One of the most often cited statements about Celtic gods is that we have over 300 of their names that came down on us, while we know actually almost nothing about their functions. With this statement, usually the idea is transferred that the Celts had an unbelievable large pantheon which consisted mainly of local gods and demigods, with only a few if at all gods in common. However, this is probably a misinterpretation due to lack of knowledge.
A number of differing theories have been issued about how the Celtic (and, most often the common IE pantheon) might have been structured. The main theories follow the Dumezilian system, which postulates a tripartite structure where one part of the gods is the “warriors”, one the “agro-culturalists”, and one the craftsmen” gods as the common system behind the IE panthei. However, this system has been often questioned. One of the most interesting new interpretations is the theory lately issued by Garrett Olmsted (The Gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans, Archaeolingua vol.6, Budapest 1994). He keeps the tripartite system, but offers a new interpretation of the functions of the gods of the different parts in assigning them to three mythical “realms” which he, for simplicity, calls Upper, Middle and Lower Realm (which is probably best visible in the Norse mythologies with Asgard, Midgard and Niflheim as Upper, Middle and Lower Realm and in the Vedic System which says that 11 gods dwell in the heavens, 11 on earth and 11 in the water), which however could be called Sky, Earth and Water. A good hint at such a system could be found in the diverse kinds of offerings used by the Celts: Cremation as sacrifices to the Upper Realm gods, Burying in the Earth as sacrifices to the gods of the Middle Realm and Deposition in Water as sacrifices to the Lower Realm gods.
Well, I already mentioned that we have over three hundred names for Celtic gods. Lugos, Toutatis, Taranis, Cernunnos, Esus, Sequana, Brigantia, Epona, Matrona, Noreia, Eriu, Govannon, Belenos, Mabon and so on. It has been, for a long time, considered that the Celtic pantheon was regionally split up, that Noreia was a tribal goddess for the Norici, Sequana a tribal goddess for the Sequani, Eriu a tribal goddess for the Erenn. This also seems to be true, but only to a certain extent. As far as we can say by now, the Celtic gods had a lot of variants, the most we can find here are local but it is also possible that some were functional. This is nothing surprising in fact, if we look at other IE pantheons we find that most gods in most pantheons have numerous, local and functional, bynames and names. The Greek god Zeus had multiple names, as is true for all the other Greek gods. Iuppiter is also known to us as Dispater, and under numerous other names. The Hindu gods all have multiple names. The same is true for the Germanic gods. And if we look at the Gallo-roman inscription in which most of the Celtic god names have been brought down to us we find, not really surprising, that Mars is mentioned with over 50 Celtic god names, as Mars Toutatis, Mars Ambiorix and others, while Apollo is going along with Grannos, Belenos and others, while Taranis and others are attributed to Iuppiter.
Given this, it is most likely that the names of the Celtic gods that came down on us, are, for the most part, the local and/or functional bynames of gods whose “real” names probably were kept secret or which blend in with the bynames. Only two gods can be identified almost everywhere, being the god Lugos (Irish Lugh, Welsh Llew), whose name we find from Spain to Germany and probably even further east, and the mother Goddess (matrona), of which we know her functional name, i.e. mother, (old Gaulish matrona, Welsh Modron), and to which a number of the female names we have can be attributed (Sequana, Noreia, Brigantia and probably as well Eriu and Boand, and additionally we have some “mother Goddesses of places” like the Matronae Lugdunensis or the Matronae Treverorum).
Now lets take a look at the more important godly functions
More or less, the Skyfather is the god we are used to refer to as “the head of the pantheon”. This god is probably derived from a common IE god named *Dieus-pater, translated as “Skyfather” – and is quite easily detectable in Greek Zeus Pater, Iuppiters byname Dispater and the Vedic Dyauspita. In the Celtic World this function is most probably fulfilled by the Ollathair (Great father), the Dagda, whereby the Ollathair seems to be a reminiscent of the *Dieus-pater, although its best cognate is found in the Germanic Odin “Alfodr”.
The function of this god is that he is, usually, the progenitor of all other gods together with the Earth Mother.
