The following is a synopsis of Chapters 1 and 2 from ‘Celtic Mythology’ (Geddes & Grosset, 1999). I have extracted some of the key points in relation to the Irish Celts.
Gerard J. Hannan.
The Celts are much less well known to us than the Greeks and the Romans were although theirs was a great civilisation in its own way. The Celts were not empire builders, they were a tribal society. It is a problem that there is a serious lack of contemporary written history or literature in relation to the Celts. They had the ability to write but never really bothered to do so and it has been suggested that writing was not part of their social or religious culture and that their Druids or high priests forbid them to write things down.
Because of this, modern historians rely very much on oral tradition. Perhaps this is why the culture is rich in marvellous legends and stories handed down by word-of-mouth and as such are subject to variation. Archaeology has helped historians to understand the Celts.
It is rather fortunate that because the Celts believed that a dead person travelled to other worlds and should be accompanied by his or hers earthly possessions such as jewellery, clothing and valuables that we are left with some significant information about the culture. What the Celts have left us is positive evidence to the reality that theirs was an advanced culture.
Ireland’s earliest legendary and poetic records are of great interest and value. These records influenced the destiny of the Celts that created them and indeed the destiny of Ireland. In the period in which they were still fresh, belief and pride in them were powerful enough to bring scattered tribes together into Confederation. Furthermore they give inspiration to sculptors and poets to produce an art and literature unsurpassed, if not unequalled, by any other age or race. When the glory of the Celtic age had faded and her people had entered into the modern world they had left behind them a significant account of their culture for modern archaeologists.
Mythology is vital to literature. Celtic mythology has little of the heavy crudeness that repels one in Germanic and Scandinavian stories. It is as beautiful and graceful as the Greek and, unlike Greek, which is the reflection of a Mediterranean climate quite different from our temperate zone, it is our own. Gods should, surely, seem the inevitable outgrowth of the land they move in. The Celtic gods and heroes are the natural inhabitants of the Irish landscape, not seeming foreign and out of place in a scene where there is no vine or olive but shading in with our home grown Oak and Bracken, gorse and heath.
In the legend haunted Ireland, the Hills and Dales still hold memories of the ancient gods of the ancient race. There are regions once mysterious and romantic that the Celts held to be the homes of gods or outposts of other worlds. In Ireland, there is scarcely a place that is not connected in some way with the traditional exploits of the Red Branch champions or of Fionn and his mighty men. But the old deities are still remembered, dwindled into fairies perhaps but keeping the same attributes and often the same names. Many of these deities live on in modern culture as, for example, long dead saints of the early churches of Ireland. Their wonderful attributes and adventurers are in many cases only those of their original namesakes, the old gods, told afresh. And they still lived on in another more potent way. They have become a significant part of modern literature and their influence is immense, their primary poetic impulse is still resonant in Irish literature, playing a particularly strong part in works by 19th-century poets and writers. The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits which haunted the waves and streams appear again as kings in the Irish annals or as saints and hermits. To trace the Irish kings and saints back to ‘elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits that haunted the woods and streams’ of Celtic romanticism is not an impossible stretch of the imagination.
The fabled deeds of St Patrick are embellished by romantic writers. These writings are contained in parchment manuscripts long preserved from destruction in great Irish houses and monasteries. Only during the 19th century have they been brought to light, copied and translated by patient scholars who grappled with the long obsolete dialects in which they were transcribed. Many of these volumes are curious miscellanies. Usually a single record of a great house or monastic community, everything was copied into it that the scholar of the family or brotherhood thought to be worth preserving. Hence they contain diverse material. There are translations of portions of the Bible and of the classics, lives of famous saints, together with works attributed to them; poems and romances of which, under a thin disguise, the old Gaelic gods and heroes; together with treatises on all the subjects then studied – grammar, prosody, law, history, geography, chronology and genealogies of important chiefs.
The majority of these documents were put together during the period that, roughly speaking, lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 16th century. It was a time of literary revival after the turmoil of the previous epoch. In Ireland, the Norsemen, after long ravaging, had settled down peacefully and rendered the country comparatively quiet. The scattered remains of history, lay and ecclesiastical, of science and of legend were gathered together.
