The Celtic Supernatural

It is important to understand that Celts did not have organized religion in any modern sense. We are not sure what were the ceremonial, magic, mythic beliefs of the druids. Whatever they were, there is no clear suggestion that the typical Celt held or even understood these ceremonial aspects. Perhaps this was only the job of the druids.

The druid class was the "religious class." They were responsible for being religious and keeping all in balance. If they did their jobs, the warrior class and common freeman class didn't have to understand much. The druid class were religious intermediaries for their people.

The Celts believed magical agencies to pervade every aspect of their lives and surroundings. They were concerned primarily, therefore, to constrain the powers of magic to beneficent ends (Powell 143).

It was the druid class that achieved these "beneficent ends" through ritual, sacrifice, and rhythmic-chanting recitation of myths.

The Ritual Year

  • Samain, 1 November -- the eve seems to have been most important. This is new year, the entrance into winter. Not at the recognized winter solstice, it is earlier, at the time of year when free-range has died back and animals must be slaughtered or given fodder.

  • Beltine, 1 May, was the festival celebrated when cattle could be driven to open grazing. Marriage rites were proclaimed on Beltine. Dancing around the maypole is an ancient ritual.

  • Imbolc is the early spring festival, 1 February, associated with the lactation of ewes and associated with Brigit, "a wise woman, daughter of the dagda," who was a goddess of fertility with angles on learning and healing.

  • Lugnasad is the 1 August festival that, Powell suggests, is a later introduction into Irish Celtic tradition (as Imbolc may be). It seems agrarian, ensuring that crops continued to ripen (it was not harvest yet).

Tribal and nature deities It's clear that the Celts had tribal deities. Some were local others widespread. Some were attractive enough to the Celtic psyche or general enough in their spiritual significance (a god of "plenty") to have widespread influence through Celtic cultures.

Continental Evidence

  • Lugh [Caesar compared with Mercury]: inventor of all useful arts (harper, ironsmith, poet, woodworker, etc.), guide on roads and journeys, influential in commercial ventures.

  • Teutates [Mars & Jupiter]: god of war, but also of healing, fertility, and protection.

  • Taranis: the thunderer. Although it makes sense to think of him as corresponding to the Roman Jupiter, he was generally not as important as other Celtic gods.

  • Belenus [Apollo]: Sun god. Drives diseases away, patron deity of thermal springs.

  • Horse goddesses. The celts had an affinity for goddesses associated with horses. Epona, a goddess-mare, is depicted on numerous Gallo-Roman alters. In Ireland, several different figures are associated with horse-goddess attributes: speed, agility, power. Etain Echraide, Medb of Tara, and Macha of Ulster, also in Welsh myth Rhiannon.

  • Morrigna: the Morrigan (queen of demons), Badb (Raven of battle), Nemain (goddess of panic). These powerful, generally malevolent goddesses often seem to merge into one. Powell describes the tendency for triplism in Celtic beliefs. Three is a magical number.

  • Brigid [Minerva]: a multi-functional goddess--protected women in childbirth, presided over the ale-harvest, Goddess of poetry, learning, divination, and prophecy. Worshipped by the bard class, the filid. It is no coincidence that in Ireland, Saint Bridget is second in popularity (among saints) only to St. Patrick. It is also no coincidence that St. Brigid's Birthday, February 1st, was the date of the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which is linked, primarily, to the cult of Brigid.

Irish Evidence

If we look at Irish sources, the view shifts in fascinating ways.

  • Early Irish literature describe the Tuatha De Danann. Irish myth describes these Tuatha as the invading wave of people that immediately preceeded the Milesians (the sons of Mil), the Celts. They are a magic people, powerful, living in the other world, able to shapeshift, fabulously wealthy. But they are not Gods. They are a magic people.

  • It's true many of the characters described in Irish literature as part of the Tuatha have earlier precedents as continental dieties. But as Tuatha they have been quite humanized.

  • The Dagda is the king of the Tuatha. He is known as the Good God and the God of Plenty. He has a cauldron "from which no one ever left unsatisfied."

  • The great warrior leader of the Tuatha was Lugh, Luie of the long Arm. The Celtic God Lugh.

  • There is evidence that the members of the Tuatha De Danann can be seen as a shifting and evolving group, embracing tribal deities of new tribes as needed.

