Who were the Celts?
The Celts were a group of people that lived in Europe during the Iron Age and Medieval period. They were a collection of Indo-European peoples in Europe and Anatolia, identified by their use of Celtic languages and other cultural similarities. Historical Celtic groups included the Gauls, the Celtiberians and Gallaeci of Iberia, the Britons and Gaels of Britain and Ireland, the Boii, and the Galatians.
They spoke Celtic languages and shared similar cultures, religions, and art. The Celtic people lived in various regions across Europe, including the British Isles, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and parts of Eastern Europe. They were known for their metalworking skills, elaborate art, and being fierce warriors. The Celtic culture and way of life declined during the Roman conquest and later during the Medieval period, but their legacy still lives on today in art, language, and folklore.
The origins of the Celts are a subject of debate among scholars, but it is generally believed that they emerged as a distinct cultural and linguistic group in the late Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. What is known about them is covered below. The earliest known Celtic cultures were located in central Europe, particularly in what is now Austria and southern Germany, but over time they expanded westward into France and the Iberian Peninsula and eastward into the Balkans and Anatolia. Celtic tribes also migrated to the British Isles, where they would have a significant cultural and political impact. It is important to note that much of what we know about Celtic mythology and religion comes from archaeological evidence, as the Celts did not have a written language until they were introduced to the Roman alphabet. As such, many aspects of their beliefs and practices are still not fully understood or documented.
Caption: A Gallo-Roman sculpture of the Celtic god Cernunnos (middle), flanked by the Roman gods Apollo and Mercury
Attribution: Trompette, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cernunos_phot_Trompette_08637.jpg
The relation between ethnicity, language and culture in the Celtic world is unclear and debated; for example, over how the Iron Age people of Britain and Ireland should be called Celts. Today, ‘Celt’ customarily refers to ‘speakers of Celtic languages’ rather than to a single ethnic group. The history of pre-Celtic Europe and Celtic origins is also debated. The traditional “Celtic from the East” theory says the proto-Celtic language arose in the late Bronze Age Urnfield culture of central Europe, named after grave sites in southern Germany, which flourished from around 1200 BC. This theory links the Celts with the Iron Age Hallstatt culture which followed it (c. 1200–500 BC), so named after the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria, and with the following La Tène culture (c. 450 BC onward), named after the La Tène site in Switzerland. It proposes that Celtic culture spread westward and southward from these areas by diffusion or migration.
One newer theory, “Celtic from the West”, suggests proto-Celtic arose earlier, was a lingua franca in the Atlantic Bronze Age coastal zone, and spread eastward. Another newer theory, “Celtic from the Centre”, suggests proto-Celtic arose between these two zones in Bronze Age Gaul and then spread in various directions. After the Celtic settlement of Southeast Europe in the 3rd century BC, Celtic culture reached as far east as central Anatolia, Turkey.
Who did the Celts revere as Gods?
Caption: Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and riding, lacked a direct Roman equivalent, and is therefore one of the most persistent distinctly Celtic deities. This image comes from Germany, about 200 AD.
Attribution: Rosemania, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Epona.jpg
Celts had a rich and diverse pantheon of gods and goddesses. The reasons for this abundance are not entirely clear, but it is likely that different tribes and regions had their own local gods and goddesses, which eventually merged with more widely recognised deities as the Celtic culture expanded and interacted with other cultures.
The Celts believed their gods and goddesses were associated with different aspects of nature, such as the sun, moon, stars, forests, rivers, and mountains. They believed that these deities controlled the natural world and had the power to influence events in their lives. The Celts also believed in an afterlife and had gods associated with death and the Underworld.
Some of the best-known Celtic deities, together with a brief description, include:
- Aine: Aine is a goddess of love, fertility, and the harvest. She is also associated with sovereignty and is said to have the power to grant or withhold abundance from the land.
- Angus: Angus is a god of love and youth and is associated with beauty, music, and poetry. He is often depicted with a harp and is said to be able to bring happiness to those he favours.
- Arawn: Arawn is a Welsh god of the Otherworld, and is often associated with the Underworld. He is known for his hunting abilities and is sometimes called the “lord of the wild hunt.” In Welsh mythology, he is often portrayed as a powerful and wise figure who helps the hero Pwyll in a famous tale.
- Artio: Artio was a goddess worshipped in Gaul and Germany, often depicted with a bear or accompanied by a bear. She was associated with wildlife, nature, and fertility and may have been a goddess of hunting or the forest.
- Badb: Badb is a goddess of war and death, and is associated with crows and ravens. She is said to have the power to instil fear in her enemies and can sometimes appear as a crow or raven on the battlefield.