Of the Irish manuscripts, the earliest, and, perhaps the most important, on account of the great store of ancient Gaelic mythology which, in spite of its dilapidated condition, it still contains, is in the possession of the Irish Academy. Unfortunately, it is reduced to a fragment of 138 pages, but this remnant preserves a large number of romances relating to the old gods and heroes of Ireland. Among other things, it contains a complete account of the epic saga called the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, the ‘raiding of the cattle of Cooley’, in which the hero, Cuchulainn, performed his greatest feats. This manuscript is called The Book Of The Dun Cow, from the tradition that it was copied from an earlier book written on the skin of a favourite animal belonging to St Ciaran, who lived in the seventh century. An entry on one of its pages reveals the name of its scribe, one Maelmuiri, whom we know to have been killed by robbers in the church of Clonmacnois in the year 1106.
Far more voluminous and only a little less ancient is the book of Leinster, which is said to have been compiled in the early part of the 12th century by Fionn Mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare. This also contains an account of Cuchulain’s mighty deeds, which supplements the older version in the Tain Bo Cuailgne. Somewhat less important from the point of view of the student of Gaelic mythology: the Book Of Ballymote and the Yellow Book Of Lecan, belonging to the end of the 14th century, and the Books Of Lecan and of Lismore, both attributed to the 15th century. Besides these six great collections, there survive many other manuscripts that also contain ancient mythical lore. In one of these, dating from the 15th century is to be found the story of the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, or Moytura, fought between the gods of Ireland and enemies, the Formorii, or demons of the deep sea. Other ancient manuscripts found in Scotland corroborate these Irish documents, add to the Cuchulain saga and make a more specialist subject of the other heroic cycle, that which relates the no less wonderful deeds of Fionn, Oisin and the Fianna. They also contain stories of other characters that are more ancient then either Fionn or Cuchulain, these are the Tua De Danaan, the God tribe of the ancient Gaels. The native literature bearing upon the mythology of Ireland may be attributed to a period that lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 16th. This day’s marks the final amalgamation of the contents of the manuscript into the form in which they now exist without bearing at all upon the time of their authorship. As they are copies of ancient poems and tales from much older manuscripts, these books do not fix the period of the original composition of their contents. This has been proved both directly and inferentially. In some instances as with the Book of the Dun Cow the dates of authorship are actually given. In others, we may depend upon evidence that, if not quite so absolute, is nearly as convincing. Even where the writer does not state that he is copying from older manuscripts, it is obvious that this must have been the case from the glosses in his version. The scribes of the earlier Gaelic manuscripts very often found, in the documents from which they themselves were copying, words so archaic as to be unintelligible to the readers of their own period. To render them comprehensible, they were obliged to insert marginal notes that explained these obsolete words by reference to other manuscripts more ancient still. Often the mediaeval copyists have ignorantly moved these notes from the margin into the text, where they remain, like philological fossils, to give evidence of previous forms of life. The documents from which they were taken have perished, leaving the mediaeval copies as their sole record. The ancient legends of Ireland may not have been mere inventions of scholarly monks in the middle Ages. Circumstantial evidence can be an adduced to prove that the most important portions of Gaelic literature can be safely relegated to a period of several centuries prior to their now existing record. Our earliest version of the episode of the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, which is the nucleus and centre of the ancient Gaelic heroic cycle of which Cuchulain, is the principal figure, is found in the 12th century Book of the Dun Cow. But legend tells us that at the beginning of the seventh century the Saga had not only been composed but had actually become as obsolete as to have been forgotten by the Bards. Their leader, Seanchan Torpeist, a historical character and chief bard of Ireland at that time, obtained permission from the saints to call Fergus, Cuchulain’s contemporary and a chief actor in the ‘Raid’, from the dead and received from the resurrected hero a true and full version. This tradition, dealing with a real person, surely shows that the story of the ‘Tain’ was known before the time of Seanchan and probably preserves the fact either that his version of Cuchulain’s famous deeds became the accepted one or that he was the first to put it in writing. Such considerations as these push back, with reasonable certainty, the existence of the Irish poems and prose tales, in something like the present shape, to a period before the seventh century. But this, again, means only that the myths, traditions and legends were current at that, to us early, but to them, in their actual substance, late date, in literary form. A Mythology must always be far older than the oldest verses and stories to celebrate it. Elaborate poems and sagas are not made in a day or in a year. The legends of the Gaelic gods and heroes could not have sprung full born out of some poet’s brain. The bard who first put them into artistic shape was setting down the primitive traditions of his race. We may therefore venture to describe them as not of the 12th century or of the seventh but as of a prehistoric and immemorial antiquity. Internal evidence bears this out. An examination of the Gaelic legendary romances shows, under embellishing details added by later hands, an inner core of primeval thought that brings them into line with the similar ideas of other races in the earliest stages of culture. Their ‘local colour’ may be that of their last ‘editor’ but their ‘plots’ are pre-mediaeval, pre-Christian, prehistoric. The characters of early Gaelic legend belong to the same stamp of imagination that created all Olympian and Titan, Aesir and Jotun. This aspect of the Celtic literary records was expressed by Matthew Arnold when he said, ‘it is evident that the mediaeval storyteller is pillaging and antiquity of which he does not fully possessed the secret’. So, too, with the figures, however reconciled with history, of the tree great Gaelic cycles: that of the Tua De Danaan, of the heroes of Ulster, of Fionn and the Fianna. Their divinity outshines their humanity; true their masks may be seen the faces of gods.
