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Celtic Gods and Heros: Celtic Gods of Mainland Europe

Author: John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 2000

Speakers of Celtic languages once dominated a swath of Europe stretching
from Spain to areas of modern-day Turkey. At various times in their heyday
from 500 to 100 B.C., these Celtic peoples controlled what is now France,
southern Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans, and
other adjoining territories. These Celts of continental or mainland Europe
are often separated for analytic purposes from the insular Celts of
Ireland and Britain.

Experts on the Celts are quick to point out that the religious practices
and the homaged Celtic deities were not consistent throughout the vast
territories populated by the Celts. Indeed, the gods of the ancient Celts
were often localized deities of the tribe or the geographic region.
Gerhard Herm quotes Celtic researchers in reporting that some 374 names of
Celtic deities have been identified in Europe, and that only sixty-nine of
these appear in more than one geographic area. This claim is bolstered by
Barry Cunliffe who asserts that although there were more than 200 Celtic
gods and goddesses, their recognition was not consistent or unchanging
across Europe.

The Celtic gods had much to do with nature and its cycles, especially in
the earlier periods of Celtic history, before human characteristics were
deified. Gods and goddesses were often connected with sacred springs,
rivers, groves, or tribal shrines in the outdoors. Celts approached their
gods for help with healings, fertility, bountiful crops, and other forms
of good fortune. Julius Caesar commented that the Celts were
"superstitious," and that they offered many sacrifices and amends for
justice to appease their gods.

Most likely, the mainland Celts did not give human form to their gods
and goddesses until later in the Iron Age, perhaps in the first or second
century B.C. According to Simon James, only a few religious statues have
been found dating to the early Celtic period. Then there is an interesting
story about the Celts' attack on Delphi, Greece in 279 B.C. Diodorus
Siculus reports that the Celtic leader Brennus the Younger mocked statues
of the Greek gods at the temple--"when he came only upon images of stone
and wood he laughed at them, to think that men, believing that gods had
human form, should set up their image in wood and stone."

But once the Celts had greater interaction with the Etruscans, Romans,
and Greeks, the Celtic gods began to take human form. By the first
century A.D., the Roman writer Lucan reports that Celtic woodcarvers
created statues that were "grim-faced god-images, coarsely hewn from rough
tree-trunks, bleached by the weather." It is possible that the Celtic
deities of the European mainland became quite anthropomorphic, with many
human characteristics. This was clearly the case in Ireland and in
Britain, as told by the mythic literature. But such Celtic mythic tales
were not written down in mainland Europe, so we don't know a great deal
about the traits and stories of their gods. (Many of us end up trying to
extrapolate based on Irish and Welsh mythology.)

Some Celtic Gods and Goddesses of Mainland Europe

"The horned one" or "lord of wild things," god of animals,
pictured on Gundestrup Cauldron, with torc, horns, and holding a snake.

Gaulish sun god and healer; means "bright" or brilliant,"
Celtic feast Beltaine (May 1) is named in his honor (akin to insular Beli
and Bilé)

Gaulish horse goddess, had fertility aspects

Goddess of the River Seine

A forest goddess, often pictured with a bear

A war god of Gaul

The "good striker," a god with a hammer

Gaulish god of the underworld

Fertility goddess, akin to Irish Brigid

Other continental Celtic deities: Nemausus (at Nimes), Glan (at Glanum,
near St. Rémy), Belisama (a goddess similar to Minerva), Damona (a goddess
portrayed as a cow), Nemetona (a goddess of war), Maponos (similar to
Apollo), Ogmioc (similar to Hercules), Vasio (Gaulish god), Lenus (Treveri
tribe god), Rosmerta (goddess--"the Provider"), Matrona (goddess of the
River Marne), Cathubodua and Nantosvelta (goddesses), and Braciaca
(Gaulish god of beer)

SOURCES: Simon James, Proinsias Mac Cana, Barry Cunliffe, Gerhard Herm,
and John Arnott MacCulloch