Sacred Enclosures and Sites for Assembly

There is good evidence for sacred groves such as those described by Llywelyn. Nemeton seems to be the word for such locations. Perhaps in locating assembly and ritual gatherings on ancient, early bronze-age sacred megaliths, we see evidence of the way Irish Celts sought to win and dominate the land. Not only did they defeat the previous inhabitants, but they "[won] over the pre-existing supernatural powers of the countryside" (Powell, 173). Votive Deposits and Sacrifice There is interesting evidence here. Clearly at times the Celts practiced human sacrifice. Powell suggests sacrifices of not tribal enemies, but Celts who had broken taboos of some sort.

There is the story of the sacrifice of the "son of a sinless couple" at Tara, because of actions of the king (180). At the time of the sacrifice a woman enters leading a cow who she says should be sacrificed instead. Does this story depict a fundamental change in beliefs or practices? (Stop killing humans, need a story to justify, etc.) What do you make of the parallels between this and the Isaac and Abraham story?

The Druid Class

The druids appear to have recruited mainly from the children of the warrior aristocracy, although the lower class commoner freeman don't seem to have been absolutely excluded.

Caesar provides the fullest information about druids. He tells us that a druid's training could take 20 years during which time the oral traditions and knowledge of the Celts was memorized for use and transmission to the next generation. In the oral society of the Celts, the druid becomes a living text.

Caesar believed that druidism originated in Britain, spreading from there to Gaul. This is suspect, since other Indo-European cultures had parallel institutions, but something made him think that. Perhaps at Caesar's late date, the more "rural" British Celts held more strongly to earlier druidic beliefs?

It's fairly clear that the concern of the druids was control of supernatural forces by means of divination. This apparently involved human and animal sacrifice by stabbing, strangulation or other means, and the examination of the death struggle or the victim's innards in order to foretell the future.

Tacitus (?55-118 ad) alludes to divinatory killing of a human on the Island of Anglesey, NW Wales in the Irish sea, when it was threatened by invading Romans. (So we have some historical evidence for human sacrifice.)

Animals probably made up the bulk of the more mundane or routine sacrifices to divine the most auspicious times for plantings, harvesting, etc.

Druid is close enough to the name as Celts used it (drui sing. And druid plur. in Old Irish texts). The name may derive from roots meaning "knowledge of the oak," or possibly "great, or deep, knowledge."

Pliny the elder, the Roman historian who died observing the eruption of Vesuvius (79 AD), describes Druids cutting mistletoe from an oak tree and an accompanying sacrifice of bulls. Unfortunately he did not know or tell the meaning of the ritual or what festival it was related to. Later scholars have argued that this is a ceremony for curing of barrenness.

Irish druids also seem to have been associated with the imposition/recognition of geissi, taboos or bonds placed upon prominent people which they had to obey or perish.

Three religious and learned classes

  • Druids -- spiritualist, healers, sacrificer, etc. They covered the range pretty well in Druids.

  • Bards -- praise poets and involved with ceremonies related to Otherworld feasting

  • Seers -- (vates in Latin, filid in Irish) inspired chanters/poets (early); tribal / remembrancer / historian (later). The seers were prominent in ireland, where they had a function at least partly religious. They were responsible for the upkeep and transmission of sacred oral tradition. They were prophets and closely linked with divination. They had the power to blemish and cause death (more under satirists).
Long after Ireland adopted Christianity, the filid remained as seers, teachers and advisers, taking over many of the druids' functions. The connection between the Celtic/Irish church and this branch of the druid class became close. In 575 St. Columcill (St. Columba) "secured for the filid their proper place in Irish life so that for another thousand years oral tradition and poetry were maintained wth honour" (Powell, 208). In a certain way you might think of filid, during the time after the introduction of Christianity, as secular monks.

Satirists - the distinctions between bards and seers are not always clear. Both seem to have had the power to wield praise poetry, but one sort of seer, normally referred to as a satirist, had extraordinary influence. On their praise-or satire-hung the reputation of a chieftain. You will see the effect of satirists when we read the material from the Ulster Cycle. Kings might act against their natural inclinations out of fear of satire. Bards in general, and satirists in particular, could keep the powerful honest.