Yet, gods as they are, they had taken on the semblance of mortality by the time histories were fixed in the form in which we have them now. Their earliest records, if those could be restored to us, would doubtless show them as eternal and undying, changing their shapes at will but not passing away. But the post-Christian copyists, whether Irish or not, would not continence this. Hence we have the singular paradox of the deaths of immortals. There is hardly one of the figures of the Gaelic pantheon whose demise is not somewhere recorded. Usually they fell in the unceasing battles between the gods of darkness and of light. Their deaths in earlier cycles of myth, however, do not preclude their appearance in later ones. Only, indeed, with the closing of the lips of the last mortal who preserved his tradition can the life of a God be truly said to end.
Geddes & Grosset, 1999. Celtic Mythology. 2006 ed. New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset.
We can infer certain things about the religious beliefs of the Celts from the nature of their festivals. To get accurate information about these festivals historians usually turn to the Coligny Calendar which appears to be written in Gaulish by the people of France before the coming of the Romans and this language continued on alongside Latin into the 5th century.
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. It is what is called a Lunisolar calendar which meant it 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.
Halloween was clearly a major festival in Ireland in pre-Christian times and Samonios was considered to be the beginning of the Celtic year. The months in the Calendar were divided into two halves and were also arranged into lucky – 30 day months and unlucky months. They described the lucky months as ‘Mat‘ and the latter as ‘Anm‘ or ‘not good‘.
The whole cycle runs for about thirty years and then starts over again.
To the Celts, time was circular rather than linear. This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. It is also reflected in their year beginning with the festival Samhain (Halloween) when nature appears to be dying down.
The Months were as follows:
1. Samonios – Seed Fall – Oct/Nov
2. Dvmannosios – Darkest Depths – Nov/Dec
3. Rivros –Dec/Jan – Cold Time
4. Anagantios – Jan/Feb – Stay Home Time
5. Ogronios – Feb/Mar – Ice Time
6. Cvtios (Sonnocingos) – Mar/Apr – Windy Time
7. Giamonios – Apr/May – Shoots Show
8. Simivisionnacos – May/Jun – Bright Time
9. Eqvos – June/July – Horse Time
10. Elembivios – July/Aug – Claim Time
11. Edrinios – Aug/Sept – Arbitration Time
(The translations are based on those of Caitlin Matthews)
When we study the Coligny Calendar we can see certain dates are marked. It is thought that these marks indicate important points in the Celtic year. When we look at Irish tradition we see that these same dates are included in the Irish Celtic calendar:
1. Samhain – Oct 31st – Halloween.
2. Bealtaine – May 1st – Bonfire Night.
3. Lughnasa – Aug 1st – Lughnasa.
4. Imbolc – Feb 1st – St. Brigid‘s Day. (1st Day Of Spring)
12. Cantlos – Sept/Oct-Song Time
The Druid priests of the Celts did not write down the stories of their gods and goddesses, but instead transmitted them orally, so our knowledge of the early Celtic deities is limited. Romans of the first century B.C. recorded the Celtic myths and then later, after the introduction of Christianity to the British Isles, the Irish monks of the 6th century and Welsh writers later wrote down their traditional stories. Here are some of these Gods. Some of them were stolen and raised to Sainthood by Catholicism in order to begin the conversion of Ireland. Those left behind (according to legend) were cast underground and turned into Leprechauns.
Gods Of The Celts.
1. Lugos: There are hundreds of inscriptions across Europe and Britain to a God known as Lugos whose name is dedicated to Contracts and Commerce and was also a God of travelling and a patron of the arts which included the art of Commerce. Mistletoe was sacred to Lugos.
2. Dis Pater (Father God or The Good God): Other Gods were descended from Dis Pater and was named by the Romans and not by the Celts. We can conclude from this that he was a teutilary or God of the Tribe‘ (Teutonic God) deity. Julius Caesar called him Dis Pater and linguists have concluded that this name is a derivative of Good Sky or Good God. This is very significant to us when we look at Irish Mythology because there is a similar God known as Daghdha, a leading mystic character in Irish literature, one of the Tua De Danaan, who was demonstrably the principal deity in ancient times.
