12. Deities, Natural Forces, and Ancestors

by Francine Nicholson

As you make your way along a road, a crow alights on a tree limb just above your head and caws loudly. If you were a pre-Christian Celt, you would immediately wonder if this was an ordinary crow or a messenger from the Otherworld. Might it be your patron deity in animal form? Most importantly, was it trying to tell you something?

For the pre-Christian Celts, these were questions with real meaning and importance for their daily lives. They believed they shared their world not only with creatures they could see but also with a host of beings whose presence was not always easily detected. Appeasing these non-human forces and gaining their cooperation would bring peace, victory, fertility, and prosperity.

The Otherworld in Celtic traditions is the home of the deities, even of those who are associated with landmarks in this world. Patrick Sims-Williams suggests that the Irish thought of multiple Otherworlds, but that the Welsh thought in terms of one continuous region with various named areas. The medieval Welsh mention three locations: an underground place entered through mounds, a place located vaguely "over the sea" and reached by boat, or any of several known, specific geographic locations (such as Harlech or certain islands) also reached by boat.

The Welsh word for the Otherworld as a whole is usually Annwn or Annwfyn, and the First Branch of the Mabinogi depicts different realms within Annwn, ruled by battling kings, Arawn and Hafgan. A ninth-century Welsh poem, Preiddeu Annwn, "The Spoils of Annwn," lists names for different Otherworldly fortresses-such as Caer Sidi, Caer Rigor, Caer Fandwy-that may correspond to different parts of the Otherworld.

The Irish seem to have had similar notions about the location of the Otherworld-underground, vaguely over sea, or a specific place. However, they used different names, and, when they did specify a known location, they were different to those mentioned by the Welsh. For example, whereas the Welsh mention Welsh places such as Harlech, the Irish mention Tech Duinn and other Irish islands. Like so many aspects of Celtic religion, even the Otherworld was local.

The Welsh name for the Otherworld, Annwfn, apparently does not have a cognate in Irish or other Celtic languages. The Irish equivalent term is síd, although this usually refers to the Otherworld reached through the burial mounds found all over Ireland. Other Irish names for the Otherworld have evolved over the centuries. They include Emain Ablach (Emain of the apples), an island off the coast of Scotland associated with Mannanán mac Lir, Mag Mell (delightful plain), the sea on the way to Emain Ablach, Mag Dá Cheó (plain of the two mists) found between Cruachain and Athlone, Tír na mBan (Land of Women), an island said to be inhabited by enticing women and visited by heroes in immrama tales, Tír na mBeó (Land of the Living), inhabited by the Túatha Dé Danann, Tir na nÓg (Land of Youth), and Tír Tairngire (Land of Promise). In some Irish traditions, the dead went to go to Teach Duinn, the House of Donn, said to be an ancestor of the Irish. This tradition seems to correspond to a Gaulish belief described by Julius Caesar, that the Gauls venerated Dis Pater, Caesar's name for the god of the dead, as their ancestor.

Many scholars think the lands described in Irish sea voyage stories, immrama, correspond to various places in the Otherworld. Alwyn and Brynley Rees even suggest that the immrama describe the stages on a soul's journey to the next life. Most of these lands and islands appear to be paradises, places where all the good things of earthly life are to be had in abundance.

Modern writers often dwell on the delights depicted in stories about the Otherworld: sweet music, tables laden with food, men and women of incomparable beauty who never age or sicken. These writers often ignore the trials and ordeals undergone by those who venture into the Otherworld, especially by those who go in search of knowledge or treasure. For example, in Preiddeu Annwn, Arthur journeys to Annwn in quest of the Cauldron of Inspiration and Rebirth. He sets forth with three companies of men but, of them all, only seven survive and the quest fails. Fionn Mac Cumhaill often loses companions when he journeys to the Otherworld, and he himself pays for his Otherworldly gifts with some personal disfigurement. His hair goes gray in one story and he burns his thumb in another. When Bóann seeks wisdom from the Otherworldly Well of Segais, she loses an arm and a leg. Gifts from the Otherworld are not free.

In nineteenth century Ireland, this notion of reciprocity between the worlds, that a price must be paid for Otherworldly knowledge and gifts, was known as 'the Penalty.' Reportedly, the folk healer Biddy Early warned her clients that healing a family member might be followed by the death of an animal. She cautioned her clients not to resent this. It was part of the way things work. Thousands of years earlier, Julius Caesar wrote in De Bello Gallico of similar beliefs among the Gauls:

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.

