Celtic theology

Celtic theology

Evidence from the Roman period presents a bewildering array of gods and goddesses who are represented by images or inscribed dedications.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 26] Sorting these multifarious and divine beings into some kind of hierarchy is necessary, though not always easy, if one is to make any sense of the religious system in place in Celtic Europe. By examining the distribution of images and god-names, it is possible to make distinctions between deities who were venerated all over the Celtic world, those who were popular in more restricted regions - perhaps corresponding to tribal boundaries - and those who were linked to a specific locality, sometimes worshipped only at a single sanctuary. The establishment of patterns of frequency and distribution may point to the relative popularity of certain gods, but not necessarily to any order of importance. For example, in east-central Gaul, the local Burgundian healing goddess Sequana was probably more influential in the minds of her local devotees than the Matres, who were worshipped all over Britain, Gaul and the Rhineland.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 27]

Certain cults transcended tribal boundaries and were followed everywhere. Examples of universal divinities include the Matres, the sky-god and Epona, the horse-goddess, who was invoked by devotees living as far apart as Britain, Rome and Bulgaria. A distinctive feature of the mother-goddesses was their frequent appearance as a triad: they were perceived as a triple entity in many parts of Britain, in Gaul and on the Rhine. Although it is possible to identify strong regional differences between them. [Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 27-28]

The Celtic sky-god too 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 wide areas, from Hadrian’s Wall to Cologne and Nîmes.Miranda J. Green. (2005) "Exploring the world of the druids." London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 28]

Local deities

Regional divinities can sometimes be identified, perhaps especially associated with tribal and sub-tribal territories. Specific to the Remi of northwest Gaul is a distinctive group of stone carvings depicting a triple-faced god with shared facial features and luxuriant beards. In the Iron Age, this same tribe issued coins with three faces, a motif found elsewhere is Gaul. The inference is that a specific Remic divinity is represented. Another tribal god was Lenus, venerated by the Treveri. He was worshipped at a number of Treveran sanctuaries, the most splendid of which was at the tribal capital of Trier itself. Yet he was also exported to other areas: Lenus has altars set up to him in Chedworth in Gloucestershire and Caerwent in Wales.

Many Celtic divinities were extremely localised, sometimes occurring in just one shrine, perhaps because the spirit concerned was a genius loci personifying the natural balance of a particular place. In Gaul, over four hundred different Celtic god-names are recorded, of which at least 300 occur just once. Sequana was confined to her spring shrine near Dijon, Sulis belonged to Bath. The divine couple Ucuetis and Bergusia were worshipped solely at Alesia in Burgundy. The British god Nodens is associated above all with the great sanctuary at Lydney. Yet he appears at one other site, at Cockersand Moss in Cumbria. Two other British deities, Cocidius and Belatucadrus were both Martial gods and were each worshipped in a clearly defined territories in the area of Hadrian’s Wall. There are many other gods whose names betray their origins as topographical spirits. Vosegus presided over the mountains of the Vosges, Luxovius of the spa-settlement of Luxeuil and Vasio to whom belonged the town of Vaison in the Lower Rhône Valley.

Cults within Celtic polytheism

Antlered gods

A recurrent figure in Gaulish iconography is a cross-legged deity with antlers, sometimes surrounded by animals, often wearing or holding a torc. The name usually applied to him, Cernunnos, is attested only a few times, on a relief at Notre Dame de Paris (currently reading ERNUNNOS, but an early sketch shows it as having read CERNUNNOS in the 18th century), an inscription from Montagnac (αλλετ [ει] υος καρνονου αλ [ι] σο [ντ] εας, "Alleteinos [dedicated this] to Karnonos of Alisontia""Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises" I (1985), pp.318-325.] ), and a pair of identical inscriptions from Seinsel-Rëlent ("Deo Ceruninco" ["L'Année Épigraphique" 1987, no. 772.] ). Figured representations of this sort of deity, however, are widespread; the earliest known was found at Val Camonica in northern Italy,Fact|date=February 2007 while the most famous is plate A of the Gundestrup Cauldron, a 1st-century-BC vessel found in Denmark. On the Gundestrup Cauldron and sometimes elsewhere, Cernunnos, or similar figure, is accompanied by a ram-headed serpent. At Reims, the figure is depicted with a cornucopia overflowing with grains or coins.

Healing deities

Healing deities are known from many parts of the Celtic world; they frequently have associations with thermal springs, healing wells, herbalism and light.

