Guest Post: author Linnea Tanner discusses the background to the APOLLO’S RAVEN book series

This is a reblog of my Guest Post: author Linnea Tanner discusses the background to the APOLLO’S RAVEN book series posted on Mar 21

Marcia’s Book Talk is a wonderful site by Marcia Carrington who features authors and provides insight on what inspires them to write their stories. Be sure to check her site out: http://marciasbooktalk.wordpress.com/

Enjoy.

Marcia's Book Talk

In today’s guest post I have the great pleasure of welcoming author Linnea Tanner to Marcia’s Book Talk. Linnea, author of the upcoming historical fantasy series APOLLO’S RAVEN, provides an examination of the history and mythology of the Celts which she undertook in preparation for writing her books, which makes for fascinating reading. And for more on the topic, over to Linnea…

Linnea Tanner, author photograph Linnea Tanner, author photograph

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Introduction

Linnea Tanner’s historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first book in a multi-series that is planned to be published later this year. This is an epic odyssey of romance, adventure, and political intrigue of a Celtic warrior princess who must draw on her mystical powers to save her kingdom and her love, the great-grandson of Mark Antony, from the Roman Legions at his father’s command.

In preparation for the series, Linnea conducted research on the history and mythology of the Celts relevant to…

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Ancient Britain History: Trading and Regionalism

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 met before his entrance into the region.—Joseph Campbell 

Introduction

To understand the historical context that led to Rome’s decision to invade and conquer Britain in 43 AD, one needs to look back as far as 600 BC to understand the development of Ancient Britain and its connections to Continental Europe. Similar to the Modern World, the Ancient World had a global economy that allowed various regions to share their technology, philosophies, and religion. Major events in Continental Europe also impacted Britain.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo's Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Ancient British history must be pieced together with accounts from classical writers (Greek and Roman) and archaeological finds. Unfortunately, many classical accounts did not survive in their entirety and the significance of archaeological finds are sometimes subjective.

The next series of posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN will provide a backdrop on how the events in Continental Europe impacted Ancient Britain.

 

Ancient Britain History

Descent into Regionalism (600 – 400 BC)

In the two centuries between 600- 400 BC, regional cultures that formed across the face of Britain framed the next thousand years of development. Britain could be divided into three broad settlement zones: 1) eastern zone characterized by open villages and enclosed homesteads, 2) western zone of strongly-defended homesteads, and 3) central hill-fort dominated zone.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

The eastern zone stretching from the Thames to southern Scotland has an array of landscapes. Each area had its own settlement patterns and economic systems. In the southern midland river valleys, often unenclosed farmsteads and villages prevailed. The North had a more broken landscape of upland, small enclosed farmlands.

Cliffside Dover Cliffs Britain

Coastal White CliffsBritain

The landscape in the western zone extending from Cornwall to the Northern Isles was more varied. The settlements were more characteristic of homesteads for single or extended family, often enclosed with earthworks or walls offering some defense. In the latter part of the Iron Age, these smaller homesteads gave rise to a multiple of defended homesteads to establish more strength.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior), Wales

The hill-fort dominated zone stretched from the south coast to North Wales. It is here where hill-forts proliferated in landscapes. These hill-forts were characterized by a rampart and ditches of defensive proportions and were accessed usually through two gates on opposing sides. There were evidence of large settlements on these hill-forts with streets, houses, storage facilities, and domestic activities suggestive of permanent occupation. These hill-forts reflected a larger community, comprising a group of lineages that brought together a society with a common pursuit.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort, England.

Maiden Castle Hill-fort, Dorset, England.

Various body decoration and hairstyles were important identities for all of the above societies.

Trading Connection Massilia

The founding of the Greek Colony of Massilia (modern day Marseilles) on the Mediterranean coast in about 600 BC was a significant moment in Western Europe. Even before this Greek city was established, Greek and Etruscan traders had been visiting Britain for several decades, building friendly relations with the natives of the coastal zone and the more inland regions. The sixth century saw the development of formal trading that stretched from eastern France to Southern Germany, where the local Hallstatt chieftains were able to acquire Mediterranean luxury goods to display and to consume in feasts and in elaborate burial rites.