Though the world was thought to be filled with chaotic, untamed energy, it was also organized into a tripartite order: land (or earth), sea (including all watery places), and sky (or air). As described later in this chapter, alongside the tripartite order of this world existed the Otherworld, the world of the unseen powers and the dead. In medieval stories, there are connections between the sea, the world of the dead, and the Otherworld. For example, the lord of the dead was sometimes depicted as a below-ground figure and other times was said to live on an island across the sea. However, the Otherworld generally remained distinct from the world of the dead.

Water mediated between the other realms, traveling from the sky as rain and returning as evaporating dew after making the land fertile. Water also connected humans with the Otherworld. According to Irish stories, at least some rivers were thought to originate in wells in the Otherworld and then flow into this world. Such rivers, and wells and springs, were thought to carry the power and knowledge of the Otherworld to this one. The knowledge could be acquired by eating special salmon that lived in certain wells or rivers, by drinking from certain places, or by inhaling the bubbles that floated upon the river at certain times and places.

Since the Otherworld was often located on islands, it had to be reached by boat. The following lines describe an Otherworld that is full of sea imagery:

There is a distant isle

Around which sea-horses glisten,

A fair course against the white-swelling surge,

Four feet uphold it.

Golden chariots on the sea plain,

Rising with the tide to the sun,

Chariots of silver in the plain of sports

And of unblemished bronze.

It is a day of lasting weather

That showers [down] silver on the land;

A pure-white cliff in the verge of the sea,

From which the sun receives its heat.


As mentioned earlier, the Otherworld is closely related to the Underworld and sometimes equated with it. Both represent dimensions where mysterious beings and creatures lived. Medieval Irish scribes and Welsh bards speculated about the nature of the Underworld, but they did not doubt its existence. As time passed, the Celtic peoples increasingly thought of the Otherworld and Underworld as a single place where the 'good people,' the euhemerized deities and the dead, lived. It could be entered through caves, wells, tunnels in the side of mounds, and less obvious portals that opened when one least expected it. In Ireland, it was equated with certain physical features in the landscape such as the mounds or raths, remainders of earlier cultures that were identified with the 'good people,' or aes sídhe, 'people of peace.'

Although the traditions about the characteristics of the Otherworld are often contradictory, descriptions make it clear that, above all, it was a place that was both the same and different to this world. Like this world, it had trees, plants, rivers, lakes, furniture, food. Unlike this world, colors were brighter, sounds and music sweeter. Time flowed differently there. Sometimes visitors returned to this world after what seemed a few weeks only to find that just a few hours had passed; other times, hundreds of years had passed. Above all, things were unchanging. No one grew old.

Ordinary mortals could enter the Otherworld only at certain times and under special circumstances, but Otherwordly entities could cross the boundary at will. Occasionally, humans were asked to help in battles between Otherworld forces. Both Cú Chulainn and Pwyll aided Otherworld kings in this way. Gifted with magical powers, Fionn Mac Cumhaill frequently crossed into the Otherworld with his companions, sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally, in pursuit of prey or a stolen object. Sometimes inhabitants of the Otherworld took a fancy to humans, resulting in "fairy trysts" or even marriages. Folktales tell of humans abducted to serve as wet nurses or servants in the Otherworld. Children who failed to thrive or had certain physical deformities were thought to be 'changelings,' substitutes left when fairies abducted a human child. Fairies were said to have their own agendas which, at times, might be at odds with human interests.

No human returned unchanged from such a visit. The inhabitants of the Otherworld possessed great powers and knowledge that they sometimes shared with humans, such as an enhanced ability to play an instrument, compose poetry, or heal. In his film, 'The Fairy Faith,' Canadian film-maker John Walker interviewed a man whose father had been a famous fiddler, capable of astonishing embellishments. This ability was said to have come from an overnight stay with the fairies. However, less welcome changes might also follow, such as lameness or prematurely grey hair.

Although bodily death was inevitable, the ancient Celts believed that some part of a human survived and proceeded to life in another place. Beyond this, it is not clear what they believed about the Afterlife, though the literature offers intriguing hints of exquisite lands of plenty and unearthly, sweet music. Laconic statements refer to fallen warriors going to the "realms of the dead" or the "House of Donn," the kingly ancestor of the Gaels. The evidence of the classical authors affirms the Celtic belief in an Afterlife. Nicandor of Colophon talked of Celts sleeping near the tombs of their famous dead so as to receive messages in dreams, and Diodorus Siculus wrote of their belief that offerings sent to the Otherworld on funeral pyres would be received by ancestors on the other side.

