Celtic Religion

The Iron Age Celts were polytheistic with a multitude of gods, although our knowledge of them is limited to classical authors given the lack of written works by the Celts themselves.

The Celts were polytheistic

Celtic tradition and stories are full of gods and goddesses. However, unlike in Greece and Rome, Irish gods and goddesses did not have clear functions. It seems that at different times in different stories, different gods have responsibility for a single aspect of human life or of a part of nature.

When the Romans write about Celtic beliefs, there is great confusion. For example, when they looked for the equivalent god of War, Mars, among the Celtic gods, they found 69 or more. It seems that many gods had responsibility for war in Celtic beliefs, depending on the circumstances.

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 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 which 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.

Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars, Book 6, Chapter 17

The names of over two hundred Celtic deities have survived, although it is likely that many of these were alternative names, regional names or titles for the same deity. Some deities were venerated only in one region, but others were more widely known.

The Celts Practised both Animal and Human Sacrifice

In many ancient religions and in some areas of the world today, the giving up of a life, either animal or human, can be considered ‘desirable’ by the gods. For pre-Christian Celts, when they made a sacrifice, it had to be destroyed in order for it to be passed over to the gods. For this reason animals had to be killed and offerings of any objects destroyed.

Human sacrifice of slaves and enemies among Celts in Europe did happen but it was not common. A druid would stab the victim and interpret the process of the unfortunate person’s death. It’s less certain whether human sacrifice was part of the Irish Celtic religion.

The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so, employing the Druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private, life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.

Julius Ceasur, Gallic War Book6, Chapter 16

Why did the Celts make sacrifices? According to Celtic tradition, they did so in the hope of receiving good luck or other favours. In order to ward off the bad or evil side of the spiritual world, it was necessary to pacify the gods with gifts.

Literary evidence of Celts sacrificing humans

We have writings from two Classical authors.

The Romans put a stop both to these customs and to the ones connected with sacrifice and divination, as they were in conflict with our own ways: for example, they would strike a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice in the back with a sword, and make prophecies based on his death-spasms; and they would not sacrifice without the presence of the Druids. Other kinds of human sacrifices have been reported as well: some men they would shoot dead with arrows and impale in the temples; or they would construct a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing (trans. by Benjamin Fortson, in Koch and Carey 1995, 18).

Strabo, Geography (4.1.13)

All the people of Gaul are completely devoted to religion, and for this reason those who are greatly affected by diseases and in the dangers of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so using the Druids as administrators to these sacrifices, since it is judged that unless for a man’s life a man’s life is given back, the will of the immortal gods cannot be placated. In public affairs they have instituted the same kind of sacrifice. Others have effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent (trans. Anne Lea, in Koch and Carey 1995. 22).

Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.16

Archaeological evidence of Celts sacrificing humans

The best archaeological data supporting Celtic human sacrifice is from bodies dug out of bogs.

Of these bodies, the most famous, Cashel Man was discovered near Portlaoise in 2011, and at over 4000 years old, is said to be the oldest European bog body ever found with skin intact; then there is Old Croghan Man from Co. Offaly, and Clonycavan Man from Co. Meath.

At 6’6″, Old Croghan Man, who was killed between 362 BC and 175 BC, was a giant of a man. He bore the appearance of a nobleman from his well-manicured soft hands to his diet, rich in meat. Clonycavan Man was little more than 5 ft and used pine resin to keep his hair in place, probably sourced from Spain (a precursor to hair gel!) and demonstrates that he was a person of some wealth and standing in the community.

Lindow man was almost certainly a ritual sacrifice; he was strangled, hit on the head, and had his throat cut, in quick order, then surrendered to the bog. This pattern fits the “three-fold” death referred to in medieval Irish tales. What’s more, the man seems to have been of high social rank, and a willing victim.

The Celts believed in the immortality of the soul

It seems that the Celts believed in life after death, but there is little to show how they thought that this could be achieved. In fact, there is little in the way of ethics in Celtic religion. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the concept of punishment by the gods for ‘behaving badly’ did not seem to exist. It appears as if the gods were not interested in ‘good or evil’.

Literary references of Celts belief in life after death

The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them (the Gauls), teaching that the souls of men are immortal and live again for a fixed number of years inhabited in another body.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica Book V, 28, 6

..And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids.