The greatest of the Gods was Daghdha (Dagda), who had beaten off the monster Formorians when they attacked, in a mystical mist. He is usually referred to with the definitive article; namely, the Daghdha (the Daghdha). He was the founder or the father of the tribe of Tua De Danaan and so, indirectly, we can link Dis Pater as described by Julius Caesar.
This seems a logical step but is not inconclusive evidence. In fact, when we look at the Irish image of an Daghdha we see many Romanic motifs and ideas. Dis Pater is depicted in Roman accounts as an underground God and people would make Oaths or promises to him. In Roman Mythology he is sometimes associated with the Dead and the underworld. In Ireland an Daghdha was related to another God called Donn‘ (Brown or dark, or Dead) and is God of The Dead. When we look at Gods or Goddesses we find that many of them can manifest in different ways. The same God can sometimes have different names so, sometimes, we can find the same Gods with different functions.
3. Camas (Or Camulus): When we look at Continental material in relation to Camas we are still somewhat unclear as to who or what he may have been. We take our definition from Irish mythology because it is somewhat clearer and better defined.
4. Epona/Equna: She was a horse Goddess and her name would have been pronounced in two different ways. As mentioned earlier there were two different types of Celts, Q-Celts and P- Celts. The former laid more emphasis on Q and thus Epona became Equna while the reverse occurred with the P-Celts. Epona was a horse Goddess and in her depictions she is often seen riding side-saddle on a horse and holding a Cornucopia, a basket with corn coming out of it, a symbol of fertility, life, grain, fruit and drink, which featured heavily in all Mythology. It seems that Romans adopted her from the Celts probably because they were great admirers of horsemanship. She was a very popular Goddess and what is interesting here is that the Romans adopted her from the Celts whereas with other Gods the opposite was often the case. In fact, there have been statues and plaques found in Rome depicting Equna and in many cases these artefacts are found in stables.
5. Matres (The Mothers): A triple Goddess (Trinity) and depictions in the classical style show three women side by side and is clearly Romano-Celtic (deeply influenced by Roman Celts) in design. However, regardless of the style of the depiction, it is still generally agreed that the Celts worshipped Matres long before they ever encountered the Romans. Not a lot is known about the Matres but they were depicted as triple Goddesses and this idea of triple form (or trinities) is something that crops up in Celtic mythology regularly. In the statues the three women are often sitting down while one on left, often bare breasted, is holding a baby, the one on the right is holding loaves, bread or cakes, the one in the centre is holding a scroll of some kind perhaps depicting knowledge. The Matres may very well be a tripe-form of three Goddesses, it could be one or all of them but it is not really known if this is, in fact the case.
6. Brigantia (The Exalted One) – St. Bridget: Under the Interpretatio Romana where she was referred to as Victoria and they see her as dictatorial because she ensured victory to warriors. There were tribes known as Brigantes who mostly came from France and Britain arrived in Ireland in the 2nd Century. They were the followers of the Goddess Brigantia. Most of the information we know about her comes from the Irish material to do with St. Bridget. It is thought that the St. Bridget that we know was a follower of Brigantia; she may have been a priestess of the Goddess who later converted to Christianity and is now more famous for bringing this new cult of Christianity to Ireland. We know that Brigantia was worshipped in Gaul, Britain and Ireland and possibility as far as the Iberian Peninsula as well. We do find coins and artefacts depicting her image in many parts of Europe. There are a few place names that remember her name including Brigantio in Hungary. Brigantia was also a Goddess of healing, of blacksmiths and is very much steeped in folklore and tradition. She is also very much associated with Poetry and Poets who were deemed to be very important people who could see into the mystical world. Their poetry was a mystical language and they spoke the language of the Gods.
7. Ogmios: (Ogmios Herakles) – God of Eloquence – Was said to be very strong and associated with Hercules. His name comes from ―Leading One‖ because he could lead people around with words or the Golden Chain which was a chain of Gold from the tip of his tongue to the ears of a merry band of his followers which implied that he may have had a amazing word power. Being that public speaking was the only real form of communication having a Golden Tongue may very well have given one enormous power. The Irish equivalent to Ogmios was Ogham who it is believed brought writing to Ireland and the first Irish Alphabet was known as Ogham‘s Alphabet. Ogmios was said to be physically very strong and the Romans associated him with the God Hercules. He is depicted carrying a club, as did Hercules, and he sometimes was described as bald and his name Og came from the Celtic word Leading One. In an oral culture – public speaking was of paramount importance and the fact that we find a God dedicated to oral power is important.
