some of the Greek fables of Hyperborea may be based on accounts from those who explored France and the British Isles. Further, there is evidence suggesting the Greek rituals of Apollo may be based on Celtic festivities to their sun god. Stonehenge was known as Apollo’s Temple in classical antiquity.

 

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Celtic Trading Connections 

The Phoenicians traded extensively within Gaul (France) and the British Isles. They discovered Ireland when they sailed to trade with natives in Britain. Ireland was always a great place to trade and for this reason, the Roman Historian Tacitus said, “Its ports are better known for trade, and more frequented by merchants, than those of Britain.”

The Phoenicians undoubtedly imported their language, bartered their commodities, and exchanged their religious beliefs with the Celts.

Most geographical accounts of Celtic regions came from the Greeks, which the Romans later adopted. At the time of Alexander the Great, Pytheas, a citizen of the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille, France), published accounts of his voyages entitled, “Tour of the Earth.” Commissioned by the Senate to explore the north, Pytheas landed in Britain and Ireland, the German and Scandinavian coasts, and possibly beyond Iceland.

Coastline Marseille, France

Marseille Coastline

 

In his accounts, Pytheas describes a frozen sea. The oldest Irish books refer to this as the foggy or coagulated sea. In both Greek and Celtic mythology, this northern sea is where departed souls go before they come to the icy part. The coagulated sea may refer to the contrary tides around the British Isles that could impede a ship’s travel, whirling it around and swallowing it up. These tides were formidable forces which destroyed several of Julius Caesar’s warships when he invaded Britain in 55 – 54 B.C. (see previous posts in APOLLO’S RAVEN).

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover; Initial Site Where Julius Caesar May Have Tried to Land


Hyperborea and Association with Apollo

In Greek mythology, Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived beyond the North Wind. The Greeks thought Boreas, the God of the North Wind, lived in Thrace and thus, Hyperborea lay north of Thrace. Diodorus Siculus identified the region of Hyperborea as Britain, an island in the ocean no smaller than Sicily. The island was reported to be fertile and have an unusually temperate climate. Hecateaus of Abdera wrote the Hyperboreans had a ‘circular temple’ on their island that some scholars have identified as Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge Britain

Stonehenge; Also Known as Apollo’s Temple

Eratosthenes said an arrow that Apollo used to slay the Cyclops was hidden among the Hyperborians in his Temple made of wings. The Hyperborian high priest, Abaris, traveled to Greece and presented the sun god’s arrow to Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who believed the soul was immortal. It is of interest that inhabitants of the British Islands adorned themselves and their buildings with feathers, and many of them paid their rent with plumage. The Isle of Skye is in the native language called Scianach, the winged island.

Diodorus Siculus said that above all other gods, the Hyperboreans worshipped Apollo. Beyond the Gallic regions (France) to the north, the harp which was associated with Apollo was frequently played. Of particular interest was the Beltane Festival held on the eve of May, when Druids kindled prodigious fires on cairns (stacks of stones) to honor the sun god they referred to as Beal, Bealan, or the Latin name of Belenus. Near Edinburgh, there was a stone dug up with the inscription to Apollo Grannus.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of the Sun

During the Beltane Festival, two fires were lit side-by-side in every Celtic village. Men and beasts to be sacrificed passed between these fires, one of which was on a cairn while the other was on the ground. The purpose of the midsummer fires was to obtain the sun god’s blessings on the fruits of the earth.

It is remarkable that certain Greek feasts of Apollo were called Carnea, supposedly based on the killing of the prophet Carnus—the son of Jupiter and Eruope, and Apollo’s lover. Ancient Greeks, by their own confession, learned some of their philosophy and many of their sacred fables from the Gauls (Celts in France) and other ancient civilizations. It is highly probable they learned of the Beltane rituals either from travelers from Gaul or from citizens of the Phoenician colony of Massilia.

Even today, the Beltane Festival is wildly celebrated in certain locations on the British Isles.

 

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly


Immortal Soul

As discussed above, Abaris was a legendary Hyperborean healer, seer, and priest of Apollo. He traveled over Greece and into Italy where he discussed philosophy with Pythagoras and presented him with Apollo’s sacred arrow. It has been suggested by scholars that the doctrine of transmigration taught by Pythagoras may have actually been the Druidic philosophy that he learned from Abaris.

