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The Gods of the Celts
By Miranda Green
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Miranda Green
All rights reserved.
The Celts and Religion
THE NATURE OF THE EVIDENCE
The nature of our information about the Celts and their religion comes from a number of different sources, all of which have to be treated with a degree of caution, for reasons which will become apparent. The evidence is composed first of contemporary literature written, however, not by the Celts themselves who had no tradition of a written language, but by their Mediterranean neighbours. Second, there is archaeological material pertaining to the pre-Roman (which I term 'free Celtic') and Romano-Celtic world. Third, there exist vernacular written sources in Irish and Welsh. The problem is that none of these sources comes under the category of direct information. That would only be the case if the Celts had written in detail about themselves. Every piece of Graeco-Roman and vernacular literature is in a very real sense second-hand: first, because comments were made by an alien people far removed in cultural terms from the object of their remarks; second, because the post-Roman literature is separated spatially and temporally from the Celts of the later first millennium BC and the Roman period. The evidence of archaeology is at best incomplete and ambiguous; at worst, it is misleading and confusing. The survival (or lack of it) of the evidence is one problem; its interpretation is another. As Piggott so rightly points out there is great difficulty in interpreting – especially in the area of religious beliefs – by archaeology alone; any attempt at an explanation of Celtic religion must at best be extremely speculative – a construction rather than a reconstruction.
The evidence of archaeology for the prehistoric Celtic period (roughly sixth–first century BC depending on geography and the timing of the Roman conquests) may be divided into that of cult-sites including votive/ritual deposits and evidence of sacrifice, and shrines and natural features; burial rites; and iconography, including pre-Roman coins. During the Romano-Celtic period, evidence is augmented by inscriptions, an increasing number of substantial religious structures and a vastly increased iconography – mainly in stone. Sometimes archaeological and written sources are in concert but frequently they conflict, as we will see later, and this makes for difficulties. Of the different kinds of archaeological evidence, some may be more unequivocal in terms of religious interpretation than others. Inferences may be made about cult activity on the ground in the form of suggested shrines and votive deposits – but since we have no dedications to the gods in the free Celtic period, we can only argue as to the likelihood of ritual function from the seemingly irrational nature of such material. For instance, we may infer that some later Bronze Age hoards may have a ritual purpose, perhaps because the contents have been deliberately and carefully laid out, as at Appleby, Lincs. or because there is evidence of ritual breakage. Similarly, it is possible to infer that certain structures, as occur in such pre-Roman fortified settlements as Danebury, Maiden Castle and South Cadbury, may be sanctuaries, since they do not fit into any patterns of secular activity.
Iconography in Celtic art likewise conveys ambiguity in terms of purpose. In some instances, like the few pieces of Hallstatt or La Tène-period, figure-sculpture from Württemberg and the Rhineland, it is fairly evident that religous personages are being represented. But where, as on most pieces of Celtic metalwork, human or animal figures are part of an overall decorative design, it is much less easy to be sure of anything other than ornamentation. It is worthwhile here to look in slightly more detail at Celtic art and iconography to examine the forms in which possible evidence for deity-representation are present. Figural bronzework of a possible religious character occurs, in non-Mediterranean Europe, in the later homelands of the Celts, from at least the later second millennium BC. The Danish Trundholm 'sunchariot' (strictly speaking outside our geographical area) with its solar disc and horse-team, dates to around 1300 BC. From the twelfth century BC, small in-the-round bronze water-birds appear in Central Europe and seem to possess some form of talismanic significance. In the later Urnfield period repeated motifs on sheet-bronze include aquatic birds, sun and ship-symbols in association. Early Celtic art really begins with the rich burials of the Hallstatt trader-knights. Birds, horses and cattle appear on bronzework; and one may point to the unique gold bowl from Altstetten, Zürich, which may be a cult-vessel decorated with sun, crescent-moon and beasts. La Tène metalwork is predominantly decorative as we have seen but it is a matter of opinion as to whether the, sometimes grotesque, faces which peer out from abstract and stylised foliage-designs on bracelets, like the gold one from Rodenbach with flowing Celtic moustache, or the bronze example from la Charne, Troyes have any religious significance. Megaw argues that La Tène art employs iconography which endows even the simplest items with symbolism (Megaw 1970, 38). Whilst Britain is less oriented towards humans and animals in its art, the later La Tène material is more definitely representative, both in insular and continental contexts. In Denmark, Celtic cauldrons from Brå and Rynkeby, were both probably votive offerings and quite possibly originally the possessions of priests. The latter dates to the first century BC and is ornamented with a human head and ox-heads. Buckets like those from Aylesford, Swarling and Marlborough bear human heads which presumably have symbolic significance. The Witham Shield depicted a boar-motif, albeit stylised but unmistakably an isolated boar-figure. The iron fire-dogs found in tombs of the immediately pre-Roman period, like those from Barton, Cambs., bear unequivocal bull-motifs. On the Continent, figural bronzework becomes relatively common in the immediate pre-Roman period: boar-figurines are plentiful, illustrated by the large example from Neuvy-enSullias; and human bronze figures are not unknown – as for instance the cross-legged god from Bouray. Before we leave metalwork, we should look briefly at pre-Roman Celtic coinage, since this sometimes portrays figural representations. Allen argues that such items may well have a symbolic function simply because their primary purpose was as largesse and as a gauge of wealth. He rightly points out that in terms of an art-form, coins stand apart from the mainstream because of limitations imposed both by size and mass-production; indeed, from the middle La Tène period, coins were issued by the million. What is of especial interest is the tracing of iconographic links between coins and other Celtic religious art. An example of this is the coins of the Aulerci Eburovices of the Evreux region whose motifs link closely with the sculpture of man and boar from Euffigneix. The coins show a boar-motif superimposed on the neck of an anthropomorphic representation and the stone depicts a torced human figure with a boar carved along its torso. (Allen 1976a and 1980).