Brighid, the triple goddess of healing, poetry and smithcraft is perhaps the most well-known of the Insular Celtic deities of healing. She is associated with many healing springs and wells. A lesser-known Irish healing goddess is Airmed, also associated with a healing well and with the healing art of herbalism.

In Romano-Celtic tradition Belenus (possibly from Celtic: "*belen-" ‘bright’Fact|date=February 2007, though other etymologies have been convincingly proposedPeter Schrijver, "On Henbane and Early European Narcotics", "Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie" vol.51 (1999), pp.17-45] ) is found chiefly in southern France and northern Italy. Apollo Grannus, though concentrated in central and eastern Gaul, also “occurs associated with medicinal waters in Brittany [...] and far away in the Danube Basin”. Grannus's companion is frequently the goddess Sirona. Another important Celtic deity of healing is Bormo/Borvo, particularly associated with thermal springs such as Bourbonne-les-Bains and Bourbon-Lancy. Such hot springs were (and often still are) believed to have therapeutic value. Green interprets the name Borvo to mean “seething, bubbling or boiling spring water”.

Goddesses of sacred waters

In Ireland, there are numerous holy wells dedicated to the goddess Brighid. There are dedications to ‘Minerva’ in Britain and throughout the Celtic areas of the Continent. At Bath Minerva was identified with the goddess Sulis, whose cult there centred on the thermal springs.

Other goddesses were also associated with sacred springs, such as Icovellauna among the Treveri and Coventina at Carrawburgh. Damona and Bormana also serve this function in companionship with the spring-god Borvo (see above).

A number of goddesses were deified rivers, notably Boann (of the River Boyne), Sinann (the River Shannon), Sequana (the deified Seine), Matrona (the Marne), Souconna (the deified Saône) and perhaps Belisama (the Ribble).

While the most well-known deity of the sea is the god Manannán, possible early Irish sea goddesses include Fand, her sister Lí Ban, and the mother-goddess of the Fomorians, Domnu.

Goddesses of horses

The horse, an instrument of Indo-European expansion, plays a part in all the mythologies of the various Celtic cultures. The cult of the Gaulish horse goddess Epona was widespread. Adopted by the Roman cavalry, it spread throughout much of Europe, even to Rome itself. She seems to be the embodiment of "horse power" or horsemanship, which was likely perceived as a power vital for the success and protection of the tribe. She has insular analogues in the Welsh Rhiannon and in the Irish Édaín Echraidhe (echraidhe, "horse riding") and Macha, who outran the fastest steeds.

The Welsh horse goddess Rhiannon is best known from The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales, in which she makes her first appearance on a pale, mysterious steed and meets King Pwyll, whom she later marries. She was accused of killing and devouring her infant son, and in punishment she was forced to act as a horse and to carry visitors to the royal court. According to another story, she was made to wear the collars of asses about her neck in the manner of a beast.

The Irish horse goddess Macha, perhaps a threefold goddess herself, is associated with battle and sovereignty. Though a goddess in her own right, she is also considered to be part of the triple goddess of battle and slaughter, the Morrígan. Other faces of the Morrígan were Badhbh Catha and Nemain.

Mother goddesses

Mother goddesses are a recurrent feature in Celtic religions. The epigraphic record reveals many dedications to the Matres or Matronae, which are particularly prolific around Cologne in the Rhineland. Iconographically, Celtic mothers may appear singly or, quite often, triply; they usually hold fruit or "cornucopiae" or ""; they may also be full-breasted (or many-breasted) figures nursing infants.

Welsh and Irish tradition preserve a number of mother figures such as the Welsh Dôn, Rhiannon (‘great queen’) and Modron (from Matrona, ‘great mother’), and the Irish Danu, Boand, Macha and Ernmas. However, all of these goddesses fulfill many roles in the mythology and symbolism of the Celts, and cannot be limited only to motherhood. In many of their tales, their having children is only mentioned in passing, and is not a central facet of their identity. "Mother" Goddesses may also be Goddesses of warfare and slaughter, or of healing and smithcraft.

Mother goddesses were at times symbols of sovereignty, creativity, birth, fertility, sexual union and nurturing. At other times they could be seen as punishers and destroyers: their offspring may be helpful or dangerous to the community, and the circumstances of their birth may lead to curses, "geasa" or hardship, such as in the case of Macha's curse of the Ulstermen or Rhiannon's possible devouring of her child and subsequent punishment.