Classical references suggests that the earliest Celts believed it was necessary to be buried with one's favorite possessions to furnish the Afterlife, and archaeological evidence from the earliest Celtic burial sites confirms that the Celts did, indeed, hold this belief. However, later graves were less elaborate and sometimes cremation was substituted for burial of the corpse. The significance of this change in burial practice has yet to be established.

The iconography of deities in Gaul and Britain repeatedly used symbols of death and Afterlife, suggesting that the gods and goddesses would act as guardians and guides on the journey. Certain animals, such as dogs, were seen as guides and possibly guards assisting on the journey. At least two literary motifs in the myths-the hostel and the voyage-suggested the journey from life through death to the beyond might be perilous and that a guide might be necessary to achieve a safe arrival. The motif of the hostel suggests a half-way house between this world and the next, a place of grotesque characters and confusing behavior. In real life, the hostel was a place where travelers from all ranks mingled when they took refuge for the night. In one myth the hostel run by Dá Derga brings together figures from this world and the Otherworld as they pause before crossing the boundary.

It is not clear who, besides humans, inhabited the world where the dead go. Myths of the Otherworld where the deities dwell do not mention humans who have died. On the other hand, folklore makes no distinction between the fairies and the spirits of human dead. What is clear is that all stories of Otherworlds use the same literary images to picture a world much like this one but where the colors are brighter, the fruit sweeter and more abundant, and where the music is too beautiful to be described or replicated.

Numerous stories in myth and folktale tell of the dead returning to this world to convey messages to the living or to do a bit of sightseeing. Traditionally, it was thought that the Celtic new year was the customary time when ancestral spirits returned and visited their families.

Was the world of the dead the final stopping place? A popular assumption nowadays is that the ancient Celts believed in reincarnation and that the soul would repeatedly be reborn. The evidence cited consists of statements by a few classical authors, plus stories from the Irish myths in which characters are depicted moving from one body to another. However, there are two objections to this evidence. While some classical authors specify "migration of the soul," most classical authors writing about the ancient Celts make statements of this sort: "the soul does not die but crosses over after death from one place to another." This could refer simply to an Afterlife. The other objection is that myths that appear to mention reincarnation actually concern an immortal being who shifts sequentially from one form to another. The exceptions concern figures who themselves appear to be more than human: Cú Chulainn and Mongan. Therefore, their incarnations and anything associated with them should probably be seen as extraordinary. The question of belief in reincarnation remains open for now.

Unseen Beings

As described in Chapter 5, the pre-Christian Celts believed they shared this world with many beings other than themselves. Some seemed to travel between worlds, while others were more permanently attached to specific geographic features or parts of the visible world. The unseen beings could be friendly, indifferent, or even hostile to human concerns. According to that viewpoint, humans needed the aid of powerful guardians who could induce the hostile but fertile forces to produce positive benefits for humans. The pre-Christian Celts believed that the friendly beings could act as guardians and protect one's person, crops, animals, and loved ones from hostile forces.

Probably, the best way to think of these unseen beings is in the following categories, keeping in mind that they probably overlapped:

Deities, powerful beings depicted with some anthropomorphic characteristics but who were still distinctly "other." They had the power and skill to control the weather and other natural forces. Humans could become their clients and enlist their aid. As the Christian era progressed, these figures were perceived as fallen angels, demons, and, eventually, the "fairies."

Natural forces and spirits associated with landmarks and the weather, including the elements (sun, moon, wind, storm, dew, rain); their purposes might run counter to those of human beings.

Ancestors, spirits of the dead who could be called on to lend help to living humans.

Priests and seers could address and converse with the deities and natural forces. These ritual specialists could obtain knowledge from the Otherworld and some were even thought to know how to control natural forces.

However, though the priests and seers were trained to conduct rituals and had special knowledge, interacting with the deities and other beings was part of daily life for everyone in a Celtic community. Each individual had some knowledge of how to identify, address, and enlist the help of deities, and avoid offending less friendly beings. To ensure prosperity in home and farm, people performed rituals whose spirit and purpose have survived in the folk traditions sometimes still practiced in Celtic regions today. For example, one should not build on sites known to be "theirs." If you had a pure-white cow, you were supposed to put aside her milk for "them." Leaving out a bowl of oatmeal demonstrated a neighborly intention, a willingness to live with "them" in peace and respect.

