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.