Pre-Roman Celtic stone iconography is rare. Two main continental clusters exist – an early group in Germany and a somewhat later set (fourth–second century BC) far away in Provence. One of the earliest Celtic figures is from a late Hallstatt tumulus at Hirschlanden, north-west of Stuttgart, where, possibly originally positioned at the summit of the mound, is a huge sandstone figure dating to the end of the sixth century BC and wearing a helmet, torc, belt and dagger. Also from Germany are a janiform (double-faced) pillar from Holzerlingen, whose heads are horned, and stone heads from Heidelberg and in relief on the Pfalzfeld Pillar. From further east comes a moustached, very Celtic-looking head from Mecké Zehrovice in Czechoslovakia.
The southern French material is especially interesting partly in the amount and variety of sculpture present, but also in the fact that a number of cultural/ethnic forces were at work. Fortified oppida in this area belonged to Celtic tribes having associations on the one hand with the Ligurians of south-eastern France and with Greek colonists from Marseilles, on the other. There was certainly Greek influence in the establishment of built shrines and in the use of stone depictions, but the style and content of the iconography is undeniably Celtic. For purposes of this introductory survey it will be sufficient to look briefly at two key sites – Entremont and Roquepertuse. Entremont was the capital of the Saluvii, sacked by Rome in 123 BC. The shrine stood on the highest ground and possessed limestone pillars with incised carvings of human heads, and other sculptures mostly again associated with disembodied heads. At the cliff-sanctuary of Roquepertuse, located not far away, three stone pillars formed the portal to the shrine. These columns had niches containing human skulls, and a great stone bird stood poised on the cross-beam. Squatting warriors, one bearing a Celtic torc, and a Janus-head held in the beak of a huge bird, are among the repertoire of this southern Gaulish mountain-temple. It is probable that most of the sculptures in the Provençal group date from the fourth–second centuries BC, with a floruit perhaps during the third century.
In pre-Roman Celtic iconography of the La Tène period as a whole, figure-sculpture is usually relatively simple and human and animal forms are subservient to the overall design especially in metalwork, as in the Waldalgesheim bronzes but also exemplified by the Pfalzfeld stone pillar where human heads present a fluid, stylised appearance entirely in keeping with the surrounding scrollwork pattern. A representative style did not fully develop until the period of Roman rule which stimulated figural portrayal, albeit largely ignoring the 'heavy hand of Roman classicism'. Romano-Celtic stone iconography, influenced by Roman art-formulae but exhibiting religious forms and themes alien to the Mediterranean world, demonstrates that before the conquest there must have existed local and tribal gods, each with a name (four hundred different Celtic gods are named on Romano-Celtic inscriptions) and each with specific qualities. Indeed, some non Graeco-Roman symbols appearing in the Roman period are known before – for example the horned head exhibited on the Holzerlingen sculpture, and the emphasis on human heads and animals. We will see in later chapters that isolation of iconographic types during the Romano-Celtic period is one of the best ways of classifying cult-objects, even though this must necessarily contain an element of arbitrariness.
Before we leave iconography, the use of wooden sculptures should be mentioned. Pre-Roman figure-carving seems sparse indeed when we look at the medium of stone. But the chance survival in waterlogged conditions, as at the Seine sanctuary near Dijon, shows that there was a tradition of pre-Roman figure-sculpture not confined to the few stone pieces mentioned. This is of particular note when we consider the passage of Lucan where the presence of wooden effigies to the gods in a Gaulish sanctuary is specifically mentioned.
