RELIGION AND MYTHOLOGY OF THE CELTS
In this essay I have chosen to discuss the religion and mythology of the Celts. However, on first approaching the
subject, one could be forgiven a slight feeling of trepidation on reading the introductory remarks of the scholars. For
example, Barry Cunliffe in ‘The Ancient Celts’, quoting the Irish scholar Proinsias MacCana, refers to the “fertilechaos of the insular tradition” ( my italics) (1). Dillon and Chadwick in ‘The Celtic Realms’ describe the evidence
available as “disparate” and “paradoxical” (2), while Charles Thomas in ‘Celtic Britain’, in somewhat unscholarly
language, points to the “messy and sprawling world of pre-Christian religion” in the Celtic world (3).
I am tempted to use the word disparate inconnection with the authors themselves ! To say the least, different shades
of emphasis emerge when reading them . Just two examples will illustrate my point: while Cunliffe mentions in
connection with religious sites, that “sufficient will have been said to indicate that built temples existed throughout the
Celtic world” (4), Thomas states “insofar as there were Celtic temples atall…..”(5); and while Dillon and Chadwick
make much of the Celtic belief in rebirth and the “common heritage of the druid and the brahmin” of India (6), Cunliffe
makes only one brief mention of it, quoting Julius Caesar’s report that the druids believed “that after death the soul
passes from one body to another” (7). That having been said, there is of course much ground for generalagreement, so
let’s try to assemble the picture.
O– O – O – O – O
While the terms religion and mythology should not be confused (the dictionary definition of myths is folk tale or
legend, and therefore distinct from beliefs), there appears to be a certain amount of interweaving between the twoin
Celtic culture, and I shall therefore deal with them as a continuum rather than splitting the essay into two sections.
(1) Barry Cunliffe, ‘The Ancient Celts’ (London: Penguin Books 1999) p.183
(2) Myles Dillon & Nora Chadwick, ‘The Celtic Realms’ (London: Phoenix Press 2000) p.134
(3) Charles Thomas, ‘Celtic Britain’ (London: Thames & Hudson 1997) p.26
(4) Cunliffe ‘The AncientCelts’ p.208
(5) Thomas ‘Celtic Britain’ p.26
(6) Dillon & Chadwick ‘The Celtic Realms’ pp.10,14,149,150,152,155
(7) Cunliffe ‘The Ancient Celts’ p.208
The sources available to us in the field of Celticreligion are varied, if not necessarily plentiful. On the one hand there is
the archaeological evidence in the form of burial areas ,votive deposits and the iconography found in
Celtic art generally , and on the other hand there are the allusions to Celtic religious practices found in classical
Greek and Roman texts, as well as reconstructions that can be made from Irish and Welshheroic literature. As
Cunliffe points out however, the insular literature has come down to us largely through the filter of the Christian
monasteries while the references in the classical texts are “at best anecdotal” , given as “colourful background” in
reports of other information, and often concern Gaul rather than Britain. (Thomas even goes so far as to hazard “the fairassumption, here, that Britain resembles Gaul”) (8) (9).
Everybody does seem to agree that the pre-Roman Celtic religion in Britain was based on nature. Not being a town-
dwelling people, the Celts imbued natural features with sanctity. Sacred areas included woods, groves, springs, rivers,
lakes, and bogs, many of which had patron gods or goddesses. Indeed some rivers were actually...
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