Celtic polytheism: Wikis


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Celtic mythology

Celtic polytheism
Celtic deities (list)

Gaelic mythology

Irish mythology
Scottish mythology
Hebridean mythology
Tuatha Dé Danann
Mythological Cycle
Ulster Cycle
Fenian Cycle

Brythonic mythology

British Iron Age religion
British mythology
Welsh mythology
Breton mythology
Book of Taliesin
Trioedd Ynys Prydein

Religious vocations

Druids · Bards · Vates


Samhain, Calan Gaeaf
Imbolc, Gŵyl Fair
Beltane, Calan Mai
Lughnasadh, Calan Awst

Index of related articles

Celtic polytheism, sometimes known as Celtic paganism, refers to the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Celtic peoples of Western Europe prior to Christianization.

Celtic polytheism was animistic, believing in spirits existing in natural objects such as trees and rocks. Religious beliefs and practices of the Celts varied throughout the different Celtic lands, which included Ireland, Great Britain, Celtiberia, Gaul, areas along the Danube river, and Galatia; however there were commonalities shared by all.

Celtic religious practices bear the marks of Romanization following the Roman Empire's conquest of certain Celtic lands such as Gaul (58–51 BCE) and Britain (43 CE), although the depth and significance of Romanization is a subject of scholarly disagreement.

Celtic polytheism declined in the Roman Empire period, especially after the outlawing of one form of it, Druidism, by the emperor Claudius in 54 CE. It persisted somewhat longer in Britain and Ireland, where it gradually disappeared during Christianization, over the 5th to 6th centuries.



Celtic polytheists probably did not have a name for their religion until faced with other religions to compare it to. Therefore, the only titles bestowed upon Celtic religion are the ones which were used to describe the religion in a competitive manner, such as the Latin word "paganism".


Three Celtic goddesses, as depicted at Coventina's well.

We know comparatively little about Celtic polytheism because the evidence for it is fragmentary, largely due to the fact that the pagan Celts themselves wrote nothing down about their religion.[1][2] Therefore all we have to study their religion from is the literature from the early Christian period, commentaries from classical Greek and Roman scholars, and archaeological evidence.[3]


Literary sources

The Iron Age Celts wrote nothing down about their religion, not because they couldn't (many knew the Greek alphabet, and used it for other purposes[2]), but because it was forbidden. The Druids, or priestly caste of the Celts, would only allow their knowledge to be passed orally, possibly so as to protect its secrets from outsiders.[2]

Greek and Roman sources

Various Greek and Roman writers of the ancient world commented on the Celts and their beliefs. The Roman general (and later dictator) Julius Caesar, when leading the conquering armies of the Roman Republic against Celtic Gaul, made various descriptions of the inhabitants, though some of his claims, such as that the Druids practiced human sacrifice by burning people in wicker men, have come under scrutiny by modern scholars.

However, the key problem with the use of these sources is that they were often biased against the Celts, whom the classical peoples viewed as "barbarians".[1] In the case of the Romans who conquered several Celtic realms, they would have likely been biased in favour of making the Celts look uncivilized, thereby giving the "civilized" Romans more reason to conquer them. [4]

Irish and Welsh sources

A scene from the Táin Bó Cúailnge, an Irish epic that told of a great war, here depicting its hero, Cúchulainn. Whilst this story was originally Celtic pagan, it only survives to us in a Christianized written form.

The other literary sources come from the Celtic lands of Wales and Ireland, in the Christian medieval period, long after the decline of Celtic paganism. These sources are in the form of mythological stories, such as the Welsh Mabinogion and the Irish vernacular sources such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. These were initially written in the Welsh and Irish language respectively.

They were written several centuries after Christianity became the dominant religion in these regions, and were written down by Christian monks (at the time, monks would have been some of the few people with the ability to write). Instead of treating the characters as deities, they are allocated the roles of being historical heroes, for instance, in the Irish sources the gods are claimed to be an ancient tribe of humans known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. Because they were written in a very Christian context, these sources must be scrutinized with even more rigor than the classical sources in assessing their validity as evidence for pagan Celtic religion.[1]

While it is possible to single out specific texts which – because of their pagan content – can be strongly argued to encapsulate genuine echoes or resonances of the pre-Christian past, opinion is divided as to whether these texts contain substantive material derived from oral tradition as preserved by bards or whether they were the creation of the medieval monastic tradition.[1]