8. Taranis – (Thunder God as with Jupiter) – Taranis was a merciless God who required sacrifice. He is not a very well known Character but is mentioned by Roman Poets who depict him as merciless. In the 9th Century a trio of Gods, of which Taranis is one, Asos and Toutates the others, were appeased by human sacrifice. We know little about Asos while Toutates was a God of Tribal protection and in Interpretatio Romano he was associated with Mars. He was a Teutonic God (Germans in pre-history but referred to as Teutonics because they lived in Tribes). He may very well have had some sort of war function as well.
9. Cernunnos: (Horned God) –His named only once on the Pillar of The Stone Men. He is very much associated with animals and holds a Torc in his right hand and about him is a purse, usually overflowing with money, which implies he is a God of wealth. In Irish mythology he is linked with Derg, a God of poetry and wisdom and wild deer but the evidence for this is pretty scant.
10. Maponos: (P Celts: Maponos/ Q Celts: Maqungs) – Mostly found in Britain and has its origins in Gaullist French tradition. There is not a whole lot of information about Maponos but what we do know is that he is a youthful God mostly associated with the God Apollo and that his name suggests that he may have been a divine Son. When we look at other similar son images in Irish mythology we see that there are parallels in the figure of the divine son. According to a sacred 12 line prayer text known as Chamalieres found in France the ancient Gauls regularly prayed for help to Maponos.
11. Rosmerta: This Goddess is often shown embracing a Cornucopia or a purse with coins coming out of it or a petera (plate) with food on it and she is a God of fertility and abundance, as is the case with most female deities, she is also best known as a carer of people. There are many examples of inscriptions where people literally wrote to her for their requests. Her name in Gaulish means the great provider or carer. People often wrote to both Mercury and Rosmerta so, if we take Mercury as being another Gaulish God then it may be safe to assume that both these Gods appeared together.
12. Sucellus: Is related to other Gods in European mythology and is known as a good Striker. He is often depicted with a massive hammer perhaps symbolising hard work, blacksmithing, axe wielding or some such activity. Perhaps a working class God and seems to be adored by ordinary working people in farming, forestry and, interestingly enough, alcohol. He is not associated in any way, like Thor, to Thunder, as the hammer may suggest but what we do find is that he is more than likely in some way connected to a Roman God named Sylvanus who was a God of forestry and wild places and both these Gods are interlinked in the Interpretatio Romano.
13. Nanto Suelta (Nantosuelta): In Gaulish religions she is a Goddess of Nature, the earth and fire. Her name means the sun worn valley and she was a Goddess of fertility and abundance. Her imagery shows her surrounded by greenery, trees and fine-looking meadows. In general she is associated with fertile places.
14. Esus: His name means the Lord and is most often portrayed as a woodman, forester or lumberjack. He was associated with strength and would give strength to those who prayed to him. In Interpretatio Romanio he is most associated with Mercury or Mars. He is interesting in that he was one of the Gods that appeared to be worshipped with human sacrifice.
15. Tarous Trigaranus: We don‘t really know much about this God. Esus seems to be somehow connected to Tarous Trigaranus and this has been established through imagery whereby both Gods are depicted falling trees or depicted as lumberjacks or woodsmen.
There are, of course, many more Gods but these seem to be the ones that had widespread following and were believed in by lots of different tribes. There were also lots of local Gods that would be purely belonging to a given tribe. There are over two hundred different deities recorded but these seem to be the most widespread and consequentially influential Gods.
In order to fully understand Irish Celtic history we must also understand how the people of the time were influenced by fellow Europeans. For example, Julius Caesar, fuelled by propaganda, who fought the Gaul‘s (or Gallicos) of France, wrote extensively about them. Our main focus is on the Celtic Period or, as it was better known, the Iron Age and to fully understand the traditions of this age and how they came about we need to look at what was going on in other European Countries.
The Celts can be best described as a people from Western Europe who spoke a language known as Gaulish. The earliest known Celts can be traced back to 600BC and came from the small town of Hallstatt in Austria where they controlled large salt mines. The wealthy Chieftains at Hallstatt were trading salt in Europe which meant that they travelled extensively, primarily by boat, across the continent. To an extent the Hallstatt Chieftains adopted the popular Greek style of language which was a precursor to other European languages including Gaulish and Lepontic. It must also be remembered that there were basically two different types of Celt and they were known as Q-Celts and P- Celts. It seems that at some time in the past the Celts split and subsequently both were categorised primarily by the sounds they emphasis was on the P. The most common dialectics of the Celts were, Irish, Manx Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Welsh, Scottish and in the ancient world, Gaulish, Leponic and Celtic Iberian.
