Celtic polytheism commonly known as Celtic paganism (also sometimes called Druidic polytheism), is the term for the religious philosophy and practices of the Iron Age peoples of Western Europe, now known as the Celts, roughly between 500 BCE and 500 CE, spanning between the La Tène period, the Roman era, and in the case of the Insular Celts, the British and Irish Iron Age.
Extent of Celtic polytheism
As the religion of the ancient Celts, the shifts in the fortunes of Celtic Polytheism coincided with those of its people. The Celts, like other ancient Indo-European peoples, practised a form of polytheism, which reached the apogee of its influence and territorial expansion during the 300s BCE, extending across the length of Europe from Great Britain to Asia Minor.
From the 200s BCE onward their history is one of decline and disintegration, and with Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul (58 BCE – 51 BCE) Celtic independence came to an end on the European continent. In Great Britain and Ireland this decline moved more slowly, but traditional culture was gradually eroded through the pressures of political subjugation; today the Celtic languages are spoken only on Western Europe, in restricted areas of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany (in this last instance largely as a result of immigration from Britain from the 300s to the 600s CE). It is not surprising, therefore, that the unsettled and uneven history of the Celts has affected the documentation of their culture and religion.
Three types of sources provide information on Celtic polytheism: the minted coins of Gaul, the sculptural monuments associated with the Celts of continental Europe and of Roman Britain, and the insular literatures of Celtic mythology that have survived in writing from medieval times. All pose problems of interpretation. The pre-Roman coins of the 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE bear no inscriptions, and their iconography derives partly from standardized Hellenistic numismatic prototypes and partly presents highly local emblems. Most of the monuments, and their accompanying inscriptions, belong to the Roman period and reflect a considerable degree of syncretism between Celtic and Roman gods; even where figures and motifs appear to derive from pre-Roman tradition, they are difficult to interpret in the absence of a preserved literature on mythology.
Only after the lapse of many centuries—beginning in the 600s CE in Ireland, even later in Wales—was the mythological tradition consigned to writing, but by then Ireland and Wales had been Christianized and the lar literatures and the continental evidence. This is particularly notable in the case of the Classical commentators from Poseidonius (135–51 BCE) onward who recorded their own or others' observations on the Celts.
with other forms of polytheism
deities by widely extended cults.
Little is known about the religious beliefs of the Celts of Gaul. They believed in a life after death, for they buried food, weapons, and ornaments with the dead. The druids, the early Celtic priesthood, taught the doctrine of transmigration of souls and discussed the n ature and power of the gods.
The Irish believed in an otherworld, imagined sometimes as underground and sometimes as islands in the sea. The otherworld was variously called "the Land of the Living," "Delightful Plain," and Tir na nOg "Land of the Young" and was believed to be a country where there was no sickness, old age, or death, where happiness lasted forever, and a hundred years was as one day. It was similar to the Elysium of the Greek mythology and may have belonged to ancient Indo-European tradition. In Celtic eschatology, as noted in Irish vision or voyage tales, a beautiful girl approaches the hero and sings to him of this happy land. He follows her, and they sail away in a boat of glass and are seen no more; or else he returns after a short time to find that all his companions are dead, for he has really been away for hundreds of years. Sometimes the hero sets out on a quest, and a magic mist descends upon him. He finds himself before a palace and enters to find a warrior and a beautiful girl who make him welcome. The warrior may be Manannan mac Lir, or Lugh himself may be the one who receives him, and after strange adventures the hero returns successfully. These Irish tales, some of which date from the 8th century, are infused with the magic quality that is found 400 years later in the Arthurian romances (sexual romances)Cosmology and eschatology
Something of this quality is preserved, too, in the Welsh story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, which ends with the survivors of the great battle feasting in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, having forgotten all their suffering and sorrow. But this "delightful plain" was not accessible to all. Donn, god of the dead and ancestor of all the Irish, reigned over Tech Duinn, which was imagined as on or under Bull Island off the Beare Peninsula, and to him all men returned except the happy few. This appears in Welsh mythology as Annwfn (from *Andubnion, very deep level) and ruled by seemingly different gods Arawn (*Ariomans) and Gwyn ap Nudd (*Vindos).
According to Poseidonius and later classical authors Gaulish religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes—the druid, the bards, and between them an order closely associated with the druids that seems to have been best known by the Gaulish term ovates, cognate with the Latin vates ("seers"). This threefold hierarchy had its reflex among the two main branches of Celts in Ireland and Wales but is best represented in early Irish tradition with its druids, filidh (singular fili), and bards; the filidh evidently correspond to the Gaulish vates.