- Brigid: Brigid was the goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft. She is one of the most important goddesses in Celtic mythology, being associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft. She is often depicted as a triple goddess, with healing, poetry, and smithcraft aspects. She is also associated with fire and fertility and is sometimes called the “triple goddess” because of her three aspects: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. In Irish mythology, she is often associated with a Christian saint of the same name.
- Cailleach: A goddess associated with winter, storms, and the earth. She was often depicted as an old woman or hag. In Irish and Scottish mythology, she is often associated with deer and other animals. She was said to have control over the weather and the changing of the seasons.
- Cernunnos: Cernunnos is a god of fertility, nature, and hunting. He is typically depicted with antlers or horns and is often associated with animals such as stags and boars. (see more below about Cernunnos.)
- Dagda: The chief god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Dagda is associated with fertility, agriculture, and the cycle of life and death. He is typically depicted as a large, powerful figure with a cauldron, club, and harp.
- Danu: Danu is the mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a group of supernatural beings in Irish mythology. She is often associated with the earth, fertility, and the cycle of life and death. Danu is sometimes called the “divine mother” and is considered a goddess of wisdom and knowledge. Her name is also associated with the Celtic word for “water,” and she is sometimes seen as a goddess of rivers and wells. In some tales, she is the ancestor of all Irish gods and goddesses and is revered as the mother of the land. She is a powerful symbol of life, abundance, and the natural world, and is often depicted with symbols of fertility and growth, such as fruit, flowers, and grain.
- Epona: Epona is a goddess of horses and fertility and is associated with protection and prosperity. She is often depicted riding a horse and is sometimes shown with a cornucopia.
- Eriu/Ériu: Eriu is a goddess associated with the land of Ireland. Her name is also associated with the name “Ireland” itself, which is sometimes called “Éire” in Irish. She is often seen as a protector of the land and its people and one of the three goddesses of sovereignty, along with Fotla and Banba. She is sometimes called the “matron goddess” of the island.
- Goibniu: Goibniu is a god of blacksmiths and metalworking. He is often depicted with a hammer and is said to have the power to create magical weapons.
- Lugh/Lugus: Lugh/Lugus Lugh was the god of light, arts, and crafts, but also the god of many skills and talents. He is often associated with the sun. He is known as a warrior, a craftsman, and a bard and is also associated with the harvest. In Irish mythology, he is often portrayed as a hero and is said to have defeated the Fomorians, a race of supernatural beings.
- Manannan mac Lir: Manannan mac Lir is the god of the sea and is often associated with the Isle of Man. He is known for his magical abilities, and is sometimes called the “god of the otherworld.” He is also associated with the arts, particularly music and poetry.
- Morrigan: Morrigan was the goddess of war and fate. She is a complex and multifaceted goddess in Celtic mythology, associated with war, fate and sovereignty. She is often depicted as a shape-shifting goddess who can transform into a crow, raven, or wolf, and sometimes she is seen as a triple goddess alongside two other deities, Badb and Macha. She was believed to have the power to foretell the outcome of a battle and sometimes appeared as a crow to warriors. In Irish mythology, Morrigan is often portrayed as a powerful and mysterious figure, feared and respected by mortals and other deities alike. She is sometimes associated with death and transformation and is believed to have the power to bring about change and renewal. Morrigan’s association with crows and ravens is significant, as these birds were seen as messengers between the world of mortals and the Otherworld.
- Nantosuelta: A goddess of nature, fertility, and the harvest in Gaulish mythology, often depicted with a pot or bowl and accompanied by a bird or snake. She may have been a goddess of abundance and prosperity.
- Nuada: Nuada is the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is associated with sovereignty, war, and justice. He is typically depicted with a silver hand, which was replaced with a magical one after he lost his original hand in battle.
- Oghma: Oghma is a god of language, writing, and communication. He is often depicted with a club, and is said to have invented the Ogham alphabet.
- Rhiannon: Rhiannon is a Welsh goddess associated with horses, fertility, and the Otherworld. She is often depicted riding a white horse, and is said to have the power to communicate with the dead.
- Sucellus: A god of agriculture, forests, and alcohol in Gaulish mythology, often depicted with a hammer or drinking vessel and accompanied by a ram. He may have been a god of fertility and abundance and was sometimes associated with the Roman god Silvanus.
- Taranis: A god of thunder and the sky in Gaulish mythology, often depicted with a wheel or lightning bolt and associated with the bull or bull sacrifice. He may have been a god of weather, war, and justice and was sometimes associated with the Roman god Jupiter.
The list above provides just a few examples. There were many other gods and goddesses in the Celtic pantheon, each with their own unique attributes and associations.