Another essential belief was that things should not necessarily be taken at face value. The pre-Christian Celts frequently saw omens in the activity of the world and its diverse inhabitants. For example, traditional lore included ways to interpret the behavior of birds. If you were pondering a question and an animal suddenly appeared, its behavior might suggest a response to your question.

As noted in other chapters, the pre-Christian Celts did not record their beliefs in writing. We do not have a single manuscript listing all the Celtic deities and their attributes and stories. The evidence for Celtic deities comes from a variety of sources and time periods. Sometimes, the evidence is contradictory, possibly because it was recorded by writers and scribes who did not share the pre-Christian Celtic beliefs. Often the writers did not understand the beliefs and had never seen the practices they described. In some cases, the scribes or authors can even be considered hostile to the beliefs and practices.

The pre-Christian Celtic concept of the divine apparently evolved over time. Initially, they probably saw the deities as intelligent personifications of the elements used to create the world. Gradually, they began to view their deities more in terms of the way they functioned as protectors of the tribe, bringers of healing or other gifts, powers for victory in battle and sources of fertility or other prosperity. They most probably honored several categories of deities including tribal protectors, vocational and household protectors, personal guardians, and the natural forces of land, sea, and sky who lived alongside them. The Celts also venerated their ancestors. These categories probably overlapped.

In the earliest period, the Celts were still expanding their territory, conquering other peoples and occupying vacant land. They still hunted for much of their food, in addition to raising crops and animals such as sheep, cattle, and pigs. Although they did not write about their deities, they carved images in stone and made sculptures of them. At first, these carvings depicted mostly animals, but the later sculptures and mythology suggest that the earliest carvings and sculpture may sometimes represent the animal forms of deities. In fact, one very early carving shows a figure that is half-man and half-stag, perhaps even suggesting that the figure is in mid-metamorphosis. In Celtic sculpture and on coins, it seems that symbols were used by themselves to represent kings, tribes and, perhaps, deities since tribes were often named after their deities.

We are forced to guess at what these figures and symbols represented. A story related by Diodorus Siculus suggests that it was taboo among the Celts to depict deities as humans:

When Brennos the king of the Gauls went into the [Greek] temple, he did not find offerings of silver or gold, and he seized those of stone and wood [that he found there]. He laughed at the idea of making gods in human form.

Perhaps the pre-Christian Celts first thought of their deities as personifications of natural forces and the elements of the cosmos, elements from which, they apparently believed, humans also had been created. No names of gods are cited in the archaeological remains from the earliest period.

By the third century BCE, when the Romans were beginning to expand their sphere of influence, the Continental Celts were enlarging their settlements and developing their trade connections. Although agricultural concerns continued to be of crucial importance, and priests and warrior nobles still ruled society, craftspeople and traders became the fastest growing group. Their contacts with the Romans and other Mediterranean peoples began to influence Celtic art and culture and this, in turn, affected the forms and practices of religion in many regions. The Celts in Roman areas began to change the way they depicted and addressed their deities. Instead of symbolic animal-form depictions, the Celts began to create elegant sculptures of highly anthropomorphic figures clearly influenced by the classical style.

The inscriptions that have been recovered suggest that by this time, the pre-Christian Celts had begun to see their deities as other than simply the personification of natural forces. Anthropomorphic images became widespread in Romano-Celtic areas, often using the imagery of Roman statues. Specific deities also began to be associated with crafts or lines of work. For example, a group of seafaring traders set up a statue in gratitude for the protection of Cernunnos, the stag-antlered god. Apparently, his function had expanded to protection of all who required prosperity, not simply those associated with hunting.

In this period, the evidence for the deities on the European Continent comes from comments made by classical writers and from inscriptions, images, and other objects found at archaeological sites.

Classical writers described and categorized Celtic deities in Roman terms. For example, Julius Caesar wrote in De Bello Gallico that,

Of the gods, they worship Mercury most of all. Of him there are many images. They extol him as the inventor of all the arts, the ruler of journeys and traveling, and they judge him to have the greatest power over obtaining money and trade. After him Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. Concerning these they have nearly the same opinion as the rest of people: Apollo to drive away diseases, Minerva to teach the elements of skill, Jupiter to hold the order of the heavens, Mars to control wars.

