Sace Landscape

Roman chroniclers report that Celtic worship often took place in the open air, in places regarded as having a sacred nature. These included oak groves, springs, lakes, islands, ponds, or rivers. Archaeological evidence for their existence is scant, save a handful of votive offerings or other religious items. The Celts also made use of religious structures such as shrines or temples, and the remains of many of these can be identified today.

I he Roman chronicler Lucan reported the [ finding of a sacred grove by Caesar's army in southern Caul during the mid-first century BC.

"A grove there was, untouched by men's hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight from above. No rural Pan dwelt here... but gods were worshiped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings, and every tree was sprinkled

Below: The Hostage's Mound at Tara Hill, County Meath, Ireland. Tradition has it that the Fal stone, associated with the crowning of Irish kings, stood on this burial mound.

with human gore. On these boughs birds feared to perch; in those coverts wild beasts would not He down; no wind ever bore down upon that wood, nor thunderbolt hurtled from black clouds; the trees, even when they sprea<l their leaves to no rustle, rustled among themselves. Water also fell there in abundance from dark springs. The images of the gods, grim and rude, were uncouth blocks, fanned of felled tree trunks. "

The Nemetons

Evidence suggests that Celtic religious sanctuaries were often located in hidden groves in the middle of woodland. The Celtic word nemeton probably refers to these sacred groves, and numerous place names can be identified throughout Celtic Gaul and Britain. Tacitus records the presence of sacred groves in Anglesey in Wales, while Strabo reported similar locations in Asia Minor (now Turkey). The Galatians in Asia Minor met at a place called

Drunemcton, which translates as "sacred oak grove," a place for religious worship and for meetings of tribal councils.

These \vcx>dland locations are almost impossible to identify by archaeological methods, although the wooden images of gods described by Lucan have occasionally survived, such as the crudely carved figure of a woman found at Ballachulish in Scotland in 1880. Apart from oak, trees considered of religious significance to the Celts included beech, alder, elm, and yew. Even today, certain trees are seen to have spiritual properties, and "rag trees" where people tie scraps of clothing to branches can be found as far apart as Cyprus, Spain, France, la-land, and Scotland.

By the late Iron Age, some Celts began to erect permanent structures, designed in part to resemble the older natural sacred groves. These artificial groves were probably simple temple structures, such as the first century BC structure at Narvan, County Armagh in Ireland. From the early Bronze Age, wooden circles were used. One of these sacred timber structures has been reconstructed near Welshpool in Wales (Sarn-y-Bryn-Caled), and surrounds a pit that contained cremated human remains. Some archaeologists have argued that sites such as these developed into the later temple structures

In Ireland, Tara has long been associated with the crowning of the I ligh Kings of Ireland throughout the Celtic period, and it has also been described in Irish annals as a religious site. Similarly, areas that prov ided defensive works for the Celts also contain evidence of religious use, such as the Irish coastal fort of Dun Aengus on Inshmore, County Galway, or the La Tene period hilltop fort at Zavist in Bohemia. In this latter fortification, a shrine was placed on the highest portion of the hill. A substantial wall probably enclosed a religious structure similar to that at Narvan. Fortifications (pppidum) at Roquepertuse in southern France and Liptovska Mara in Bohemia both incorporated shrines and religious porticoes into the main structure; the French version was adorned with human skulls (see page 171). While these temples were evidently important, and associated with centers of political and military power, the Celts still retained an affinity with the natural landscape, and also worshiped in other, more remote sacred locations.

Above: Reconstruction of the sacred timber circle at Sarn-y-Bryn-Caled. near Welshpool, Wales.



• Narvan




• Tara


• Anglesey

• Welshpool


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