Pythagoras believed the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations. He believed humans could reincarnate into either animals or plant forms. Pythagoras was reported to have said, “Once, they say, he was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: ‘Stop, do not beat it; it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it [i.e., the soul’s voice.]’” Obviously, Pythagoras believed his friend’s soul was actually doing the yelping.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron

Diodorus Siculus, a 1st Century Greek historian, wrote: “The Druids studied the nature of moral philosophy, asserting the human soul is indestructible, and also the universe, but that some time or other, fire and water will prevail.”

According to Caesar, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die. Certainly, the abundant evidence of grave goods is ample proof of faith in the existence of an afterlife. The Druids taught souls move between this world and the world of the dead—the Otherworld. Death in the physical world results in a soul moving to the Otherworld, whereas death in the Otherworld brings a soul back to this world.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Cult of the Head

There is a prevalence of images of the human head at cult sites in virtually all regions believed to have been inhabited by the Celts. Similar to the Greek world, the Celts viewed humans as consisting of a body, soul, and spirit; the world they inhabited as earth, sea, and area; the divisions of nature as animal, vegetable, and mineral; the cardinal colors as red, yellow and blue and so forth.

The Celts venerated the human head above all else because it was the temple of the soul—the center of emotions as well as of life itself and a symbol of divinity and the powers of the Otherworld, the world of the spirits. To possess the enemy’s head was to possess his soul. As with so many aspects of the warrior’s life, the taking of an opponent’s head in battle, preferably by single combat, had a mystical significance. The head of the fallen enemy became an important prestige object for the warrior, as it revealed a deep bond between the victor and the vanquished.

The importance and extent of the cult of the severed head among the Celts is demonstrated by their display in shrines, either mounted in stonework as at La Roquepertuse in southern Gaul (France), or on wooden poles at the Bredon hill fort in western Britain. In both instances the heads were set up at the entrances. Perhaps the souls of these unfortunate warriors were now being used to provide symbolic protection for these fortresses.

 

Stonework at La Roquepertuse Cult of Head

La Roquepertuse Doorway

In Welsh and Irish myth, the severed head is believed to be imbued with supernatural power. When Bendigeitfran, one of the principal heroes in the cycle of Welsh legends called the Mabinogion is mortally wounded in battle, he commands his own men to cut off his head and bury it in London facing the east to guard Britain again foreign invasion. There are many other examples of talking heads of slain heroes found in Celtic mythology.

Conclusions

There are universal beliefs in the Ancient Celtic Religion which are similar to other religions, most notably the Greeks. Some of these similarities may be result of these ancient civilizations interacting with each other and adopting each other’s philosophies and gods. Based on Greek accounts, some of their mythology and gods (e.g. Apollo) may have been adopted from the Celts in addition to other ancient civilizations such as Egypt.

The next post will discuss the pantheon of Celtic gods and their association to Greek and Romans Gods.

References

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
  5. John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning; 2013; AlbaCraft Publishing, Scotland.
  6. Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
  7. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites, and Offerings

 

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he meets before his entrance into the region
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites and Votive Offerings

Introduction

Summoning the rituals from the Celtic past requires a wand to piece it together. Accounts of rituals were recorded through the biased eyes of classical Greek and Roman writers. Although Irish Christian monks wrote about Celtic legends, their manuscripts were subject to redaction and filtration. Monastic scribes rejected any notion that the supernatural beings in these tales were worthy of worship, so they represented these gods as heroes whose magical powers were an echo of their one-time divinity. Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of myth, provides no direct evidence to the Celtic religion.

As the Celts were unwilling to write their rites and beliefs in writing, the historical accounts and Irish myths must be filled in with archaeology, which can provide evidence of cult centers, sacred images, and ritual offerings. What it cannot provide is the meaning a worshiper attached to a sacred image or the intention of a votive offering.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

Sites of Rituals

It was believed a ritual, properly conducted, led to the result which was sought—a successful harvest or outcome in battle, for example. Ceremonies were held before rather than after the desired event. Ritual was woven into all aspects of life, for there was an everyday need to appease the deities.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron Sacrificial Ritual

Although there were ritual centers, every mountain, spring, marsh, tree and outcrop was endowed with divinity and thus ritual enactments could be performed any place. Lakes, rivers, and springs had special appeal as seen from the votive deposits in Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales and the rivers Thames and Witham in England.