Comments like these may reflect the biases of the writers more than the way the pre-Christian Celts thought of the deities. Probably such writers ignored any distinctions between Roman and Celtic deities, even if they were aware of them. Therefore, we have to interpret these comments carefully, checking the writer's other work to see how reliable it is.

After the Romans conquered Celtic areas, they and the subject Celts began to call Celtic deities by classical names or by names that combined Roman and Celtic elements. For example, most dedications to Apollo in Celtic areas include the name or title of a local Celtic solar deity who had been conflated with the Apollo function and name, such as Apollo Belenus. Local Celtic nurturing goddesses often were linked with Roman gods and honored as a pair. These dual names, such as Apollo Grannos or Sulis Minerva, suggest that some blending of Roman and Celtic traditions had taken place. Even when just a single Roman name appears, the symbols and imagery used in statues and carvings in Romano-Celtic areas differ from the styles of Roman artwork in Italy. In Celtic areas, Roman deities were modified, given new characteristics or symbols or activities. For example, depictions of Jupiter include the spoked wheel, a symbol associated with Celtic gods, and Mercury was known primarily as a patron of skilled crafts. Therefore, scholars speak of "Celtic Jupiter" and "Celtic Minerva" to distinguish them from Roman deities. However, unlike their Roman counterparts who had a specific role, each Celtic god or goddess was expected to function as the general protector of a tribe or settlement, whatever their other attributes.

The influence was not completely one-way, however. One Celtic deity, the horse goddess Epona, became so popular among the Romans that her feast was added to the Roman calendar but, instead of honoring her as a symbol of sovereignty, they adopted her as a patron of cavalry soldiers and horse-breeders.

Evidence for Irish and Welsh deities comes mainly from mythology, but it can be supplemented by folklore from other Celtic areas. Stories found in medieval manuscripts or passed on as folklore often concern figures that scholars now believe started out as gods and then became saints or heroes. However the tales from Irish or Welsh mythology are populated by men who are powerful warriors, kings and magicians, and women both willful and acquiescent. Only occasionally are they identified as deities in the texts. Today, scholars disagree as to which should be identified as deities and which as heroes with extraordinary skills and powers. Additional confusion is caused by the role of these figures as ancestors to tribes or kin-groups. Sculptures found in Ireland and France dating to the pre-Roman period suggest that pre-Christian Celts did not always think of deities as anthropomorphic. Often the gods that appear in myth shift into animal forms as well as human ones. Perhaps it was once believed that the deities could assume whatever shape suited their purposes, and that neither human nor animal shape was their native form. This would be consistent with Diodorus' story about Brennus laughing at the notion of depicting gods in human form.

Scholars generally agree that some aspects of Celtic culture remained fairly untouched in Ireland until the coming of Christianity, which became dominant by the end of the seventh century. Even then, the Irish adapted the Christianity they received, incorporating a great many of the beliefs and practices of their ancestors.

Many scribes tried to record the tradition to the best of their abilities, and a quick perusal of the marginalia of a medieval Irish manuscript reveals how ready the scribes were to correct errors wherever they found them. But no matter how sincere some scribal attempts to recapture and record the pre-Christian traditions may have been, the fact remains that hundreds of years elapsed between the end of Irish pre-Christian religion as a dominant social force and the first recording of the myths. It is possible that the scribes chose not to record some customs and rituals that they knew to be pagan, but the myths as recorded contain so many traces of pagan practices that this is not often likely. Most knowledge of community pagan rituals was probably lost when the last pagan lore-keepers died, long before scribes began to record the myths and tales. However, many devotions conducted in homes and on farms have survived in evolved form in the folk tradition. Careful reading of stories such as the Lebor Gabála Érenn or Cath Maige Tuired makes it clear that the scribes are not always sure of the traditions they are recording. Contradictions abound. Some characters may even have been created when scribes misinterpreted their sources. The tendency of scribes to combine several stories or motifs also makes it difficult to ascertain the real significance of their use in a story. For example, twin foals were born at the same time as Cú Chulainn. Does the use of this traditional motif suggest that Cú Chulainn was originally a solar deity? Or had the motif come to be used to signal the birth of any hero?

