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Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 31

69; and it is noteworthy that in these names we seem to be in presence of a true Celtic, i.e., Aryan, tradition. Thus Æsus is derived by Belloguet from the Aryan root as, meaning “to be”, which furnished the name of Asura-masda (l'Esprit Sage) to the Persians, Æsun to the Umbrians, Asa (Divine Being) to the Scandinavians. Teutates comes from a Celtic root meaning “valiant”, “warlike”, and indicates [pg 87] a deity equivalent to Mars. Taranus (? Thor), according to de Jubainville, is a god of the Lightning (taran in Welsh, Cornish, and Breton is the word for “thunderbolt”). Votive inscriptions to these gods have been found in Gaul and Britain. Other inscriptions and sculptures bear testimony to the existence in Gaul of a host of minor and local deities who are mostly mere names, or not even names, to us now. In the form in which we have them these conceptions bear clear traces of Roman influence. The sculptures are rude copies of the Roman style of religious art. But we meet among them figures of much wilder and stranger aspect—gods with triple faces, gods with branching antlers on their brows, ram-headed serpents, and other now unintelligible symbols of the older faith. Very notable is the frequent occurrence of the cross-legged “Buddha” attitude so prevalent in the religious art of the East and of Mexico, and also the tendency, so well known in Egypt, to group the gods in triads.

Caesar on the Celtic Deities

Caesar, who tries to fit the Gallic religion into the framework of Roman mythology—which was exactly what the Gauls themselves did after the conquest—says they held Mercury to be the chief of the gods, and looked upon him as the inventor of all the arts, as the presiding deity of commerce, and as the guardian of roads and guide of travellers. One may conjecture that he was particularly, to the Gauls as to the Romans, the guide of the dead, of travellers to the Other-world, Many bronze statues to Mercury, of Gaulish origin, still remain, the name being adopted by the Gauls, as many place-names still testify70. Apollo was regarded [pg 88] as the deity of medicine and healing, Minerva was the initiator of arts and crafts, Jupiter governed the sky, and Mars presided over war. Cæsar is here, no doubt, classifying under five types and by Roman names a large number of Gallic divinities.

The God of the Underworld

According to Cæsar, a most notable deity of the Gauls was (in Roman nomenclature) Dis, or Pluto, the god of the Underworld inhabited by the dead. From him all the Gauls claimed to be descended, and on this account, says Cæsar, they began their reckoning of the twenty-four hours of the day with the oncoming of night.71 The name of this deity is not given. D'Arbois de Jubainville considers that, together with Æsus, Teutates, Taranus, and, in Irish mythology, Balor and the Fomorians, he represents the powers of darkness, death, and evil, and Celtic mythology is thus interpreted as a variant of the universal solar myth, embodying the conception of the eternal conflict between Day and Night.

The God of Light

The God of Light appears in Gaul and in Ireland as Lugh, or Lugus, who has left his traces in many place-names such as Lug-dunum (Leyden), Lyons, &c. Lugh appears in Irish legend with distinctly solar attributes. When he meets his army before the great conflict with the Fomorians, they feel, says the saga, as if they beheld the rising of the sun. Yet he is also, as we shall see, a god of the Underworld, belonging on the side of his mother Ethlinn, daughter of Balor, to the Powers of Darkness.

[pg 89]

The Celtic Conception of Death

The fact is that the Celtic conception of the realm of death differed altogether from that of the Greeks and Romans, and, as I have already pointed out, resembled that of Egyptian religion. The Other-world was not a place of gloom and suffering, but of light and liberation. The Sun was as much the god of that world as he was or this. Evil, pain, and gloom there were, no doubt, and no doubt these principles were embodied by the Irish Celts in their myths of Balor and the Fomorians, of which we shall hear anon; but that they were particularly associated with the idea of death is, I think, a false supposition founded on misleading analogies drawn from the ideas of the classical nations. Here the Celts followed North African or Asiatic conceptions rather than those of the Aryans of Europe. It is only by realising that the Celts as we know them in history, from the break-up of the Mid-European Celtic empire onwards, formed a singular blend of Aryan with non-Aryan characteristics, that we shall arrive at a true understanding of their contribution to European history and their influence in European culture.

The Five Factors in Ancient Celtic Culture

To sum up the conclusions indicated: we can, I think, distinguish five distinct factors in the religious and intellectual culture of Celtic lands as we find them prior to the influx of classical or of Christian influences. First, we have before us a mass of popular superstitions and of magical observances, including human sacrifice. These varied more or less from place to place, centring as they did largely on local features which were regarded as embodiments or vehicles of divine or of diabolic power. Secondly, there was certainly in existence a [pg 90] thoughtful and philosophic creed, having as its central object of worship the Sun, as an emblem of divine power and constancy, and as its central doctrine the immortality of the soul. Thirdly, there was a worship of personified deities, Æsus, Teutates, Lugh, and others, conceived as representing natural forces, or as guardians of social laws. Fourthly, the Romans were deeply impressed with the existence among the Druids of a body of teaching of a quasi-scientific nature about natural phenomena and the constitution of the universe, of the details of which we unfortunately know practically nothing. Lastly, we have to note the prevalence of a sacerdotal organisation, which administered the whole system of religious and of secular learning and literature,72 which carefully confined this learning to a privileged caste, and which, by virtue of its intellectual supremacy and of the atmosphere of religious awe with which it was surrounded, became the sovran power, social, political, and religious, in every Celtic country. I have spoken of these elements as distinct, and we can, indeed, distinguish them in thought, but in practice they were inextricably intertwined, and the Druidic organisation pervaded and ordered all. Can we now, it may be asked, distinguish among them what is of Celtic and what of pre-Celtic and probably non-Aryan origin? This is a more difficult task; yet, looking at all the analogies and probabilities, I think we shall not be far wrong in assigning to the Megalithic People the special doctrines, the ritual, and the sacerdotal organisation of Druidism, and to the Celtic element the personified deities, with the zest for learning and for speculation; while the popular superstitions were merely the local form assumed by conceptions as widespread as the human race.


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