Depending on the religion this god is also the head of the pantheon, or at least his father or grandfather and often also the god of thunder and lightning. It seems that this deity is the Dagda in the Irish mythology, while Gaulish mythology he seems to have been called Taranis (“the Thunderer, a cognate term to the Germanic Thorr from the IE root *tn-ro-s).
This god usually is the one who is in charge of the Otherworld and/or who is ferrying the dead to there. The Gaulish name for this god is “Sucellos” (the good striker), and he is equaled by Greek, Etruscan and Roman Charon. He is usually depicted with a great hammer and a dog by his side, and has a consort called Nantosuelta (either translated as “sun-warmed valley”, or as “who makes the valley bloom”, the second being suggestive of the Irish Bla/thnat, probably meaning “Little flower”, and Welsh Blodeued “Flower-faced”). We also see here a close parallel to the consort of Hades, Persephone. The dog which resides beside Sucellos usually could be an equivalent to the Greek Cerberos, the Hell-Hound. Equivalents in the Irish legend can be found in the Relationship between Curoi Mac Daire and Blathnath (Cu Roi actually meaning “Hound of the Plain”), especially given the fact that Curoi also appears as the churl in the beheading game in the quarrel about the hero’s portion in Fled Bricrenn, parallels can also be found in the Welsh Mabinogi in the story about Llew and Blodeued. The apparent similarity of Arawn from Annwn with his beautiful wife and his red-eared dogs to the position of Sucellos is also worth a note.
The upper realm control seems to have been split to be fulfilled by two gods, characteristically one of them is One-eyed, the other one-handed. This is true for Vedic Va/runah and Mitra/h as well as for the Germanic pair Odin and Tyr.
The Celtic equivalents for those gods are quite apparent. If we look at Cath Maige Tuired, one of the most important texts for Irish mythology, we see Lugh, the one skilled in all arts, as closing one eye while cursing the enemy Fomorians, and the equaling of Lugh with Gaulish Lugh is not only apparent but unavoidable, as Caesar tells us that the Gauls credited Mercurius (with which Lugos is equated by the Romans) with the invention of all arts. As Lugh`s name is probably derived from a Celtic root *lug with the meaning “burn, enflame”, we can possibly see the daytime Upper realm controller in him. If we add to this the festival of Lughnasad we could assume that he was also the controller of the summer half of the year. His mythical twin, the one who was the ruler before Lugh, is in Cath Maige Tuired the (formerly) one-handed Nuadu, which we have equaled in the British deity Nodens. In the Gaulish Context this deity seems to have been identified both with Mercurius and Mars by the Romans, thus being more or less the “kings god” and the “god of the tribe”. Here we probably would have to set most of the Mars-connected gods like Toutatis, Vellaunos.
Another function is the one of the youthful-saviour-champion. This role is fulfilled by Cuchullin in the Irish texts, and mixes to a certain extent with the function of the Nighttime Upper Realm controller. This god is the warrior champion of the tribe, probably also the god to whom the diverse known Celtic warrior bands (like the Gaesates) would pray. He is the one who protects the cattle of the tribe, the one who goes into battle frenzy, who fights naked. His Gaulish equivalent probably would be Esus.
The Earth mother (surprise, she actually exists in Celtic mythology). It is usually this goddess which was, together with the Sky father, parent of all the other gods. This goddess appears as a separate goddess in some IE pantheons (for instance Gaia in the Greek mythology), but also can meld with other female goddesses, most often with the female Upper Realm Goddess. In the Irish mythology s separate Earthmother figure seems to be preserved in the figure of Danu and Tailtiu.
She was usually also the mother of three goddesses associated with rivers or springs which are the female Goddesses of the Upper, Middle and Lower realm.
The Goddess of the Lower Realm seems to have had a cowlike nature. It was probably called *Guououinda “White cow” (from IE *guou- + *uind-), *Matrona “Mother” (from IE *mater) or *Mororegni “Great Queen” (from IE *moro- + *regni-) She was also capable of shifting her form to an eel, snake, serpent or wolf, more or less the animal goddess. Additionally, she seems to be one of the aspects of the “Goddess of Sovereignty”. Her Gaulish names seem to have been S(t)irona “Heifer”, Damona “Cow”, but also Brigantia “the High, the exalted pure one”, Rigana “the Queen”, Matrona “mother”, but also Sequana “the Flowing” and Bovinda “white Cow”. Her Irish equivalents are for instance Boand (the Irish form of Bovinda), Brigit (equivalent of Brigantia) and Mo/rri/gan (the Irish version of Rigana). Her Welsh equivalent is Mordron (the mother).