Divine couples

One notable feature of Gaulish and Romano-Celtic sculpture is the frequent appearance of male and female deities in pairs, such as Rosmerta and ‘Mercury’, Nantosuelta and Sucellos, Sirona and Apollo Grannus, Borvo and Damona, or Mars Loucetius and Nemetona.

Cult of Lugh

According to Caesar the god most honoured by the Gauls was ‘Mercury’, and this is confirmed by numerous images and inscriptions. Mercury's name is often coupled with Celtic epithets, particularly in eastern and central Gaul; the commonest such names include Visucius, Cissonius, and Gebrinius.Jufer, Nicole & Thierry Luginbühl (2001). "Les dieux gaulois: répertoire des noms de divinités celtiques connus par l'épigraphie, les textes antiques et la toponymie." Paris: Editions Errance. ISBN 2-87772-200-7.] Another name, Lugus, is inferred from the recurrent place-name "Lugdunon" ('the fort of Lugus') from which the modern Lyon, Laon, and Loudun in France and Leiden in The Netherlands derive their names; a similar element can be found in Carlisle (formerly Castra Luguvallium) and Legnica in Poland. The Irish and Welsh cognates of Lugus are Lugh and Lleu, respectively, and certain traditions concerning these figures mesh neatly with those of the Gaulish god. Caesar's description of the latter as "the inventor of all the arts" might almost have been a paraphrase of Lugh's conventional epithet "samildánach" ("possessed of many talents"), while Lleu is addressed as "master of the twenty crafts" in the "Mabinogi".Patrick K. Ford (ed/trans). 1977. "The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales." University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-03414-7] An episode in the Irish tale of the Battle of Magh Tuiredh is a dramatic exposition of Lugh's claim to be master of all the arts and crafts.Elizabeth A. Gray (ed/trans). 1982. "Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired." Irish Texts Society (Vol. LII), Naas, Co Kildare] Inscriptions in Spain and Switzerland, one of them from a guild of shoemakers, are dedicated to Lugoves, widely interpreted as a plural of Lugus perhaps referring to the god conceived in triple form.Fact|date=February 2007

The Gaulish Mercury often seems to function as a god of sovereignty. Gaulish depictions of Mercury sometimes show him bearded and/or with wings or horns emerging directly from his head, rather than from a winged hat. Both these characteristics are unusual for the classical god. More conventionally, the Gaulish Mercury is usually shown accompanied by a ram and/or a rooster, and carrying a caduceus; his depiction at times is very classical.

Lugh is said to have instituted the festival of Lughnasadh, celebrated on 1 August, in commemoration of his foster-mother Tailtiu.R. A. Stewart Macalister (ed/trans). 1941. "Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland. Part IV." Irish Texts Society (Vol. XLI), Dublin.]

In Gaulish monuments and inscriptions, Mercury is very often accompanied by Rosmerta, whom Miranda Green interprets to be a goddess of fertility and prosperity. Green also notices that the Celtic Mercury frequently accompanies the Deae Matres (see below).Miranda Green. 1986. "The Gods of the Celts." Alan Sutton, Gloucs. ISBN 0-86299-292-3]

Cult of Taranis

The Gaulish Jupiter is often depicted with a thunderbolt in one hand and a distinctive wheel in the other. Scholars frequently identify this wheel/sky god with Taranis, who is mentioned by Lucan. The name Taranis may be cognate with those of Taran, a minor figure in Welsh mythology, and Turenn, the father of the 'three gods of Dana' in Irish mythology.

Cult of Toutatis

Teutates, also spelled Toutatis (Celtic: "god of the tribe"), was one of three Celtic gods mentioned by the Roman poet Lucan in the 1st century,Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. c.61-65. "Bellum civile", Book I, ll.498-501. [http://omacl.org/Pharsalia/book1.html Online translation] ] the other two being Esus ("lord") and Taranis ("thunderer"). According to later commentators, victims sacrificed to Teutates were killed by being plunged headfirst into a vat filled with an unspecified liquid. Present-day scholars frequently speak of ‘the "toutates"’ as plural, referring respectively to the patrons of the several tribes.Of two later commentators on Lucan's text, one identifies Teutates with Mercury, the other with Mars. He is also known from dedications in Britain, where his name was written Toutatis.

Paul-Marie Duval, who considers the Gaulish Mars a syncretism with the Celtic "toutates", notes that:

Cult of Esus

Esus appears in two monumental statues as an axeman cutting branches from trees.