One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has leaked into common knowledge, namely, that their souls are eternal and that there is a second life for the dead. Therefore they cremate and bury with the dead things that are suitable for the living. Long ago, traders’ accounts and debt collection were deferred until they died, and some individuals happily threw themselves onto the pyres of their loved ones as if they were going to live with them!

Pomponius Mela, De chorographia  3.19

References to life after death in Celtic Mythology

Many of the tales in Welsh and Irish mythology show people being reincarnated in one way or another, often through a series of transformations into several different kinds of animals before arriving in human form again.

Welsh mythology has a number of references to reincarnation. Taliesin, a legendary bard who possesses otherworldly knowledge, including the ability to see into the distant past, as well as the ability to see into former incarnations. In somewhat enigmatic fashion, in the tale of Cad Goddau, he states that he existed before the world began. Throughout this tale, he gives testimony to the various shapes and guises that he has taken with respects to his previous existences. In Math Fab Mathonwy Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy are punished and made to take the forms of mating deer, pigs, and wolves. Afterward, they are allowed to resume their previous forms. While these transformations may simply appear to be shapeshifting events, it is possible that they are allegories for transmigration of the soul.

Irish lore has similar references to reincarnation. In the tale of Scel Tuain Meic Cairill, we find a man who lived in various forms of beasts for hundreds of years. With each incarnation as a new animal, he becomes young once again. In The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the two cattle that are the central focus of the story have a whole host of previous incarnations as various animals. These include: Stags, Ravens, Worms, Warriors, etc.

Archaeological evidence to suggest Celtic belief in life after death

Although the Celts had a variety of different kinds of burial practices – cremation, burial, and a process known as excarnation, or ‘sky burials’, where the body was left out in the open until the flesh had been picked off by birds, leaving the bones clean.

When they were buried, they often had grave-goods, like rings, beads, daggers, joints of meat (pork, usually), and gaming dice, buried with them. An example of the latter is a 1st-century BCE burial chamber in Welwyn Garden City burial in Hertfordshire in southeast England where the deceased was cremated while wrapped in a bearskin. The remains were then deposited in a chamber along with paraphernalia for drinking and feasting, including five large Roman amphorae. The inclusion of 24 exquisitely-made glass gaming pieces shows the importance of recreation in a society where leisure may have been associated with elite status. 

Celtic Otherworld

In Celtic mythology, the Otherworld is the realm of the deities and possibly also the dead. A common factor in later mythologies from Christianized Celtic nations was the otherworld. This was the realm of the fairy folk and other supernatural beings, who would entice humans into their realm. Sometimes this otherworld was claimed to exist underground, while at other times it was said to lie far to the west. Several scholars have suggested that the otherworld was the Celtic afterlife.

Celtic Otherworld in Irish mythology

In Irish mythology, the Otherworld has various names.  It is perhaps best known as Tír na nÓg or “the Land of Youth” but also Tír nAill (“the other land”), Tír Tairngire (“land of promise/promised land”), Tír na nÓg (“land of the young/land of youth”), Tír fo Thuinn (“land under the wave”), Tír na mBeo (“land of the living”), Mag Mell (“plain of delight”), Mag Findargat (“the white-silver plain”), Mag Argatnél (“the silver-cloud plain”), Mag Ildathach (“the multicoloured plain”), Mag Cíuin (“the gentle plain”), and Emain Ablach (possibly “isle of apples”). It is described as a supernatural realm where there is everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance and joy, and where time moves differently. It is the dwelling place of the gods (the Tuatha Dé Danann) as well as certain heroes and ancestors.

Celtic Otherworld in Welsh mythology

In Welsh mythology, the Otherworld is usually called Annwn or Annwfn. The Welsh tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr ends with the survivors of the great battle feasting in the Otherworld, in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, having forgotten all their suffering and sorrow, and having become unaware of the passage of time. Annwn is ruled by the Otherworld kings Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd.

In the First Branch of the Welsh tales known as the Mabinogi, entitled Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, the eponymous prince offends Arawn, ruler of Annwn, by baiting his hunting hounds on a stag that Arawn’s dogs had brought down. In recompense, Pwyll swaps places with Arawn for a year and defeats Arawn’s enemy Hafgan. Meanwhile, Arawn rules Dyfed. During this year, Pwyll does not sleep with Arawn’s wife, earning himself gratitude from Arawn. On his return, Pwyll becomes known by the title Pen Annwn, “Head (or Ruler) of Annwn”.