Archaeological sources

The archaeological evidence does not contain the bias inherent in the literary sources. Nonetheless, the interpretation of this evidence can sometimes be colored by the 21st century mindset.[1]

Various archaeological discoveries have aided our understanding of the pagan religion of the Celts.[citation needed] One is the minted coins of Gaul, Raetia, Noricum, and Britain,[citation needed] and another is the sculptures, monuments, and inscriptions associated with the Celts of continental Europe and of Roman Britain.[citation needed] Most of the monuments, and their accompanying inscriptions, belong to the Roman period and reflect a considerable degree of syncretism between Celtic and Roman gods; even where figures and motifs appear to derive from pre-Roman tradition, they are difficult to interpret in the absence of a preserved literature on mythology.[citation needed] A notable example of this is the horned deity that was called Cernunnos; several depictions and inscriptions of him have been found, but very little is known about the myths that would have been associated with him or how he was worshiped.



Image of a tricephalic god identified as Lugus, discovered in Paris, the old Celtic city of Lutetia.

Celtic religion was polytheistic, believing in many deities, both gods and goddesses. The most notable of these were pan-Celtic, being worshiped across much of the Celtic world, albeit under various regional names and with different associations. Despite the notability of these pan-Celtic deities, they make up only a tiny percentage of Celtic gods; out of the roughly 300 Celtic deities that we know about, only around 60 can be found in more than one region, and of those, only about 20–30 are pan-Celtic [5].

The Celts were also animists, believing in deities existing in most aspects of nature, such as in trees and streams, who were often venerated at local shrines.[citation needed]

According to Classical era sources, the Celts worshiped the forces of nature and did not envisage deities in anthropomorphic terms,[6] as other pagan peoples such as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did. This appeared to change as the classical peoples grew in influence over the Celtic cultures, as the Celts did begin to give their deities human forms, and they moved from a more animistic-based faith to a more Romanized polytheistic view.

Several of these deities, including Lugus and Matrones, exhibited triplism, being found in a set of three[7].

Insular Celts swore their oaths by their personal[citation needed] or tribal gods, and the land, sea and sky; as in, "I swear by the gods by whom my people swear" and "If I break my oath, may the land open to swallow me, the sea rise to drown me, and the sky fall upon me."[8]

Pan-Celtic deities

Some deities of the Celts were deities of major natural occurrences, such as the sun. The Celts did not worship the sun, but saw it as a symbol for that aspect of divinity. These deities were generally worshiped across the Celtic lands, however, they often went under different names. An example of this was the god Lugus, who appeared in later Irish mythology as Lugh, and in later Welsh mythology, where he appeared as Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Another widespread pan-Celtic god was Taranis, a god of thunder, whose worship has been detected as having occurred in Gaul, Britain and Hispania. Other similar deities included Toutatis, a god of tribal protection in Gaul and Britain, Belenos, a god of healing, and Cernunnos, a horned figure found in Gaul.

There were also pan-Celtic goddesses. Examples of this include a mother goddess (such as Danu from Ireland and Dôn from Wales), a goddess of water (such as Sulis), and a goddess of horses (such as Epona in France, Macha in Ireland, and Rhiannon in Wales).

When the Romans conquered the Celtic lands of Gaul, Hispania and Britain, they equated the Celtic gods with their own deities. For instance, they claimed that the Gaulish Celtic god Belenos was the same as their own god Apollo, and that Lugus was the same as their own Mercury. These Roman descriptions comparing Celtic and Roman deities are one of the few sources of literary information that we have about the Celtic gods.

An oak tree, a species of tree that was venerated by the pagan Celts.

Local deities

The Celts were animists, believing that all aspects of the natural world contained spirits, and that these spirits could be communicated with.[9].

These animistic deities were often worshiped, so places such as rocks, streams, mountains, and trees may all have had shrines or offerings devoted to a deity residing there. A similar belief is found in modern Shinto in Japan, through the belief of kami. These would have been local deities, known and worshiped by inhabitants living near to the shrine itself, and not pan-Celtic like some of the polytheistic gods.