Compared to some ancient societies, the Celts had a large pantheon (of all) of gods and goddesses. However, it is difficult to compare the number of deities in different cultures as it depends on how one defines a “god” or “goddess” and what sources are available for study. It is also worth noting that the Celts were not a single unified group but rather a diverse collection of tribes and peoples, each with its own unique religious practices and beliefs. As a result, the number and nature of their deities varied across different regions and time periods.
The Underworld, Afterworld and Otherworld Explained
The Underworld, Afterworld, and Otherworld are all concepts found in various mythologies and belief systems throughout the world, including in Celtic mythology.
The Underworld generally refers to a realm located beneath the earth and associated with death and the afterlife. In many mythologies, the Underworld is seen as a place where the souls of the dead go after they have passed on from the mortal world. In Celtic mythology, the Underworld is often called the “Otherworld,” which is discussed further below. The Underworld is typically associated with darkness, decay, and the shadow side of life.
The Afterworld, on the other hand, refers to the state of existence that a person enters into after they die. It can be seen as a transition between life on earth and the eternal realm of the Underworld or Otherworld. In some belief systems, the Afterworld is seen as a temporary state that the soul passes through before entering the Underworld or Otherworld. In other belief systems, the Afterworld is seen as a permanent state of existence for the soul.
The Otherworld is a concept that is found in many different mythologies and belief systems, including Celtic mythology. It is often described as a realm that is located parallel to our world but is invisible to most mortals. The Otherworld is associated with magic, mystery, and the supernatural. It is often seen as a place of eternal youth, where the natural laws of our world do not apply. The Otherworld is also associated with the afterlife and is often seen as a place where the souls of the dead live after they have passed on from the mortal world.
In Celtic mythology, the Otherworld is often associated with the Tuatha Dé Danann, a group of supernatural beings who were believed to inhabit this realm. The Otherworld is also associated with various mythical places, such as the Isle of Avalon, which was said to be the final resting place of King Arthur in Arthurian legend.
Whilst the concepts of the Underworld, Afterworld, and Otherworld are related to each other in their association with death, they differ in their specific meanings and connotations. The Underworld is a specific location associated with darkness and decay, while the Afterworld is a state of existence that the soul passes through after death. The Otherworld is a parallel realm associated with magic and the supernatural and is often seen as a place of eternal youth and the afterlife.
An in-Depth look at Cernunnos, the God of Fertility, Nature, and Hunting
The name “Cernunnos” is derived from the Celtic words “cern” and “un nos,” which mean “horn” and “one”, respectively. The name “Cernunnos” therefore means “the one with horns.” Cernunnos was worshipped by the ancient Celts through offerings and sacrifices, as well as through rituals and festivals. He was often invoked for protection and fertility, and his image was used in amulets and talismans.
Cernunnos is believed to have been worshipped by the ancient Celtic people, particularly in Gaul and Britain. His name appears in several inscriptions and references in Celtic mythology and literature, such as in the Gaulish Coligny Calendar and the Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn.
Cernunnos was also known as the “Lord of the Animals” and was believed to have the power to communicate with and control animals. He was also associated with fertility and was thought to be able to bless crops and livestock. Cernunnos is often depicted as a horned god associated with nature, fertility, and the wilderness. He is commonly associated with animals, particularly stags or deer, and is often depicted with antlers or wearing a headdress adorned with antlers. In Celtic art, Cernunnos is often depicted sitting cross-legged with his antlers and a torc around his neck. He is also shown holding or surrounded by animals such as snakes, bulls, rams, or other horned animals, highlighting his association with nature and the animal world.
Despite the limited information about Cernunnos in ancient texts and documents, his image and influence continue to fascinate scholars and enthusiasts of Celtic mythology and paganism today.
The exact nature and significance of Cernunnos in Celtic religion and mythology are not fully understood, as little written evidence exists from the time. However, scholars have proposed various interpretations and theories based on the available evidence.
Some scholars suggest that Cernunnos represents a general concept of the divine masculine, associated with wild nature and fertility. Others argue that he may have been a specific deity with a particular domain, such as a god of the hunt or the Underworld. Others propose that he may have represented a shamanic or psychopompic figure associated with transformation or guiding souls to the afterlife.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Cernunnos and his role in Celtic religion, he remains a popular figure in contemporary neopaganism and modern interpretations of Celtic spirituality. His image and symbolism are often incorporated into artwork, jewellery, and other forms of spiritual practice.