Celtic Seasonal Festivals

The Celtic peoples of Briton and Ireland celebrated four seasonal festivals. The year was divided into two periods of six months by the feasts of Beltine (May 1) and Samhain (Samain; November 1), and each of these periods was equally divided by the feasts of Imbolc (February 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1).

Beltine (“Fire of Bel”) was the summer festival, and there is a tradition that on that day the druids drove cattle between two fires as a protection against disease. Lughnasadh was the feast of the god Lugh.

Imbolc: is he first day of Spring. It is celebrated on 1 Feb. This later became Christianized as St. Brigid’s Day. Imbolc has been compared by the French scholar Joseph Vendryes to the Roman lustrations and apparently was a feast of purification for the farmers. It was sometimes called oímelc (“sheep milk”) with reference to the lambing season.

Beltaine: This marks the end of the dark part of the year and the welcoming of summer. It was celebrated on 1 May (Bealtaine is the Gaelic word for the month of May). It is the day associated with moving cattle to higher pastures and beginning new projects. Beltine is also called Cetṡamain (“First Samhain”).

Lughnasa (or Lughnasad) – was celebrated on the 1 August. (The word for August in Gaelic is Lúnasa). It is closely associated with the Celtic god Lug. It was also an important communal date with a big feast to mark the occasion. Celts gathered at one of a number of traditional sites around the country.

Samhain: It takes place on 1 November (again the Gaelic for November is Samhain) and it marks the end of one year and the birth of another. Samhain seems originally to have meant “summer,” but by the early Irish period it had come to mark summer’s end. In Celtic religion, it was considered a time when the gods were hostile and dangerous and had to be pleased by making sacrifices.

Druids, Bards and Seers

According to Poseidonius and later classical authors Gaulish religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes—the druids, the bards, and between them an order closely associated with the druids that seems to have been best known by the Gaulish term vates, cognate with the Latin vates (“seers”). This threefold hierarchy had its reflex among the two main branches of Celts in Ireland and Wales but is best represented in early Irish tradition with its druids, filidh (singular fili), and bards; the filidh evidently correspond to the Gaulish vates.

The name druid means “knowing the oak tree” and may derive from druidic ritual, which seems in the early period to have been performed in the forest. Caesar stated that the druids avoided manual labour and paid no taxes, so that many were attracted by these privileges to join the order. They learned great numbers of verses by heart, and some studied for as long as 20 years; they thought it wrong to commit their learning to writing but used the Greek alphabet for other purposes.

Celtic Religion placed great importance on animals

Besides gods, animals were also important to the Celts and were perhaps themselves regarded as sacred, especially the bull, boar, stag, and horse.

Many of these animals were regarded as totems with protective qualities and so they appear frequently in designs on weapons and armour.

Celtic Gods in Animal forms

Celtic gods appeared in many animal forms. Because of this, Celts were often cautious and respectful towards animals. Epona is related to horses, Cernunnos is linked to stags (despite both snakes and birds also been depicted). A renowned Celtic battle goddess, the Morrigan, could transform herself into a raven and was believed to inspire warriors to call upon their inner strength to achieve greatness. 

Celts also believed that animals like cattle, horses, pigs, dogs, deer, bears, snakes and birds were protected by gods, or more commonly, goddesses.

People Changing into Animals in Celtic Mythology

In the Mabinogion, Math turns his wayward nephews into deer, boar and wolves, each pair producing offspring. Math then transforms the fawn, piglet and cub into human form.

Donn mac Midhir lures Finn to the Otherworld in the shape of a fawn.

Birds in Celtic Mythology

Animals such as birds were particularly important, had supernatural powers and their singing was considered to have healing magic.

The Birds of Rhiannon are probably the most well known of the otherworld birds that feature in Celtic myth. Rhiannon is often linked to the Gaulish Epona, and it is interesting to note that iconic representations of the Goddess Epona are accompanied by both horses and birds.