Among the most popular sites for the veneration of animistic deities were trees; the oak, ash, and thorn were considered to be the most sacred. The early Celts considered some trees to be sacred. The importance of trees in Celtic religion is shown by the fact that the very name of the Eburonian tribe contains a reference to the yew tree, and that names like Mac Cuilinn (son of holly) and Mac Ibar (son of yew) appear in Irish myths. In Ireland, wisdom was symbolized by the salmon who feed on the hazelnuts from the trees that surround the well of wisdom (Tobar Segais).

Hot springs and rivers were also popular sites for worship, and were commonly associated with healing.

One of the most popular theories for a belief in fairies (such as knockers, clurichaun, and pixies[10]) in Christianized Celtic areas is that they were a recurring folk belief of these animistic deities, placed under a Christian worldview, where they were seen no longer as nature deities but as malevolent spirits. Sometimes these fairies were treated just the same as previous pagan nature gods had been, with offerings being placed on trees and other shrines to both placate them from committing negative actions and ensuring a good harvest, hunt, etc.


A reconstructed Celtic burial mound located near Hochdorf in Germany. Such burials were reserved for the influential and wealthy in Celtic society.

There is no direct information that has survived on what the Celts believed happened after death. However, from archaeological discoveries, Roman accounts, and later mythology, possible ideas of a Celtic afterlife can be established.

Celtic burial practices, which included burying food, weapons, and ornaments with the dead, suggest a belief in life after death.[11]

The druids, the Celtic learned class which included members of the clergy, were said by Caesar to have believed in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul along with astronomy and the nature and power of the gods.[12]

A common factor in later mythologies from Christianized Celtic nations was the otherworld.[13] This was the realm of the fairy folk and other supernatural beings, who would entice humans into their realm. Sometimes this otherworld was claimed to exist underground, whilst at other times it was said to lie far to the west. Several scholars have suggested that the otherworld was the pagan Celtic afterlife,[13] though there is no direct evidence to prove this.



A jack-o'-lantern is made by celebrants of Halloween. Halloween is a Christianized form of the Celtic festival of Samhain, and the jack o' lantern originated amongst Celtic ideas of scaring away evil spirits that may appear on this day.

Virtually everything that we know about the pagan Celtic religious festivals come from insular sources from Ireland. The Celts of these lands practiced four religious festivals a year.[2] These festivals were equidistant from each other, and divided the year into four quarters.

The first festival was Samhain (Calan Gaeaf in Wales), held on November 1. It marked the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and was similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans[2]. It was Christianized as All Hallows Day or The Day of the Dead, the Eve of which is Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period.

The second festival was Imbolc (Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau or Gŵyl y Canhwyllau in Wales), celebrated on the eve of February 1. It was sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such was a spring festival. It was later Christianized as the feast of St Brigid.[2] The French scholar Joseph Vendryes compared it to the Roman lustrations.[citation needed]

The third festival was Beltaine (Calan Mai in Wales), held on the eve of May 1. It was devoted to the god Bel, and a common practice was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianized as the feast of St John the Baptist,[2] and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.

The fourth festival was Lughnasadh (Calan Awst in Wales), which took place in August. It revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.[2]


Classical sources claimed that the Celts had no temples (before the Gallo-Roman period) and that their ceremonies took place in forest sanctuaries. However, archaeologists have discovered a large number of temple sites excavated throughout the Celtic world, primarily in Gaul. In the Gallo-Roman period, more permanent stone temples were erected, and many of them have been discovered by archaeologists in Britain as well as in Gaul. Indeed, a distinct type of Celto-Roman temple called a fanum also was developed. This was distinguished from a common Roman shrine by having an ambulatory on all four sides of the central cella.


An 18th century illustration of a wicker man, a form of human sacrifice that Caesar alleged the Druids, or Celtic pagan priesthood, performed, though no archaeological evidence has been uncovered to support this.

Celtic religious practice was probably sacrificial in its interactions with the gods. Roman writers stated that the Celts practiced human sacrifice in Gaul: Cicero, Julius Caesar, Suetonius, and Lucan all refer to it, and Pliny the Elder says that it occurred in Britain, too. It was forbidden under Tiberius and Claudius. However, there is also the possibility that these claims may have been false, and used as a sort of propaganda to justify the Roman conquest of these territories. There are only very few recorded archaeological discoveries which preserve evidence of human sacrifice and thus most contemporary historians tend to regard human sacrifice as rare within Celtic cultures. There is some circumstantial evidence that human sacrifice was known in Ireland and was later forbidden by St. Patrick, a claim which has also been disputed.