Calanques Limestone Cove

Calanques Limestone Cove Near Marseilles (Ancient Massilia)

In the 5th Century BC, the Islands began receiving notice by the Mediterranean world based on claims from Herodotus that he heard rumors of tin-rich islands in the Atlantic. Herodotus wrote that in “the extreme tracts of Europe towards the west there were islands called Cassiterides (Tin Islands) where the metal was resourced.” Most likely, his information came from traders at Massalia who were secretive about where the tin was mined. Most likely, the Tin Islands referred to Cornwall which had significant ore deposits.

Linnea Tanner at Château d'If Marseille

Château d’If Prison Overlooking Bay into Marseille


Tin and Pytheas

The importance of tin in the ancient world cannot be over-stressed. As an essential component in bronze, it was constantly in demand. Its rarity within Europe meant that knowledge of where to obtain this commodity was highly valued and protected.

Pytheas, entrepreneur and scientist, set out from Massalia about 320 BC to explore the northwestern extremities of Europe. He was probably the first to observe tin trade between Cornwall and the ports of Atlantic Gaul. Only fragments of the accounts of his remarkable travels survive. However, he probably travelled through Gaul (modern day France) and crossed to the western end of the Channel to Belerion, an ancient name given to Cornwall or Kernow, which has been translated as “Shining Land” or “Seat of Storms.”

Dover Cliffs United Kingdom

Dover Cliffs England

He observed first-hand the processes of tin extraction and exchange. His description may have been used by 1st Century writer, Diodorus Siculus, who describes the inhabitants as follows:

The inhabitants of Britain living on the promontory called Belerion are especially friends to strangers and have adopted a civilized way of life because of their interactions with traders and other peoples. It is they who work the tin, treating the layers. This layer, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they melt down to clean of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain, call Ictis.

Cornwall Coastal Region

Cornwall Coast Porthcurno Beach

After Cornwall, Pytheas sailed northwards through the Irish Sea, stopping at the Isle of Man. He may have also made an open-sea voyage to Iceland and returned along the east coast of Britain. The description of the tin trade implies a regular and well-ordered process was used in the trading with established rules. A place of assembly was designated as a free zone where all were given a guarantee of safe conduct. The traders would have timed their visits based on sailing conditions. On offshore islands, natives would be ready to trade ingots for Mediterranean goods.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover

Localized Warfare

From the third century BC, archaeological findings indicate localized warfare became more aggressive, particularly in the hill-fort zone of central southern Britain. This could have been due to tensions caused by a growing population and the desire of chieftains to acquire and hold onto productive land at a time when fertility may have begun to fail in some regions. Disputes could flare into hostile and bloody confrontations.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

During this time, fortresses were strengthened for defense. Ditches were re-dug and ramparts rebuilt, now with a continuous slope from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart. Several of these hill-forts were rebuilt as a result of a devastating fire.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

At Danebury, in Hampshire, a fire seemed to have damaged large areas of the interior in the last 4th Century. The hill-fort was then as strongly re-defended in the third century, but another fire in the 1st Century destroyed the gate, after which the site was abandoned. Though the fires may have not been result of enemy action, the large number of sling-stones found at this site suggests inhabitants were ready to defend their position. Further evidence of warfare is based on archaeological finds of human skeletons scarred with marks of violence.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Beginning in the first century, there was an increase of horse bones found at some of these hill-forts suggesting the build-up of war chariots and the training of horses to power them. After the destruction of the hill-fort at Danebury, the hill-fort at Bury Hill was brought back into use with a new set of defenses comprising a ditch with an inner and outer rampart. The most significant find from this site was horses accounted for more than a quarter of the animal bones. There were exceptional quantities of horse gear and chariot fittings. It seems that the building of war chariots and training of teams of horses to power them reflect a more excitable and aggressive stance among the elite.