Swans also feature in many stories and artworks, notably the well known Irish legend of “The Children of Lir”. This famous story tells of four royal children who were transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother, Aoifa. Tales of swans always portray them as people under enchantments, whether the Children of Lir, Aengus and Caer, Midhir and Etain, Derbforgaill and her servant.

A swan-maiden was the mother of Cuchulain, hero of Ireland’s Ulster cycle, and thus the warrior had a geas (taboo) against killing these sacred birds.

The main motif regarding swans seems to be one of love. Aengus mac in Oc fell in love with Caer, who was under a magical enchantment by her father so that she was in the form of a swan for a year, followed the next year by being in the form of a human. Aengus transforms himself into a swan to unite with Caer, whilst she is still in swan-form, and the two of them return to his palace at Brugh na Boinne

Celts believed that the Soul was contained within the head

They mounted heads on doorposts and hung them from their belts. The Celts believed the seat of spiritual power was in the head and so by taking an enemy’s head they were taking this power for themselves. This was how they justified whacking off the heads of their enemies and then keeping them.

when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes. 

Strabo, Geography Book IV Chapter 4.5

Livy’s account of the death of Postumius at the hands of the Cisalpine Gauls in Northern Italy explicitly makes the religious connection:

It was there that Postumius fell whilst fighting most desperately to avoid capture. The Boii stripped the body of its spoils and cut off the head, and bore them in triumph to the most sacred of their temples. According to their custom they cleaned out the skull and covered the scalp with beaten gold; it was then used as a vessel for libations and also as a drinking cup for the priest and ministers of the temple. 

Livy, Founding of the City Book 23: Hannibal at Capua, Chapter 24

The Celts believed that the world was alive

Part of Irish Celtic religion was the belief that naturally occurring things such as rocks, rivers and trees had spirits. These were not necessarily good or bad spirits but could react in a certain way, depending on how they were treated.

The gods of Celtic Religions

Deities found in many regions include Lugus, the tribal god Toutatis, the thunder god Taranis, the horned god Cernunnos, the horse and fertility goddess Epona, the divine son Maponos, as well as Belenos, Ogmios, and Sucellos. Celtic healing deities were often associated with sacred springs.  Caesar says the Gauls believed they all descended from a god of the dead and underworld.

Triplicity is a common theme, with a number of deities seen as threefold, for example the Three Mothers. Some figures from medieval Irish mythology have been interpreted as iterations of earlier deities. According to Miranda Aldhouse-Green, the Celts were also animists, believing that every part of the natural world had a spirit.[4]

Key gods were given all-embracing powers or characteristics, and these include Cernunnos, ‘the horned god’ who likely represented nature and fertility. Another major figure is Lugus (known as Lugh in later periods), perhaps the only universally worshipped god in the Celtic world, who represented the sun and who was regarded as all-wise and all-seeing. There were many female goddesses associated with healing springs and rivers such as Sequana, a personification of the River Seine, and Epona, who was linked with horses.

An unusual feature of Celtic gods was that some were viewed as a trio, perhaps representing three different aspects of the same divinity. One trinity example is the three mother goddesses, the Matronae who represent individually the similar concepts of strength, power, and fertility. Of the numerous local and regional gods, many were associated with those things of primary concern to everyday life such as warfare, sovereignty, tribal identity, healing, hunting, and the protection of specific groups like mothers and children. There was a Greek and Roman influence on the Celtic religion from the 2nd century BCE when Celtic sacred sites, which had previously been mere clearings surrounded by earthworks, began to use larger stone temples. So, too, some Greco-Roman gods were incorporated into the Celtic pantheon.

Celtic Religion was strong on communal and ritual celebration

When sacrifices were made, elaborate feasting on sacrificed animals provided a communal link with the supernatural world.

A good example of ritual religious practice is the Bull Feast (known as Tarbhfhess in Gaelic). This was the Celtic means of choosing a King, especially the King of Tara. A bull was sacrificed and a chosen man drank the blood and ate its meat. He would then go to sleep to the incantations of 4 druids (Celtic priests) and have revealed to him in a dream who should be the rightful king. This was only part of the election process but it shows the importance put on gaining the approval of the gods.

Celtic beliefs involved a variety of supernatural beings

It seems that the early Celts believed in lots of supernatural beings who occupied and controlled parts of the natural world. This gave rise, for example, to lots of Celtic legends about fairies.