Lost beliefs

Modern western societies are a poor model for understanding prehistoric religion. For most of us, religion is a clearly demarcated part of life. But in many non-western societies it is, as the ethnologist William Goode said, 'not something which is only believed: it is lived". For the Iron Age Celts, religion, ritual and superstition would have permeated all aspects of life, from building a house or ploughing a field to making a journey or exchanging gifts.

Like many farming peoples, for thousands of years the ancestors of the Celts had lived their lives according to the seasons and calculated time by the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Most of the ritual acts discussed in this chapter probably marked important points in the agricultural cycle. The importance of the moon is demonstrated by a bronze calendar dating to the first century BC, from Coligny in Gaul, inscribed with sixty-two lunar months, and marking Beltane (now May Day) and other festivals based on the farming year.

Most of our knowledge of Celtic religion derives from the classical and Irish texts, embellished by a less coherent, but nonetheless weighty, body of archaeological data and contemporary inscriptions. The range of the literary descriptions is narrow: on the one hand we have a snapshot of Gaul and southern England as the indigenous cultures were subsumed within the Roman Empire, although some later inscriptions help to fill out the record; on the other a distant echo of pagan Irish beliefs chopped and changed by Christian monks. Given the likely diversity of Celtic beliefs and practices, it is easy to question the relevance of these texts to people in Scotland whose religious lives attracted no comment. But these documents provide at least a starting-point from which to discuss the diverse archaeological evidence for Celtic religion in Scotland.

The gods

One count of inscriptions and dedications attested to some 400 Celtic gods worshipped in the Roman period alone. Some would have been local deities, linked to rivers, lakes and mountains, while others had a wider currency and were associated with universal functions or attributes, much in the manner of modern saints. The Romans, with their own heterogeneous pantheon, were quick to tidy up Celtic beliefs, equating native deities with their classical equivalents. Mars, for example, came to be identified with at least sixty-nine Celtic gods. Only a few likely representations of Celtic gods have been found in Scotland.

In 1880. workmen digging foundations for a wall at Ballachulish came upon an almost life-sized female figure crudely carved in oak with inset eyes of quartz (70). It lay face down on gravel under more than 3m (10ft) of peat, below a collapsed wicker structure, where it had been placed, according to radiocarbon dating, around 700-500 BC (69).The sharp outlines of the carving, when first found, show that it did not lie for long on the surface but must have been buried deliberately in the peat or dumped in a stagnant pool. Perhaps a timber shrine had been deliberately cast down or maybe the disposal of the figure mimicked the ritual of drowning criminals under a wooden hurdle: a punishment attested in the literary sources and perhaps illustrated by some of the Danish bog bodies.

Another deity is probably represented by a granite tricephalos (a three-headed figure), with a stereotypically Celtic drooping moustache, dating to between 200 BC and AD 100. This carving, the size of a small football, was found in Sutherland in the early years of the 20th century. It is made of a non-Scottish stone and may have been brought from Gaul. How it came to be in the north of Scotland is unknown, but it seems to hint at a degree of religious contact between Scotland and Gaul prior to the Roman invasion. It also suggests links with Ireland, where numerous similar stone heads have been found.

Ballachulish Figure

70 The Ballachulish figure shortly after its discovery in 1880. The arms, hands and fingers are carved into the trunk. £ National .\ luseums of Scotland.

The Druids

Even closer religious links are implied by the classical and Irish writers who are unanimous in ascribing to the Celts a class of religious specialists known as Druids. Caesar describes this shadowy priesthood as a powerful and hierarchical, pan-tribal organization. Adherents all over Gaul and Britain, where the cult apparently originated, underwent a rigorous twenty-year training to memorize their unwritten and arcane knowledge. They met, Caesar claims, at fixed times, presumably the key Celtic festivals, at a sacred centre overseen by a chief Druid. As well as their priestly function, Caesars Druids doubled as teachers, judges and doctors and occupied an esteemed position in the hierarchies of their tribes. Like later Christian priests. Druids seem to have played a key role in secular life, lending divine endorsement to the Celtic aristocracy. The Irish records, although rather later in date, chronicle their crucial role in supporting kings whose right to their earthly position was established through appeal to the gods. Briochan. the magician priest ousted by St Columba from the court of the Pictish king Brude in the sixth century AD, may have been one of the last individuals to command such a role in Scotland.

70 The Ballachulish figure shortly after its discovery in 1880. The arms, hands and fingers are carved into the trunk. £ National .\ luseums of Scotland.

Although Caesar may have exaggerated their cohesion and influence (and indeed, may have conflated roles held quite distinct by the Celts into the Druid repertoire) it appears that the Druids were a well-organized and influential group, at least in the first century BC. The existence of a formal priesthood presupposes a common pantheon and a shared set of beliefs sufficiently baroque to require the attention of dedicated specialists.

However, for Iron Age Scotland, the written records are unhelpful and archaeology can scarcely be expected to deliver us incontrovertible Druids. All that we can say is that if the peoples living in Scotland had religious beliefs distinct from other Celts, and priests who were not Druids, then the Romans failed to report it.

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