For many people in Celtic countries, the deities never ceased to exist, but they were transformed into figures that were at least marginally acceptable to Christian clerics. Although some medieval scribes condemned the deities as demons, others attempted to find a place for them in the new Christian cosmology, first as residents of the Antipodes, a parallel world existing below the main world and accessible through pits, channels and tunnels. Some Irish manuscripts contain prayers that invoke both Christian trinity and pagan deities, suggesting that the syncretic mix found in modern folklore was also found in some medieval monasteries. Later scribes depicted the deities as angels who chose not to side with God against Lucifer when the latter rebelled, a notion preserved in the folklore of Ireland.

Similar problems confront us when we look at the Welsh myths and other lore. Since Wales was once part of the Roman Empire, its culture and literature were subjected to the influence of Rome. Later, the Anglo-Saxons invaded the area and Germanic influences crept in, followed by Norman ones. As in Ireland, Welsh tales were first recorded by Christian scribes, and the tradition was subjected to the same losses and influences that characterized the recording process in Ireland. The Welsh Trioedd Ynys Prydein ("Triads of the Isle of Britain") contains stories and characters of which we have no other evidence. The principal collection of stories in the Welsh tradition, the Mabinogi, was recorded later than the earliest myths recorded in Irish. Therefore, one has to look hard in Welsh myths for traces of the deities, but they can be found in archaeological evidence and in the stories from other Celtic traditions.

The character Rhiannon, for example, seems to have characteristics similar to the Continental horse goddess, Epona, and her Irish counterpart, Macha. In some cases, one can deduce that Welsh figures have cognates in other Celtic cultures based on their names. It is likely that Lleu is the Welsh version of the Gaulish Lugos and Irish Lugh. The figure of Blodeuwedd, the maiden created from plants and flowers as a mate for Lleu, appears in the Mabinogi primarily as an example of a faithless woman. But her transformation into an owl as punishment opens the possibility that she owes something to the bird goddesses found in sculpture on the European Continent.

Belief in the intelligent forces associated with the natural elements never completely faded and persisted into the Christian period. Monastic texts often reflect this effort to place the elements as powers subject to the Christian Creator. Theologians frequently addressed their god as the "Master of the Elements." Yet the early Christian scribes continued to believe that the elements had independent will and power to act on their own, although their power could be harnessed by one with sufficient training, knowledge, and personal power. Stories from Ireland depict druids invoking the power of the elements as protection or in attack against their foes. In St. Patrick's hagiography, the druids use their knowledge to harness the elements. In turn, Patrick calls on his god to harness the elements and best the druids. Even an explicitly Christian prayer such as that known today as "St. Patrick's Breastplate" invokes the protection of the elements:

I rise today

in heaven's might,

in sun's brightness,

in fire's glory,

in lightning's quickness,

in wind's swiftness,

in sea's depth,

in earth's stability,

in rock's fixity.

As documented in many folklore studies, traditional beliefs and practices persist in Celtic countries even today. Various Celtic cultures likely always had a folk tradition of devotions for daily tasks that co-existed with the official corporate rituals conducted by the pagan clergy. Comprehensive studies such as Máire Mac Neill's Festival of Lughnasa document that remnants of pre-Christian practices have persisted until recently.

Another example of folk survivals is the devotions at holy wells. Although most of these wells are now dedicated to Christian saints, many of the devotions clearly have pre-Christian origins. Sometimes, folklore reinforces the information we find in the myths, and other times they disagree. For example, figures such as Crom Dearg do not appear in most myths but play a prominent role in the folklore. In other cases, the image of a figure in the myths seems quite different from the way the folklore depicts them. Nevertheless, folklore remains one of our most important source for the actual customs performed by the pre-Christian Celts to honor deities.

Irish folklore can be supplemented by studying the customs of other Celtic areas, especially those of the Scottish Highlands.

The isolation and conservative habits of the Gaels of the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides preserved the tales and folk customs of their tradition long after such beliefs and practices had died out or had been transformed in the English-dominated Lowlands of Scotland. Over the years, comparative studies of the motifs, customs, and beliefs found in Scottish folklore have shed light on figures found in the mythology and folklore of Ireland and Wales. Wales and Cornwall also have their wealth of folklore, although they tend to show more influence from nearby English cultural presence. Similarly, the folklore of Brittany, while essentially Celtic, also shows the influence of French and Norman culture. Nevertheless, all these sources remain important.

When we review all the evidence, we can make nine basic points about the pre-Christian Celtic view of the deities.

