Ancient Mysteries Religion of the Ancient Celts

Religion of the Ancient Celts

Religion of the Ancient Celts
Catalog # SKU1022
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 2.00 lbs
Author Name J. A. MacCulloch


The Religion
of the
Ancient Celts


The scientific study of ancient Celtic religion is a thing of recent growth. As a result of the paucity of materials for such a study, earlier writers indulged in the wildest speculative flights and connected the religion with the distant East, or saw in it the remains of a monotheistic faith or a series of esoteric doctrines veiled under polytheistic cults.

Excerpt from Preface:

In this book I have made use of all the available sources, and have endeavoured to study the subject from the comparative point of view and in the light of the anthropological method. I have also interpreted the earlier cults by means of recent folk-survivals over the Celtic area wherever it has seemed legitimate to do so. The results are summarised in the introductory chapter of the work, and students of religion, and especially of Celtic religion, must judge how far they form a true interpretation of the earlier faith of our Celtic forefathers, much of which resembles primitive religion and folk-belief everywhere.

Unfortunately no Celt left an account of his own religion, and we are left to our own interpretations, more or less valid, of the existing materials, and to the light shed on them by the comparative study of religions. As this book was written during a long residence in the Isle of Skye, where the old language of the people still survives, and where the genius loci speaks everywhere of things remote and strange, it may have been easier to attempt to realise the ancient religion there than in a busier or more prosaic place.

Yet at every point I have felt how much would have been gained could an old Celt or Druid have revisited his former haunts, and permitted me to question him on a hundred matters which must remain obscure. But this, alas, might not be!


The divinities often united with mortals. Goddesses sought the love of heroes who were then sometimes numbered among the gods, and gods had amours with the daughters of men. Frequently the heroes of the sagas are children of a god or goddess and a mortal, and this divine parentage was firmly believed in by the Celts, since personal names formed of a divine name and -genos or -gnatos, "born of," "son of," are found in inscriptions over the whole Celtic area, or in Celtic documents-Boduogenos, Camulognata, etc.

Those who first bore these names were believed to be of divine descent on one side. Spirits of nature or the elements of nature personified might also be parents of mortals, as a name like Morgen, from Morigenos, "Son of the Sea," and many others suggest. For this and for other reasons the gods frequently interfere in human affairs, assisting their children or their favourites. Or, again, they seek the aid of mortals or of the heroes of the sagas in their conflicts or in time of distress, as when Morrigan besought healing from Cuchulainn.

As in the case of early Greek and Roman kings, Celtic kings who bore divine names were probably believed to be representatives or incarnations of gods. Perhaps this explains why a chief of the Boii called himself a god and was revered after his death, and why the Gauls so readily accepted the divinity of Augustus. Irish kings bear divine names, and of these Nuada occurs frequently, one king, Irel Faith, being identified with Nuada Airgetlam, while in one text nuadat is glossed in ríg, "of the king," as if Nuada had come to be a title meaning "king." Welsh kings bear the name Nudd (Nodons), and both the actual and the mythic leader Brennus took their name from the god Bran. King Conchobar is called día talmaide, "a terrestrial god."

If kings were thought to be god-men like the Pharaohs, this might account for the frequency of tales about divine fatherhood or reincarnation, while it would also explain the numerous geasa which Irish kings must observe, unlike ordinary mortals. Prosperity was connected with their observance, though this prosperity was later thought to depend on the king's goodness. The nature of the prosperity-mild seasons, abundant crops, fruit, fish, and cattle-shows that the king was associated with fertility, like the gods of growth.

Hence they had probably been once regarded as incarnations of such gods. Wherever divine kings are found, fertility is bound up with them and with the due observance of their tabus. To prevent misfortune to the land, they are slain before they grow old and weak, and their vigour passes on to their successors. Their death benefits their people.

But frequently the king might reign as long as he could hold his own against all comers, or, again, a slave or criminal was for a time treated as a mock king, and slain as the divine king's substitute. Scattered hints in Irish literature and in folk survivals show that some such course as this had been pursued by the Celts with regard to their divine kings, as it was also elsewhere. It is not impossible that some at least of the Druids stood in a similar relation to the gods.

Kings and priests were probably at first not differentiated. In Galatia twelve "tetrarchs" met annually with three hundred assistants at Drunemeton as the great national council.

Paperback, 5 x 8, 390+ pages (1395 footnotes)


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