- Belief Systems
- Sky, Earth, Sea
- Beginnings and Ends
- Death and the Afterlife
- The Calendar
The religious institutions, beliefs and customs of a people ultimately reflect their fundamental conceptions of and model for reality: the design and purpose of the universe; the beings and forces that govern nature and determine human destiny; the origins of humankind; the place from which each individual comes and where s/he will go; the nature of time; and so on.
Attempting to reconstruct any ancient Celtic ontology or cosmology is inherently complicated, and not just by the fact that there are very few surviving texts written by pagan Celts. We cannot assume that there was any single belief system that united all Celts across space and time; even though we may look for patterns of correspondences which suggest symbolism inherited from a common ancient Celtic inheritance, we cannot fill in the gaps from Gaul of the 5th century BCE with medieval Welsh myths, for example.
There must have been a great deal of variation across Celtic communities: not only should we expect Celtic religious forms to develop on its own accord and in response to local conditions, but older deities, practices and beliefs may have been retained by people of non-Celtic origin after they had been Celticized. We must be very cautious about projecting the evidence from one place and time into other places and times.
In addition to these considerations, much of the most important and interesting evidence about Celtic belief systems that we have to work with was affected by contact with Greek, Roman and Christian civilizations. As a recent survey of divine names in inscriptions across the Roman world notes,
the archaeology also reveals an enormous degree of regional diversity […] which make[s] it problematic to make rough generalisations of ‘Celtic’ or native beliefs on the basis of isolated finds from different parts of Western Europe. Moreover, religions (i.e. religious belief systems) are not static but constantly evolving and as we shall see, there were significant developments across Gaul and Britain already prior to the Roman conquest, so that the sociocultural developments in the Roman period merely served to catalyse and stimulate internal developments. (Haeussler)
Sky, Earth, Sea
The derivation of Celtic words about the universe – themselves inherited from the ancestral Indo-European language, and hence designating similar ideas in Germanic, Romance and Indic languages, for example – give us some insight into the Celtic conception of the universe.
The Proto-Celtic word *nemos signifies the heavens and is derived from the Indo-European root *nem “bend, curve.” It is likely that Celtic belief was similar to that of many other peoples who understand the sky to be held up above the earth by pillars: the Goidelic word for earth is talam (with the sense “ground,” Proto-Celtic *tela-mon), originally connoting “bearer, upholder.” These pillars are often visualized as trees or massive columns. The image of the sacred tree connecting heaven and earth, often portrayed as standing at the centre of the world, recurs across centuries in Goidelic literature and tradition, and in fact a Goidelic word for tree/wood is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root which associated with the concepts of tree, middle and boundary in numerous Indo-European languages.
The first element in the name for the druids themselves (Proto-Celtic *dru-wid) is a Indo-European root meaning “to be firm, solid,” giving the words “true” and “tree” to English: we might understand the druids as those who uphold what is true just as the world tree or sacred pillars upheld the world of the gods.
Up above the heavenly firmament is bright and airy; down below, the depths of the earth and the waters, by contrast, are deep and dark. Deities generally reside in these extreme zones of heaven and the netherworld but the central region, “Middle Earth,” is inhabited by humanity. The Proto-Celtic term *bitu “world” connotes the place of “life” (Proto-Celtic *biwotūt) where mortal beings live (including humans and animals), but there are two other Celtic terms whose derivations reveal contrasting colors and associations.
Gaulish dubno and Old Gaelic domun share close kinship with the words for dark (Proto-Celtic *dubu), deep (Proto-Celtic *dubno), and water (Proto-Celtic *dubro). The opposing term for the flat surface of the earth in Proto-Celtic is *albjo from the root *albho “white, bright,” suggesting a lit surface reflecting the sun. This latter term is root of the first recorded Celtic name for the island of Britain, Albion, but it is important to note that this name implies a female deity who personified the territory.
There was, likewise, a corresponding dark female deity, Dubnona, attested across the Celtic world, who personified territory. This duality for the dark and light aspects of the earth seems to be echoed in early Irish tales which claim that the conflict between the human Gaels and the pagan gods was resolved by splitting space up between them, with humans taking the surface of the earth and the gods being given the mounds directly under the soil.