The Celts provided their dead with weapons and other accouterments, which indicates that they most likely believed in some form of an afterlife.


An example of a ceremony was the ritual of the oak and the mistletoe.

Religious vocations

According to Poseidonius and later classical authors Gaulish religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes: the druids; the bards; and the vates. This threefold hierarchy had its reflection among the two main branches of Celts in Ireland and Wales, but is best represented in early Irish tradition with its draoithe (druids), filidh (visionary poets), and Faidh (seers). However these categories are not always fixed, and may be named or divided differently in different primary sources.


Two druids, from an 1845 publication, based on a bas-relief found at Autun, France.

A Druid was a member of the learned class among the ancient Celts. They acted as priests, teachers, and judges. The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 3rd century BCE. Some scholars have suggested that the Druids were the Celtic counterparts of the Brahmins of India.

Bards and filid

In Ireland the filid were visionary poets, associated with lorekeeping, versecraft, and the memorization of vast numbers of poems. They were also magicians, as Irish magic is intrinsically connected to poetry, and the satire of a gifted poet was a serious curse upon the one being satirized. To run afoul of a poet was a dangerous thing indeed to a people who valued reputation and honor more than life itself.

In Ireland a "bard" was considered a lesser grade of poet than a fili - more of a minstrel and rote reciter than an inspired artist with magical powers. However, in Wales bardd was the word for their visionary poets, and used in the same manner fili was in Ireland and Scotland.

The Celtic poets, of whatever grade, were composers of eulogy and satire, and a chief duty was that of composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds, and memorizing the genealogies of their patrons. It was essential to their livelihood that they increase the fame of their patrons, via tales, poems and songs. As early as the 1st century CE, the Latin author Lucan referred to "bards" as the national poets or minstrels of Gaul and Britain. In Gaul the institution gradually disappeared, whereas in Ireland and Wales it survived. The Irish bard through chanting preserved a tradition of poetic eulogy. In Wales, where the word bardd has always been used for poet, the bardic order was codified into distinct grades in the 10th century. Despite a decline of the order toward the end of the European Middle Ages, the Welsh tradition has persisted and is celebrated in the annual eisteddfod, a national assembly of poets and musicians.


Diachronic distribution of Celtic peoples:
     core Hallstatt territory, by the 6th century BCE      maximal Celtic expansion, by the 3rd century BCE      Lusitanian area of Iberia where Celtic presence is uncertain      the "six Celtic nations" which retained significant numbers of Celtic speakers into the Early Modern period      areas where Celtic languages remain widely spoken today


The Celtic peoples originated in the Hallstatt culture of central Europe in the 6th century BCE. Over the next three centuries the Celts spread both westward and eastward[14]. They took their religious beliefs with them, however they also adopted local deities that they came across, and attributed deities to local natural phenomenon near to where they settled.


The Celtic peoples of Gaul and Hispania (though not those of further away lands such as Ireland) began to be influenced by the Classical peoples of Greece and Rome. This culminated in the 1st century BCE when the Roman Republic conquered Gaul and Hispania and soon annexed it into the Roman Empire. In the 1st century CE they then conquered Britain.

The Romans' religion influenced that of the Celts, most notable in introducing the idea of deities having anthropomorphic, human forms.

According to Mircea Eliade, Celtic religion succeeded in retaining a number of pre-Indo-European motifs despite successive accretions from Mediterranean, Roman and Christian religions. Among these motifs were an emphasis on the magico-religious importance of women, and customs connected with the "mysteries" of femininity, destiny, death and the otherworld.[15]


The Celtic cross, a pre-Christian symbol which was later amalgamated with the Christian crucifix.

