The Celtic and Scandinavian Religions

The Celtic and Scandinavian Religions

by J.A MacCulloch

ISBN: 9780897334341

Publisher Chicago Review Press

Published in Nonfiction/Social Sciences

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From early times the Celts had occupied considerable parts of Central Europe, between the upper parts of the rivers Danube, Rhine, and Elbe. They spread thence and occupied the valley of the Po and other parts of Northern Italy, in the later parts of the sixth century B.C. Much later, about 390 B.C., they were able to advance as far as Rome, which they raided, the Capitol alone escaping. Eventually the Celtic region in North Italy was conquered by the Romans. In 279 B.C. some of the Celts had advanced into Greece and pillaged Delphi, Galatia was also occupied by them. In the west the Celts penetrated into Gaul and parts of Spain, Ireland and Britain were also occupied, the latter by several groups of invaders. Thus their empire, if this name may be fittingly applied to the wide region which they occupied, stretched across Europe from east to west.

The word Gaul was used comprehensively for two regions — Cisalpine Gaul, which meant the Celtic-occupied territory in Northern Italy south of the Alps, and Transalpine Gaul, part of Switzerland, part of Germany, Belgium, and France.

Of this, Celtic Gaul, more truly Celtic, stretched from the Loire to the Seine and Marne. North-east of this was Belgic Gaul, less purely Celtic; to the south-east was Aquitania. Cæsar conquered Gaul about the middle of the first century B.C., and thenceforth it became a Roman province.

The Celts, during the time of their empire, are not to be regarded as a homogeneous people, under one sovereign. Their empire was never compact as the Roman Empire became. There was a legendary King, Ambicatus, who was said to have ruled over a large part of the Celtic area, but he belongs rather to fiction than to fact. What was most likely was the dominance of one or more strong tribes over the others. In Gaul, in Cæsar's time, we see something of this kind — a supremacy or attempted supremacy of one tribe over the others. For this supremacy the Arverni disputed with the Aedui. From the second century B.C. to the beginning of the Christian era the far-spread lands occupied by the Celts had become part of the Roman Empire, except Ireland and northern Scotland.

The Celts, especially as they spread far and wide, were not a pure race. They mixed with those peoples whom they conquered, thoroughly Celticizing them. Their real unity was a unity of language and of religious beliefs. There was no one racial or anthropological type common to all, but Celtic speech was imposed and accepted wherever they conquered.

Cæsar, having conquered Gaul, invaded Britain, but only later Roman conquest, beginning with the invasion of Claudius, A.D. 43–47, made Britain a Roman province, extending in the north to the area between Forth and Clyde, where Antonine's wall was erected against the unconquered tribes to the north. Then in the reign of Commodus (A.D. 180–192) and in the immediately succeeding years the Romans made their northern frontier in Britain the line of Hadrian's wall, begun c. A.D. 130. Henceforth, the tribes south of that became, like those of Gaul, Romanized.

How early the successive waves of Celtic invasion reached Britain is uncertain. The first may have come in the Bronze Age, and perhaps were the Celtic group, known as Goidels, speaking the Gadhelic or Gaelic branch of Celtic speech. Here it should be noted that in Celtic speech there had developed a phonetic difference, which had perhaps already existed on the continent before the invasions of the British Isles began. It is characterized by the change of qu by certain groups into p. The Goidels retained qu, later c or k; others — the Gauls and the Brythons, as the p using Celtic groups in Britain came to be called, made the change into p. Thus each or ech, "horse," in Gadhelic, is in Brythonic epos. Again maqvi, later mac, is in Welsh map or with p changed to b, mab, or with the m dropped ap or ab. Gadhelic speech is now represented in Irish and Scots Gaelic and in Manx. Brythonic speech survived in Welsh, Cornish (now extinct), and Breton. This p was used also by the Gauls. The Romans never penetrated into Ireland, nor, apparently, did any of the Brythonic Celts.

The Goidels formed the first wave of Celtic invaders from the continent. Did they occupy Britain or did they make their first landing in Ireland? This question has been much debated, some holding that they first came to Britain, where, at a later time, they were conquered by Brythonic invaders; others that they never entered Britain, but went to Ireland, perhaps from Spain, as Irish tradition in the annals attests, and eventually came, as the Scots from Ireland, to Argyllshire (Dalriada), towards the end of the fifth century. For the purpose of our investigation into Celtic religion the question is immaterial.

The later waves of Brythonic invasion brought with them in the early Iron Age, the Halstatt culture, so-called from discoveries made at Halstatt in Austria in 1846. This culture shows the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age. Then in the Iron Age came the La Tène or Marnian culture (500 B.C. to the Christian era), these names coming from the great finds at La Tène in Switzerland, and in the valley of the Marne in France. The objects which characterize the Halstatt and La Tène cultures are of varying kinds — arms, shields, bridles, brooches, mirrors, situlae, and many others. These, especially in the La Tène period, are well made and well proportioned, they are beautifully ornamented in different designs. There is a use of coral for decoration and also of enamel. Both craftsmen and artists showed wonderful gifts of handicraft and of pleasing decoration, which have not often been exceeded.