Through intercourse with the Skyfather, this Goddess begets a god named “son”, who later marries his aunt, the goddess of the middle realm. This son is the Gaulish *Maponos “Son”, in Welsh this is his cognate *Mabon “Son”, and, as expected, Boand is the mother of the Irish Mac ind O/c “young Son”. This god seems to be associated with fire.
The Goddess of the middle Realm apparently had the byname *Medhua “Intoxicatress” (from IE *medhu-). She seems to appear human in form, and definitely is also part of the “Goddess of Sovereignty”. Her Gaulish name probably was *Meduana “Intoxicatress” or *Comedova (same meaning), and possibly also *Aveda “the flowing (Water)” Her Irish form is known as Medb or Aife (one of Mebd’s bynames).
This goddess also has a son with the skyfather, called *nepots “Nephew” (alternatives *Nepotulos, *Neptionos) or *Nebhtunos “God of Waters”, or Irish Nechtain-Freach (the son of Medb), who later marries his Aunt, the Lower Realm Goddess (as Nechtain does with Boand). This god seems to be associated with water.
This goddess is usually depicted as a horse. Her Gaulish name is Epona “Horse Goddess” (from IE *ekuo-na), but she has as her bynames also the names *Rigana “Queen” (See also above for the Lower Realm Goddess) and possibly some others like ?Catona? “Battle Goddess” and ?Imona? “Swift One”. Her Irish equivalent is Macha (which is also called Rigana “Queen” and Roech “Great Horse”, essentially a cognate of Epona). The byname ?Imona? of Epona could also explain the name Emain Macha, as ?Imona? is cognate with Emain (from *Imonis). Her Welsh equivalent is Rhiannon “Queen” (from *Riganona).
The name Macha may also indicate that here we have a melding of the Earth Goddess with the Upper Realm Goddess (see Latin *Maia “the Great, the Mother but also Sanskrit *Mahi “the Earth”).
This Goddess as well is part of the “Goddess of Sovereignty”.
As we have seen above, all those four goddesses are very interwoven in their functions. In fact, it is questionable if they are to be considered as separate goddesses at all, or if they are not all only aspects of the Earth Mother/Goddess of Sovereignty complex. Simply said, this is not decidable at the moment. It is also possible that due to the very scarce evidence and a constant intermixture, these goddesses became, even though separate goddesses, mixed to a certain extent by the Celts themselves.
This god is depicted as a bull. It is a twin god as far we can say, who has a white and a black form. The two twins seem to be fighting each other, starting out as humans and going through a series of shape changes until finally, when both are bulls, the dark one rips the white one apart besides a sea. Its gaulish names are Tarvos Trigaranus “Bull with three cranes”, Tarvos “Bull” or Donnotaurus “Black bull”, the last one being a cognate of Donn Tarbh, another name for the Donn Cuailnge, who fights the Finnbenach “White horned one” in one of the preludes to the Tain, also going through the shape changes. In this, this figure fits with the Avestan Tistrya and Apaosa and, more perfectly even, with the Greek Zagre/ous-Dio/nysos.
Well know as a triplicate Goddess from Irish mythology in the forms of Mo/rri/gan “Great Queen”, Nemain “Battle Frenzy” and Babd “Crow”. These three goddesses are also referred to as the tres Mo/rri/gan “The three Great Queens”, therefore the Mo/rri/gan may not be identical with the Lower Realm Goddess, but also these might be three other aspects of the tripartite Goddess/three Goddesses that are responsible for the respective realms. The three battle goddesses can shift into the form of a raven.
At least the Babd, who is also referred to as Babd catha “Battlecrow”, also in this form has a cognate in Gaulish gods names in [C]athubodva.