A Celt is normally defined by historians as someone who speaks any of the main Celtic languages of Welsh, Breton, Scottish, Gaelic, Manx Welsh, and Cornish and in the ancient world Gaulish, Leponic or Celtic Iberian. 19th Century language scholars and archaeologists mostly agree that at some stage in pre-history that the Celtic race spoke the Celtic language, used Celtic objects, lived in the French Alps from where they invaded Europe and finally settled in Ireland, Britain, Spain and France. The Archaeologist‘s definition of a Celt is someone living in the Iron Age who used objects from the continental Hallstatt or La Tène cultures, emanating from the Alps, or is buried with rituals associated with these cultures.
The Le Tène Culture in 300BC in Lake Neuchâtel, the Celts, deliberately put ornaments into the Lake in offering to the Gods. This was done in relation to pleasing g the Gods and sometimes they would destroy the ornaments perhaps as a mark of respect for the dead or some sort I of disempowerment of weaponry i.e.: bent swords or implements and tools. It must be remembered that this was a stereotypical ‘animate’ culture which meant that everything had a ‘soul’ and that the soul of the tools or weapons passed to the next world with the owner.
The Gauls and the Celts were on the move on a regular basis i.e.: Germany, Spain, Switzerland (Alps), Asia, so these tribes did not write down their own history, the people around them did. One particular tribe the Keltoi, a name of Gaulish origin would be described as ‘barbarian’ and animal like by it‘s contemporaries who deemed the Romans and Greeks as civilised and respectful. Julius Caesar names them at the beginning of his ‘De Bello Gallico’ (Gallic War). He refers to the Gauls as those who are called Celts in their own language. So, it appears, and logically so, that ‘Celt’ was a name that the Celts called themselves. The Romans were greatly disturbed by the ornaments and battle noise of the Celts. Also terrifying was the appearance and rapid manoeuvring of the naked warriors in front, men at the prime of their strength and magnificence; “The Gauls are tall with moist white flesh; their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also make artificial efforts to lighten its colour, their hair thickens until it is just like a horse‘s mane and they wear amazing clothes: tunics dyed in every colour and pin striped cloaks. The whole race, which they call both Gallic and Gallatin, is war-like, both spirited and quick to war. De Bello Gallico continues; “they worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him, the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have very great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions. Next to him they worship Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva; respecting these deities they have for the most part the same belief as other nations: that Apollo averts diseases, that Minerva imparts the invention of manufactures, that Jupiter possesses the sovereignty of the heavenly powers; that Mars presides over wars.
To him when they have determined to engage in battle, they commonly vow those things they shall take in war. When they have conquered, they sacrifice whatever captured animals may have survived the conflict, and collect the other things into one place. In many states you may see piles of these things heaped up in their consecrated spots; nor does it often happen that any one, disregarding the sanctity of the case, dares either to secrete in his house things captured, or take away those deposited; and the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed.
All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.
The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.
One such historian and documenter of Celtic traditions was Julius Caesar who led the campaign against the Gauls in France. Caesar‘s writing of the Celtic religion and derives from Tacitus Germana (Chapter 43) wherein he describes two German Gods worshipped as brothers and youths – twins – as being like Castor and Polloux. These young Gods filtered through the Roman Culture. Mercury; the God plays a big part in Caesar‘s understanding of the religion of the Celts. Rome at this time worshipped stone Gods (statues) while the Celts thought that depicting these Gods in this way was not good.
The God Lugos is considered to be the God of Journeys. He was first identified in Lyon, France at a now well known Fort known as Lughduna where archaeologists found artefacts and relics associated with travelling. This is relevant because Caesar‘s description of Celtic law in relation to oaths and pledges was imperative to understanding how all contracts in Celtic law were accomplished. Interestingly, Mistletoe was a plant depicted on inscriptions and statuary associated with both the God Lugos and the Goddess Rose Mertha who is seen holding a cup, chalice which depicts Kingship or a higher force. There are a few different types of evidence that we can use to establish what Gods and Goddesses were believed in by the Celts.
