Celtic animism


Celtic animism

The Celts were animists: they believed that all aspects of the natural world contained spirits, divine entities with which humans could establish a rapport.Miranda Green. (1992:196) "Animals in Celtic life and myth". London: Routledge. ISBN 0415050308] According to classical era sources, the Celts worshipped the forces of nature and did not envisage deities in anthropomorphic terms.Juliette Wood. ‘Introduction.’ In Squire, C. (2000). "The mythology of the British Islands: an introduction to Celtic myth, legend, poetry and romance". London & Ware: UCL & Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1-84022-500-9. Page 12-13] Deities undoubtedly formed a background to everyday life. Both archaeology and the literary record indicate that ritual practice in Celtic societies lacked a clear distinction between the sacred and profane in which rituals, offerings and correct behaviour maintained a balance between gods and man, and harnessed supernatural forces for the benefit of the group.

The pagan Celts perceived the presence of the supernatural as integral to their world. The sky, the sun, the dark places underground all had their spirits, life-forces and personalities.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 29] Every mountain, river, spring, marsh, tree and rocky outcrop was endowed with divinity. While Greek and Roman culture revolved around urban life, Celtic society was predominantly rural. The close link with the natural world is reflected in what we know of the religious systems of Celtic Europe during the late first millennium BC and early first millennium AD. As in many polytheistic systems, the spirits worshipped were those of both the wild and cultivated landscapes and their inhabitants. Celts focused upon features of the landscape; mountains, forests and animals. Divine powers associated with the fertility of humans, of livestock and of crops were objects of veneration. Tribal territories were themselves held sacred and the ground and waters which received the dead were imbued with sanctity and revered by their living relatives.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 24] Sanctuaries were sacred spaces separated from the ordinary world, often in natural locations such as springs, groves or lakes. Many topographical features were deified as gods: many divine names refer to specific locations or geographical features, a clear indication of how closely Celtic societies identified with place. Small thank offerings were placed in domestic storage pits while more elaborate deposits were left in specially dug ritual shafts and in lakes. These offerings linked the donor to the place in a concrete way, since complex and varied rituals involved the individual in personal contact with the sacred sites devoted to their gods. An image very different from the idea of druids administering a pan-Celtic religion.

Animal worship

The character and vitality of certain animal species seems to have been considered numinous. Certain spirits were very close to the animals with which they were associated: the names of Artio the ursine goddess and Epona the equine goddess are based on Celtic words for ‘bear’ and ‘horse’ Animals were perceived at the same time similar to and very different from humans. Certain creatures were observed to have particular physical and mental qualities and characteristics, and distinctive patterns of behaviour. An animal like a stag or horse could be admired for its beauty, speed or virility. Dogs were seen to be keen-scented, good at hunting, guarding and healing themselves. Snakes were seen to be destructive, fertile and have a curious habit of seeming regenerating themselves by sloughing their skin. Birds were keen-sighted and able to fly and leave behind the confines of the earth. Beavers were seen to be skillful workers in wood. Thus admiration and acknowledgment for a beast’s essential nature led easily to reverence of those qualities and abilities which humans did not possess at all or possessed only partially.

Tree worship

:"See Celtic tree worship"The Celts believed that trees had spirits and worshipped certain trees. Often it was considered that fairy-like animistic beings lived in them. The three most sacred trees to the Celts were the oak, the ash and the thorn.

Sanctity of hunting

Hunting deities whose role acknowledges the economic importance of animals and the ritual of the hunt highlight a different relationship to nature. The animal elements in half-human, antlered deities suggest that the forest and its denizens possessed a numinous quality as well as an economic value. For this reason they were deified as gods. Some scholars explain shape-shifting and magical motifs in terms of Celtic beliefs about rebirth and the afterlife, but it is more likely that such deities had a regenerative function. Attributes like fruit and grain imply fecundity, while animals such as snake and deer (who shed their skins and antlers) suggest cycles of growth.

Hunter-gods were venerated in Celtic Europe and they often seem to have had an ambivalent role as protector both of the hunter and the prey, not unlike the functions of Diana and Artemis in classical mythology. From Gaul, the armed deer-hunter depicted on an image from the temple of Le Donon in the Vosges lays his hands in benediction on the antlers of his stag companion. The hunter-god from Le Touget in Gers carries a hare tenderly in his arms. Arduinna, the eponymous boar-goddess of the Ardennes, rides her ferocious quarry, knife in hand, whilst the boar-god of Euffigneix in the Haute-Marne is portrayed with the motif of a boar with bristles erect, striding along his torso, which implies conflation between the human animal perception of divinity. Arawn of Welsh mythology may represent the remnants of a similar hunter-god of the forests of Dyfed.

As with many traditional societies, the hunt was probably hedged about with prohibitions and rituals. The Greek author Arrian, writing in the second century AD, said that the Celts never went hunting without the gods’ blessing and that they made payment of domestic animals to the supernatural powers in reparation for their theft of wild creatures from the landscape. Hunting itself may have been perceived as a symbolic, as well as practical, activity in which the spilling of blood led not only to the death of the beast but also to the earth’s nourishment and replenishment.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 30]

Weather worship

Meteorological patterns and phenomena, especially the sun and thunder, were acknowledged as divine and propitiated. Inscribed dedications and iconography in the Roman period show that these spirits were personifications of natural forces. Taranis’s name indicates not that he was the god of thunder but that he actually was thunder. Archaeological evidence suggests that the sun and thunder were perceived as especially potent. Inscriptions to Taranis the ‘Thunderer’ have been found in Britain, Gaul, Germany and the former Yugoslavia and the Roman poet Lucan mentions him as a savage god who demanded human sacrifice.

From the early Bronze Age, people in much of temperate Europe used the spoked wheel to represent the sun and, by the late Iron Age and Roman periods, solar deities were represented with wheel-symbols (see "sun cross"). The Romans imported their own celestial god, Jupiter, to Celtic lands and his imagery was merged with that of the native sun-god to produce a hybrid sky-deity who resembled the Roman god but who had the additional native solar attribute of the wheel.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 25] This Celtic sky-god had variations in the way he was perceived and his cult expressed. Yet the link between the Celtic Jupiter and the solar wheel is maintained over a wide area: altars decorated with the wheels were set up by Roman soldiers stationed at Hadrian's Wall, and also by supplicants in Cologne and Nîmes.

Water worship

The spirits of watery places were invoked as givers of life and as links between the earthly and the other world. Sequana, for example, seems to have embodied the River Seine at its spring source and Sulis appears to have been one and the same as the hot spring at Bath, not simply its guardian or possessor.

There is abundant evidence for the veneration of water by the Celts and indeed by their Bronze Age forebears. In the Pre-Roman Iron Age, lakes, rivers, springs and bogs received special offerings of metalwork, wooden objects, animals and, occasionally, of human beings. By the Roman period, the names of some water-deities were recorded on inscriptions or were included in contemporary texts. The ancient name for the River Marne was Matrona ‘Great Mother;’ the Seine was Sequana; the Severn, Sabrina; the Wharfe, Verbeia; the Saône, Souconna, and there are countless others. Natural springs were foci for healing cults: Sulis was invoked as a healer at Aquae Sulis and the goddess Arnemetia was hailed as a healer at Aquae Arnemetiae. Nemausus, for example, was not only the Gallic name for the town of Nîmes but also that of its presiding spring-god. He had a set of three female counterparts, the Nemausicae. In the same region, the town of Glanum possessed a god called Glanis: an altar from a sacred spring is inscribed ‘to Glanis and the Glanicae’.

Notes

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