This tripartite scheme for the structure of the universe was retained in Gaelic tradition into the early medieval period. A number of early Irish texts contain the triad sky, earth and sea, such as the exclamation put into the mouth of the warrior Cú Chulainn “Is it the sky that breaks or the sea that ebbs or the earth that quakes or is this the distress of my son fighting against odds on the Foray of Cúailnge?” It is also noteworthy that two other Gaelic words for sky (Old Gaelic fraig and Middle Gaelic spéir) imply looking up at a curved sphere.
Beginnings and Ends
Many ancient people believed that the universe was not totally stable but prone to break down and disintegrate, even if it could reemerge in a renewed state. The fear that the pillars might collapse and allow the firmament to come crashing down on the earth which could then sink into the sea seems to be echoed in the account of the Celtic warriors who met Alexander the Great. Alexander had hoped that they feared him, because of his great power, more than all other things, but upon asking them their greatest fear, they replied it was that the sky might fall on them (Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus § 4).
It is unconceivable that the druids did not have some doctrine about the origins of the world and its ultimate destiny, such as the myths of other Indo-European peoples, even though these were not committed to writing. Strabo (Geography §4.4.4) claims that “Both the druids and others assert that both the soul and the world are indestructible, but that sometimes fire and sometimes water have overwhelmed them.”
Some of the earliest Irish texts about St Patrick imply that the Irish were worried about the apocalypse which would come with fire. As part of his conversion strategy, Patrick seems to have promised to intervene in this doomsday scenario by making a deal with the Christian God on behalf of the Irish: Ireland will be flooded seven years before the inferno is unleashed on the earth.
There are further echoes of cosmic cataclysm in medieval Irish texts. One particularly good example is an oath uttered by King Conchobor in the tale Táin Bó Cuailgne who swears that he will fulfill his task, “unless the sky with its showers of stars fall upon the surface of the earth or unless the ground burst open in an earthquake, or unless the fish-abounding, blue-bordered sea come over the surface of the earth.” In fact, this idea of the crashing down of the heavens upon the earth, and the crashing of the earth into the ocean, has survived in Irish and Scottish folktales into the 20th century, and some variants of the tales incorporate the names of the pagan deities Crom and Donn.
Death and the Afterlife
The belief that humankind was made of the soil of the earth is reflected in the Book of Genesis: God made Adam from the soil, and indeed the Hebrew Adama means “earth, soil.” The Proto-Celtic term *donjo connotes a person and is derived from the Indo-European term for the earth; this root is also the basis for Gaelic terms connoting ancestral territory, hereditary rights, and tradition. This suggests that our corporal bodies, at least, come from and belong to the earthly domain.
There is ample evidence to demonstrate that the ancient Celts, like many other people, believed that the soul did not die with the body. Caesar (§ 6.14) states that the druids taught “that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another.” Diodorus Siculus (§ 5.28) expands upon this idea, stating that the Celts believed that “the souls of men are immortal and that after a prescribed number of years they commence upon a new life, the soul entering into another body.” This new body that awaits death in this world clearly exists in an Otherworld.
There seems to have been a belief that one could stop the natural cycle of rebirth, however. Strabo’s comment (§ 4.4.4) that the soul (and the world) had sometimes been overwhelmed by fire seems to refer to the practice of burning the remains of despised enemies to ruin their chances of reaching the Otherworld; this is attested in early texts from Gaul and medieval Irish texts, surviving into the 19th century in Scottish Gaelic tradition.
Where did the soul go after death? How did it get to the Otherworld and enter a new body? Was the second-life Otherworld the same location as the abode of the gods and goddesses? Answers to these questions differed in various Celtic communities and changed over time; they may have also differed according to social rank and profession, and people may have even understood and believed multiple contrary explanations at the same time.
The burials for the élite of Late Hallstatt and La Tène societies suggest that the dead were being prepared and equipped for life in another realm: they are placed in wagons or chariots and supplied with clothing, regalia, weapons, and feasting equipment. In his poem Pharsalia, Lucan contrasts Roman and Greek teachings about a ghostly, insubstantial life in the underworld with the druidic tenet that after death the soul goes to another realm as real and material as our own which existed somewhere else on this earth. Early Irish writers, both in scholarship and imaginative literature, also allude to belief in a land of the afterlife, separated from our realms by a formidable ocean.
