Ancient Celtic Mythology: A Vision of Gods and Goddesses

Ancient Celtic Mythology: A Vision of Gods and Goddesses

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Ancient Celtic Mythology: A Vision of Gods and Goddesses

Upon investigating the supernatural reality that the Celts endured, it is necessary to somewhat overlook the myths to see what lies behind them. It is essential to find when and from where the myths originated and how true the storytellers, or narrators, really are. The Celtic gods and goddesses, in such an early mythological time defined as " 'a period when beings lived or events happened such as one no longer sees in our days' " (Sjoestedt 1994: 2), require much analysis. A diverse collection of documents, literature and archaeology pave the way to our understanding of the ancient mythology of the Celts. However, these traces lack a sense of closure, leaving the investigation into the nature of these gods and goddesses raw and incomplete. The evidence of the Celtic deities exists in various forms, but the information that we have collected leaves unanswered questions. For instance, in analysing the recorded documents left behind by the Greeks and Romans, we are called to cast some doubt on how closely the Celtic religious rites paralleled those of their classical neighbours. We survey recorded religious practices with apprehension, as we are not truly sure that the Celts too worshipped family gods and a mass of deities who covered all aspects of life.1 How do we know that we are not just reading materials reflecting the Graeco-Roman myths? Is it not plausible that these Greek and Roman writers installed some bias, leaning towards their mythological ideas, within their testimony? The speculation surrounding all of the varied pieces of evidence is just. From the abundance of evidence, though, we can be sure that the Celts believed in a multiplicity of deities. It is apparent that the existence of gods and goddesses in Celtic society was quite a serious affair and an everyday business. However, when focusing on the exact nature of such gods and goddesses, it seems only fair to attempt to construct an overview of the character of each deity. Reconstructing the evidence might be too hopeful because the conclusions would come from mere ignorance and be partially based on what we still do not know. From here we can only address the different types of evidence that piece together the very nature of the Celtic gods and goddesses, but the mixed and slightly unreliable evidence is certainly not easy to sort.

The literary evidence for the existence of deities in Celtic religion is one source that reveals the character of the individual gods and goddesses.

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There exist two main bodies of literature evidence. One major body is vernacular written sources in Irish and Welsh. The most acknowledged Irish piece contains a collection of prose tales, known as the Ulster Cycle.2 Within these epic stories, the heroes swear not by God but by the gods of their tribes. However, many early mythic stories, such as the Irish Ulster Cycle, were not compiled until the medieval age. As a result, "Opinion is divided as to whether these texts contain substantial material derived from oral tradition or whether they were a creation of the medieval monastic authors" (Green 1997: 24). Other Irish stories frequently refer to the three goddesses of battle and death.3 These stories detail the nature of the gods and offer some explanation concerning their roles in Celtic society. Many stories that come down through Irish tradition make numerous references to 'Lugh', whose Irish meaning is 'shining light'. This worldly god was worshipped by Celtic peoples in Ireland, Gaul and Spain.1 From its Irish translation, this god has been derived as a sun god, yet its precise nature is unknown. Other Irish references to Celtic deities include the 'Book of Invasions' and the 'History of Races'.3 Regarding the mythological world as a whole, one Irish piece of work even suggests that gods were neither worshipped or sacrificed but were simply supernatural beings with magical powers.4 Such a belief only adds to the difficulty of tracking the deity's true character; more possibilities cause a greater chance of mistaken identity. Welsh material on the whole has been less abundant. Much of the Welsh literary materials have been recorded in the form of oral tales, so they are poorly documented. Overall, the Irish and Welsh material evidence that has been recorded as Celtic literature merely names certain gods. Descriptions of gods are often vague and need more elaboration. Thus, an evaluation of their precise nature would entail assumptions and mixed interpretations as there is but little tangible evidence to consume.

Furthermore, we need to take caution when asserting the time frame in which the works were recorded. When looking at the context of the evidence, some disturbing factors are noticeable. First, the works lack any connection to La Tene, which was a significant ritual burial that laid a foundation for many of the Celtic beliefs in religion and mythology. Second, there is "proof that the background to these tales was earlier than the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century AD" (Green 1993: 15). This statement implies that the period in which the literature was written was pre-Celtic mythology and so is likely to be out of its realm. Likewise, other Irish and Welsh materials appear to have been compiled too late, such as the Ulster Cycle. This era of post-Celtic mythology would inevitably challenge any beliefs that came before its time. Thus the Celtic literature could be ignorant of the actual beliefs of the people about whom they wrote. The descriptions from the pre and post mythological era would most likely compare and contrast, leading to more confusion about the true nature of the Celtic deities. Finally, it is important to take note that the Irish materials focused mostly on the Irish society, leaving out religious beliefs coming from the Celts in Britain and Gaul.5 In a sense, the Irish materials cannot be comprehensive because they could leave out vital information pertaining to gods and goddesses in other areas. Although these sacred tales may be misleading or vague, the Irish and Welsh did have one advantage: the work was composed by a Celtic heritage - those of Irish and Welsh decent. Therefore, this category of evidence can be considered more 'direct' compared with other resources that are completely second-hand.