Cernunnos was believed to be a god, specifically a deity associated with fertility, animals, and the natural world. It is unclear when he was first revered, as the Celtic religion did not have a written tradition and much of what is known about Cernunnos comes from archaeological evidence and later Christian accounts. However, depictions of Cernunnos have been found on artefacts dating back to France’s Gallo-Roman period (1st to 4th century AD), suggesting that the Celts worshipped him before the Roman conquest. It is possible that he was worshipped even earlier than this, as the origins of the Celtic religion are difficult to trace.
There are several other deities in different mythologies that share similarities with Cernunnos. For example, in Greek mythology, there is Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds, and flocks, which is often depicted with the legs and horns of a goat. In Egyptian mythology, there is Banebdjedet, a ram-headed god associated with fertility and regeneration. In Hinduism, there is Pashupati, a god associated with animals, particularly with the bull, and considered as the lord of all living beings.
It’s important to note that while there are similarities between these deities and Cernunnos, they are unique and distinct entities within their respective mythologies.
Cernunnos is also often associated with the Gaulish Celts, who inhabited what is now France and Belgium during the Iron Age. However, he may have been worshipped by other Celtic peoples as well.
Caption: The Cernunnos-type antlered figure or horned god, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen
Attribution: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gundestrupkedlen-_00054_(cropped).jpg
The name “Cernunnos” itself is of uncertain origin and meaning, although it may derive from a word meaning “horned” or “the horned one.”
In terms of historical sources, there are relatively few references to Cernunnos in ancient texts. The most famous depiction of him is the so-called “Cernunnos” or “Horned God” panel on the Gundestrup Cauldron, a large silver vessel that was likely produced in the first century BC or AD and discovered in Denmark in the 19th century. However, the precise significance of this panel and its relationship to other depictions of Cernunnos is debated.
Caption: God of Etang-sur-Arroux, a possible depiction of Cernunnos. He wears a torc at the neck and on the chest. Two snakes with ram heads encircle him at the waist. Two cavities at the top of his head are probably designed to receive deer antlers. Two small human faces at the back of his head indicate that he is tricephalic. Musée d’Archéologie Nationale (National Archaeological Museum), in France.
Attribution: PHGCOM, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God_of_Etang_sur_Arroux_possible_depiction_of_Cernunnos.jpg
There are several modern Pagan and Neopagan traditions that venerate Cernunnos or draw inspiration from his imagery and symbolism. These include Wicca, Druidry, and various forms of Celtic Reconstructionism. Some of these groups have developed their own interpretations of Cernunnos and his significance, which may differ from scholarly or historical views.
The historical context in which Cernunnos was worshipped is not fully understood, as much of what we know about Celtic religion comes from archaeological evidence rather than written records. However, it is believed that Cernunnos was worshipped across much of Europe during the Iron Age and that he may have been a pan-Celtic deity worshipped by different Celtic tribes in slightly different forms.
Geographically, Cernunnos was most prominent in Gaul (modern-day France) and the British Isles, but his worship may have extended as far east as Romania and Bulgaria. Cernunnos was often associated with other Celtic deities, including Epona, a goddess of horses, and the Morrigan, a goddess of war and fate.
The image and symbolism of Cernunnos evolved and were influenced by different cultural and religious practices. In Roman Gaul, for example, he was sometimes associated with the Roman god Mercury, while in the British Isles, he was often depicted alongside other Celtic deities in the art and iconography of the time.
In conclusion, there is much to explore and research about Cernunnos, his role in Celtic mythology, and how his image and symbolism evolved over time. You could focus your paper on his associations with fertility and the natural world, his relationship with animals, or his depiction in Celtic art and iconography. You could also explore the historical context in which he was worshipped and the geographic areas where he was most prominent.
Cernunnos was closely associated with fertility and the natural world in Celtic mythology. As a deity of fertility, he was believed to have power over the cycles of life and death in nature and was associated with the growth of crops and the breeding of livestock. He was also associated with the seasons and may have been worshipped at specific times of the year, such as the spring or fall equinox.
Cernunnos’ relationship with animals was also an important aspect of his mythology. He was often depicted surrounded by animals, including deer, boars, and serpents, and was believed to have a special connection with the animal kingdom. In some depictions, he is shown wearing animal skins or holding animal horns, emphasizing his relationship with the natural world.
In Celtic art and iconography, Cernunnos was often depicted as a horned or antlered figure, sitting cross-legged or in a meditative pose. He was sometimes depicted with a torc (a type of neck ornament) around his neck, symbolizing his power and authority. Other symbols associated with Cernunnos include the ram-headed serpent, which may have represented his power over the Underworld, and the triple-headed serpent, which may have been a symbol of his association with the three realms of earth, sea, and sky.
