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Celtic Religion


The ancient Celtic-speaking peoples were distributed over a wide area from Ireland to Asia Minor, and their religious ideas and practices reflect in part borrowings from other early or contemporary cultures. Greek and Roman writers supply valuable information on Celtic religion from the 3d century b.c., but they tend to be superficial and to be satisfied with rough identifications of Celtic divinities with their own gods and goddesses. Much information is furnished also by a critical sifting of the pagan traditions preserved in medieval Latin, Irish, and Welsh sources. A fairly rich mythology can be reconstructed especially out of the Irish literature in Latin and in Old and Middle Irish.

The gods in the historical period were largely anthropomorphic, and several of them corresponded to Mars, Mercury, and Apollo. However, many of the gods were local or tribal or, at least, given different names in different areas. Celtic personal and place names frequently reflect divine associations. Thus, Lugdunum (modern Lyons) was "the town of Lug," a divinity found on the Continent and in Ireland. Mother goddesses, the Matronae or Matres, were worshiped, especially in the region of the Rhine, by both Celts and Germans, and the cult of a horse goddess Epona was widespread and popular. Sacred plants (especially the mistletoe), trees, hills, mountains, rivers, springs, and remote open places, played a special role in Celtic religion. Major or minor divinities were associated with such sacred objects or places. In Ireland the belief in the Sid -folk or fairies, originally divine beings affecting various aspects of human life, is very old. They were thought to dwell chiefly under hills. Animals also were assigned divine attributes, especially bulls, horses, boars, and bears. Magic, magical formulae, spells, and curses are frequently mentioned and their effects described. Old Irish literary remains, with their emphasis on geis (taboo), reflect the important place of taboos in pagan Celtic religious and social life. The pagan Celts are thought to have had a vivid belief in a life beyond the grave and even a belief in transmigration of souls, but on this point there are no certain details.

On the Continent, in Britain, and in Ireland, the priestly class, the druids, played a major part in religion, law, education, and the determination of public policy. They were of royal blood and had to undergo a long period of training. There seem to have been divisions or grades among the druids, but the evidence is in part vague and conflicting. They were specialists in divination and were regarded as having prophetic powers. They performed certain religious rites and presided at sacrifices. In the historical period at least, there were sacrifices of animals and offerings of various kinds. Although there are references to human sacrifice in Gaul and Britain, it must have been rare. At any event, there is no evidence that this practice was approved or conducted by the druids.

Like the Roman pontifices, the druids had charge of the calendar, which, as all early calendars, was religious in character and indicated the days on which ordinary business could be carried out and those on which all or some actions were forbidden. As champions of Celtic traditions in all phases of life, the druids were deprived of their authority in Gaul by the Romans from the time of Claudius. However, they continued to flourish in Ireland until the triumph of Christianity. In Irish tradition much stress is placed on their wondrous powers as diviners and magicians. The brehons and bards of Christian Ireland became the heirs of the druids and, like them, were the tenacious preservers and champions of national cultural traditions.

Bibliography: f. n. robinson, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 758759. j. a. macculloch, j. hastings ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 3:277304. j. ryan, f. kÖnig, ed. Christus und die Religionen der Erde: Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte, 3 v. (2d ed. Vienna 1961) 2:245265. r. hertz, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:123841. t. g. e. powell, The Celts (New York 1958). j. zwicker, Fontes historiae religionis Celticae (Fontes historiae religionum, ed. c. clemen, 5.13; Bonn 193436). r. lantier, "Keltische Mythologie," Wörterbuch der Mythologie, ed. h. w. haussig (Stuttgart 1961) Abt. 1.2.1, fasc. 5, 100162. j. vendryés et al., Les Religions des Celtes, des Germains, et des anciens Slaves ("Mana" ser. 2.3; Paris 1948) 235320. j. de vries, Keltische Religion (Die Religionen der Menschheit 18; Stuttgart 1961).

[m. r. p. mc guire]

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