Footpath Around Bury Hill-Fort

Footpath Circling Bury Hill-Fort; Photograph by Chris Talbot

By the time Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 – 54 BC, the localized political rivalries were very much in evidence and the war strategy of using chariots that at first confounded his Roman army. He took advantage of the localized political rivalries by pitting British tribal rulers against each other so they would not unite as a formidable force against the Roman legions (previously discussed in the last two posts.

Celtic Horned Helmet

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


To be Continued

The next post will detail how the changing political climate in Continental Europe impacted Britain.

References

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

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

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; New world Library, Novato, CA; 2008.

Celtic Spirit Warrior

Caesar Second Invasion Britain

‘Cities and Thrones and Powers,
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die.
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and considered Earth
The Cities rise again’
–Rudyard Kipling


Introduction

This is Part 3 in the series of posts that support Julius Caesar’s invasions of Ancient Britain in 55-54 BC helped establish powerful tribal dynasties in Britain that were loyal to Rome. The subsequent political unrest between rival tribal rulers in 1st Century Britain provides the backdrop to the epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, the first unpublished novel in a series about a Celtic warrior princess and the great-grandson of Marc Antony.

Below is a continuation of Caesar’s second expedition after he learns several of his ships had been wrecked in a storm after landing.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Image of Roman Warship on Frieze


Caesar’s 2nd Invasion Britain

March to Thames

Caesar’s primary objective in the second invasion of Britain was to march to the Thames and from there to Essex so he could barter with agents from the Trivovantes tribe for the return of their young prince, Mandubracius. Similar to his first invasion, his most formidable enemy was the forces of the English Channel. Two days after landing, several of his ships were wrecked  in an overnight storm off the southeast coastline.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

When Caesar received the bad news about the catastrophic damage to the vessels, he had to abandon his speedy advance to the Thames so his troops could repair the ships. Working night and day for ten days, the Roman soldiers repaired the boats and dragged them high up the beach into a fortified encampment. The huge task of protecting the fleet required a defensive line of four to five miles. The loss of time cost Caesar a resounding conquest, as the Britons had time to forget their political differences and to ally under a supreme commander, Cassivellaunus—the  ruler of lands bounded by the north bank of the Thames River.

Ancient Roman Warship Model

Roman Warship Model

By now the Britons had seen enough of Caesar’s legions and their battle tactics to know they could not successfully fight them in open battle. Cassivellaunus resorted to guerrilla tactics to menace the Roman army as his Celtic warriors withdrew to dense woodlands north of the Thames. There they prepared to resist.

Celtic Horned Helmet

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

Yet again, the Roman troops displayed their discipline and training by fording the river in neck-high water. Not willing to risk an open engagement with the enemy when they reached the other side of the river, Cassivellaunus disbanded most of his forces and kept only 4000 charioteers to harass the flanks and rear of advancing Romans. He must have been bitterly disappointed that his forces could not even hold the Thames.

Roman Legion

Soldiers in Roman Legion


Political Tribal Division

Caesar’s plunge into hostile territory that separated him from the main supply line might have seemed fool-hardy. That was not the case. The trump card was Mandubracius who turned out to be a valuable ally in negotiating with agents from the Trinovantes tribe. As previously discussed in the last post, Mandubracius had fled to Gaul requesting Caesar’s protection after his father had been killed in a conflict with his neighbor Cassivellaunus, the Catuvellauni king.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

In exchange for Caesar’s recognition of Mandubracius as their rightful king, the Trinovantes supplied grain to the Roman troops and forty hostages to secure the agreement. Further, Mandubracius persuaded five other tribes that bordered the kingdom of Cassivellaunus to join him in submitting to Rome. Though very little is known about these other tribes, one was assumed to be the Iceni who were initially a political ally to Rome in the invasion by Emperor Claudius almost 90 years later in 43 AD. Ironically, in 61 AD, the charismatic Iceni warrior queen, Boudica, led an uprising that almost expelled the Roman expeditionary forces out of Britain.