Inscribed Dedications were a practise whereby people used inscriptions to write dedications to their Gods and Goddesses. This was a common practise 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. However, it also gives some indication as to the influence of this, by then, advanced religion on the Celts. Along with the Romans came literacy thus empowering the written word and consequently these inscriptions began to appear. The Statuary was very much influenced by the Romans. The Celts started to produce Statues in a very classical style. The Classical Accounts were also a source of information and primarily of these classical accounts was the “Interpretatio Romanio‘ (Roman Interpretation) which was a Roman account and was therefore somewhat biased. However, it still remains a source of evidence worthy of consideration.
When we examine the Classical Accounts we discover that most of these are all based on one particular source, Roman classical writers were notorious for copying, and thus the reliability of source is considered questionable. Bad information was reported and re-reported over and over again. The final significant sources are archaeological Sites and names and place names. These would give us some hints; names of rivers, wells, shrines, towns and cities usually had suggestions of Celtic deities. Finally, it is also worth noting that, with very few exceptions, names of male Gods usually end in ‘OS‘ while Goddesses names end in ‘A‘. These are our primary sources of evidence.
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.
This paper is a short exploration of ‘The golden age of Irish art’ (c.650 – 950 CE) with consideration to the art style of the period, its various elements and its origins in antiquity. “The early eight century saw the perfection of Irish art.” The Romans had left Ireland two centuries past but had left behind a highly creative ‘La Tene’ pastiche relying heavily on Greek models that would never entirely vanish from insular Irish art.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, early medieval Ireland, like other regions of north-west Europe, saw a dramatic development of independent kingdoms; “The ideology which underpinned these kingdoms was constructed from a mixture of native traditions and systems of knowledge from the Mediterranean world acquired through Christianity.”
The ‘golden age’ was a time when Religious Monasteries were flourishing across Ireland. These monastic settlements, combined with Romanesque techniques, influenced the aesthetic beauty of artistic architecture and design defining their impact as an imperative part of cultural life. This influence is immediately obvious even in self-adornment, “The pennacular brooch – a form adopted earlier from the Romans – became the high status garment par excellence.”
Art was very much existent in the minds and hearts of these primeval people and it manifested itself in illuminated manuscripts, metalwork and stone sculpture. Ireland was saturated in examples of the artistic achievements of this culture. Buildings and high crosses, precious jewellery, ornaments and adornments, manuscripts with intricate and sophisticated detail using materials and tools which were, by modern standards, primitive yet, in the hands of nascent man fashioned such complex work that it remains a perplexity as to how such exceptional creation was achieved.
Fine metalwork, manuscript painting and sculpture by the mid-8th Century had come to a level of excellence demonstrable with the appearance of certain pieces such as the Tara Brooch which reveals that Irish artists were inspired and imaginatively fertile; “The form of this brooch is in fact one of the finest representatives of shapes composed with a complete coherence – an ‘endless knot’ – of geometrical ratio.”
The artisan feat of elaborate decorations of circular arcs, straight lines and geometric patterns remains to defy explanation or definition but implies a long term development in craftsmanship dating back into antiquity. It further infers that this complex form of design was prevalent across Irish artistry; “That form shares the principles of design which were employed regularly in the creation of early high crosses of Ireland, and the magnificent illuminations in early insular gospels manuscripts.”
A further example of this artistic expertise can be seen in the design complexities of both the Derrynaflan Paten; “The Paten is an extremely complex structure consisting of many separately manufactured components” and The Ardagh Chalices. These are examples of a range of elaborate techniques of ornamentation based on imported inspiration yet customised to a developing Irish distinctiveness; “The elaboration of the filigree, the stamped ornaments of the side of the paten, the glass settings, and the knitted mesh of its rim and the organisation of the ornament place the paten clearly within the same aesthetic as the Ardagh Chalice.” The Derrynaflan and Ardagh silver chalices are strikingly similar.
Both are complicated in their design and construction and, “What is obvious about these chalices is the essentially Irish character of their manufacture and design.” These chalices are evidence of the fading Romanesque influence to make way for a unique developing Irishness in artistic pursuits; “The native metal working traditions enjoyed a new vogue, but in a modified form.” The commissioning of extravagant sacred objects such as the chalices from Derrynaflan and Ardagh demonstrates not only a desire for artistic splendour but an unparalleled ability to achieve it.
Some of the best examples of early Christian fine art were the Irish illuminated manuscripts dating from the mid 6th Century CE. These beautifully illustrated books were produced by scribes and artist monks in the scriptoriums of abbeys and monasteries all over Ireland. The monks made little money and no acknowledgement from their work but the Church had no hesitation in heaping money on the works of art themselves; “materials in regular use were gold dust, foil or leaf, silver and other precious metals and expensive natural colour pigments.” The accomplishment of Manuscript painting as an art form remains enigmatic.
