Sacce WaeRS

Gaelic Culture


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The presence of sacred lakes are mentioned by tbe Roman historian Strabo, and archaeological evidence suggests that religious ceremonies took place by lakes and ponds during the La Téne Period. Prehistoric Furopeans deposited votive offerings in lakes, and many of these locations remained in religious use until the late Iron Age. Water had a particularly strong symbolic influence on Celtic belief, and certain bodies of water seem to have held a particular religious significance.

Facing: Doon Holy Well in County Donegal. Ireland was sacred to the Celts. Modern Irish Catholics still leave Christian votive offerings at the site.

Below: Water sacred to the goddess Sulis springs from the ground at the Roman baths of Aquae Sulis, in the modern town of Bath. England.

n 1857 the level of Lake Neuchatel dropped, and beside the Iron Age settlement at La Tene (which gave rise to the name for that period of Celtic culture) a system of wooden bridges and piers was discovered. Beneath them lay over 3,000 metal voti\'e offerings, most of which dated from the peak of the La Tene period (between the third and first centuries BC).

The Welsh lake Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey (an island mentioned by Tacitus as having special religious significance for the ancient British) was a similar site used for the deposition of votive offerings. Most date from the first century AD, when Anglesey became the last bastion ofDruidic power in southern

Britain, and took the form of metal objects of various forms, from small sculptures to weapons, domestic objects, chariot fittings, and cauldrons. The majority of these were bronze. Anglesey was overrun by the Romans in AD 61. At Narvan Fort in Ulster, human, animal, metal and ceramic offerings were deposited in an artificial pool near the fort from the ninth century BC, and the site later became associated with a Celtic temple structure.

In Gaul, the source of the River Seine was


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seen as an area of particular spiritual power, and excavations at Fontes Sequana near Dijon have produced over 200 wooden (mostly oak) carved votive offerings dating from the mid-first century AD. Many of these pieces were full statues, some shaped in the form of people with physical deformities. The spring that gave rise to the river was regarded as having healing properties, and most probably became a source of pilgrimage to those seeking a cure from their afflictions. Sequana is a name associated with a physician goddess, and a bronze statue of her was found in a shrine close to the spring.

Sequana Goddess

Celtic deity becomes Roman

Bath in England was also regarded as a place possessing powers that healed the sick, and "taking the waters" there for healing purposes remained popular until the late 19th century. The Waters of Sulis (Aquae StiUs to the Romans) was a spot where hot springs pumped up heated mineral-rich water. The goddess Sulis was venerated by the Ancient Britons in a similar fashion as Sequana, and votive offerings have been found in the area, although much of this pre-Roman activity was covered by subsequent Roman and post-Roman construction. Worship of Sulis continued into the Roman period, where Sulis Minerva was seen as a healing goddess.

Strabo's reference to Celtic sacred lakes comes from his description of the votive treasure of the Volcae Tectosages, pillaged by the Romans at the south-eastern Gallic settlement of Tolosa (Toulouse ) in 106 BC. Much of this votive treasure consisted of gold and silver, a portion of which reputedly comprised of fine Greek mctalwork looted from Delphi. Strabo mentions that although much of the treasure was recovered from "a temple much honored throughout the countryside," more treasure was beyond reach, cast into the lakes surrounding the religious and political center.

For the Gallic and British Celts, the practice of casting votive offerings into water did not die out following the arrival of the Romans, and Irish examples can be found well into the sixth century AD. Gregory of Tours writing at the end of the sixth century recorded that peasants still cast animals, food, and drink into nearby lakes as votive offerings, suggesting an unbroken tradition stretching back for many centuries. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire these older beliefs briefly reasserted themselves Ix-fore being submerged by the rising tide of Christianity in the Celtic world.

Below: The Roman baths at Aquae Sulis, 200, with the Temple of Minerva Sulis in the foreground.

Gods and Dioinifies

Celtic Culture Images

or goddess had a devoted following, and the interrelation between them is still difficult to determine. Often when historians describe Celtic religion they arc speaking of Celtic mythology, as recorded in the Irish annals. This is an offshoot of a far older and more complex system of devotion. A combination of this later evidence, contemporary non-Celtic observers, and the remains of religious artifacts and shrines combine to establish a somewhat rudimentary understanding of the Celtic religion.

We have already observed that the Celtic system of belief was polytheistic, and even by temporarily setting aside regional deities, we are still left with over 100 gods and goddesses who

Because the Celts left no pre-Christian written legacy, our knowledge of their gods is hased on Greco-Roman writings, whose evidence points to the Celts worshipping literally hundreds of gods and goddesses. The discovery of likenesses and votive offerings sheds further light on this pantheon. Recently historians have tried to determine the hierarchy of Celtic divinities, and to link gods with particular religious beliefs.

istorians have managed to identify a collection of gods who were venerated throughout the Celtic world. Others had a regional following, while still more were linked to particular tribes or sacred locations. Each god

Right: Depiction of the Celtic god Cernunnos. in a detail from the Gundestrup cauldron. He is shown holding a snake and a sacred tore.

Left: Bronze figure of the Goddess of Caldevigo, 5th century bc. Paleovenetian.

Romanticism Sculpture About War

were venerated throughout the Celtic world. Roman and Greek historians tried to link Celtic deities with their own, creating a further degree of confusion. Although both the Roman and the Celtic religions followed Indo-European polytheistic forms, they were very different. Caesar recorded that the Celts believed their gods to be their ancestors, yet they were usually unwilling to view their deities as having a human form.

The key gods

An exception was Cernunnos, identified as the Dagda (Good God) of Irish mythology, who was often depicted in human form, but wearing stag antlers. This leading Celtic god was often portrayed with animals, and historians have tried to identify' him as "Lord of the Animals," but he is also seen as a sort of creator and taker of life. Another version shows him with a symbolic phallus (a creator of life). As a taker of life, he is often portrayed wielding a club, and the Ccrna Abbas Gint hill-carving in Dorset in England has often been identified with this aspect of Cernunnos. Incidentally, the Romans identified him with their own Hercules.

The Celtic mother-goddess was Danu, who created a river (often identified with the Danube) as a form of divine water gift. In Irish mythology it watered the sacred oak tree from which all subsequent Celtic gods and goddesses (the children of Danu) were derived. Danu has also been linked with the Irish goddess Anu, who was the "mother of the Irish gods." Venus was probably the closest Roman equivalent. Modern new-age practitioners might call her the "earth-mother."

Ogmios (also Ogmia or Ogma) was the god of learning. He was portrayed with sun rays extending in a halo around his head (like later Christian depictions), and is also attributed as the god of eloquence. In Irish myth Ogma was the son of Dagda, and has been linked to the Roman god Heracles. Lugus (or Lugh) was another deity worshiped throughout the Celtic world, and has l>een associated with harvest, and the festival of Lughnasadh. In Irish mythology he is seen as a warrior god, identified with light, and the g(xl of crafts, skills, and invention.

The Romans equated him to Mercury.

Brigandu (also Brigantia or Brigit) was the goddess of fertility, who the Romans linked to Minerva. A British god, Brigandu was unknown on the mainland of Europe. It has also been suggested that she was another personification of Danu, and linked to the festival of Imbolc. Camulos was the Celtic war god, and naturally the Romans linked him to Mars. In Irish annals he is known as Cumal, which was the old Irish term for "warrior."

Left: Bronze figure of the Goddess of Caldevigo, 5th century bc. Paleovenetian.

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