1. Indo-European Heritage

In some ways Celtic views of the deities resembled those of their Indo-European neighbors. Pre-Christian Celtic theology evolved out of the beliefs of the proto-Indo-Europeans, whose central deity was a sky god. This may have been true among the pre-Christian Celts, too, but there were many versions of this deity. Each was perceived as the protector of his tribe. Other Celtic deities and their iconography also resemble those of other Indo-European societies. For example, similarities are often noted between the Celtic Lugh and the Norse Odinn. However, pre-Christian Celtic ideas about the deities and how to interact with them differed enough from those of other cultures for us to speak of a distinctively Celtic pagan theology.

2. Community Tradition not Individual Revelation

Pre-Christian Celtic ideas about the deities, though distinctive, did not come into being quickly or in a vacuum. Doubtless, Celtic groups had signficant religious leaders at various times, but their names are lost to us. Surely, these leaders communicated to their students the ideas and teachings they believed they had received from the Otherworld, but over time these ideas became part of the community tradition.

3. Local Focus and Style

In most Celtic areas, pre-Christian Celtic worship of deities may well have resembled Venceslas Kruta's description: "a composite pantheon of tribal gods, local deities (often pre-Celtic), and cults pertaining to specific social classes, all banded together in a flexible system organized around a handful of major pan-Celtic gods from a common mythological 'pool'." Not every scholar agrees that there were pan-Celtic deities, but certainly Celtic honor of the deities varied from place to place, reflecting specific local influences and concerns. Literally hundreds of deity names have been found in inscriptions, but the overwhelming majority have been found only once in a very restricted geographic region. Frequently, deities, especially goddesses, were associated with specific geographic landmarks or tribes. Even when the same deity name is found in different places, ideas about the deity apparently varied somewhat. For example, images of the god Sucellus in the wine-growing region of Burgundy depicted him with a wine vat and grape leaf-crown, attributes that are absent elsewhere in Gaul.

4. Common Mythos

Despite the strong local character of Celtic religious practice, there was a common mythos and set of seasonal celebrations. The hundreds of differently named deities can be sorted into a dozen or so types represented largely by the same, small vocabulary of symbols.

For example, the name of the god Belenus (or Belenos) appears more often and in more places than any other Celtic deity. The iconography associated with his name clearly identifies him as a being associated with the sun. He is also depicted as a warrior/protector and healer. These functions were not unrelated, given the pre-Christian Celtic belief in the sun as a source of healing power and the view of the healing god as a defender against disease. However, it is also clear that in some places, Belenos was venerated primarily as a healer, while in other locales, such as the town of Aquileia in northern Italy, he was considered primarily a protector. This example cautions us to use evidence about deities with care. The fact that one Celtic group believed or acted in a certain way does not automatically mean that every other Celtic group shared those beliefs or acted in the same ways with regard to a given figure or event. On the other hand, a similar worldview seems to have lain behind beliefs and guided actions, despite the variation in expression.

5. Evolution over Time

Pre-Christian Celtic ideas about the deities and how they should be honored evolved over time. The evidence suggests that the earliest Celts thought of the deities as intelligent, sentient, conscious forces associated with the elements of the universe. Also, it seems that at one time the pre-Christian Celts did not visualize their deities as taking on human form. Symbols such as the wheel, horse, and various types of birds probably were used by themselves to represent deities.

As time passed, pre-Christian Celtic society became more stratified into special vocations and classes. Celtic iconography grew increasingly anthropomorphic. Doubtless, the changes in Celtic iconography reflect changes to the Celtic concept of the deities themselves. Venceslas Kruta writes of "the difficulties we encounter today when trying to match up the Gallo-Roman iconography with the La Tene figures. Not only are they different visual idioms, but they are undoubtedly two different systems which, though made up of the same components, by no means overlap." The differences between the earlier system and that of Gallo-Roman times are difficult to ascertain and quantify, and not veryone would agree they are as vast as Kruta maintains. However, the Romans undoubtedly had a tremendous effect on the practice of Celtic religion.


Increasingly in the Romano-Celtic period, the Celts turned to deities who, it was thought, had the skills and knowledge to protect their devotees in all aspects of life, from cradle to grave and beyond to the Afterlife. In general, deities associated with commerce and prosperity increased in popularity. By the time the myths were recorded, only traces of the deities' animal forms remain.

This emphasis on personal protectors diminished the focus on the elemental powers but it did not entirely supplant them. In Ireland, the belief in the elements as animate powers persisted into the Christian period, and many of the Scottish chants or ortha of the Carmina Gadelica invoke both Christian trinity and elemental powers. Such chants and customs continue to be used up to the present.