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

The political implications of these tribal defections to Caesar were dramatic. The tribal leaders informed him of the location of Cassivellaunus’ stronghold in the thick woodlands and marshes. The Roman legions promptly and efficiently attacked the resisting Britons that resulted in the slaughter of many of the people and confiscation of their cattle.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses


Final Surrender

In one last desperate attempt, Cassivellaunus ordered Kentish tribes along the coastline to attack the Roman naval encampment to cut off Caesar from Gaul. But the Romans were ready for this assault, and they subsequently inflicted several Kentish casualties and captured their tribal leaders.

Grassy Top Dover Cliffs

Dover White Cliffs in Kent, Southeast Britain

Cassivellaunus had little choice but to sue for peace, with Commius, the Atrebates king from Gaul who served as negotiator. Any plans that Caesar had for staying in Britain had to be abandoned when he learned of serious trouble in Gaul that demanded his attention. He collected several British hostages, levied an annual tribute on the hostile tribes, and ordered Cassivellaunus not to attack the Trivovantes or dispose of their king, Mandubracius.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Caesar’s decision to leave Britain seemed sudden because he waited in vain for additional ships from Gaul to ferry his army across the Channel. By the autumn equinox, he had to make two voyages with his repaired ship to transfer innumerable hostages, prisoners and Roman soldiers back to Gaul.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Caesar’s grand scheme of adding Britain to his lists of conquests failed due to the capricious weather and tides of the English Channel. Yet he ultimately vanquished Gaul and established treaties with power British leaders that directly impacted trading routes and internal politics on the island.

The next series of posts will piece together the rise of powerful tribal dynasties descended from Mandubracius, Cassivellaunus, and Commius in Britain that, in part, impacted Rome’s final decision to invade and conquer the island ninety years later in 43 AD.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs in Britain Near Landing Site of Julius Caesar

References:

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

John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1997 by St. Martin’s Press, New York.

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

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey; 3rd Edition Reprinted by Sheridan Books, Inc., Chelsea, Michigan

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.

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

Celtic Mystique: Ancient Druid Philosophy

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 met before his entrance into this region—Joseph Campbell

Ancient Druid Philosophy

The word ‘priest’ was never applied to Druids by any Classical writer. Instead, Greeks and Romans used the term ‘philosopher’ to describe them. According to Diogenes Laertius, a 3rd Century Greek writer, the Druids’ chief maxim was people should “worship the gods, do not evil, and exercise courage.” Druids were taught to live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan and that the only evil is moral weakness. Another interesting doctrine the Druids evolved was the belief in the immortality of the soul which is further discussed below.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron

Immortality of Soul

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.” Julius Caesar remarked that the belief in the immortal soul accounted for the Celts’ bravery in battle.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

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. Flavius Philostratus (170-249 AD) observed that Celts celebrated birth with mourning for a death in the Otherworld while they regarded death with joy for the birth in the Otherworld. Pre-Christian graves throughout the Celtic world are filled with personal belongings, weapons, food and drinks and other items to give the departed a good start in the Otherworld. At Hochdorf in southern Germany is the grave site of a Chieftain who was buried in extravagant clothes, including shoes decorated with gold. Also found at this site were a cauldron that could hold 400 liters of wine, weapons, cooking and eating utensils, and a four-wheeled wagon.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Celtic philosophy is similar to that of the 6th Century BC Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who believed in the soul’s reincarnation or transmigration. The soul, by its actions, determines how it will be reincarnated—in human, animal, or even plant form. A similar philosophy was widely accepted in India where it was believed that due to its karma a soul transmigrates from one life to another in a never-ending cycle which could be broken in Nirvana—a state of supreme bliss which, once achieved, liberates the soul from the repeating circle of death and rebirth. Interestingly, there has been a lot of debate whether Pythagoras adopted his philosophy from the Celts or did he influence them? Most likely, the concept of immortal souls evolved in parallel. Not only did the Celts believe the soul is reborn into human bodies from one world to the other, but their literature reveals that souls could migrate through various births from one form to another. In Irish texts, Fintan survives the Deluge by changing into a salmon while in the Welsh texts Gwion Bach reincarnates as a hare, fish, bird, and a grain which is then swallowed by a chicken before he is eventually reborn as Taliesin.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Death and rebirth is a consistent theme throughout Celtic mythological sagas and tales. The warrior’s resurrection can be found in the story of the battle between the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Fomorii in which bodies cast into magic cauldrons return to life. There is a scene of a god accompanying a group of warriors as he drips one of them in a drinking vessel on the Gundestrup Cauldron. The rest are symbolically carrying a tree – perhaps the crann na beatha or tree of life.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

