Celtic Spiritual Beliefs.
The following account of ‘Continental Celtic’ people and their spiritual beliefs and practices will offer substantiation from historical classical writers to the assertion that they were a ‘spiritual people’ in reverence of nature. It will consider the evidence of Linguists and archaeologists in the on-going examination as to the true spiritual identity of these ancient societies whose deities were venerated as supernatural powers of natural forces.
The Celts were primarily a ‘sun-worshiping’ group of people inhabiting much of Europe and Asia Minor in pre-Roman times. ‘Their culture developed in the late Bronze Age around the upper Danube, and reached its height in the La Tene culture (5th to 1st Centuries BC) before being overrun by the Romans and various Germanic peoples.’ A Celt is a native of any of the nations or regions in which Celtic languages were spoken. ‘The name Celt comes from the Latin Celtae and from the Greek Keltoi, in later use from French Celte ‘Breton’, taken as representing the ancient Gauls.
There are no first hand Celtic accounts of an individual’s religious belief, ‘Unfortunately no Celt left an account of his own religion, and we are left to our own interpretations, more or less valid, of the existing materials, and to the light shed on them by the comparative study of religions. (MacCullogh, 1911:1) To determine the spiritual or religious belief structures of the Celts it is important to explore their mythological and historical traditions.
The historical primary source for Celtic culture is its mythology, with its background in religion which is influenced by Gaulish beliefs, itself influenced by Romanesque ideals. By examining the mythological, hagiographical and poetic material found in sources such as medieval manuscripts, shrines and artefacts we can understand the spirituality of the Celts.
Modern European society has been formed by its early European roots which were influenced by the Roman Empire’s affect on the continental Celts. Contemporary festivals such as Halloween, formerly Samhain, and St. Bridget’s Day, St. Stephens Day and even St. Patrick’s Day are part of the Celtic religion. By examining specific international evidence we can better understand how life must have been for the Continental Celts living across Western Europe.
For our purpose we consider the modes of religious thought customary in the nations which, in course of time, were mainly characterised by their Celtic speech. To the body of knowledge relating to Celtic spirituality many contributions has been made.
The archaeological, historical and linguistic evidence can show us the religious beliefs and practices of the Continental Celts. Some of the earliest evidence of Celtic religious belief are found in Julius Caesar’s Interpretatio Romano; ‘The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites. This implies a belief in mystical existence.
Caesar added that they were extremely superstitious, “submitting to their Druids in all public and private affairs, and regarding it as the worst of punishments to be excommunicated and forbidden to approach the ceremonies of religion.” The geographer Strabo noted that the Celts believed in, ‘the indestructibility, which implies in some sense the divinity, of the material universe. (Rolleston, 1911:40)
Polybius makes adequate reference to Celtic warrior spirituality when he claimed they “stripped naked for the fight” (Rolleston, 1911:41) which implied they acknowledged the eventuality of death and were prepared to exit from this world in the same manner that they entered. Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Caesar endorses the thoughts of Strabo when he confirms that ‘untouched gold’ was used in temples and sacred places. (Rolleston, 1911:42)
Through these contemporary witnesses to Celtic culture it is evident that the Celts were a spiritual people. We can interpret from the number of Gods worshipped by the ancient tribes that they were polytheists. Furthermore, the practise of ‘Inscribed dedications’ was a custom whereby people used inscriptions to pledge allegiances to their Gods and Goddesses.
This was a common practice particularly after the Romans had come and invaded the area in which such inscriptions can be found. This is interesting because it further complicates the issue in that we now also need to understand the influence of Roman Religion, which, in turn gives some indication as to the influence of Roman religion on the Celts. With the Romans came literacy which empowered the written word and as a result these inscriptions began to appear. Sacred spots in the landscape included rivers and springs, which seemed to have great importance in the Celtic religion.
Sacred lakes and rivers were often associated with Goddesses; many of the rivers of Europe are given grammatically female names. For example, Coventina, Goddess of wells and springs, a water-nymph reclining on a leaf, her shrine contained a well or basin that contained donated coins, Sequina at the source of the River Seine near the Swiss Alps and flowing through Paris and into the English Channel, Boann the goddess of the River Boyne are just some examples of this ritual. (Chadwick, 1971:31) Historical accounts of the Druids as a spiritual and sophisticated class are prominently associated with Western Europe.
While archaeological evidence has been revealed relating to the religious beliefs of the Druids, “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.” (Hutton, 2009:73) It is widely believed that the Druids had specific sites for religious practise and worship and they named these locations ‘Nemeton’ (sacred place amongst the Oaks) which is related to the Gaelic words for ‘holy and ‘place’.
