Generally speaking the basic tenet of Celtic religion was polytheist (belief in many Gods) as opposed to monotheist. We can clearly see from the number of Gods worshipped by the ancient tribes that they were polytheists. It seems that they were also an animist culture – which means they believed that not only people but also animals, places and objects had a soul. They had basically an inherent spiritual presence of some kind. But we see that they worshipped in places of natural beauty which implies they were close to nature in their religions. We find evidence for ritual objects in ritual places and vice-versa. They imbued the world around them with religious significance. Things like the sky and the sun would have been associated with religious ideas. They had a concept of the underworld. They communicated with the underworld through the burial of objects and this was their way of interacting with the realm of the dead which they clearly acknowledged.
Sacred spots in the landscape included rivers and springs, which seemed to have great importance both in Irish and Gaulish religion. Rivers are normally associated with Goddesses; all the rivers of Ireland are given grammatically female names. For example, the River Shannon was associated with the Goddess Sionna.
The people for the most part were rural agrarians and this comes through in their deities of fertility, nature and agriculture and similar themes. Animals were also important to the tribes and we see this when we look at the God Artio (a sacred Bear), dogs and wolves held great importance too, probably associated with the warrior tradition in Celtic society. There was a warrior class within Celtic society and war and the creation of war was a significant part of life.
They 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. It was in such forests that they conducted their rituals. There is a very interesting account of Druid rituals to do with Oaks and this is by the 1st Century CE natural historian Pliny who recounts that; “The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia Oak. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon. Hailing the moon in a native word that means healing all things, they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.
A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.
This testimony is much debated and arguably fanciful on Pliny‘s behalf but it can still be accepted at face value. There is very little written about the Druids so it remains one of the few pieces of documented testimony available and as such has some merit.
We can conclude from Pliny‘s evidence that Mistletoe is sacred amongst the Celts. Further to this we also find in certain pillars and statutes we see embedded carvings of mistletoe and in one case we even find what has been interpreted as a crown of mistletoe leaves.
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. Moisture and fertility went hand in hand and the Gods, such as Danu (The Danube), had rivers and other expanses of water named after them. 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. In 2nd Century BCE there was a shrine dedicated to her.
In fact many of the offerings, over 900 in all, found at her shrine indicated that it was a shrine of healing (as in Lourdes). The relics were mostly statues of body parts. Interestingly there were also statues of internal body parts such as livers and lungs which remains a mystery as to how they could have been depicted. In short, she was perhaps one of the most important of many of the European River Goddess and very much worshiped. These cults and customs may have come about from the fact that the Gauls were animists (everything had a soul) and that included rivers and these souls are the basis of these deities. It is possible that local deities eventually became bigger deities through word of mouth and thus, Goddesses evolved.
Some other shrines or temples have been discovered and one of the most notable one is known as Roquepertuse which is near Marseille, then Marcillary, a Greek town, in Southern France. The statuary discovered here was Celtic in origin. Evidence suggests that because few homes were found nearby that this was not a place of general worship but one used exclusively by the Druids themselves.
Yet another shrine of note was Gournay Sur Aronde in Northern France was a site similar to Stonehenge and was near a marchland and excavators found that a perimeter was built round it and within the area they were digging pits and burying Oxon. These animals may have been sacrificed. The reason why Oxon were sacrificed was to ensure new herds would thrive. What is interesting here is the fact that excavators found human remains which implies that human sacrifice was not beyond the Celts. On this particular site a number of pillars were constructed and on spiked on top of these poles they had warriors. It suggests that both people and animals were slaughtered at this site and then sacrificed. It seemed that the site had a military theme to it but it remains uncertain whether the humans who were sacrificed here were tribe members or enemies or victims of war. There was also weaponry destroyed and buried in the ground and so we know that these weapons were being ritually damaged and perhaps the souls destroyed or somehow rendered powerless in this world. Over 500 warriors were sacrificed and buried at Gournay Sur Aronde.
Decapitation of those sacrificed was a very common practise and at sites such as Gournay Sur Aronde many of the bodies excavated had their heads chopped off. No real significant conclusions can be drawn from this fact because this practise by modern standards is barbaric but perhaps this was not the case at all for the Celts. It may very well have been the case that the already deceased warriors were decapitated as a matter of honour. We can‘t know if such an honour was something the warriors wanted, it is possible, and maybe decapitation was part of the burial process for a warrior. There is evidence to suggest that it may not have been against the persons will because it may have been part of their religious belief. Maybe they considered decapitation to be part of a greater good or way to be united with the Gods in the next world. In short, the process of decapitation does not imply barbarism or bloodlust. With the passage of time what seems barbaric to one society may very well have been natural to another. There is no real evidence to suggest either way. Other cultures were also carrying out beheadings as much as the Celts. It was a way of life. We are not entirely sure if in Celtic tradition the beheading of somebody clearly indicated a barbaric act. It is possible that in their culture it may have been a way of honouring them, or a cult tradition but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that this was also another form of human sacrifice in the fact that decapitation seemed to be commonplace. Scholars are somewhat divided on this point but there is strong evidence that it did definitely take place. If it was not an object of veneration the head seemed to have symbolically represented the whole person and thus the taking of the head perhaps meant somehow disempowering the whole person. Livy (a Roman Historian 59BC/AD17 – Titus Livius) records that in 216 BCE a Roman general called Postumius met his end at the hands of the Boii. (A Gallo-Celtic Tribe located in Central Europe but mostly in Bavaria, Bohemia) After he was killed they: stripped his corpse, severed the head, and bore their prize in triumph to their most sacred temple. There, according to their habit, they cleaned it, decorated the skull with gold and employed it as a sacred vessel for the pouring of libations for the priests and acolytes of the temple to drink from.‖15 From this we can ascertain that beheading should not be seen as entirely barbaric, it may have been done out of a mark of respect for warriors but this is very unlikely.
Diodorus Siculus, (A Greek historian) in the 1st century had this to say about Celtic head-hunting: “They cut of the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and carry off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold; thus displaying what is only a barbarous kind of magnanimity, for it is not a sign of nobility to refrain from selling the proofs of one’s valour. It is rather true that it is bestial to continue one’s hostility against a slain fellow man.”16
So obviously the Celts were being judged pretty harshly by implying that the Celts continued their hostility towards those they conquered by keeping their heads as trophies. There is some direct evidence for this as well. When we look at some of the statuary we find niches are often cut into stone and heads were put into these niches. Whether these were the skulls of persons captured in war or part of the group or tribe we are not entirely sure and so we can only see it as a piece of evidence in defence of what the Romans were saying at the time.
The pillar at Entremont has heads carved into it and there were skulls found in this place and there were holes in the skulls which suggested that they may have been pierced and descended on spikes of some kind.
Further evidence of the use of heads as objects of adoration can be found in Ireland, specifically the famous triple Corleck Head which has three faces on it. Whether this represents the trinity or some kind of God we don‘t know. But it probably recognises some kind of cult activity.