The historical context in which Cernunnos was worshipped is not fully understood, but it is believed that he was worshipped across much of Europe during the Iron Age. He may have been a pan-Celtic deity, worshipped by different Celtic tribes in slightly different forms. Cernunnos was most prominent in Gaul (modern-day France) and the British Isles, but his worship may have extended as far east as Romania and Bulgaria.
In conclusion, Cernunnos was a deity in Celtic mythology closely associated with fertility, the natural world, and animals. He was often depicted in Celtic art and iconography as a horned or antlered figure surrounded by animals and was worshipped across much of Europe during the Iron Age. His mythology and symbolism evolved over time, influenced by different cultural and religious practices, but his associations with fertility, nature, and the animal kingdom remained central to his worship.
Sources and Further Reading
- Celtic Mythology: An Enthralling Overview of Celtic Myths, Gods and Goddesses (Ancient Britain), Paperback, by Billy Wellman (Author and Publisher) 18 Oct. 2022, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celtic-Mythology-Enthralling-Overview-Goddesses/dp/B0BJNDCGV1/
- Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes, Hardcover, by Philip Freeman 25 May 2017, published by Oxford University Press USA, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celtic-Mythology-Tales-Goddesses-Heroes/dp/0190460474/
- DNA of the Celts, by Simon Keegan 27 Apr 2023, published by New Haven Publishing Limited, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/DNA-Celts-Simon-Keegan/dp/1912587823/
- Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition (Biography & Memoirs), Paperback, by Anne Ross 20 Sept. 1993, published by Constable, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pagan-Celtic-Britain-Iconography-Tradition/dp/0094723303
- The Ancient Celts, Second Edition, Paperback – Illustrated, by Barry Cunliffe (Author) 26 April 2018, published by Oxford University Press, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ancient-Celts-Second-Barry-Cunliffe/dp/0198752938/
- The Celts, by Alice Roberts, 19 May 2016, published by Heron Books; Illustrated edition, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celts-Alice-Roberts/dp/1784293350/
- The Celts: A Sceptical History, Paperback, by Simon Jenkins (Author) 30 Mar. 2023, published by Profile Books, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celts-Sceptical-History-Simon-Jenkins/dp/178816881X/
- The Celts: Bronze Age to New Age, Paperback – Illustrated, by John Haywood (Author) 1 July 2004, published by Routledge, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celts-Bronze-Age-New/dp/058250578X/
- The Celts: Origins, Myths & Inventions: Origins, Myths and Inventions, Paperback, by John Collis (Author) 1 October 2003, published by The History Press, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celts-Origins-Myths-Inventions/dp/0752429132/
- The Gods of the Celts (Illustrated History) (New edition) Paperback, by Miranda Green (Author) 9 July 1997, published by Sutton Publishing Limited, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Miranda-Green-Illustrated-History-Paperbacks/dp/B00I613LCO/
- The rise and fall of the Celtic warriors, at: https://www.ted.com/talks/philip_freeman_the_rise_and_fall_of_the_celtic_warriors?language=en
- Who Was Cernunnos – What Do We Really Know About Him – Celtic Mythology, at: https://youtu.be/o9hC8y1JRnc
- Cernunnos – The Celtic Horned God Of The Wild Wood: Celtic Mythology Explained, at: https://youtu.be/3DkZR7qiXYI
- The Dagda – (Celtic Mythology Explained), at: https://youtu.be/62DBOC5CQGo
- Lugh – The Impetuous God of the Celts (Celtic Mythology Explained), at: https://youtu.be/hrLUdqtyxZk
- Top 21 Celtic Gods and Goddesses and their Roles in Celtic Mythology, at: https://youtu.be/OLyDKV-_EGc
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End Notes and Explanations
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- Source: Chadwick, Nora; Corcoran, J. X. W. P. (1970). The Celts. Penguin Books. pp. 28–33. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celts ↑
- Sources: (i) Chadwick, Nora; Corcoran, J. X. W. P. (1970). The Celts. Penguin Books. pp. 28–33., (ii) Cunliffe, Barry (1997). The Ancient Celts. Penguin Books. pp. 39–67. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celts ↑
- Source: Koch, John T (2010). Celtic from the West Chapter 9: Paradigm Shift? Interpreting Tartessian as Celtic – see map 9.3 The Ancient Celtic Languages c. 440/430 BC – see third map in PDF at URL provided, which is essentially the same map (PDF). Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK. p. 193. ISBN 978-1-84217-410-4. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celts ↑
- Source: Ibid, p. 190. ↑
- Source: Sims-Williams (August 2020). “An Alternative to ‘Celtic from the East’ and ‘Celtic from the West’”. Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 30 (3): 511–529. ↑