Some of our information comes from such sources as Pliny the Elder who writes about Druids and their worship of mistletoe and Oaks, besides discerning that the name ‘Druid’ is a derivative from “oak”, it was Pliny the Elder, in his “Naturalis Historia” (XVI, 95), who associates the Druids with mistletoe and oak groves: “The Druids…hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows provided it is an oak. They choose the oak to form groves, and they do not perform any religious rites without its foliage…” We find further reference to this in, “Ut dedisse Persis videri possit.” This might possibly mean, “That Persia might almost seem to have communicated it direct to Britain.”
Ajasson enumerates the following superstitions of ancient Britain, as bearing probable marks of an Oriental origin: the worship of the stars, lakes, forests, and rivers; the ceremonials used in cutting the plants Samiolus, Selago, and mistletoe, and the virtues attributed to the adder’s egg.” We therefore conclude that the sacredness of Oaks, from which roots blossoms and nourishes the mistletoe as an example of gifts from the gods and worshipped as such.
We also find great importance was given to bog lands and lakes which implied that natural water was extremely important to them. They often placed objects of religious significance into the water perhaps by way of returning a gift for the gifts given by water. (Other sacred elements were the Sky, the Sun – the wheel in the sky – and Lighting and Thunder). ‘Danu’ was an important God of water and the fertility it brings about. It is clear then that moisture and fertility went hand in hand and the Gods, such as Danu (The Danube), one of the more important Celtic Goddess’ was ‘Sequena’ (fast flowing one) and she was a Goddess of healing and water and often depicted standing in a boat.
The depth and dedication of the spirituality of the Continental Celts is evident by shrines and monuments constructed in devotion to the gods. It is significant that the Bronze Age worshipper’s concept of stone circles was one of the few traditions which continued into the Iron Age and it is not yet known the true purpose of Stone Circles. These stone circles have been found all over Western Europe; ‘Archaeologists suggest they could be some form of religious expression but there is no real evidence to prove or disprove this theory.
Gaulish and Brythonic Celts conducted numerous rituals in adoration of the sun or sky gods, tombs were built to face the sun and allow its light, at specific times, to enter, conceivably to remove the souls of the interred and take them to the next realm of existence. Such rituals can be traced back to Roman influences. Across Western Europe the Celts referred to sun Gods based on the Roman ‘Sol’, In Brittany he manifests himself as ‘Sul’. Nanto Suelta (Nantosuelta) in Gaulish religions she is a Goddess of Nature, the earth and fire. Her name means the ‘sun worn valley’. ‘The Reel dance has its roots in circular dancing sun ways to bless the sun. Poseidonius the Stoic, referring to the Celts, said, “At their feasts the servant carries around the wine from right to left. Thus they worship their gods turning to the right” The calendar was clearly influenced by Romans in that; although it was written in Gaulish it used the Roman alphabet. Romans had kept calendars and the Coligny Calendar is based on a Roman prototype, the ‘Lunisolar’ calendar was based on both the Moon and the Sun.
The months would go by the movements of the Moon but every two and half years they would put in an extra month and this would keep it on track. It seems, according to the calendar, that the first month was called ‘Samonios’ (Summer End) and if we are to interpret this correctly then we may conclude that the Solar year began in Halloween (October 31st to November 1st) which ties in well with Caesar’s idea that when the Celts celebrated time they celebrated the ‘dark’ before the ‘light’ (night before day – a festival began at sundown of a given day and end at sundown of the following day).
It follows then that if the day began with the dark half it is fair to conclude that the year began with the dark half beginning at Halloween. These influences on Celtic culture are the consequence of Roman inspiration. This evidence shows that the Continental Celts of Western Europe had religious minds drawn to contemplation of earth and its varied life. The Celts looked for ‘other worlds’ either beneath the earth or beyond the horizon, where the sun goes.
They were clearly devoted to religious ideas and further believed in the mortality of the soul. Archaeologists have demonstrated that objects buried with the dead imply that death was not the end of man. The inner soul may have been perceived as a living entity that survived physical death, burial or burning. ‘Sometimes this inner self was associated with the breath, whence, the Latin ‘anima’ meaning the soul, from the route an-, to breathe.’
Myth, legend and folklore proves to us that the ‘soul’ or spirit could take various forms and there is abundant testimony within these stories that beyond this world there is another, it’s entranceways to be found in water, forests, in the sky and the abodes of faeries and mystical creatures. Heaven, for them is a place of youth and beauty, of great treasures and called after the Roman mythological Elysium or Elysian Fields, the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous, still honoured in France, a place of Celtic roots, with Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Avenue of the Elysian Fields, in Paris. The preoccupation of the Celtic mind with deities of scenery, water expanses, forests, mountains and skies demonstrates the impress of nature on ‘mother-earth’ and her offspring more than that of the heavens. While modern religious thought places tremendous value on the benefits of the next world and how we must live to achieve this; for the Continental Celts, the evidence demonstrates the belief that the beauties of the next world can not be appreciated if the splendours of this world are not venerated.