The final invasions before the Romans arrived were those of the Belgae (about 75 B.C., and in 50 B.C.), people with some Teutonic admixture, but speaking Celtic. The region which they occupied first was the south-east and south of England. They were an active conquering people, who practised agriculture in the valleys rather than on the uplands, as their predecessors had done. They cut down forests, cleared them for fields, using a wheeled plough drawn by oxen for turning over the soil. Early in Cæsar's invasion the other tribal rulers had made Cassivellaunus supreme ruler, though he, as head of the Catuvellauni, had been aggressive to them. He opposed Cæsar, but had to capitulate to him.

We need not assume that the Celts in Britain, any more than those in Gaul, were savages, Cæsar's woad-dyed and skinclad folk, though tribes further north, away from continental influence, would be less advanced. They were barbaric, but some of them had attained a fair degree of civilization. They were farmers, hunters, craftsmen — potters, weavers, metal-workers, traders, warriors. Some had ships, perhaps not so well-built as the large, oaken vessels of the Veneti of Brittany, which caused trouble to Cæsar and in which they carried on trade with Britain. These vessels were two hundred and twenty in number when Cæsar encountered them.

The artistic work of the Celts, as shown by the Hallstatt and La Tène objects found in Gaul and Britain, was skilful and beautiful. Many of the tribes had a coinage, specimens of which have survived in large numbers. The La Tène people introduced the chariot, the force of which in battle Cæsar describes and which caused amazed terror among his troops, just as the first employment of tanks in the first great war did. They were driven down upon the enemy, confusing their ranks. The occupants jumped down from them and fought on foot. The charioteers drove back to the rear, so that their owners, if hard pressed, might retreat. Thus, says Cæsar, they had both the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry.

By the beginning of the Christian era the Celtic regions on the continent had become part of the Roman Empire. Southern Britain was conquered by the Romans in the first century A.D.



The earliest Celtic worship, like that of most other peoples, was given to spirits of nature, of the sea, rivers, trees, mountains, sky, and heavenly bodies, some of which, as time went on, became more personal deities. All parts of nature were alive, as man was, and he found these friendly or hostile. At a later time worshipful deities might be connected with this or that part of nature. The belief in animism, the belief that everything was alive, tenanted by a soul or spirit, has been universal. As man's spirit might leave him, temporarily in sleep or, finally, at death, so the spirits of natural objects might be separated from these. The spirit of a tree might leave the tree and become more or less independent of it, the god of the tree. But as, in a forest, there are many trees, so there rose in man's imagination many tree-spirits, which might resolve themselves into groups of beings, now kindly, now dangerous, to man. Where there was but one object of its kind — sun, moon, earth, sea — the spirit of each would tend to become a being more or less separate from it, yet still ruling it or connected with it, a sun, moon, earth, or sea deity. Thus in time, besides the greater gods of nature, there would be also groups of nature spirits, connected with rivers, forests, mountains, and other parts of nature. The worship of these continued long after more personal deities were evolved and worshipped, and in one form or another continued among the peasantry even after the coming of Christianity. Gildas (sixth century) said that "the blind people" paid divine honours to mountains, hills, springs, rivers, i.e., to the spirits of these. The Celtic people were not alone in paying such divine honours to parts of nature: it is a form of worship which is of great antiquity.

It is possible that the earth was regarded as female, and that earth and under-earth were held to be one. Earth was the source of fertility and important to all who depended much on agriculture. The earth mother or earth goddess was eventually replaced by an earth-god, with her as his consort. But locally her position may have remained prominent. The Matres, with their widespread worship, their symbols-cornucopia, fruit, flowers — showing their connection with fertility, were three in number, triple forms of an earlier earth-goddess, in accordance with a Celtic tendency to triplicate a deity. These will be considered later, as well as the prominence of goddesses in Irish belief, as mothers of divine groups, with outstanding functions even where gods with similar functions existed.

Mountains and hills were venerated for themselves, or as abodes of deities, as later inscriptions show, e.g., one "To the mountains," and worship was offered on heights. Vosegus was deity of the Vosges mountains, Arduinna of the wooded heights of the Ardennes, Abnoba of those of the Black Forest, or of these divinized.