The westernmost island off of the Beare Peninsula of southwestern Ireland, called Tech Dhuinn “the House of Donn,” is represented in Irish tradition as the portal into the afterlife for the dead. Donn appears to be a pre-Christian deity whose name means “Dark, Dusky, Brown.” This shadowy Irish figure has been connected to Caesar’s statement that the druids taught that the Gauls were descended from the god of the underworld (equivalent to the Roman god Dis Pater): this suggests that the Celts, like many other people, believed that their souls returned to the divine ancestral figure. We have already seen the theory that the name for the Celts originally meant “people of the Hidden One,” referring to this myth of origins and it is interesting in this regard that the Germanic name for the underworld and its presiding deity, “Hell,” shares the same root.
There are, however, several divergent conceptions of the Otherworld in Insular Celtic tradition, as evidenced by medieval texts. Besides that of lands, especially islands, across the sea or even under lakes or oceans, another is of a subterranean world reached via caves, burial mounds and fairy hills. Some Welsh tales describe a vast Underworld which mirrors the social and political order of our own, using the term Annwfn, which may originally mean “Un-World,” “Underworld,” or “Very Deep.” A Gaulish spell, discovered in an ancient sepulcher in 1983 and dated to the 1st century CE, contains the same term (in an earlier form). The contents, style, and use of the spell show strong Greek influences and it has been suggested that practices of Greek magic engendered a new Gallo-Brythonic conception of an underworld that continued to influence Insular Celtic ideas about the afterlife. Some notion of a subterranean Otherworld, or at least passage to it, may have been inevitable from the practice of votive sacrifice to chthonic deities in pits, lakes, rivers, and graves, as well as the existence of burial mounds from much earlier periods that were still revered by the inhabitants of the Iron Age even though they must have seemed strange and mysterious to them.
How did souls travel from this world to the next? A wide range of evidence from ancient Europe suggests the belief that the soul was ferried across the waters to its final destination. In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who took souls over the river Styx given the payment of a coin. Although it may simply be a projection of Greek myth onto Celtic territory, Plutarch claims that the people of Britain had a very similar belief about boatmen ferrying the souls of the dead across the ocean. Fragments of a golden diadem (above) from Moñes, Spain, depicting a curious parade of people, animals and hybrid creatures has been interpreted as the transformation “of warriors into heroes as they transit through water to the Otherworld.” At least one early Irish text hints at red horsemen who bring the souls of the dead to Tech Dhuinn and perhaps such horses were meant to propel the wagons and chariots accompanying the dead in some burials.
Alternative traditions held that the souls of the dead were conveyed by birds, or perhaps that souls turned into birds in order to reach the Otherworld. The Celtiberians are recorded as practicing excarnation as part of this belief system: the bodies of peoples (especially warriors) were left out for the vultures who brought their souls to paradise (Silius Italicus, Punica § 3.340). A mid-7th-century Irish scholar scorned “the laughable tales told by the druids, who say that their forebears flew through ages in the form of birds.” This symbolism is paralleled in many early Irish texts and may refer to the means of traveling to the Otherworld. In fact, the motif of the soul moving across many different bodies, including those of animals, across eons is a common one in early Irish literature.
Who was in the Otherworld of the afterlife? Although there are no surviving texts from the continent which comment on this, on the basis of comparisons with comparable societies and burial practices we can guess that both the gods and the ancestral dead were believed to inhabit the Otherworld. The earliest literary texts in Irish reflect exactly this idea.
All human societies recognized that time consists of cycles of the sun and moon; those societies which became dependent upon agriculture for their sustenance had to synchronize the various stages of their work (sowing seed, etc.), pastoralists have to send their livestock to pasture and bring them in, and even hunter-gatherers realize that the activities of animals are regulated by changes that come and go with the seasons. Many stone monuments erected during the Neolithic period by agriculturalists seem to be aligned to lunar and solar events, and given that many Celtic-speaking people were directly descended from those builders (at least in part) at least some of that knowledge and focus is likely to have been inherited by later generations (see the unit on Ireland below). The word for the moon is the same as that for month in many Indo-European languages, and is derived from the verb meaning “to measure.”