The Evidence of Literature
As commented upon above, two kinds of literary record exist for the Celtic world. Graeco-Roman and vernacular Celtic. The Celtic world and its customs – including religion – was discussed and described in varying detail in writings of Mediterranean authors, the main ones being Caesar, Strabo, Pomponius Mela, Pliny, Athenaeus, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Diodorus Siculus, Ammianus Marcellinus and Lucan. Four of these writers base their evidence (acknowledged or unacknowledged) upon earlier but lost writings of Posidonius: Strabo (63 BC–AD 21), Diodorus (writing circa 60–30 BC), Caesar (in the mid-first century BC) and Athenaeus (circa AD 200). These writers are in general more useful and detailed about Druids and ritual than about the gods themselves. For instance, Caesar speaks as if the Celts' deities were identical with those of Rome and gives them Roman names, whilst Lucan (second century AD) talks of three Celtic gods – Esus, Teutates and Taranis – as if they were really important, a suggestion not supported by epigraphy which names these gods very infrequently. Classical writers have to be used with caution; they are biased by what interested them, by choice or chance of recording and by cultural separation, ignorance and consequential misinterpretation. Caesar on the Druids, for instance, must be seen in the light of his deliberate embellishment of an alien priesthood for politico-propaganda purposes. However, most Celtic ritual, alien though it was in detail, was explicable to the Roman mind, for Mediterranean peoples too were fettered by the concepts of correct and contractual appeasement and propitiation. Only weird and obscene rites – head-hunting, human sacrifice, divination by ritual murder – were curious and distasteful enough to be commented upon in detail. Where classical writers are particularly valuable is precisely in areas where their evidence marries with archaeological data: for instance both demonstrate the existence of human sacrifice and of head-collection. With deities themselves there is less comfort. The vast wealth of iconographic evidence for Celtic gods during the Romano-Celtic period is a subject upon which Graeco-Roman authors are vitually silent.
The other major body of literature is itself Celtic, so it does not suffer the cultural alienation of classical sources. However, it brings with it its own set of problems based partly on temporal separation and partly on its being specific to the fringes of the Celtic world during the thousand years (fifth century BC–fourth century AD) of pagan celticism. As we have seen, there are no indigenous literary references to the La Tène or even the Roman period. There is a danger even where Gaulish archaeological evidence appears to match the insular data since the two types of source are separated by at least several centuries in recording. The Irish evidence may sometimes be specific to Ireland: for example, the religious festivals of Samain and Beltine are related to stock-rearing and pastoralism, not necessarily relevant to lowland Britain and Gaul. We have to bear such constraints in mind when assessing the vernacular material. When Britain and Gaul were under Roman rule, Ireland possessed a heroic society, basically prehistoric-Celtic in terms of developmental stage, whose exploits are discussed in ballads and poems of which the earliest began to be written down sometime in the eighth century AD. For our purposes the group of prose tales known as the Ulster Cycle is of most use. These describe in epic form a series of events pertaining to a specifically Homeric-type heroic, aristocratic, warlike and hierarchical society. Jackson sees this as definitely related to Iron Age Ireland, though Champion wonders if these tales might not be conscious imitation of Homer in early Christian times. Archaism is evident both in the political status of Ulster and in the political structure, customs and material culture described, which all apparently belong to a period some centuries earlier than the time at which they were first written down. The stories centre around the King of Ulster and his followers at a time when Ulster was a large and powerful kingdom with its capital at Emain Macha near Armagh and whose over-king was Conchobar. The opponents of Ulster were the Confederacy of the rest of Ireland led by Ailill of Connaught and his warlike and dominant queen Medb. The main activities appear to have been fighting, cattle-raiding and feasting. The proof that the background to these tales was earlier than the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century AD is based on a number of arguments. By the fifth century, the whole political framework of Ireland had altered: by now Ulster was much smaller and insignificant, its greatness having been smashed by the family of Niall (who died in about AD 404). Thus events in the Ulster Cycle are arguably older than this change. Likewise, though Christianity was established in the fifth century, the heroes in the stories swear not by God but by the gods of their tribes. Jackson dates the formulation of the body of narrative material recorded around the third or fourth centuryAD embodying tradition going back perhaps to the second century BC; thus the Ulster Cycle would describe events in late La Tène Ireland. But doubt has recently been cast on this terminus post quem for Celtic culture to Ireland. Champion argues that the society described could date much earlier than the second century BC.
Excerpted from The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green. Copyright © 2011 Miranda Green. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Celts and Religion,
2 Cults of Sun and Sky,
3 Fertility and the Mother-Goddesses,
4 War, Death and the Underworld,
5 Water-Gods and Healers,
6 Animals and Animism,
7 Symbolism and Imagery in Celtic Cult Expression,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a book by a scholar for scholars. The style is stilted even by the normally-stilted standards of scholarly style. The book at times reads as if it were - and it may be - the complete list of artifacts and written references from the period that have anything whatsoever to do with Celtic gods and religion in the millennium around the Year One. If scholarship is what you wanted, this is your book. If you just thought maybe you might want to become a Druid, go somewhere else.