Groves were held in high regard. The Roman historian, Tacitus (56-117 AD), wrote of the groves at Anglesey where Briton Druids performed their sacrificial rituals. The Roman poet, Lucan (39–65 AD), described sacred woods near Massalia (Marseille, France) which was destroyed by Caesar’s soldiers.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; Druid derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge”

Rivers, lakes, springs or wells were focal points for Celtic rituals. Coins, metalwork and animal remains were among the votive offerings frequently found at these sites. Within the context of a pastoral, cattle-based culture that typified much of the pagan Celtic world, it makes sense that these water sites would acquire nurturing and maternal connotations.

Significantly, rivers were often personified as female divinities in the Celtic world. In one myth, a noble Dagda had a well where nine hazel trees overhung and dropped their crimson nuts in the water, causing bubbles of mystic inspiration. Only the Dagda or his three cup-bearers were allowed to draw water from the well. But a young woman, Boann, disobeyed the taboo and the waters rose up, pursued and drowned her. The well’s water formed a river named after her—the Boann or Boyne.

Soane River Hillside

Soane River Lyon France (Roman Lugdunum Gaul)

Wells or springs were also closely associated with goddesses in the Celtic world and were often symbolic totems of desire. In the Welsh tale, Mabinogion, a warrior at Arthur’s court, Owain, sets out to revenge Cymon who has been slain by the Black Warrior. During his quest, Owain comes to a magical well that is connected to thunder, rain and fertility of the surrounding land. A mysterious Druidess helps Owain to overcome and slay the Black Warrior who is a defender of this well. Owain claims the warrior’s widow, ‘The Lady of the Fountain,’ as his wife. In a later Arthurian saga, there is another tale of ‘The Lady of the Lake’ that suggests another indwelling water spirit.

Bath Roman Bath

Bath Roman Bath; Originally Sacred Site of the Celtic Goddess Sulis

Rituals

Publius Terentius Varro, a Narbonese Gaul (82-36 B.C), writes that with the aid of certain ointments the Druids put on their feet, the Celts would walk over a bed of burning coals at some of their festivals. John Toland said in The Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning that it was customary for a noble of distinction to walk barefoot over hot coals trice while carrying a sacrificial animal’s entrails in his hands. Then he would take this offering to the Druid who waited in a white skin at the altar. If the nobleman escaped unharmed, it was reckoned a good omen, but if he was hurt, it was deemed unlucky for both the community and himself.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1220 AD) in Expurgatio Hibernica, gives an account of the ritual slaughter of a mare. The king-elect eats its flesh, and drinks and bathes in a broth made from the carcass. This was considered a ritual union through which the king seeks fertility for himself and his kingdom.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron; Depiction of Taranis, Celtic God of Thunder with Wheel

The most famous Druidic ritual, thanks to the writings of Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) is the cutting of mistletoe from a sacred oak with a sickle on the sixth day of the moon followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. He reports, “They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fertility to barren animals and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

One divination ritual was connected with the election of the High King of Ireland. A Druid would eat the flesh of a slain bull and drink its blood. He was then put to sleep by four other Druids, and the person of whom he dreamt would be the future High King. If he lied about his dream then the gods would destroy him.

