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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 71

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 Cúchulainn.

As in the case of early Greek and Roman kings, Celtic kings who bore divine names were probably believed to be {160} 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, Irél Fáith, 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.520 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.521 But frequently the king might reign as long as he could hold his own against all comers, or, again, a slave or {161} 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. This council at a consecrated place (nemeton), its likeness to the annual Druidic gathering in Gaul, and the possibility that Dru- has some connection with the name "Druid," point to a religious as well as political aspect of this council. The "tetrarchs" may have been a kind of priest-kings; they had the kingly prerogative of acting as judges as had the Druids of Gaul. The wife of one of them was a priestess, the office being hereditary in her family, and it may have been necessary that her husband should also be a priest. One tetrarch, Deiotarus, "divine bull," was skilled in augury, and the priest-kingship of Pessinus was conferred on certain Celts in the second century B.C., as if the double office were already a Celtic institution. Mythic Celtic kings consulted the gods without any priestly intervention, and Queen Boudicca had priestly functions.526 Without giving these hints undue emphasis, we may suppose that the differentiation of the two offices would not be simultaneous over the Celtic area. {162} But when it did take effect priests would probably lay claim to the prerogatives of the priest-king as incarnate god. Kings were not likely to give these up, and where they retained them priests would be content with seeing that the tabus and ritual and the slaying of the mock king were duly observed. Irish kings were perhaps still regarded as gods, though certain Druids may have been divine priests, since they called themselves creators of the universe, and both continental and Irish Druids claimed superiority to kings. Further, the name [Greek: semnotheoi], applied along with the name "Druids" to Celtic priests, though its meaning is obscure, points to divine pretensions on their part.


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