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Celtic Religion

This article was written by Tadhg MacCrossan on May 29, 2002
posted under Druidism

Druidism can be used synonymously with the phrases Celtic religion and Celtic magic. In order to enter into this magico-religious system, a familiarity with mythology is necessary. Celtic mythology is best represented in the Irish Book of Invasions or Lebor Gábala Érenn. These tales give a pseudo-history of Ireland, from the creation and arrival of the gods to the appearance of humankind.

The high gods of the pagan Irish were called the Tuatha Dé Danann, "toutas of the goddess Danu." These were the gods of both the sky and the heavens. Allied to them were the gods of the earth, fire and horses, and a family of gods. The enemies of the Tuatha Dé Danann were the giants, or fomors, who opposed the gods and their values. The Tuatha Dé Danann (or gods) represented order, learning, wisdom, skill, technology, industry, strength, courage, productivity and fertility, as well as light, warmth, progress and beauty. The giants represented stinginess, oppression, rudeness, cowardice, ignorance, vulgarity, poverty, and crudity, as well as darkness, stagnation, ugliness, brutality, sickness and disorder. The values of the gods were the values of Celtic society, and represented the healthy ideals of society and the individual.

At the head of the Celtic pantheon was Lugus the Long-Armed, followed by Noudons the Silver- Armed. Then came the deities Uindos (or Cernunnos, as he has been popularized in Greek). Ogmios, Brigindu, Maponos and Epona. Celtic religion idealized its virtues in a basic three-fold scheme of learning, strength and wealth, which made a sort of five-fold division of the gods, as did other Indo-European mythologies:

1. Lugus (loo-goos), the magician-king
2. Noudons (nuh-oo-dohns), the judge-priest
3. Ogmios (ohg-mee-awss), the warrior
4. Epos Olloatir (ollo-ah-tur), the horse god
5. Epona (eh-paw-nah), the horse goddess

An understanding of the Celtic pantheon can come from careful reading of early Irish literature, which includes not only the Lebor Gabála Érenn but also tales from the Fenian and Ulster cycles. The Ulster cycle includes the tales of CúChullain, the great Celtic hero and an incarnation of Lugus; Conchobhar Mac Nessa; Aillil and Medhbh ("Maeve"); and the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"). The Fenian cycle is made up of stories about the Fenians (or Fianna), warrior-bands of Old Ireland, centers around the famous "Finn" of Finn Mac Cumhail. Finn Mac Cumhail’s men included Cailte Mac Ronan, famous for his later philosophical debates with St. Patrick; Conan Mael, famed for his acid-tongued wit; and Diarmuid ("Dermott"), known for his handsomeness. Finn is the most famous incarnation of the Celtic god Uindos, or Cernunnos.

The exploits of CúChullain tell us of his mystical metagenetic incarnation of the pan-Celtic high god Lugh (Lugus). Lugh appears in the Táin and other tales of the Ulster cycle, as Odin does in the Volsunga Saga, and Hermes in Greek tales.

This tells us something about the attributes and character of the head deities of the Celtic and Germanic pantheon and why the Romans identified Lugus and Wodan both with Mercury (Hermes). Lugh and Odin have much in common, both in attributes and appearance, suggesting a common ancestry in the ancient past.

Finn Mac Cumhail is an incarnation of the wild hunter and warrior-poet god Cernunnos. We find this deity manifested as such in other Irish and Welsh medieval tales as well. The Fenians were so skilled in the magical arts of poetry and fighting that they seem to have been a combination of warriors and Druids, with the Druidic freedom to move from one tribal territory to another. Scholars have identified the tales of the Fenians with other Indo-European männerbunds like the Eriloz or Erulians of the Germanic peoples. Both the Fenian and Ulster cycles of tales are full of magic. They are a great source for learning about the nature of the Tuatha Dé Danann divinities. They broadly resemble the Aesir and Vanir of the Germanic peoples, the Devas of the Vedic Indians, and the Greek Olympians.