Forests, woods, and trees were worshipped. A god named Silvanus, the Roman sylvan deity, is mentioned in many inscriptions, though these do not give the native name. The Fatae Dervones or Matronae Dervones were spirits or goddesses of oak-woods. Claudian speaks of the sacred oaks of the Hercynian forest, and Pliny's words are significant. "The Druids hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, provided that it be an oak. They seek the oak for their sacred groves, and no ceremony is complete without its branches. Whatever grows on the tree is sent from heaven, a sign of the choice of the tree by the god himself." Maximus of Tyre speaks of the Celts revering a great oak as Zeus, though he does not give the native name of the deity. In the Pyrenean district a group of six trees was sacred to a god, and elsewhere groves were regarded as highly sacred places. In Ireland certain trees, oak or ash, called bile, were regarded with reverence, sometimes growing over a sacred well, and they must not be cut down. One was described as "a firm, strong god"; the destruction of another by a hostile tribe was regarded with horror. Myth spoke of the wonderful trees of the divine land, and of such trees having accidentally been planted on earth and then carefully guarded. Trees were perhaps first regarded as embodying the spirit of vegetation, then as sacred to a deity, or if a tree grew on a burial mound, it would be thought to embody the spirit of the dead. In Celtic festivals a tree as the abode of the spirit of vegetation was carried in procession to confer benefit on the fields. A tree growing beside a sacred well was also sacred. Up to quite recent times on such a tree was hung a rag or article of clothing belonging to the person who looked for healing from the well. It is the medium through which disease passes to the tree, or healing power from well or tree to the sufferer, or it may be an attenuated form of an earlier offering. Such customs thus surviving indicate what the earlier beliefs had been.

Waters — rivers, lakes, wells — were sacred, themselves divine or the abode of a spirit or deity. Celtic words like deivos, deva, dianna, diona, meaning "divine" or "brilliant," were applied to rivers on the continent and in Britain — Dee, Devon, Divona (near Bordeaux), Divonne (in Ain), and others, showing that many rivers were regarded as divine or the home of a spirit or goddess, less often a god. Other rivers with different names were also personified as deities, e.g., dea Icauna (the Yonne), deus Nemausus (Nimes). Rivers were sources of fertility as well as of other gifts: hence they were venerated and offerings were made to them. But it should be noted that other beings, monstrous and harmful, dwelt in rivers or lakes, water-horses, water-bulls, and the like, and these have survived in popular lore and legend.

Equally divine were many springs and wells, especially those which had medicinal properties. There were spirits and gods or goddesses of such springs, as we shall see. All such were the objects of popular worship. The goddesses or spirits of such places were regarded as beautiful, and their personality was deeply impressed on the people. Long after Christianity prevailed they were still remembered and some sort of devotion paid to them, as there was to trees. They reappeared also as fays or fairies in the Romances and in folk-tales. In the earlier cult, as in the later superstitious devotion, offerings were made to them. Models of limbs had been presented in shrines of healing-spirits or deities, in the hope that healing would come to the donors. Leaden tablets were placed in wells, with inscriptions showing that the wells were personified or in habited by a spirit or a more personal deity, and the desire of better health is expressed on them. At Amélie-les-Bains the spirits of the well were called Niskai.

In later days fish or eels in such springs were regarded as sacred and must not be destroyed. At an earlier time these would be thought to embody the spirit of the well. Sacred wells exist all over the Celtic area, as indeed elsewhere. They are named after a saint, which doubtless means that he had succeeded to the spirit or deity of the well, often by some action of his own there. Adamnan, in his Life of St. Columba, tells how the saint came to a well, worshipped as a deity, or as the place of spirits. By his act the spirits (demons) fled from it and never returned. It was now believed to cure diseases because the saint had blessed it. The later customs for healing at sacred wells probably were derived from those of pagan times. The patient passed thrice round the well sun-wise in silence, besought the saint for healing, drank the water or washed the diseased limb with it. An offering was made or some part of his clothing placed on the sacred tree which usually overhung the well. "Sun-wise" (in Irish Gaelic deisiul) had an important place in Celtic belief and custom. At festivals in Gaul liquor circulated thus, and in Ireland to this sun-wise direction much attention was paid.

The spirits of waters were not all beneficent. Nature is both kindly and hostile; its wilder recesses were apt to be more sinister than other parts of it. Hence man was liable to people not only waters but forests and mountains with uncouth and dangerous beings. This was not confined to the Celts, for it is found everywhere and has given rise to much folk-lore.

Sea-gods, Manannan, Ler, Dylan, will be discussed later. Meanwhile we note that the sea itself was personified, but that it and its waves were regarded as hostile to man, and they were attacked with weapons by Celtic warriors, both on the continent and in Ireland. But the sea had also a more kindly aspect, its waves moaning for the deaths of men, or their sound having prophetic aspects.

How far the moon and the sun were worshipped is not certain, though in Ireland there is some evidence for moon worship, and in Gaul there are a few inscriptions which mention sun and moon, while some goddesses equated with Diana may have been connected with the moon. One inscription speaks of the genius of the sun and the moon. It is possible that the moon was regarded with greater awe than the sun as a living object. The moon was the measure of time, and nights preceded days, but attempts were made to synchronize the lunar and solar years over a period of five years, as the calendar found at Coligny, near Lyons, shows. The quinquennial sacrifices spoken of by Diodorus Siculus may have been offered at the beginning of each five-year period. In Ireland oaths were taken by various parts of nature, including the moon, and the breaker of an oath was punished by these. Processes of agriculture were begun with a waxing moon, to promote growth. In some regions there is evidence for festivals occurring at the time of the new moon.

Excerpted from "The Celtic and Scandinavian Religions" by J.A MacCulloch. Copyright © 2013 by J.A MacCulloch. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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