The War God Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

Cult of Severed Head

The Druids believed that the dwelling place of the immortal soul was 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. The human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celts the soul, the center of emotions as well as of life itself, and a symbol of divinity and the powers of 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 in single combat, had a mystical significance. But it was this gruesome practice that was regarded as most barbaric by the Greeks and Romans who were apparently appalled at the desecration of the bodies. Diodorus Siculus wrote: “When their enemies fall, they cut off their heads and fasten them to the bridles of their horses; and handing over to their retainers the arms of their opponents all covered with blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a song of victory. These first fruits of victory they nail to the sides of their houses just as men do in certain kinds of hunting with the heads of wild beasts they have killed. They embalm the heads of their most distinguished foes in cedar oil and carefully preserve them. They show them to visitors, proudly stating that they had refused a large sum of money for them.”

Replica Celtic Helmet

Celtic Helmet Replica

It can be concluded from this account that, apart from the tangible proof of the warrior’s courage and prowess, the fallen enemy’s head was an important prestige object. The care in its preservation, the pride in its exhibition and the fact that it was considered of great value not only to the warrior who had taken it but also to others, reveals a deeply felt 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, or on wooden poles as at the Bredon Hill Fort in western Britain. It is interesting to note that in both instances the heads were set up at the entrances. Perhaps the souls of these unfortunate warriors were now being used for symbolic protection of their enemies’ strongholds. In Welsh and Irish myth, the severed head is 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 against foreign invasion.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

To be continued The next posts will continue with the roles of the Druids and their dark ceremonies and rituals. References: Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior 300 BC – AD 100; 2001; Osprey Publishing Ltd, New York. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces—Bollingen Series XVII Third Edition; 2008; Joseph Campbell Foundation; New World Library, Novato.

Celtic Druid History: Magic

Memories of animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into the wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.

– Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers

Introduction

The word ‘Celtic’ conjures images of magic, rituals, and spells based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British Isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth which provides insight into how the Celtic mind works. For Arthur is the myth of a king with a predestined envoy, the myth of the sleeping man who will wake to save the world, and the myth of a cuckold king who must share his sovereignty with his people in the shape of the queen’s lover.

To explore the Celtic religion from its past requires a wand to piece it together. The original Celtic rites that were maintained through oral traditions have been lost. Historical accounts and archaeological evidence present both horrific and awe-inspiring images of Celtic religion.

On one hand, the Celts demonstrated a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess which is based on the Celtic penchant for sacred groves.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

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

 

Whereas, there is evidence that Celts sacrificed humans in their ceremonies.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Human Sacrifice to Teutates, God of War Gundestrup Cauldron

Although Irish Christian monks wrote down the original Celtic legends based on oral traditions, their manuscripts were heavily redacted and rewritten in accordance with their beliefs. The monastic scribes rejected the notion that any pagan god in the legends was worthy of worship and, thus, they were turned into heroes with magical powers which echo their one-time divinity.

Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of mythology, provide no direct evidence for the Celtic religion. In one version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the scribe distanced himself from the account by saying “I, who have written out of this history, or more properly fiction, for some things are diabolical impositions, some are poetical inventions, some have a semblance of truth, and some are meant to be the entertainment of fools.”

Magical powers attributed to Druids in Celtic literature and historical accounts include: control the elements, prophesy, heal, cause invisibility, shape shift, levitate, curse the ungodly, and perform other forms of magic.