Gods with hammers

Sucellos, the 'good striker' is usually portrayed as a middle-aged bearded man, with a long-handled hammer, or perhaps a beer barrel suspended from a pole. His companion, Nantosuelta, is sometimes depicted alongside him. When together, they are accompanied by symbols associated with prosperity and domesticity. This figure is often identified with Silvanus, worshipped in southern Gaul under similar attributes; Dis Pater, from whom, according to Caesar, all the Gauls believed themselves to be descended; and the Irish Dagda, the 'good god', who possessed a caldron that was never empty and a huge club.

Gods of strength and eloquence

A club-wielding god identified as Ogmios is readily observed in Gaulish iconography.In Gaul, he was identified with the Roman Hercules. He was portrayed as an old man with swarthy skin and armed with a bow and club. He was also a god of eloquence, and in that aspect he was represented as drawing along a company of men whose ears were chained to his tongue.

Ogmios' Irish equivalent was Ogma, who was impressively portrayed as a swarthy man whose battle ardour was so great that he had to be controlled by chains held by other warriors until the right moment.Fact|date=February 2007 Ogham script, an Irish writing system dating from the 4th century AD, was said to have been invented by him.Fact|date=February 2007

The divine bull

Another prominent zoomorphic deity type is the divine bull. Tarvos Trigaranus ("bull with three cranes") is pictured on reliefs from the cathedral at Trier, Germany, and at Notre-Dame de Paris. In Irish literature, the Donn Cuailnge ("Brown Bull of Cooley") plays a central role in the epic "Táin Bó Cuailnge" ("The Cattle-Raid of Cooley").

The ram-headed snake

A distinctive ram-headed snake accompanies Gaulish gods in a number of representations, including the horned god from the Gundestrup cauldron, Mercury, and Mars.


This table shows some of the Celtic and Romano-Celtic gods and goddesses mentioned above, in Romanized form as well as ancient Gaulish or British names as well as those of the Tuatha Dé Danann and characters from the "Mabinogion". They are arranged so as to suggest some linguistic or functional associations among the ancient gods and literary figures; needless to say, all such associations are subject to continual scholarly revision and disagreement. In particular, it has been noted by scholars such as Sjoestedt that it is inappropriate to try to fit Insular Celtic deities into a Roman format as such attempts seriously distort the Insular deities.

yncretism with other polytheistic systems

The "locus classicus" for the Celtic gods of Gaul is the passage in Julius Caesar's "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" ("The Gallic War", 52–51 BC) in which he names six of them, together with their functions. He says that Mercury was the most honoured of all the gods and many images of him were to be found. Mercury was regarded as the inventor of all the arts, the patron of travellers and of merchants, and the most powerful god in matters of commerce and gain. After him the Gauls honoured Apollo, who drove away diseases, Mars, who controlled war, Jupiter, who ruled the heavens, and Minerva, who promoted handicrafts. He adds that the Gauls regarded Dis Pater as their ancestor. [Julius Caesar, "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" [http://perseus.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Caes.+Gal.+6.17 6:17-18] ]

In characteristic Roman fashion, Caesar does not refer to these figures by their native names but by the names of the Roman gods with which he equated them, a procedure that greatly complicates the task of identifying his Gaulish deities with their counterparts in the insular literatures. He also presents a neat schematic equation of god and function that is quite foreign to the vernacular literary testimony. Yet, given its limitations, his brief catalog is a valuable witness.

The gods named by Caesar are well-attested in the later epigraphic record of Gaul and Britain. Not infrequently, their names are coupled with native Celtic theonyms and epithets, such as Mercury Visucius, Lenus Mars, Jupiter Poeninus, or Sulis Minerva. Unsyncretised theonyms are also widespread, particularly among goddesses such as Sulevia, Sirona, Rosmerta, and Epona. In all, several hundred names containing a Celtic element are attested in Gaul. The majority occur only once, which has led some scholars to conclude that the Celtic gods and their cults were local and tribal rather than national. Supporters of this view cite Lucan's mention of a god called Teutates, which they interpret as "god of the tribe" (it is thought that "teuta-" meant "tribe" in Celtic).Paul-Marie Duval, "Les dieux de la Gaule", Éditions Payot, Paris, 1993. ISBN 2-228-88621-1] The multiplicity of deity names may also be explained otherwise – many, for example, may be simply epithets applied to major deities by widely extended cults.Fact|date=February 2007


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