Celtic deities

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The gods and goddesses of the pre-Christian Celtic peoples are known from a variety of sources, including written Celtic mythology, ancient places of worship, statues, engravings, cult objects and place or personal names.

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.[1]

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).[2] 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.[citation needed]

General characteristics[edit]

Evidence from the Roman period presents a wide array of gods and goddesses who are represented by images or inscribed dedications.[3] Certain deities were venerated widely across the Celtic world, while others were limited only to a single religion or even to a specific locality.[3] Certain local or regional deities might have greater popularity within their spheres than supra-regional deities. 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.[4]

Supra-regional cults[edit]

Among the divinities transcending tribal boundaries were the Matres, Cernunnos, 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 depiction as a triad in many parts of Britain, in Gaul and on the Rhine, although it is possible to identify strong regional differences within this group.[5]

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 a wide area, from Hadrian's Wall to Cologne and Nîmes.[6]

Local cults[edit]

It is sometimes possible to identify regional, tribal, or sub-tribal divinities. 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 in Gaul.[6] 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.[6]

Many Celtic divinities were extremely localised, sometimes occurring in just one shrine, perhaps because the spirit concerned was a genius loci, the governing spirit of a particular place.[6] 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 (though he also appears at Cockersand Moss in Cumbria). Two other British deities, Cocidius and Belatucadrus, were both Martial gods and were each worshipped in clearly defined territories in the area of Hadrian’s Wall.[6] There are many other gods whose names may betray origins as topographical spirits. Vosegus presided over the mountains of the Vosges, Luxovius over the spa-settlement of Luxeuil and Vasio over the town of Vaison in the Lower Rhône Valley.

Divine couples[edit]

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.[7]

Notable deity types[edit]

Antlered gods[edit]

Detail of the antlered figure holding a torc and a ram-headed snake depicted on the 1st or 2nd century BCE Gundestrup cauldron discovered in Jutland, Denmark.
Main article: Cernunnos

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"[8]), and a pair of identical inscriptions from Seinsel-Rëlent ("Deo Ceruninco"[9]). Figured representations of this sort of deity, however, are widespread; the earliest known was found at Val Camonica in northern Italy,[citation needed] 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.[2]

Healing deities[edit]

Main articles: Airmed, Belenus, Borvo, Brighid and Grannus

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’[citation needed], though other etymologies have been convincingly proposed[10]) 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”.[11] 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”.[11]

Goddesses of sacred waters[edit]

Main articles: Sulis, Damona and Sequana

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[edit]

Epona, 3rd century AD, from Freyming (Moselle), France (Musée Lorrain, Nancy)
Main articles: Epona and Macha

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 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[edit]

Main article: Matronae
Terracotta relief of the Matres, from Bibracte, city of the Aedui in Gaul

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.[7] Iconographically, Celtic mothers may appear singly or, quite often, triply; they usually hold fruit or cornucopiae or paterae;[2] 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 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.

Cult of Lugh[edit]

Main articles: Lugus, Lugh and Lleu
Image of a tricephalic god identified as Lugus, discovered in Paris

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.[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), Legnica in Poland and the county Louth in Ireland, derived from the Irish "Lú", itself coming from "Lugh". 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.[12] An episode in the Irish tale of the Battle of Magh Tuireadh is a dramatic exposition of Lugh's claim to be master of all the arts and crafts.[13] 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.[citation needed]

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.[2]

Lugh is said to have instituted the festival of Lughnasadh, celebrated on 1 August, in commemoration of his foster-mother Tailtiu.[14]

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).[11]

Cult of Taranis[edit]

Main article: 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[edit]

Teutates, also spelled Toutatis (Celtic: "(He of the tribe"), was one of three Celtic gods mentioned by the Roman poet Lucan in the 1st century,[15] 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.[2] 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[edit]

Main article: Esus

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

Gods with hammers[edit]

Main article: Sucellus

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 cauldron that was never empty and a huge club.

Gods of strength and eloquence[edit]

Main article: Ogmios

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.[citation needed] Ogham script, an Irish writing system dating from the 4th century AD, was said to have been invented by him.[16]

The divine bull[edit]

Main article: Tarvos Trigaranus
The relief of Tarvos Trigaranus on the Pillar of the Boatmen.

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[edit]

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

Table[edit]

This table shows some of the Celtic and Romano-Celtic gods and goddesses mentioned above, in Romanized form as well as ancient Gaulish, British or Iberian 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.

Interpretatio
romana
Gaulish/British Welsh Irish
Apollo Belenus
Borvo
Grannus
Beli Mawr  
Victoria Bodua   Badb
    Brân Bran
  Brigantia Brigid
  Cicolluis Cichol
  Donau[disambiguation needed] Dôn Danu
Bacchus Cernunnos Amaethon  
  Epona Rhiannon Macha
Vulcan Gobannos Gofannon Goibniu
Mercury Uiducus   Gwydion  
Mercury Lugus Lleu Lugh
Neptune   Manawydan Manannán
Apollo Maponos Mabon Maccan
  Matronae Modron  
Lamiae Matronae Modron Morrígan
Mars Nodens Lludd/Nudd Nuada
Hercules Ogmios Eufydd Ogma
Maia Rosmerta    
Hygieia Sirona    
Silvanus Sucellus   Dagda
Minerva Sulis
Coventina
Icovellauna
Sequana
   
Junones Suleviae    
Jupiter Taranis Taran Turenn
Mars Toutatis    
  Nemedus (Celtiberian)   Nemed
  Crouga (Celtiberian)   Crom Cruach
Mars Neton (Celtiberian)   Neit
Mars Cnabetius (Cenabetius)[17]    

References[edit]

  1. ^ Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 6:17-18
  2. ^ a b c d e f Paul-Marie Duval, Les dieux de la Gaule, Éditions Payot, Paris, 1993. ISBN 2-228-88621-1
  3. ^ a b Miranda J. Green. (2005) Exploring the world of the druids. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 26
  4. ^ Miranda J. Green. (2005) Exploring the world of the druids. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 27
  5. ^ Miranda J. Green. (2005) Exploring the world of the druids. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 27-28
  6. ^ a b c d e Miranda J. Green. (2005) Exploring the world of the druids. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 28
  7. ^ a b c 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.
  8. ^ Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises I (1985), pp.318-325.
  9. ^ L'Année Épigraphique 1987, no. 772.
  10. ^ Peter Schrijver, "On Henbane and Early European Narcotics", Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie vol.51 (1999), pp.17-45
  11. ^ a b c Miranda Green. 1986. The Gods of the Celts. Alan Sutton, Gloucs. ISBN 0-86299-292-3
  12. ^ Patrick K. Ford (ed/trans). 1977. The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-03414-7
  13. ^ Elizabeth A. Gray (ed/trans). 1982. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Irish Texts Society (Vol. LII), Naas, Co Kildare
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. c. 61-65. Bellum civile, Book I, ll.498-501. Online translation
  16. ^ George Calder, Auraicept na n-Éces, The Scholars Primer, being the texts of the ogham tract from the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow Book of Lecan, and the text of the Trefhocul from the Book of Leinster, ..., John Grant, Edinburgh 1917 (1995 repr.)
  17. ^ CIL XIII, 06572, CIL XIII, 04507, CIL XIII, 06455