Apparently there existed a god in Gaul named Ogmios who was equated with the Roman Hercules as stated in Lucianus’s Dialogi Deorum (Hercules 1,7). This god is cognate with the Irish Ogma mac Elathan of the Tu/atha De/ Danann in Cath Maige Tuired, who is referred to as the champion of the TD and credited with the invention of the Ogam alphabet. He seems to have functioned as a god of oratory as well, Gaulish coins depict his audience as tied by silver chains to him which connect his tongue with their ears.
Additionally there existed Goddesses which were “place-specific” in that they were seen as protectoresses and/or mothers of certain places. They are considered to fall in the group of Gaulish Matres, Matrones. We know such goddesses for instance for *Genava (today’s Geneva in Switzerland), Vienna (today’s French Vienne) and numerous other places. A function of the Irish Macha in that kind for Emain Macha is also likely.
There also exist numerous goddesses responsible for springs. We know of an *Acionna “?Water Goddess?”, *Arvolcia “the very Wet”, *Cobba “Prosperity” and others. Equal functions were probably fulfilled by the goddesses after which rivers were named like the Sequana, Matrona, Boand. We know for instance that at the spring of the Sequana offerings were made to that goddess.
Equal to spring goddesses we also know of goddesses which were attributed to certain parts of the countryside. For instance we know of a Goddess *Ardbenna “Goddess of the Ardbenna, the High Hills”, whose name still is clinging to the Ardennes forest on the German/French border and similar.
The last type I’ll be mentioning here are the Genii, sometimes also know as Genii cucullati “Hooded Spirits” which could have had numerous functions. We know of Genii of the “Neighbourhood”, Gaul. *Contrebis which is probably cognate with Irish contreb “community”, Genii of the family, Gaul. *Vinotonos from the Celtic stems *veni- “family” and the cognate of Irish tonn “wave, surface, land, earth, skin” as well as placename genii like Artio “god of the Bear (forest)”, *Alisanos “god of Alesia”, *Brixantus “god of Brixantion”, but also for tribes or their subunits like *Allobrox “God of the Allobroges, *Menapos “God of the Menapii”.
Basically, we can discern two kinds of places “sacred” to the Celts. First, we have the natural sacred places and, second, the artificial sacred places (called “sacred monuments” from now on).
It is obvious from diverse archaeological findings and finds that a number of natural places had a sacred character to the Celts. Noteworthy is here, that basically all those places have an aspect of liminality.
The kind of sacred place most often used by the Celts (at least seemingly), is one that has something to do with water.
The first kind of sacred places connected to water, and probably also one of the more important ones, are springs. As we have already seen while dealing with the gods, we know quite a great number of Celtic “spring nymphs”. This is mirrored by archaeological finds in springs. Some of the most important Celtic hoards have been found in such a situation, like the spring find from Duchcov, Czech Republic, in the springs of the Seine (the Gaulish Sequana), but also in the springs of Roman Aquae Sulis, today Bath in England. In many cases, these are springs that have curative powers, and in the cases of the springs of the Seine and Bath it is also visible from the archaeological finds that the curative power of the spring and its related god/goddess were consciously sought. In the Seine springs, for example, there have been found numerous models of human body parts from various materials, which can be interpreted as offerings to the Goddess Sequana who should cure the depicted body part.
This function of springs or wells is also hinted at in Cath Maige Tuired (123), where the Physician of the TD heals the wounded in a well, upon which he together with his two sons and his Daughter has chanted spells and in which he had cast all herbs to be found in Ireland.
That lakes were places where contact to the “Otherworld” was possible is well known from a lot of the epics. That some of them were considered as sacred places as well is also deductible from archaeological findings like the famous Lynn Cerrig Bach hoard, where a lot of items had been cast into the lake. An equal interpretation has also been brought forth for the namegiving site of the La Tène Culture, La Tène at lake Newchatel, Switzerland, even though lately this has been questioned due to another finding at the point where the Ziehl (a river) flows out of the lake Neuchatel, where obviously a bridge was destroyed during a flood catastrophe while a lot of persons where on it, the La Tène finds could have come into the lake for the same reasons.
That rivers had a certain sacred aspect is obvious from the fact that a good number of them take their names from Celtic gods, be it the Sequana, the Matrona, the Boyne or the Danube. Hints from archaeology towards offerings can be deducted from isolated findings of prominent standing, like the Battersea shield, that was recovered from the Thames river.
