Celtic Culture



Celtic Mythology

Celtic mythology is the mythology of Celtic polytheism, apparently the religion of the Iron Age Celts. Like other Iron Age Europeans, the early Celts maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure.

 Bab Serp Tail

Among Celtic peoples in close contact with Ancient Rome, such as the Gauls and Celtiberians, their mythology did not survive the Roman empire. After their subsequent conversion to Christianity, and the loss of their Celtic languages and the taking up of the Latin language.

Ironically, it is mostly through contemporary Roman and Christian sources that their mythology has even been preserved. The Celtic peoples who maintained either their political or linguistic identities (such as the Gaels and Brythonic tribes of the British Isles) left vestigial remnants of their forebears' mythologies, put into written form during the Middle Ages.

Though the Celtic world, at its apex, covered most of Western Asia, the Middle East and western and central Europe, it was not politically unified. Nor was there any substantial central source of cultural influence or homogeneity. As a result of these disparities there was a great deal of variation in local practices of the Celtic religion(although certain motifs - for example, the god Lugh - appear to have diffused throughout the Celtic world).

Inscriptions to more than three hundred deities, often equated with their Roman counterparts, have survived. Of these most appear to have been genii locorum.

NOTE: In Roman mythology a "genius loci" was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted as a snake. In contemporary usage, "genius loci" usually refers to a location's distinctive atmosphere, or a "spirit of place", rather than necessarily a guardian spirit.

This meant "local or tribal gods" and few of these were widely worshipped. However, from what has survived of Celtic mythology, it is possible to discern commonalities which hint at a more unified pantheon than is often given credit.

The nature and functions of these ancient gods can be deduced from their names, the location of their inscriptions, their iconography, the Roman gods they are equated with, and similar figures from later bodies of Celtic mythology.

Celtic mythology is found in a number of distinct, if related, subgroups, largely corresponding to the branches of the Celtic languages.

Celts as Head Hunters

"Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world." - Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art.

The Celtic cult of the severed head is documented not only in the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tene carvings, but in the surviving Celtic mythology. The mythology is full of stories of the severed heads of their heroes and the saints who carry their decapitated heads. This includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who picks up his own severed head, after Gawain has struck it off, just as St. Denis carried his head to the top of Montmartre. Separated from the mundane body, although still alive, the animated head acquires the ability to see into the mythic realm.

Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting: "They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attached them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they handed over to their attendants and carried off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting.

They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold; thus displaying what is only a barbarous kind of magnanimity, for it is not a sign of nobility to refrain from selling the proofs of one's valour. It is rather true that it is bestial to continue one's hostility against a slain fellow man."

The Celts also believed that if they attached the head of their enemy to a pole, or fence, near their house then the head would start crying when the enemy was near.

The Celtic head-hunters revered the image of the severed head as a continuing source of great spiritual power. If the head is the seat of the soul, possessing the severed head of an enemy, honorably reaped in battle, added prestige to any warrior's reputation. According to tradition the buried head of a god or hero named Bran the Blessed protected Britain from invasion across the English Channel.

The Mythology of Ireland

The oldest body of myths is found in early medieval manuscripts from Ireland. These were written by Christians, so the formerly divine nature of the characters is obviously obscured.

The basic myth appears to be a war between two apparently divine races, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians, which forms the basis for the text Cath Maige Tuireadh (the Battle of Mag Tuireadh). There are also portions of the history-focused Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of Invasions). The Tuatha Dé represented the functions of human society such as kingship, crafts and war, while the Fomorians represented chaos and wild nature.

Irish Gods:

  • The supreme god of the Irish pantheon appears to have been The Dagda.
  • The Morrígan was a tripartite battle goddess of the ancient Irish Celts. Collectively she was known as the Morrígan, but her divisions were also referred to as Nemhain, Macha, and Badb (among other, less common names), with each representing different aspects of combat.
  • The widespread diffusion of the god Lugus (seemingly related to the mythological figure Lugh in Irish) in Celtic religion is apparent from the number of place names in which his name appears, occurring across the Celtic world from Ireland to Gaul.
  • Among these are the goddess Brigid (or Brigit), the Dagda's daughter; nature goddesses like Tailtiu and Macha; Epona, the horse goddess; and Ériu. Male gods included Goibniu, the smith god and immortal brewer of beer, as well as Angus Og, the god of love.

 The Mythology of Wales

Less is known about the pre-Christian mythologies of Britain than those of Ireland. Important reflexes of British mythology appear in the Four Branches of The Mabinogi, especially in the names of several characters, such as Rhiannon (‘the Divine Queen’), Teyrnon (‘the Divine King’), and Bendigeidfran (‘Bran [Crow] the Blessed’).

Other characters, in all likelihood, derive from mythological sources, and various episodes, such as the appearance of Arawn, a king of the Otherworld seeking the aid of a mortal in his own feuds, and the tale of the hero who cannot be killed except under seemingly contradictory circumstances, can be traced throughout Indo-European myth and legend.

The children of Llŷr (‘Sea’ = Irish Lir) in the Second and Third Branches, and the children of Dôn (Danu in Irish and earlier Indo-European tradition) in the Fourth Branch are major figures, but the tales themselves are not primary mythology.

Gaulish and other Mythology 

The Celts also worshipped a number of deities of which we know little more than their names. Classical writers preserve a few fragments of legends or myths that may possibly be Celtic.

Caesar’s comments on Celtic Mythology

The classic entry about the Celtic gods of Gaul is the section in Julius Caesar's Commentarii de bello Gallico (52-51 B.C; The Gallic War). In this he names the five principal gods worshipped in Gaul (according to the practice of his time, he gives the names of the closest equivalent Roman gods) and describes their roles.

Mercury was the most venerated of all the deities and numerous representations of him were to be discovered. Mercury was seen as the originator of all the arts (and is often taken to refer to Lugus for this reason), the supporter of adventurers and of traders, and the mightiest power concerning trade and profit.

Next the Gauls revered Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Among these divinities the Celts are described as holding roughly equal views as did other populations:

  • Apollo dispels sickness,
  • Minerva encourages skills,
  • Jupiter governs the skies, and
  • Mars influences warfare.

In addition to these five, he mentions that the Gauls traced their ancestry to Dis Pater, a Roman and Celtic god of the underworld, later subsumed by Pluto or Hades.

As typical of himself as a Roman of the day Caesar does not write of these gods by their Celtic names. Instead he uses the names of the Roman gods with which he equated them. This fact significantly confuses the chore of identifying these Gaulish gods with their native names within the Celtic mythologies.

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