The table above lists some of the names of the Celtic gods and goddesses
of the European mainland. Lucan also reported that a triad of gods were
important to the Celts there: Teutates, Taranis, and Esus. This sort of
triad god-form shows up time and again in Celtic images of their deities.
In addition, Cunliffe maintains that there is an element of binary
opposition in the forms of Celtic deities:
male/tribe/sky/war vs. female/place/earth/fertility. Cunliffe believes
that "the coupling of the two produces balance, harmony, and productivity
and has to be enacted on a regular annual cycle determined by the seasons."

Getting back to Lucan's observations, the triad of gods he identified had
set characteristics. Teutates meant "god of the tribe," from the Celtic
teutu "tribe." Some experts feel Teutates was the equivalent to the Roman
god Mars. Taranis was a sky god, from the Celtic taran "thunder." Some
contend he was akin to the classical god Zeus/Jupiter. Esus was the good
or all-competent god. He may have been similar to the Roman god Mercury.
Julius Caesar makes another point: that the Gaulish Celts claimed that
they were all descendants of Dis Pater, who was the Roman god of the
underworld. (No doubt the Celts did not refer to him specifically as Dis
Pater, but rather by the Celtic name for him; folks like Caesar were
inclined to use the Roman equivalent names for the Celtic gods, rather
than the actual Celtic words.)

Intermediaries of the Gods

A discussion of the Celtic gods should
offer a few words about the men who stood between the gods and
mankind--the druids. This figure in Celtic society was highly educated
(for twenty years), oversaw the religious rituals, and made pronouncements
on faith and morals. According to Greek geographer Strabo, the bards were
associated with the druids, as were diviners and seers called vates (in
modern times called ovates). The druids were holders of secret knowledge,
and it is presumed that they oversaw the Celtic lunar calendar, which was
important for crops and pastoral concerns. (The Coligny Calendar, dating
from the first century B.C., has been found in Burgundy, France; it used
Roman letters to express about forty Celtic words in formulating a lunar
calendar with assessments on which months were auspicious.)

The word "druid" was Celtic for "wise man of the oaks." And the oak tree
was quite important to the druids and the Celts. Important religious
ceremonies took place in oak groves. Votive statue offerings were often
made of oak wood. Even as far away as the Celtic province of Galatia in
present-day Turkey, the religious gathering place was called Drunemeton or
"oak sanctuary."

Caesar reports that in Gaul (present-day France), the druids had a an
annual council in the center of that region, and that this "Council of
Gauls" was presided over by a sort of chief druid, one who had the most
prestige among the many. Major decisions affecting all the tribes were
settled at the council. This meeting was held on Lughnasa (August 1), a
festival along with Beltaine listed on the Coligny Calendar. Caesar also
claims that the druids of Gaul often received their training in Britain,
and gave much honor to the druids there.

Because the Celts believed in the immortality of the soul, whatever the
druids said was of utmost importance (given that the druids knew the path
towards a happy afterlife). Even in modern times new interest has been
invested in the druids. In 1908, Winston Churchill accepted membership in
the Albion Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids. And present day druidic
orders are enjoying increased applications for inclusion.

The Story of Lugh

Lugh was one of the principal gods of the Celts, and
was honored over vast areas they inhabited, particularly in the western
half of Europe. He is known alternately as Lugh of the Long Arm, or the
Master of all Arts, and in some territories as a sun god. One of the four
major festivals of the Celtic year was named after Lugh--Lughnasa on
August 1. Many European cities began as Celtic centers named after Lugh.
Lyons in France was once called Lugdunom, or "Stronghold of Lugh."
Carlisle in England was called Luguvallium, "Strong in the God Lugh."
Similar is Lugo in northwest Spain, in the region of once Celtic Galicia.
Added are early Celtic settlements in Laon and Loudon in France, Leiden in
the central part of the Netherlands, and Legnica in Poland, all who
honored Lugh in their original namesakes.