The Book of Kells (Leabhar Cheanannais) brings together the traditions of animal ornamentation, interlacing and scrollwork combined with both decorative text and narrative scenes. It was created by Celtic monks and is a masterwork of calligraphy and epitomises the pinnacle of insular illumination. “The manuscript itself contains a clue indicating that those who produced it held Saint Columba in the highest veneration.” The curious feature about the Book Of Kells is that it is written with a unique ‘Irish’ hand defined as ‘half uncial, derived from Roman cursive, an advanced and uniquely developed form; ‘the Irish Hand attained a perfection and beauty which still dazzles the eye.’ The full, rotund form of the half-uncial was typically used in the transcription of Latin tracts notably, in the earliest known Irish manuscript, the Cathach, and, magisterially, in the Book of Kells. From this we can see why the ‘Golden Age of Irish Art’ was a carefully nurtured era of artistic perfection and excellence.
This concept is further enforced by The Book of Armagh, a near complete copy of the New Testament, with its sophisticated and elegant pen and ink illustrations; The text is written in two columns in a fine pointed insular minuscule’ and though it lacks the artistic enthusiasm of the Book of Kells it remains an exquisite masterpiece of Irish medieval art. “(It) shows the other side of artistic activity from the exuberance of Kells.”
Throughout the 8th Century the most affluent and honourable members of society adorned themselves with precious metals befitting their status. The Ballinderry Brooch (c.600 CE) and The Tara Brooch (c.700 CE) were both ambitious pieces of their time and worthy specimens of the magnificence of the art form of early medieval jewellery making. Clearly the advancing design complexities combined with fading Romanesque influences replaced with Anglo Saxon inspiration had occurred over the century between the two pieces. The development of craftsmanship is clearly visible.
The Ballinderry Brooch was an efficient and primarily functional pennacular piece which had an incomplete circular clasp at the top and was used as a clothes fastener. Its highly ornate design implies its use by the elite of medieval society. The Ballinderry Brooch clearly marks the beginning of a process that would culminate, over a Century, with the creation of The Tara Brooch.
The progressive artistic golden age was fuelled by new tastes and desires, “New types of objects had come into fashion; pennacular brooches decorated with spiral scrolls and enamels; hand-pins, sometimes enamelled or decorated with millefiori.” The Tara Brooch, found near the River Boyne in County Meath is consistent with the progressing Irish design; “Like many early high crosses and Gospel illuminated pages, the ‘Tara’ Brooch has a form consisting of circular arcs and straight lines.” Both these pieces yet again show Ireland’s artistic individuality emerging and developing to an advanced and idiosyncratically Irish stage.
Celtic High Crosses are a form of functional free standing sculpture which were mostly constructed on sites of religious significance. These crosses fall into two different groups, firstly there are crosses decorated with circular patterns and the second group being those decorated with Biblical scenes. It is still uncertain as to whether these crosses were painted but it is most likely that they were. With the addition of colour many of the designs on the crosses would have greater clarity.
The ‘High (Celtic) Crosses’ demonstrate a high point in Irish sculpture and the oldest, estimated 9th Century, are located at Ahenny in Co. Tipperary. The North and South crosses are carved with intricate geometrical Celtic designs and also Biblical scenes on the base. Scholar of early Irish art Franoise Henry, inspired at Ahenny, introduced her publication on Irish High Crosses with a chapter on ‘General Features’, where she offered an unchallenged description of the form of the monuments; “These high crosses are self-contained monuments, articulated into various elements: a large, somewhat cubic or pyramidal base, a separate block of stone indented with a deep rectangular hollow at the top, into which the stem of the cross can fit securely. The cross itself has a nearly square or rectangular section. The shaft tapers slightly towards the top. The stone ring which often connects the arms is usually in open-work, but in some cases it has been left as a sort of solid wheel. It is not necessarily always present, but occurs often enough to be considered as a characteristic feature of the Irish crosses.” Her writings clearly indicate that, although High Crosses are found across Europe, the Irish High cross is both distinctive and unique.
This paper through exploration of the output of ‘The Golden Age Of Irish Art’ has shown that the early eight century artisans accomplished the perfection of Irish art. By looking at an evolving innovative artistic culture in Ireland, with its origins in antiquity, traced through its metalwork craftsmanship, manuscript artistry, jewellery making and sculpture we can see that Ireland was not lacking in individuality and was feasibly a more cutting-edge artistic culture than other European countries.
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