The other major body of literature that falls under the category of second-hand evidence is contemporary literature written by Graeco-Romans. The Celt's Mediterranean neighbours passed on many sources of evidence in writing.6 These classical authors were very explicit in their descriptions of gods and goddesses. Some major Graeco-Roman authors include Caesar, Strabo, Pomporius Mela, Pliny, Athenaeus, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Diodorus Siculus, Ammianus Marcellinus and Lucan.7 Although this evidence carries more weight with its detailed inscriptions and manuscripts, these classical writers could have held biases spurred by personal beliefs. We have to take into account that these works are not necessarily factual recordings; they were not designed as proofs for the reader. We should recognise that the authors themselves probably acknowledged cultural differences and created their own perspectives. Hence, the Graeco-Roman authors are not completely reliable, as too many judgements on Celtic mythology prevail in their testimony.
In addition to the cultural differences that could lead to personal biases, there is also the speculation of a cultural ignorance and misinterpretation on behalf of the Romans and Greeks. "Observers from the Greek and Roman world commented on the traditions, cults and rituals of their northern, 'barbarian' neighbours. Their testimony has the value of contemporaneity but it has inherent problems of bias, distortion, misunderstanding and omission" (Green 1993: 8). Moreover, some authors would intertwine religious identities by using the Roman names of gods for the Celtic gods. Mixing the names and attributions could lead to confusion about what exactly defined each Celtic deity. Furthermore, the author's religion was based on an entirely different belief system. The Celtic religion was less sophisticated than the Greek and Roman traditions. Henceforth, when reading about the Celtic deities from classical commentators, it is possible that their descriptions were based not on the framework of the Celtic world but on that of the author's world - the Graeco-Roman.8 Thus Mediterranean authors offered little insight into the specific nature of divine beings in Celtic society, and even that cannot be fully credited.

The final attempt to elaborate on the higher powers in Celtic mythology comes from archaeological evidence. "The main category of evidence which pertains directly to the pagan Celtic period is that of archaeology, the study of the material culture of Celtic religion: sanctuaries and sacred space; burial customs; ritual behaviour; epigraphy; and iconography" (Green 1993: 12). Pieces of evidence frequently came in the form of inscribed altars. Dedications or offerings like these would provide the names of Celtic gods and goddesses. Most of the offerings to Celtic deities, however, offered little explanation of the nature of these gods. Names were given, yet the inscriptions lacked any detailed information about the attributions of the gods. "Where the name alone survives on an inscription it is difficult to determine the attribution of that deity, although some indication may be provided from a philological interpretation of the name itself" (Chadwick 1997: 156). Moreover, the complete meaning that a ritual offering implied was unknown, making it hard to establish any representation or symbolisation given by the gods. Pictures that accompanied the inscripted names could provide clues; however, the subsequent interpretations would again vary with each observer. As is common in the world of art, one artist's perception of an illustration can differ completely from another's.

Like any archaeological discoveries, there appears to be difficulties involved with both interpretation and lack of article discovered. First, archaeologists can deal only with what has survived. When there is not enough to conclude, then the words behave more like an hypothesis that has yet to be tested and probably never will. It is possible to study the artefacts further and search for parallels in time or context, but the outcome can never be certain. Second, one's belief is another person's disbelief in the world of archaeological evidence. Thus, the archaeological evidence into the nature of Celtic gods and goddesses are merely deductions, or conclusions that breach a closure. The information is highly uncertain, which makes it highly unreliable too. Judgements lead this crusade of discovered archaeological proof, so we can never be completely confident. In the end, we can only offer thoughts on the substantive archaeological evidence that we have collected. This will in turn provide an extremely speculative construction of Celtic mythology, but it will, at least, shed some light on the mysterious underlying world of Celtic gods and goddesses.

In summary, exploring the world of the Celtic gods and goddesses has been covered in three areas: Irish and Welsh vernacular literature, Graeco-Roman literature, and archaeology. The amount of evidence is substantial enough to evaluate the nature of the Celtic gods and goddesses. However, our conclusions may not be accurate. We need to exercise some caution in our use of all three of the sources for Celtic mythology. Each compartment of proof has its flaws. While the archaeological evidence does not contain any predisposition inherent in the literary sources, it does contain interpretations that are variable. The literary materials and the archaeological evidence have a great risk of error because of too much speculation. In the absence of sound evidence that could support the true nature of Celtic gods and goddesses, we are left to assume what we think they represented in Celtic society. It is easy to assess that the mythology of the Celts is difficult to interpret, therefore, it is not easy to evaluate the nature of early Celtic gods and goddesses. "What we lack (because of the virtual non-literacy of Iron Age Celts) is written testimony from the Celts themselves" (Green 1997: 24).


Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. England (1997) Penguin Books.
Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. England (1997) Oxford.
Dowden, Ken. Religion and the Romans. England (1992) Bristol Classical Press.
Green, Miranda Jane. Celtic Myths. England (1993) British Museum Press.
Green, Miranda Jane. Exploring the World of the Druids. England (1997) Thames and Hudson.
Green, Miranda Jane. The Gods of the Celts. United States of America (1993) Alan Sutton.
James, Simon. Exploring the World of the Celts. England (1993) Thames and Hudson.
Powell, T.G.E. The Celts. England (1994) Thames and Hudson.
Rankin, David. Celts and the Classical World. United States of America (1996) Routledge.
Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Ireland (1994) Four Courts Press Ltd.
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