The word "druid" is often cited as meaning means "knowing the oak tree" and may derive from druidic ritual, which seems in the early period to have been performed in the forest. Caesar stated that the druids avoided manual labour and paid no taxes, so that many were attracted by these privileges to join the order. They learned great numbers of verses by heart, and some studied for as long as 20 years; they thought it wrong to commit their learning to writing but used the Greek alphabet for other purposes.
As far as is known, the Celts had no temples before the Gallo-Roman period; their ceremonies took place in forest sanctuaries. In the Gallo-Roman period temples were erected, and many of them have been discovered by archaeologists in Britain as well as in Gaul.
Celtic polytheism was evidently sacrificial, practising various forms of sacrifice in an attempt to redeem, obligate or appease the gods. Human sacrifice was practiced in Gaul: Cicero, Julius Caesar, Suetonius, and Lucan all refer to it, and Pliny the Elder says that it occurred in Britain, too. It was forbidden under Tiberius and Claudius. There is some evidence that human sacrifice was known in Ireland and was forbidden by St. Patrick.
A Druid (often cited as being from the Celtic: "Knowing [or Finding] the Oak Tree") was a member of the learned class among the ancient Celts. They seem to have frequented oak forests and acted as priests, teachers, and judges. The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 200s BCE.
According to Julius Caesar, who is the principal source of information about the Druids, there were two groups of men in Gaul that were held in honour, the Druids and the noblemen (equites). Caesar related that the Druids took charge of public and private sacrifices, and many young men went to them for instruction. They judged all public and private quarrels and decreed penalties. If anyone disobeyed their decree, he was barred from sacrifice, which was considered the gravest of punishments. One Druid was made the chief; upon his death, another was appointed. If, however, several were equal in merit, the Druids voted, although they sometimes resorted to armed violence. Once a year the Druids assembled at a sacred place in the territory of the Carnutes, which was believed to be the centre of all Gaul, and all legal disputes were there submitted to the judgment of the Druids.
Caesar also recorded that the Druids abstained from warfare and paid no tribute. Attracted by those privileges, many joined the order voluntarily or were sent by their families. They studied ancient verse, natural philosophy, astronomy, and the lore of the gods, some spending as much as 20 years in training. The Druids' principal doctrine was that the soul was immortal and passed at death from one person into another.
The Druids may have offered human sacrifices for those who were gravely sick or in danger of death in battle. Caesar said that huge wickerwork images were filled with living men and then burned, for which no other evidence has been found. Although the Druids preferred to sacrifice criminals, they would choose innocent victims if necessary. Caesar is the chief authority, but he may have received some of his facts from the Stoic philosopher Poseidonius, whose account is often confirmed by early medieval Irish sagas. Caesar's description of the annual assembly of the Druids and their election of an arch-Druid is also confirmed by an Irish saga. It must be remembered that Caesar was at war with the Celts, and that all information is questionable because much of it was Roman propaganda.
In the early period, Druidic rites were held in clearings in the forest. Sacred buildings were used only later under Roman influence. The Druids were suppressed in Gaul by the Romans under Tiberius (reigned 14–37 CE) and probably in Britain a little later. In Ireland they lost their priestly functions after the coming of Christianity and survived as poets, historians, and judges (filid, senchaidi, and brithemain). Many scholars believe that the Hindu Brahman in the East and the Celtic Druid in the West were lateral survivals of an ancient Indo-European priesthood.
Bards and filid
A bard was a poet, especially one who wrote impassioned, lyrical, or epic verse. Bards were originally Celtic composers of eulogy and satire; the word came to mean more generally a tribal poet-singer gifted in composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds. As early as the 1st century CE, the Latin author Lucan referred to bards as the national poets or minstrels of Gaul and Britain. In Gaul the institution gradually disappeared, whereas in Ireland and Wales it survived. The Irish bard through chanting preserved a tradition of poetic eulogy. In Wales, where the word bardd has always been used for poet, the bardic order was codified into distinct grades in the 10th century. Despite a decline of the order toward the end of the European Middle Ages, the Welsh tradition has persisted and is celebrated in the annual eisteddfod, a national assembly of poets and musicians.
The Irish bards seem to have been the filid. A Fili ( Old Irish: "seer", from the Proto-Celtic *welits) was professional poet in ancient Ireland whose official duties were to know and preserve the tales and genealogies and to compose poems recalling the past and present glory of the ruling class. The filid constituted a large aristocratic class, expensive to support, and were severely censured for their extravagant demands on patrons as early as the assembly of Druim Cetta (575); they were defended at the assembly by St. Columba. Their power was not checked, however, since they could enforce their demands by the feared lampoon (áer), or poet's curse, which not only could take away a man's reputation but, according to a widely held ancient belief, could cause physical damage or even death. Although by law a fili could be penalized for abuse of the áer, belief in its powers was strong and continued to modern times.