The conversion to Christianity inevitably had a profound effect on this socio-religious system from the 5th century onward, though its character can only be extrapolated from documents of considerably later date. By the early 7th century the church had succeeded in relegating Irish druids to ignominious irrelevancy, while the filidh, masters of traditional learning, operated in easy harmony with their clerical counterparts, contriving at the same time to retain a considerable part of their pre-Christian tradition, social status, and privilege. But virtually all the vast corpus of early vernacular literature that has survived was written down in monastic scriptoria, and it is part of the task of modern scholarship to identify the relative roles of traditional continuity and ecclesiastical innovation as reflected in the written texts. Cormac's Glossary (c. 900) recounts that St. Patrick banished those mantic rites of the filidh that involved offerings to "demons", and that the church took particular pains to stamp out animal sacrifice and other rituals repugnant to Christian teaching[citation needed]. What survived of ancient ritual practice tended to be related to filidhecht, the traditional repertoire of the filidh, or to the central institution of sacral kingship. A good example is the pervasive and persistent concept of the hierogamy (sacred marriage) of the king with the goddess of sovereignty: the sexual union, or banais ríghi ("wedding of kingship"), which constituted the core of the royal inauguration, seems to have been purged from the ritual at an early date through ecclesiastical influence, but it remains at least implicit, and often quite explicit, for many centuries in the literary tradition.

Nagy has noted the Gaelic oral tradition has been remarkably conservative. The fact that we have tales in existence which were still being told in the 19th century in almost exactly the same form as they exist in ancient manuscripts leads to the strong probability that much of what the monks recorded was considerably older. Though the Christian interpolations in some of these tales are very obvious, many of them read like afterthoughts or footnotes to the main body of the tales, which most likely preserve traditions far older than the manuscripts themselves.

Mythology based on (though, not identical to) the pre-Christian religion is still common place knowledge in Celtic-speaking cultures. Various rituals involving acts of pilgrimage to sites such as hills and sacred wells which are believed to have curative or otherwise beneficial properties are still performed. Based on evidence from the European continent, various figures which are still known in folklore in the Celtic countries up to today, or who take part in post-Christian mythology, are known to have also been worshiped in those areas that did not have records before Christianity.

Neopagan revival

Various Neopagan groups claim association with Celtic polytheism. These groups range from the Reconstructionists, who work to practice ancient Celtic religion with as much accuracy as possible; to new age, eclectic groups who take some of their inspiration from Celtic mythology and iconography but place little significance on any sort of historical precedent, the most notable of which is Neo-druidry.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Miranda J. Green. (2005) Exploring the world of the druids. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28571-3. Page 24
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Emrys Evans (1992) Mythology Little Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-84763-1. Page 170
  3. ^ Emrys Evans (1992) Mythology Little Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-84763-1. Page 170-171
  4. ^ Dr Ray Dunning (1999) The Encyclopedia of World Mythology Parragon. ISBN 0-752-58444-8.
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Juliette Wood. ‘Introduction.’ In Squire, C. (2000). The mythology of the British Islands: an introduction to Celtic myth, legend, poetry and romance. London & Ware: UCL & Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1-84022-500-9. Page 12-13
  7. ^ Emrys Evans — Little, Brown & Company, Page 171
  8. ^ Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts, translated by Myles Dillon, Berkeley, CA, Turtle Island Foundation, 1982, p.17. ISBN 0-913666-52-1.
  9. ^ Miranda Green. (1992:196) Animals in Celtic life and myth. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415050308
  10. ^ West Country Faerie, Diana Mullis, (2005), Bossiney Books
  11. ^ Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp.208-210. ISBN 0-19-815010-5.
  12. ^ Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 5:14
  13. ^ a b The Celts in The Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Dr Ray Dunning, page 91
  14. ^ The Celts in The Encyclopedia of World Mythology by Dr Ray Dunning, page 77
  15. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1982) A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 2. University of Chicago Press. § 171.

Further reading

  • de Vries, Jan (1961) Keltische Religion, a comprehensive survey
  • Duval, Paul-Marie (1976) Les Dieux de la Gaule, new ed. updated and enlarged.
  • Green, Miranda (1986, revised 2004) Gods of the Celts,
  • Mac Cana, Proinsias (1970) Celtic Mythology, copious illustrations.
  • Nagy, Joseph Falaky (1985) The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition, tales and analysis in Gaelic and English.
  • O'Rahilly, Thomas F. (1946, reissued 1971) Early Irish History and Mythology
  • Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise (1949, reissued 1982; originally published in French, 1940) Gods and Heroes of the Celts comparisons between deities of the various Celtic cultures vs Classical models.
  • Stercks, Claude (1986) Éléments de cosmogonie celtique, contains an interpretive essay on the goddess Epona and related deities.
  • Vendryès, Joseph; Tonnelat, Ernest; Unbegaun, B.-O. (1948) Les Religions des Celtes, des Germains et des anciens Slaves.

External links


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