Caesar (§ 6.14) claimed that the druids studied the earth and the heavens and he also states (§ 6.18) that they began a new time cycle (a day, month or year) at the dark half and ended on the light half. While this sounded unusual to Romans, many other peoples defined time in the same way, and this reckoning was continued into the modern era by the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland. The Roman author Pomponius Mela (De Situ Orbis § 3.2.18), writing in the first half of the 1st century CE, stated that the druids “claim to know the size of the earth and the cosmos [and] the movements of the heavens and stars.”
Several fragments of an ancient bronze table were found near Villards d’Héria, France, in 1802, but not enough of it survived to understand what it was. In 1897, a large number of bronze fragments were found near a Gallic-Roman near Coligny, France (about 60 kilometres from the first discovery). It was quickly realized that this and the Villards d’Héria fragment were calendars. The Coligny Calendar (as it is commonly called) consists of sixteen columns of Gaulish words (written in Roman script), with a small hole next to each word where a peg can be inserted to mark the day, a design found in many time-keeping devices in the mediterranean world. The calendar works on the lunar cycle and restarts every five years, attempting to reconcile the twelve lunar months (of 29 or 30 days) with the solar year by inserting two special time periods during the five-year span. Both months and years are divided into halves, and month names are followed by either the word “MAT” or “ANM,” which are believed to indicate “good/lucky” or “bad/unlucky.” The Coligny Calendar is believed to date from about the 2nd century CE.
The word Samonios appears on the Coligny Calendar and contains the root Sam– inherited from Indo-European connoting “summer.” This term has a corresponding Goidelic form Samain, the festival which marks the end of the light half of the calendar and the beginning of a new year, a time pregnant with numinous energy when the dead would visit the living. It is also surely significant that archaeological evidence at many sites in the Celtic World during the Iron Age and Roman era indicates a surge of ritual activity at this time of the year.
Although the Irish adopted the seven-day week of the Roman calendar when it arrived with Christianity, the earliest texts reveal that they originally had a lunar calendar which contained three-, five-, ten- and fifteen-day units. The pagan Irish paid little attention to the stars – “the very idea of constellations was itself foreign” – even if they were acutely aware of the “relative position on the horizon of the rising sun and of the rising moon at various times of the year.” Such solar and lunar observations are necessary components in the calculations for the solstices and the equinoxes, as well as the quarter-days in between those dates around which Insular Celtic calendrical systems revolve. Early Irish scholars also clearly understood the influence of the moon in its phases upon the ocean tides. When Columbanus penned his bold letters to the Pope at the beginning of the seventh century defending Irish computations of Easter and comparing those of Gaul unfavorably, he may have speaking from a long tradition of calendrical computations.
The Celtic understanding of the movement of the sun set the precedent for the direction in which they moved when they performed all manner of tasks: Posidonius (quoted by Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists §4.36) tells us that the Celts followed actions in the same way “in which they worship the gods, always turning towards the right hand.” This association of clockwise with good luck and counter-clockwise with bad luck is strongly attested in medieval Celtic literature and persists to the present in Goidelic traditions.
The Human Head
The human head haunts much of the Celtic art of the Iron Age. The Celtic art historian Pierre Lambrechts went so far as to call the image of the human head the “national motif” of the Celts. Although animals are often given complete bodies in La Tène art, it is much more common for humans to only be represented as a head rather than in their entirety. The head plays an important role in much monumental art of the Celts of the continent and in the literature and traditions of the Insular Celts. Is there something special or unique about the head in the Celtic world-view that distinguished it from other body parts?
The motif of the disembodied human head is so ubiquitous in Celtic art and literature that many scholars refer to a “Celtic head cult.” Although it would not be inaccurate to characterize the head as “the most important bodily member, the very seat of the soul,” we must temper our understanding of the Celtic preoccupation of the head with the observation that the special associations of the head are not exclusively Celtic but are shared by many other peoples around the world. In Europe itself, the archaeological record shows that the head was afforded special treatment after a person’s death as far back as the Mesolithic Era.