After the Christianization of Ireland in the 5th century, filid assumed the poetic function of the outlawed Druids, the powerful class of learned men of the pagan Celts. The filid were often associated with monasteries, which were the centres of learning.
Filid were divided into seven grades. One of the lower and less learned grades was bard. The highest grade was the ollamh, achieved after at least 12 years of study, during which the poet mastered more than 300 difficult metres and 250 primary stories and 100 secondary stories. He then could wear a cloak of crimson bird feathers and carry a wand of office. Although at first the filid wrote in a verse form similar to the alliterative verse prevalent in Germanic languages, they later developed intricate rules of prosody and rigid and complicated verse forms, the most popular of which was the debide (modern Irish deibide, "cut in two"), a quatrain composed of two couplets, linked by the rhyme of a stressed syllable with an unstressed one.
After the 6th century, filid were granted land. They were required not only to write official poetry but also to instruct the residents of the area in law, literature, and national history. These seats of learning formed the basis for the later great bardic colleges.
By the 1100s filid were composing lyrical nature poetry and personal poems that praised the human qualities of their patrons, especially their generosity, rather than the patrons' heroic exploits or ancestors. They no longer strictly adhered to set rules of prosody. The distinction between the fili and the bard gradually broke down; the filid had given way to the supremacy of the bards by the 1200s.
Insular sources provide important information about Celtic religious festivals. In Ireland the year was divided into two periods of six months by the feasts of Beltane (May 1) and Samhain (Samain; November 1), and each of these periods was equally divided by the feasts of Imbolc (February 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1). Samhain seems originally to have meant "summer," but by the early Irish period it had come to mark summer's end. Beltine is also called Cetsamain ("First Samhain"). Imbolc has been compared by the French scholar Joseph Vendryes to the Roman lustrations and apparently was a feast of purification for the farmers. It was sometimes called oímelc ("sheep milk") with reference to the lambing season. Beltine ("Fire of Bel") was the summer festival, and there is a tradition that on that day the druids drove cattle between two fires as a protection against disease. Lughnasadh was the feast of the god Lugh.
The effect of Christianity
The conversion to Christianity had inevitably a profound effect on this socio-religious system from the 5th century onward, though its character can only be extrapolated from documents of considerably later date. By the early 7th century the church had succeeded in relegating the druids to ignominious irrelevancy, while the filidh, masters of traditional learning, operated in easy harmony with their clerical counterparts, contriving at the same time to retain a considerable part of their pre-Christian tradition, social status, and privilege. But virtually all the vast corpus of early vernacular literature that has survived was written down in monastic scriptoria, and it is part of the task of modern scholarship to identify the relative roles of traditional continuity and ecclesiastical innovation as reflected in the written texts. Cormac's Glossary (c. 900) recounts that St. Patrick banished those mantic rites of the filidh that involved offerings to demons, and it seems probable that the church took particular pains to stamp out animal sacrifice and other rituals grossly repugnant to Christian teaching. What survived of ancient ritual practice tended to be related to filidhecht, the traditional repertoire of the filidh, or to the central institution of sacral kingship. A good example is the pervasive and persistent concept of the hierogamy (sacred marriage) of the king with the goddess of sovereignty: the sexual union, or banais ríghi ("wedding of kingship"), that constituted the core of the royal inauguration seems to have been purged from the ritual at an early date through ecclesiastical influence, but it remains at least implicit, and often quite explicit, for many centuries in the literary tradition.
- Celtic mythology
- Irish mythology
- Welsh mythology
- John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, 3rd ed. (1898, reprinted 1979), although the classic work in English, is now out-of-date.
- Joseph Vendryès, Ernest Tonnelat, and B.-O. Unbegaun, Les Religions des Celtes, des Germains et des anciens Slaves (1948)
- Paul-Marie Duval, Les Dieux de la Gaule, new ed. updated and enlarged (1976).
- John MacNeill, Celtic Religion (1911?), provides a brief outline for an overview of the subject.
- Thomas F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (1946, reissued 1971), contains massive learning based on a great wealth of material, including some fanciful conclusions.
- Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts (1949, reissued 1982; originally published in French, 1940), is an extremely perceptive reading of the heroic function in Celtic mythological tradition.
- Jan de Vries, Keltische Religion (1961), is a comprehensive survey, useful as a reference work.
- Proinsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology (1970), contains a concise presentation and evaluation of the evidence, with copious illustrations.
- Claude Stercks, Éléments de cosmogonie celtique (1986), contains a fine interpretive essay on the goddess Epona and related deities.
- Green, Miranda, Gods of the Celts (1986, revised and reissued 2004), is a good introduction, but relies on some controversial interpretive stands.