That also boglands could have had “sacred” aspects is also likely. A hint to this can be found in the finding of Lindow man, a bog body discovered in Lindow Moss, England, of a man in his mid-twenties that was killed in a threefold manner (the kind of death also ascribed to some of the more famous British magicians/poets/druids like the Southern Scottish Lailoken or Merlin).
We know little of sacred places that have to do with the earth, but that such existed are likely. It is, however, hard to decide in this case if these were natural “sacred places”, as offerings at such places would probably have to have been interred in the earth, which wouldn’t happen naturally but had to be done artificially, most probably. However, a number of isolated hoards that were found in the open countryside, like the Snettisham hoard (more or less a connection of gold torcs), or hoards at the edges of settled territory as they are known from Bohemia, for instance, could be interpreted as such offerings.
An equal interpretation is possible for some skeletal finds (most often of females) in the gate area of some of the oppida, the fortified sites of (mainly) late La Tène dating. These skeletons are usually found below the walls in the gate areas and look very much like human sacrifices to protect the gate.
Probably also the sacred grooves of the Druids, the Nemeton or Drunemeton as related to us by the ancient authors, fall into this category.
The last group of natural sacred places are those which are most probably connected to the Sky (even though a connection to the Earth is also possible). Into this category, fall sites like the Pass Lueg, Austria, on which a Celtic Helmet (one of the most famous ones as it is the one depicted on the Gauloise cigarette packs) was found, or maybe also the hoard of Erstfeld, Switzerland, which is at the foot of the Great St. Gotthard pass over the alps. These places could have been, like Greek Mount Olympus, been connected to the skies (due to their relatively high altitude), something which could equally be true of such remnants like the “Vierbergewallfahrt” (four mountain pilgrimage) in Carithia, Austria, or the Croagh Patrick tour.
The second group of sacred places are the sacred monuments. Here, we can also distinguish between some different groups.
That ancient monuments were considered sacred places is beyond any doubt from the Irish and Welsh tales. One only has to think of the Beliefs connected to places like Newgrange (Brug na Boinne). A hint towards a similar belief of the ancient Celts can be found at the site of the huge tumulus of Hochmichele, Germany, where a Viereckschanze (see below) was erected directly besides the late Hallstatt tumulus.
The second type of sacred monuments are the “Viereckschanzen”. These are roughly rectangular wall and ditch constructions that appear in the La Tène period from middle France to Eastern Austria, covering more or less whole of the central Celtic area. Inside of these rectangular wall and ditch enclosures, which also quite often had elaborate gate constructions, there often appear deep pits which in some cases still contained wooden statues of “gods” and a number of offerings. Equal pits, but without the surrounding wall and ditch constructions, have also been found on the British isles. Sometimes also small houses appear inside these Viereckschanzen, which in some cases appear to be the precedessors of later Gallo-Roman temples.
Still another type of sacred monuments, even though connected to the above group, are the temples that have on occasion been found in oppida, like in Manching.
It is also likely that the graves were considered to be sacred places. In some areas of ancient Celtic culture the graves were surrounded by fences, which makes them in some sort similar to Viereckschanzen. Even though sacred, these graves have still been often enough robbed by graverobbers only a few years after the burial. This may be explained by simple materialism (a lot of the gravegoods probably had quite some worth), but could also be interpreted as raids on the Otherworld as we know them from the Irish and British tales.
It is quite possible that there existed other sacred monuments as well. For instance it is quite likely from the Irish tradition that places like Emain Macha, Tailtiu, Cruachan and Tara were such sacred places. Although most of them also fall in the category of ancient monuments it is possible that there were also some permanent residents at such sites, in contrast to other “ancient monuments” like in Newgrange.
The Gallic Calendar of Coligny. This unique inscription, engraved on a bronze plaque, shows five years of a lunar calendar during the late 1st to 2nd century AD.
Written in a Celtic language not yet fully translated, the calendar shows months of 29-30 days, with an intercalary day every 30 months. The word Atenoux, found at the middle of each month and seen at the top of this section of the calendar, probably indicates the full moon.