Celtic Druid History: Magic

In Celtic literature and tradition, Druids have been popularly referred as magicians—wizards possessing supernatural powers. By the time of the advent of Christianity in both Ireland and Britain, Druids were identified by the word magi, a name used for the priests of Ancient Persia who reputedly had power over supernatural entities.

The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), referred to Druids as the magi and said, “Even today Britain is still spell bound by magic, and performs its rites with so much ritual that she might almost seem to be source of Persian customs.”

In Irish and Welsh literature, there is common reference to the Druid as a wielder of magical powers. Druids could influence the course of events or control nature. Early Celtic Christian writers who believed in Druidic magic gave these supernatural powers to saints in their church.

Below is a summary of these  magical powers.

Control Forces of Nature

Druids could summon magical fog and storms to destroy or disperse their enemies. Broichán, the chief Druid of the Pictish King Bruide, raised a terrific storm to stop Colmcille from crossing Loch Ness. The great magician Mathgen summoned the mountains to crush the enemy by proclaiming: “Through my power I can throw down all the mountains of Ireland on the Fomor, until their tops will be rolling on the ground. And the twelve chief mountains of Ireland will bring you their help and will fight for you.”

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Depiction of Celtic Warrior & Irish God Dagda, Protector of Tribe (Gundestrup Cauldron)

Muirchú says the Druids of Laoghaire sent heavy snowfalls and darkness to impede St. Patrick’s approach to Tara. In the Life of St Moling, Mothairén conjured up a fog to protect the Christian missionaries from their enemies. These are examples of Christian saints taking over the power of the Druids.

Cloak of Invisibility

The Druids could also produce a cloak of invisibility to protect them from their enemies. In an Irish version of the Aeneid, Venus puts such a cloak around the hero Ulysses to protect him entering the city of the Phaeacians.

The concept of this mantle of protection continued into Christianity. When the mother of St. Finnchua was being pursued by a pagan king, she invoked the mantle of protection, a cloak or a fog of darkness, so that she might escape.

Druidic Wand

Some texts refer to the Druidic wand that consists of a branch on which little tinkling bells hung. When Sencha, the chief bard of Ulster, waved his hand, the roar of battle hushed.

Celtic Woman Warrior Summons Raven Spirit

Celtic Druidess Warrior Summoning Raven Spirit

Shape Shifting

Shape shifting was another gift ascribed to Druids. When Fer Fidail, a Druid, carried off a maiden, he did so by assuming the form of a woman. Humans could also be turned into animals. Fer Doirche changed the beautiful Sibh into a deer when she rejected his love. The female Druid, Dalb, changed three men and their wives into swine and Aiofe, wife of Lir, changed her step-children into swans.

Raven Protecting Tower of London

Raven Watching Over Tower of London

Druidic Sleep

Bobd, suspecting his daughter of lying, casts her into a Druidic sleep, similar to hypnosis, so she would reveal the truth. A drink of oblivion is another tool of the Druids that makes people forget even their closest friends and loves.

To be Continued

In the next posts, Druidic dark rituals, philosophy, and pantheon of will be explored.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence


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“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” – Joseph Campbell.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence

Previous posts in APOLLO’S  RAVEN discussed Boudica’s revolt in 60-61 AD. She was probably the most famous Celtic warrior queen who led men and women warriors in their last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Not only was she a charismatic leader, but she was also a druidess who summoned the Goddess of  War, Andraste, to give her victory. Her spiritual connection and the uniting forces of the Druids were important factors which inspired  warriors who had a penchant for individual glory to unite in this rebellion.

This article will explore the Druid’s influential role in the Celtic culture and their legacy of being magicians, judges, doctors, and diviners who created fear in Ancient Rome.

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

 

Introduction

Unfortunately, most historical accounts of Druids are biased through the foreign eyes of Greek and Roman historians. Irish and Welsh monks who wrote down Celtic mythology, which were based on oral traditions, probably altered some of the stories to be more in line with their Christian beliefs.