Lugh's name varies depending on the locality, e.g., Lug, and on the
continent Lugus, and in Wales Lleu. Although he was venerated in mainland
Europe, to get a sense of his self and stories, one must rely on the
insular Celtic myths of Ireland and Wales. The short sketch below
attempts that approach, though there are a multitude of varying stories
about him.

To start at the beginning, Lugh was the son of Cian and Ethniu, Cian
being a member of the Irish pantheon of gods (called the Tuatha Dé Danann)
and Ethniu the daughter of a Fomor giant. Lugh grew to be fair and tall,
with yellow hair. Opponents would be nearly blinded by the brilliance of
his countenance. Lugh wore a green mantle with a silver brooch, and he
owned three priceless possessions. First was his sling, with which he was
very skilled in use, earning his nickname "the Long Armed" for his
marksmanship in combat. Second was his five-pointed spear that nearly came
alive in battle, "tearing through the ranks of the enemy, never tired of
slaying." Lugh's third treasured possession was his hound, marvelous for
a number of reasons, including its ability to turn whole spring-waters
into wine upon taking a dog-bath.

When he first arrived to take his place among the Irish pantheon, the
other gods doubted Lugh's veracity. He reported to them his abilities as
a champion, a harper, carpenter, smith, poet, druid, physician,
bronze-worker, and cupbearer. Not believing him they put Lugh to the test.
A challenge was made with the best chess player among the gods. Lugh
defeated him, inventing along the way a new move called "Lugh's
enclosure." He then lifted and moved an enormous rock, showing superior
physical strength. Finally the gods asked him to play the harp, which he
did with great ability, performing the three magic strains of sleep,
sadness, and merriment. What the gods and goddesses realized, and in time
grew to know all the much more, was that Lugh really was "the Master of
all Arts," and this nickname too became his over the centuries.

Lugh's arrival at Tara was propitious. The Celtic gods were preparing for
war with the Fomor giants. Recognizing Lugh's masterful abilities, the
Tuatha Dé Danann's king Nuada lent the throne of the gods to Lugh for
thirteen days to plan for the campaign. Lugh called for a council of the
gods and heard each of them explain how their skills could contribute in
defeating the Fomors. The gods and goddesses agreed to give the
generalship of the conflict to Lugh.

Everything was leading up to the famous Battle of Magh Tuiredh, fought in
County Sligo, near where the Fomor giants lived. After individual duel
combats, a large pitched battle broke out between the gods and the giants.
At first the council of gods tried to hold Lugh out of the battle
(guarding him with nine warriors), because he was deemed too valuable to
risk. But Lugh escaped, and led on the charge. In the heat of battle, a
particularly awful Fomor named Balor killed Nuada, the king of the gods.
Lugh then shouted a challenge to Balor in vengeance. Balor had a baleful
evil eye that was usually shut, but could kill anyone who saw it. Balor
said to his Fomor attendant: "Lift up my eyelid that I may see this
chatterer who talks to me."

When the eyelid was just half lifted, Lugh used his skills with the
sling, and flung a magic stone into Balor's eye, killing him on the spot.
The fortunes of the battle turned immediately to the gods' favor. The
Fomors wavered, and the gods pinned down a victory, going on to rule
Ireland for an era. Lugh himself became king of the Irish gods for a time
after the death of Nuada, and later fathered the Celtic hero Cuchulainn.

The Welsh counterpart to Lugh is Lleu of the Dexterous Hand. He was the
son of the goddess Arianrod, and reared by the god Gwydion. For a number
of reasons, Arianrod denied Lleu a wife, so through magic Gwydion made him
a woman made of blossoms. Her name became Blodeuwedd (Flower Face), and
"she was the fairest and most graceful that man ever saw." Lleu and
Blodeuwedd lived in a palace in Wales, and had many adventures, which we
will recount in future articles.

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