The image of the head must have served different purposes in different contexts. Authors such as Posidonius (quoted in Diodorus Siculus, Library of History §5.29) describe how Celtic warriors collected the heads of enemies during wartime and there are definite depictions of this practice in Celtic art. One of the warrior-statues of Entremont in Gaul, for example, carved in the third century BCE, may depict an ancestor-warrior looming over enemies defeated by the Saluvii during the era that they were consolidating their power.
The archaeological evidence suggests that activities such as headhunting were not constant in the Iron Age but were subject to political conditions and social contexts (and Strabo tells us that it was practiced by northern peoples generally). Furthermore, not all representations of heads or skull remains could have been of enemies, for some of them did not belong to male warriors. We may also see evidence of ancestor cults or family relics in the preservation and display of the human head. It is also curious that there are so few depictions of the human head in Ireland or Britain before the Roman period. As Anne Ross notes, “It is, however, from Roman Britain, and under the influence of Roman provincial art, that the great majority of British cult heads stem.”
The Celts seem to have inherited a special appreciation for the number three from their Indo-European ancestors – an appreciation shared by many other peoples. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras, for example, called three the perfect number, as it is symbolic of harmony and completion, allowing for beginning, middle and end.
There are some examples of triplism in the structure of early Celtic society, such as the division of Gaul into three parts (Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War §1.1), the division of the Galatian peoples into three constituents (Strabo, Geography §12.5 and Pausanias, Description of Greece §10.19.6), equestrian fighting units of three (Pausanias, Description of Greece §10.19.11) and the division of sacred duties into three offices, namely bards, vates and druids (Strabo, Geography §4.4.4).
Hallstatt and La Tène art is full of geometrical forms and abstract representations. Triplet forms can be commonly found, such as the three-leaf tendrils on the top of sword sheaths and triskeles on decorative items from as early as the 5th century BCE. Triplism does not seem to dominate the symbolism of La Tène-era art as much as we might expect given medieval Insular Celtic tradition, however.
There are apparent examples of continuity in the iconography of triple figures among the Rémi of northeast Gaul. They produced many coins in the first century BCE, some of which figure three male heads in a row (see left). After the Roman conquest, they produced many representations of triple-headed gods, one of the best known of which is an anonymous bearded god. Without further evidence, especially of names, it is impossible to know if the triple-figures on the coins represent living leaders, ancestral figures, or gods, and what the connection is between these coins and the later portraits which seem to represent a deity (who has been equated with Mercury). The triple head is only one among many other motifs that appear on the coinage of the Rémi, however, such as the “solar horse” (the mythical horse that pulls the sun across the sky).
Taking a skeptical approach, we should ask whether triplism was an ancient and foundational pan-Celtic idea that survived into later eras, informing Romano-Celtic conceptions of supernatural beings and forces, or if some new symbolism had been absorbed or stimulated in one area after the Roman conquest and became more widespread thereafter. The representations of triune gods and goddesses in Romano-Celtic iconography does depart enough from Greco-Roman norms to indicate that some different conception of the divine informed them. The triune gods and goddesses, and beings with three heads, found in Celtic regions of Iberia would seem to strengthen a pan-Celtic claim. There are surprisingly few triple-headed carvings from pagan Ireland and Britain, however, and all of those in Britain indicate strong Gallo-Roman connections.
Triplism takes its most highly developed form in the literary and religious expressions of the medieval Insular Celts. Divine beings, especially goddesses closely associated with the landscape and sovereignty, are typically manifest in triplicate. Legal axioms, historical anecdotes and wisdom literature is commonly expressed in terms of triads. Whether this is the culmination of an ancient Celtic inheritance, or the unfolding of other influences, is not entirely clear.
Dualism, especially in the form of symmetrical figures, is also common in early Celtic art. Opposed heads, often with contrasting features, appear in Celtic art over a long time period and wide territory and seem to represent distinct states of being: youth and age, life and death, human and divine, etc. The number four is also implicit in Celtic art in such symbols as the four-spoked wheel, quartered circle, or four-legged swastika, all generally understood to be abstractions of the sun.
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