Although Rome had precedence for tolerating  religions in their conquered regions, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) wrote that under Tiberius the Druids were suppressed—along with diviners and physicians—by a decree of the Senate. Claudius forbade their rites completely in AD 54. Druids were alleged to have performed human sacrifice, a practice abhorrent to the Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote: “It is beyond calculation how great is the debt owed to the Romans, who swept away the monstrous rites, in which to kill a man was the highest religious duty and for him to be eaten a passport to health.”

The more likely reason for the Roman decrees was the Druids’ influence on various tribes to organize revolt and to foster cultural beliefs that were contradictory to the monolithic structure of the patriarchal empire. The Romans looked upon women as bearers of children and objects of pleasure, while the Druid included women in their political and religious life. The Druids were the intelligentsia of the Celtic tribes who could have more power than kings in making decisions.

Despite Roman efforts to suppress the Druids’ practices, Celtic spiritual beliefs thrived in the form of mythical tales of chivalry, magic, and pantheon of gods and goddesses that showed their connection to nature and their profound philosophy that souls resurrect into other living beings. Their artwork and metal works reflect their philosophy that the physical and spiritual worlds interconnect, as shown in the imagery of a plant’s tendril gently stranding on itself, then spinning out into a pattern of whorls and fanciful animal shapes.

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Through Greek Eyes

Strabo, a Greek geographer (64 BC – 44AD), classified three classes of men and women who held special honor in the Celtic culture: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards were singers and poets while the Vates interpreted sacrificial omens. The Druids studied the science of nature and moral philosophy. Strabo believed the Greek word Druidae was a cognate of the Greek drus, ‘an oak’.  Some etymologists believed the word derived from the word roots drui-wid—’oak knowledge” — the wid meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to see’.

Cork Oak Tree Arundel

Cork Oak Tree

Druids were believed to be the most just of men and were therefore entrusted with making decisions affecting either individuals or the public, often arbitrating between opponents in war. Druids pronounced that men’s souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire or water temporarily prevailed.

Diodorus Siculus (60 BC – 21 BC), a Greek historian, also used the same classification as Strabo’s, pointing out the Druids were held in highest esteem. The Ovates foretold the future by the flight or cries of birds and slaughter of sacred animals.

Soaring Raven

Eagle’s Flight

Through Roman Eyes

Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), who had personal dealings with Celts in his conquest of Gaul, said there was three classes: the intellectuals (Druids), the military caste (Equites), and the common people (Plebs). Druids officiated at the worship of the gods, regulated public and private sacrifices, and gave  rulings on all religious questions. Young people sought their instruction, as they were held in great honor by all of the people.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The Druids were ruled under one head, whom they held in highest respect. On his death, another outstanding individual replaced him if there was consensus. If not, an election would be held to select the head or the final choice would be left to the winner of a final fight. Druids served as judges in most disputes, whether  between tribes or between individuals, and adjudicated any compensation to be paid in final judgments. Their decisions were final in all public and private matters. Anyone failing to accept their decision was banned from taking part in any sacrifice—the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Caesar asserted Druid doctrine was exported from Britain into Gaul. The Druids believed their religion forbade them to commit their teachings to writing as these could not be made public. Students had to memorize volumes of verse—many of them spending twenty years at their studies. It should be noted the Celts maintained written public and private accounts by using the Greek and Latin alphabets.

The most profound philosophy that Caesar highlighted was the belief that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another. According to him, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die but is reincarnated after death.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), who came from a family of Roman colonists in Gaul, described the Druids as natural scientists, doctors of medicine, and magicians. Perhaps it was Pliny’s fascination with magic that he recounted the anguinam, the ‘Druid’s eggs’ or ‘serpent’s eggs’. He said he possessed one of these eggs that looked like a crystal about the size of a moderately sized apple. The eggs were reportedly made by hissing snakes put together, the foam from their mouths producing a viscous slime which became a ball when tossed in the air and caught by a Druid who then used it to counteract incantations. The egg is a powerful image used in Celtic and other mythology.

To be Continued

The next posts will further explore Celtic mythology and religious believes.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; Published in USA by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI; 1995.

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

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.