Much has been made of the Celtic goddesses, particularly the tribal goddesses of the land and rivers. Many neopagans have attempted to synchretize all of them into one single goddess they call "Mother Earth," but the Celtic tradition knows of no one single "Mother Earth"—nor is there any evidence that they conceived of the Earth as a deity. The Celts’ most important goddess was of neither the Moon nor the earth, but rather the land of the touta—a goddess of sovereignty. Kings and chieftains had to be ritually married to her in order to rule. She was believed to be incarnate in a white mare, which was sacrificed in order to release her spirit. Her flesh was consumed by the king and his people in order to take in some of her divine essence. This mare goddess was the "Great Mother," a feminine archetype sought by every man in his wife, and the object of inspiration for poets. She represents that which is sexually appealing to men, and became the horseman’s guide when incarnate as a mare. She had many hypostases (manifestations) as local goddesses among the various toutas; each touta had its local hypostasis of this goddess. She was later called the banshee (beansidhe), which literally means "woman of peace" ("peace" was used euphemistically for spirits and spooks in later Irish and Scots-Gaelic folklore).

This local goddess was neither a maiden, matron, and crone of the moon (as a 20th-century theory would have it), and wasn’t necessarily remnant of "matriarchal" religion, for she was an ideal of male desire. Her hypostases were Indo-European triple style goddesses, representing the three Indo-European virtues:

- Wisdom or poetry and learning (to kings and druids)
- Physical strength or health and courage (to warriors)
- Productivity, fertility and sexuality (to producers)

The goddesses who represented these things among the Tuatha Dé Danann were Morrígu and Brigit. Brigit herself was a daughter of the Dagda (doyda), who was named Eochu Ollathir, or "horse all-father." Morrígu was one of the Dagda’s mates, as well as of Nemed’s and Nuada’s. When Nuada was replaced by Lugh, Lugh became the king and Morrígu’s husband. Morrigu is the tribal goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, just as every tuath had its own local goddess: Sinand of the Shannon, Matrona of the Marne, Aine of Cnoc Aine (Knockany), Teamuir of Tara, Tailltiu of Teltown, Macha of Ard-Macha (Armagh), Sequana of the Seine, and Brigantia of Brigantes. It is important to note that when Morrígu of the Tuatha Dé Danann takes her warrior form, she appears as a crow on the battlefields picking up the spirits of slain warriors and taking them to the heavenly realm beyond this world, such as Tír na nóg or Tír na mBeo. In this respect she is very similar to such goddesses as the Teutonic Valkyries and Erinyes or Eumenides of the Greeks.

It is also attested in Gaulish traditions (as told through the Greeks) and supported archaeologically that the god Lugus was accompanied by ravens or crows, just like the Germanic Odin with his two ravens (Huginn and Munnin) and Valkyries. Two divine characters in the Welsh Mabinogi (mah-bin-oh-ggee) have names meaning raven and white-breast: Bran and Branwen. Bran appears in Irish tales as a sea god, and there are connections with the sea in the Welsh tales as well. Lugus, like Odin, was king of the gods in the Celtic pantheon, was accompanied by crows and ravens, carried a spear, and closed one eye to do his magic (Odin offered his eye); like the Great Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony, he led the Tuatha Dé Danann gods in victory over the Fomorian giants. Lugh’s birth and childhood also parallels that of Zeus.

Lugh was hidden from his evil maternal grandfather, Balor the Fomor, by his paternal uncle Goibhniu (Gwydion in Welsh), a smith god who brought Lugh to his foster parents and taught him all the crafts and skills. Goibhniu made Lugh a magical spear, with which he was destined to slay his evil Fomorian maternal grandfather. Zeus had been hidden from his father, Kronos, on the isle of Crete and given magical weapons by the Cyclopes. As Lugh slew Balor, Zeus slew Kronos. He also freed his brothers and sisters of the Olympic pantheon and started a war between the gods [Olympians] and the giants [Titans].