6. Indigenous Influence

Some aspects of pre-Christian Celtic theology, especially specific goddesses, may derive from the indigenous peoples who sometimes preceded the pre-Christian Celts on the land. When the Celts settled in a previously populated area, they assimilated and absorbed the inhabitants and some of their beliefs. The resulting culture, while recognizably Celtic, incorporated some of the earlier practices. In particular, the pre-Christian Celts appear to have believed that prosperity on the new land would come their way only if they made peace with and ritually acknowledged the local goddesses. Evidence suggests that such a compromise with the existing local cults was made by the Gauls who settled in the part of Anatolia that became known as Galatia.

7. Client and Lord

The pre-Christian Celts appear to have related to their deities just as they related to the nobles that ruled the society, as clients who entered into contracts with powerful nobles capable of protecting and helping them. When the client rendered the agreed-upon goods and services, the noble lord, by contract, was obliged to supply protection and help when the client needed them. Similarly, the pre-Christian Celts offered gifts of crafted goods, animal lives, and, in some circumstances, human ones to their protector deities. They believed that in response to such ritual and sacrifical actions, the guardian deities would fulfill their side of the contract.

However, along with this belief was the conviction that the right offerings must be made in the right way at the right time and place. The religious leaders were expected to have the knowledge to perform such rituals effectively. If a ritual failed to achieve its goal, the religious leaders used some method of divination to contact the Otherworld and learn what offering or action would be acceptable and effective.

8. Tripartite Cosmology

Underlying the actions of offering and sacrifice were the concepts of the pre-Christian Celtic cosmology discussed in other chapters. They believed that the cosmos was powered by a constant dynamic exchange of energy and matter, a balance between creation and de-creation, birth and death, form and decay. Offerings to the deities were not simply gifts to engage their good will but material the deities used to perform their roles as guardians in this world. Again, the noble-client model comes into play. The rents and dues of animals, food, and crafted goods that clients paid their human lords twice a year did not simply sit unused. A noble had many dependents to feed and clothe. When a client fell on hard times because of bad weather, disease, or attack, the lord was expected to use his own wealth to feed and clothe the client and the client's dependents. Similarly, the deities were thought to use the offerings they received to somehow fuel whatever power and protection was necessary to ensure health and prosperity among their clients in this world.

9. Denizens of the Otherworld

Although the deities were frequently associated with specific landmarks, their true home was the Otherworld. Interactions with the deities also powered a dynamic flow of energy between this world and the Otherworld, a flow necessary to the cosmic health and balance of both. As described later in this chapter, the descendants of the pre-Christian Celts constantly invoked the Otherworldly powers in their daily activities, and it is likely these practices dated from early on.

Although they emanated from the Otherworld, the deities were thought to be both like and unlike humans. The pre-Christian Celts did not see their deities as abstract, universal archetypes or indifferent, uninvolved powers. They were thought of as personal, conscious, unqiue, and specific beings who were interested in the affairs of this world and acted to directly influence the course of events. Deities could be powerful allies if you maintained a good relationship with them. Humans who were willing to dedicate the time and energy necessary to cultivate a relationship with deities could count on their help in times of need. However, it was believed that disaster might ensue if the relationship were neglected.

Apart from tribal protectors and personal guardians, most pre-Christian Celts seem to have approached specific deities for specific needs, such as going to healing shrines or wells for a particular problem. Initially, tribes probably honored mostly their own local deities. This was often the god or goddess from whom the tribe took its name or even claimed descent. As time passed, a few deities began to be honored by many groups. These deities, who were good for everything, probably were the focus of attention at the four major festivals of the year. For example, the popularity of Lugh/Lugus/Lleu, known as the master of every craft in Irish myth, skyrocketed in the period immediately preceding Christianity. This phenomenon may be related to a simultaneous social change resulting from the increasing influence and role of the skilled craftspeople in pre-Christian Celtic societies. It may also be that the deities that now appear to be pan-Celtic may have been those associated with celebrations of the days that began the seasons.

The pre-Christian Celts did not regard all goddesses to be different aspects of a single goddess nor were all gods different faces or incarnations of a single god. To them, such an idea would have been as ludicrous as suggesting that all human women are different aspects of a single being. This distinction is often overlooked by modern popular writers who prefer a more Jungian or Wiccan approach to understanding or describing the deities and their roles in the cosmos. The pre-Christian Celts were truly polytheists.