The pervasive divine
One cannot generalize the entirety of Celtic religion in a set of terms such as animistic, spiritualistic, and polytheistic. Certainly, it was all of these things, but it was much more complex. To the Celts, everything had some spiritual significance. Daily activities and acts of battle, living creatures and bodies of land and water – everything – held some meaning or consequence greater than the material. Everybody and everything had spiritual connection to each other. Every body of water, valley, hill, tree, mountain, landmark, etc., were given deities.
There was no mutually exclusive separation between the material and the spiritual. The world and the Otherworld were closely linked and intertwined. The belief in this close linking is made evident in their art, which is full of spirals and infinite knots tying designs together. The Otherworld was the spiritual realm in which resided various spirits and creatures. What happened in the world impacted what happened in the Otherworld and vice versa.
Druids were a highly renowned group of people who were intermediaries between humans and the divine, among many other important roles. Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman historian, recounted a druid ceremony. They wore white robes as they were celebrating the sixth night of the new moon. They cut a sprig of mistletoe from a sacred oak with a gold sickle. The mistletoe fell onto a white cloak spread below the tree and was used in magic potions (according to Pliny, anyway). So there was the divine and the natural, but where did they come from?
Quite frankly, no one really cared how everything came to be. This may sound odd, but there is just no Celtic creation myth recorded through oral tradition nor through writing. In fact, it seems that the Celts resented written language and avoided it due to some unexplained religious reasons. Much of what we know from Celtic culture come from the writings of historians and through the vocal retelling of stories and legends. The closest thing to a creation myth the Celts had was the story of the Tuatha De Danann and their settling of Ireland.
Tuatha De Danann
The Tuatha De Danann (“People of Danu”), known earlier as Tuatha De (“People of the Gods”), were an actual group of earlier Irish settlers. They arrived in Ireland in 1897 B.C. and fought off the Fir Bolg, who were already living there. The previous king of the Tuatha was replaced by another tribesman named Lugh, who was then replaced by Daghda. Both became important in mythology (Lugh as a godlike warrior hero and Daghda as a father god). The Melesians defeated the Tuatha and, according to legend, allowed the Tuatha to live in Ireland. They were allowed to stay only underground in the hills and became known as the Aes Sidhe (“People of the Mound”). The legend goes that they developed into fairies and became known as the Sidhe.
Here are the most important and prevalent Celtic deities.
- He is supposed to have led the ancient Celts, the Tuatha De Danann, into Ireland to settle.
- Though a shape-shifter, he most commonly took the form of a warrior. It was said that his large hammer could kill nine men with one swing. A wave of his staff, however, could resurrect the dead.
- He is essentially the Celtic father god.
- Danu (or Dana)
- She is the Celtic mother goddess.
- Her dominion was over land and rivers. She was associated with fertility and abundance.
- The Danube River was named after her.
- Horses are mainly associated with the goddess Epona.
- Early tales tell of her as a protective and kind goddess.
- She developed into a military deity later on.
- An enigma of a goddess, Morrigan, or the Morrigan, was many things. She was sometimes a trinity of sisters, a raven or group of ravens, or as a beautiful woman.
- She has associations with war, life, fertility, and death. Mythological recounts of her in battle show her to be a brutal warrior.
- When she shape-shifted into human form, she was a seductress who did anything to get what she wanted.
- Nantosuelta and Sucellos (or Sucellus)
- Goddess Nantosuelta and god Sucellos are commonly spoken of together as a divine husband-wife duo.
- The feminine characteristics of Nantosuelta (nurturing, kind) complimented the masculine characteristics of Sucellos (strong, protective).
- Nantosuelta had associations with earth, nature, fire, and fertility: Sucellos with agriculture, forests, and alcohol.
- Sucellos is commonly shown with his hammer in one hand and an olla (clay pot) in another.
- Belenus and Taranis (or Tuireann)
- Belenus is the Celtic god of the sun while Taranis is the god of thunder.
- An intense battle between Belenus and Taranis gave rise to the separation of day and night.
- Beltane may have been influenced by worship of Belenus.
- Though sometimes labeled as the sun god, Lugh is a warrior hero associated with justice and skill in crafts and fighting.
- He is commonly known as “Lugh of the Long Arm” for his skill in wielding his magical spear.
- Lughnasadh, or Lammas, is a holiday that honors Lugh.
Unlike in many cultures, the Celts did not have a destinational view of the afterlife. They had no concept of hell, heaven, purgatory, etc. Death was seen as an interruption before life continued elsewhere. Life would not continue in the temporal world, as they did not believe in reincarnation, but in the Otherworld. Since souls were eternal and death was essentially nonexistent, warriors had no fear of death. Warriors who died in battle were actually honored and better off in the afterlife (the same applies for suicide). Warriors’ corpses were burned with their bodies facing enemy villages to protect their home village even after death. They, like everyone else, would have certain objects burned with them to carry them over into the afterlife. Sometimes, this would include pets.
The dead would not reincarnate, but could temporarily return to the world and engage in normal activities. This may have been necessary, since debts accrued in the material world carried over in the afterlife! Unlike normal living people, the dead could use supernatural powers such as teleportation and invisibility, which would make their activity in the temporal world easier. They could also pass into different lives in the world or Otherworld.
Not all souls would have so much fun. The souls of those unfit for salvation were cursed to wander the earth. Every night, the As Da Nuite, as they were called, would wander in procession by the lead of a living person. There was no single person who was destined to do it; they just randomly picked people. The leader would be aroused from sleep by spirits and entranced. Then, the leader would carry a cross or cauldron as he or she led the spirits. The person would wake up the next morning not having a clue what happened.
When Otherworldly spirits weren’t interfering with the lives of the people, the Celts had creatures to worry about. Here are some of the monsters and fairies that liked to cross over worlds.
- On land, they would appear as beautiful men or women. When a person was seduced by a selkie’s beauty, he was drawn to the water where the selkie would take on her true form as a seal and kill him. Male selkies would seduce women whose husbands were lost at sea.
- On land, they take on the form of a human with hooves. In water, they were spirit-horses who dragged travelers into the water to eat them.
- Like the Greek sirens, they would lure seafarers with their beautiful appearances and singing voices.
- There are different accounts of korrigan. Commonly, they are depicted as creatures that seduce men into water by giving the illusion that they’re beautiful women. Then, they would drag them down to drown them. The story goes that they were seen at night on the banks of streams and springs. Other accounts tell of korrigans as mischievous little creatures.
- Bucca were fairies that inhabited mines and coastal areas.
- Kannerezed Noz
- “Night washerwomen,” these would appear in groups of three by moonlit rivers. There, they washed the shrouds of those who were about to die. Travelers may be asked to lend a hand, only to be wrapped in a shroud, never to be seen again.
- Skrijerez Noz
- “Night screechers,” these were like banshees. Around the time someone was going to die, they would let out a loud screech.