Exploring Magical Powers of the Celts

Exploring Magical Powers of the Celts

Summoning Celtic Magical Powers

Female Warrior Summoning Celtic Magical Powers

Contributed Post

The post, Exploring Magical Powers of the Celts, was contributed by Jane Johnson, a freelance writer and editor. She has written for both digital and print across a wide variety of fields. Her main interest is exploring how people can improve their health and well being in their everyday life. And when she isn’t writing, Jane can often be found with her nose in a good book, at the gym or just spending quality time with her family.

 

Overview of the Celts

The earliest pre-Christian Celts were mysterious and captivating pre-Christian individuals with a history filled with legends and romance – a history of wizards, fairies, wizards, heroes and above all, magic. Julius Caesar was once quoted as saying that the Celts were brave but impetuous and headstrong. The various clans migrated from Central Europe and went on to populate much of Western Europe, Ireland and Britain until they were ultimately displaced by first the Romans and later Christianity.

Statue of Dying Celt

The various Celtic clans and tribes were unified by their common priesthood known as the Druids who were said to possess magical powers. These Druid priests preserved religion, scholarship, science and law, and had supreme influence over everyone due to their sacred authority. The Druids were known to yield psychic abilities firmly yet responsibly. One of the most famous of Celtic legends involving Druids is that of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. Merlin was a Druid wizard, bard, tutor and keeper of arcane secrets. He was also rumored to be the son of an incubus (demon) and a mortal woman who was first a princess and later became a nun.

Druidic Ritual at Stonehenge

Druid Magic

The ancient Druids were also clergy as well as Shamans with their costumes including long white robes, feathered capes and elaborate headdresses. They also would often be seen wielding a rowan wood scepter as a sign of their power and that was often used as a magic wand when performing spells. The magic of Druids is all dependent on a strong and healthy awareness of nature itself as well as the gods and spirits who dwell in nature and is deeply rooted in the four elements earth, air, water and fire. Most Druid spells correspond to one or more of the elements with the 4 compass points each displaying a significant corresponding color:  North-black, South-white, East-red, West-grey.  Druid magic was known to combine the four natural elements with magic stones, color, direction, the lunar calendar and incense.

Horn God Surrounded by Animals; Inner Panel Gundestrup Cauldron

Sacred Symbols

Birds such as the swan, goose, owl, raven and eagle were all considered sacred in Celtic culture.  Other sacred animals included the cat, dog, wolf, bull, stag, boar, horse and butterfly with these animals often being depicted in very complex knotted patterns.

 

Knotted Celtic Raven Symbol

 

The number 3 was also considered sacred to the Druids and was believed to have numerous magical powers. This belief is exemplified in the Celtic triquerta, trefoil, nonegram and the Triangle of Manifestation. Hallowed trees included the hazel, oak and yew, with the worship of the oak tree being very commonplace in both Celtic and non-Celtic Europe.

 

Cork Oak Tree in Southern Britain

 

The Little People

Dwarfs, Brownies, Elves and Fairies made up a very intriguing aspect of Celtic culture and folklore. These tiny life-forms were seen as spiritual beings to whom the imprudence of mankind has assigned an imaginary existence. Fairies were referred to as the ‘good neighbours’ and were beautiful miniature versions of a divine human form. These cheeky little beings resided below ground or in little green dwellings and wore the most brilliant clothes. Leprechauns have become the self-appointed guardians of ancient treasure burying it in pots or crocks. Their association with rainbows and finding the pot of gold at the end of it has forever been associated with prosperity.

Classic representation fairy with butterfly wings by painter Ricardo Falero

Healing powers

The esteemed Druids were the learned elite and the authority on just about everything including medicine and healing spells. Healing magic would often involve invoking a deity of health and healing such as Airmid (Irish), Diancecht (Irish), Meg the Healer (Scottish) or Ariadne (Welsh) to help heal the ill. Astrology and astronomy were also used extensively while making a medical diagnosis. The Celts worshipped the moon and the sun and had a rudimentary veneration of the closest planets in the solar system. Various plants and herbs were employed for medicinal purposes and often had associations with certain Celtic deities.

Wildflowers on Dover Cliffs, Kent

The beauty and history of Celtic culture and magic have been preserved in various customs, legends, music, art, antiquities and literature for everyone to explore and enjoy. Through the continued study and appreciation of the magic and myth of the legendary Celtic culture, we are able to fully enjoy and treasure the influence of the most captivating of all people, the Celts.

Upcoming Posts

Upcoming posts based on my research to support the Apollo’s Raven series and another novel under development about a shipwrecked Roman tribune serving under Germanicus are as follows:

  • Celtic Goddesses
  • Mark Antony
  • Annihilation of Roman Legions in Germania and Aftermath

Ancient Celtic Religion: Ancestral Gods and Mother Goddess

Depona-and-her-horses

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 Domnu, 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. In essence, he 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 Moyers, 1991Doubleday, New York, NY.

Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites, and Offerings

 

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


Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites and Votive Offerings

Introduction

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

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

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

Sites of Rituals

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

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron Sacrificial Ritual

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

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

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

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

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

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

Soane River Hillside

Soane River Lyon France (Roman Lugdunum Gaul)

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

Bath Roman Bath

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

Rituals

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

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

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

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

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

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

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

Votive Offerings

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

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch

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

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

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

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

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


Annual Ceremonies

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

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

Celtic Spirit Warrior Ritualistically Prepares for Battle in Forest

Conclusions

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

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

To Be Continued

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

References:

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

Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals: Human Sacrifice

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

Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals

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

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

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

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

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

Vercingetorix Memorial

Vercingetorix Statue

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

Human Sacrifice

Classical Accounts

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

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

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

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

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

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

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

 

Roman Accounts

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

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

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

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

Archaeological Evidence

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

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

References:

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

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.