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