Votive Offerings

Votive offerings included torcs, coins, jewelry, and weapons from defeated enemy. For the Celts, the reverence held for objects was an extension of their belief in the sacredness of places. Le Tene art was infused with a sense of the divine. The possessions of a dead person were sacred to the departed, which explains why grave goods were often broken.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch

The design of a torc gave magical powers to its wearer and the motifs on swords and shields gave potency to their users. Music must have played a role in ritual, and the extraordinary craftsmanship employed in the construction of musical instruments suggests they were sacred.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Among the most highly venerated objects were cauldrons, symbols not only of abundance but also of regeneration and rebirth. According to Greek Historian, Strabo (64/63 BC–c. AD 24), cauldrons held sacrificial blood of victims from Celtic raids. In Irish mythology, the Dagda’s cauldron provided sustenance for the tribe and enabled warriors to return from the dead. The cauldron’s ability to restore life is also featured in Welsh literature. Stories and poem associated with Taliesin describes a tale where Caridwen boiled a cauldron of magic potion for almost one year so her grotesque son would acquire knowledge of the future world by tasting three drops.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron;Depiction of Cernunnos, The Horned God of Nature and Fertility


Annual Ceremonies

In addition to the above rituals, annual ceremonies were held throughout the year.

  • Imbolc (February) was the feast of Brigit that celebrated the lactation of ewes. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
  • Beltane (May 1) marked the beginning of summer when stock was driven to higher pastures and ceremonies related to fire were held. Special bond fires were believed to have protective powers. The Celts and their cattle would walk around the bonfire and sometimes leap over flames or embers. Houses and livestock would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked the image of fire.
  • Lughnasa (August) was a festival named after the god Lugh that was celebrated to ensure a good harvest. It included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, matchmaking and trading.
  • Samain (November 1) was associated with the early winter cull of stock. In Irish myths, this is when the Dagda, the protector of the tribe, mated with the goddess, usually identified as Morrigan—the intercourse ensuring the well-being of the tribe. The date represented the break between the old year and the new, when the world was overrun by the forces of magic. This provided an opportunity for spirits of the dead to mingle with the living, a tradition which survives in Halloween.
Celtic Spiritual Warrior in Battle

Celtic Spirit Warrior Ritualistically Prepares for Battle in Forest

Conclusions

No Celt left a record of his faith and practice, and the unwritten poems of the Druids died with them. Yet the Celtic culture dominated Europe for over 500 years and there is no doubt this culture had a profound, long-lasting impact through its mythology and lore.

The evidence for Celtic rituals provide both horrific and constructive images. On one hand, there is a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess based on the Celtic predilection for sacred lake, rivers, springs, and wells. Yet there is also historical and archaeological evidence of human sacrifice (discussed previously) and Celtic warriors cutting off their enemies’ heads to retain them as trophies of wars.

To Be Continued

The Celtic belief in the immortal soul and the cult of the head will be discussed in the next article.

References:

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
  5. John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning; 2013; AlbaCraft Publishing, Scotland.
  6. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008; Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals: Human Sacrifice

“The Gauls who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so, employing Druids as ministers…For they believe that unless a man’s life is paid for another’s, the majesty of the gods may not be appeased.”
—Julius Caesar

Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals

Historical and archaeological evidence provide both utopian and horrific images of ancient Celtic religion. The Ancient Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; Druid derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge”

Yet there was also a darker side of Celtic religion in which humans were sacrificed in their rituals. Some of the accounts may have been exaggerated through the biased eyes of classical historians who used human sacrifice as a rationale for the Roman conquest of Celtic lands to get rid of these practices.

Ironically, Rome had also practiced human sacrifice in their beginnings and ceremoniously executed their conquered rulers in triumphs. The great Celtic leader, Vercingetorix, was paraded through the streets of Rome before he was strangulated.

Vercingetorix Memorial

Vercingetorix Statue

As the Celts were unwilling to write their rites and beliefs in writing, historical accounts and myths recorded by the Irish monks must be partly filled with archaeologists who study cult centers, sacred images, and inscriptions which reveal the names of their deities. What these artifacts cannot provide is the meaning a Celt may have attached to a sacred image, the intention of an offering, and the context in which ritual regalia was used.

Human Sacrifice

Classical Accounts

Human sacrifice held a particularly horrid fascination for the Greeks and the Romans. Several classical authors wrote that offerings to the gods included captives taken in battle. The Galatae of Asia Minor were dreaded because of their reputation for sacrificing prisoners of war. Their enemies would prefer suicide rather than fall into their hands. The Greek poet, Sopater of Paphos (285–246 BC), wrote the Celts of Galatia sacrificed their prisoners to their gods by burning them after a victory.

The Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (60–30 BC), speaks of prisoner executions in Galatia: “The Galatian general returning from the pursuit, assembled the prisoners and carried out an act of extreme barbarity and utter insolence. He took those who were most handsome and in the strength and flower of their youth, and have crowned them, sacrificed them to the gods, if indeed any god could receive such offerings.”

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Diodorus says that on great occasions the vates (seers) would nominate a person for sacrifice and, after a dagger was plunged into him, they read the future from the manner of the fall and the twitching of his limbs, and the flow of blood. He added that it was not the custom to make the sacrifice without a Druid, for it was a saying that offerings acceptable to the gods had to be made through those acquainted with their nature. He concludes that in internal wars among the Celts, both sides would obey the Druids. Even when two armies were about to open battle, if a Druid stepped between them, they would be forced to desist.

Another Greek Historian, Strabo (64/63 BC–c. AD 24), described the human sacrificial ritual as follows: “They [Celts] used to strike a man, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a knife, and then divine from his death-throes; but they did not sacrifice without a Druid.”

Strabo continues. “We are told of still other kinds of sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in temples, or, having built a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burn offering of the whole thing.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

 

Roman Accounts

Julius Caesar wrote extensively about the Gauls in France and their rituals of human sacrifice. He indicated the Celts in Gaul immolated human victims, or vowed to do so, employing the Druids to conduct these sacrifices. In order to appease the gods, a Celt believed a life must be paid for another’s if the gods were to be appeased. Caesar added the twist that victims were preferably criminals, but if the supply failed, then innocents were used.

Caesar’s writings emphasized the ritualistic nature of the Celtic sacrifice. It was not intended as butchery but rather served a specific purpose for the warrior. The sacrifice represented a gift to the gods. The higher the value of the gift the more powerful was the gods’ favor. If a warrior fulfilled his vow of offering his captive as a sacrifice in the presence of Druids, his status was enhanced in this world and the Otherworld. It was customary for Gauls to cremate the body of a chief along with his prisoners and favorite animals.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Tacitus speaks of human sacrifices in Mona (Anglesey). He says that when Seutonius attacked Anglesey, the Druids “lifting up their hands to heaven, and pour forth maledictions, awed the Romans by the unfamiliar sight.” After the conquest, “A force was next set up over the conquered and their groves devoted to cruel superstitions were cut down. They [British Druids] deemed it a duty, indeed, to cover their altars with the blood of captives, and to consult their deities through human entrails.”

Archaeological Evidence

Archaeological record confirms Celts probably performed human sacrifice. On the Gundestrup Cauldron there is a figure held upside-down over what appears to be a pail of water—the portrayal of perhaps a sacrifice to Teutates, God of War.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

Archaeological evidence suggests willing victims may have been killed to act as a messenger to the Otherworld. One example is of a young man whose preserved remains were recovered from Lindow Moss in Cheshire in 1984. The three-fold manner of his death (head blow, neck garroted, throat cut) followed by the deposition of the body in water suggest this was a human sacrifice possibly performed by Druids.

A bog victim in Gallagh in County Galway was killed with a garrote made of hazel rods, and the stomach of another victim at Lindow was full of hazel nuts, a strong symbol in Celtic mythology. Ingestion of the hazel nuts is proposed to induce visions, heightened awareness and lead to epiphanies.

Conclusions

It is possible that human sacrifice took place only at times of tension and dangers. The Lindow Man was perhaps killed at the time of the Roman attack upon the druidical center of Anglesey, and may have represented an attempt to persuade supernatural forces to circumvent the enemies of the Celtic religion.

Archaeological evidence suggests animal sacrifices were replacing human sacrifices at the time Latin writers wrote about human sacrifices. At ritual and burial sites, animal bones were found of bulls, horses, goats, rams, pigs and dogs.

Sacrifice, human and animal, was part of a body of rituals which was believed to be necessary to perform in order to ensure the smooth running of the universe, fertility of the earth, rising of the sun, and the return of spring. It was believed a ritual, properly conducted, led to the result which was sought—a successful harvest, for example. Ceremonies were held before rather than after the desired event. Ritual was woven into all aspects of life, for there was an everyday need to appease the deities.

References:

Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.