Nuada was called Noudons in Old Celtic, and Nudd or Lludd Llaw Ereint in Middle Welsh. His name meant "fisher" or "hunter." He was the maimed king of the Celtic pantheon, and was replaced by his cousin Lugh. The story of the First and Second Battles of Magh Tuired (Moytura) in the Book of Invasions is a central myth of dual leadership. Welsh literature has its medievalized or romanticized version in the tale of Lludd and Lleuellys.

Nuada or Nudd very much resembles the Germanic Tyr; both are one-armed gods who become shadowy partners to the main high god (Lugh or Odin). There are parallels in the Rig Veda of India, in the symbiosis of Mitra and Varuna, and in very ancient Roman religion with Jupiter and Dius Fidius. Noudons was the father of Uindos (Finn, Gwynn). His character has survived into Arthurian legend as the fisher king, and like Arthur, he sends his men on a quest for the Grail.

The Fenian cycle is very similar to the Arthurian cycle, but more purely Celtic, and devoid of Christian influence. The story called Acallamh na Senorach, or "Conversation of the Old Men," is an argument between Cailte Mac Ronan and Patrick over Druidism (the pagan Celtic religion) and Christianity. This is a part of the Fenian cycle, full of humor as well as philosophical discourse. Another Fenian story, late in the tradition, is called Oisín in Tir na nÓg, and is about Finn Mac Cumhail’s son Oisín (Usheen) ("little deer"), who was invited and brought to the Otherworld. When he set foot on the ground, upon his return to the Middle World, he suddenly became an old man. In many of these wonder tales, time is distorted by a trip to the Otherworld (whether beyond the western wave or in the Underworld). An hour in the Otherworld can be years in this world; likewise, what seems like hours or days there may only be a few minutes here.

A fair amount of information has been gleaned about Celtic religion from ancient Gaulish inscriptions, on cult objects buried with the dead or thrown down wells and springs as offerings to deities. Some objects were also deliberately smashed and buried as offerings to the Deuoi (gods). The usual place for theurgic ritual, worship of the Deuoi, or veneration of the ancestors was in the sacred ground called the nemeton, (a clearing in the midst of a wooded grove or glade), on hilltops, near a body of water or in the center of a toutal territory. Often there would be a well for dropping things into the Underworld, or things would be buried in the border. There were also sacred fires into which sacrifices were made as in the Hindu and Parsi religions.

Over three-hundred divine names have been found in the old Gaulish inscriptions, but many of these names are actually epithets, nicknames, or names of local ghosts and other spirits. The Roman and Greek commentaries, provide much material covering the culture and religion of the Gauls and Britons (ancient Welsh), but the most accurate and reliable sources are from Caesar, Pomponius Mela, Athenaeus, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus. Pliny the Elder commented on a few trivial matters and exaggerated the negative aspects of the old Gaulish Druids, while many of the later Greco-Roman writers made up stories or misinterpreted rumors about the Druids. Some of these misinterpretations concerned the doctrine of transmigration of souls, which was thought to have been similar to the doctrine taught by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras; the Druids apparently taught a philosophy which, though it also held the abstract worlds of music, time and ratios as divine, differed in significant ways to that taught by the Pythagoreans.

One remarkable observation made by an ancient Greek compared the Druids to the Magi of Persia and the Brahmans of India. In general terms there were many similarities; the Druids were a priest-craft which shared the same functions in Celtic society the Magi and Brahmans held in their cultures. All three had inherited many of the same archaic Indo-European ideas from their ancestors. Celtic religion—with its system of Druids, polytheism, rituals and incarnations of gods as famous heroes—is very similar to the religion of the Indians before the rise of Buddhism, the Krishna and Shiva cults, Jainism and other reform movements. Druidic rituals were similar to the rituals of the Zoroastrian religion of the Magi (the Mobads). Today, the Zoroastrian religion survives among Indians of Persian descent, (called Parsis), who have preserved it against Islamic oppression. The Mobads of the Parsis and Brahmans of Orthodox Hinduism are distant cousins of the Celtic Druids but unlike the Druids they survive, to this day, unbroken by mass conversion.

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