The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 129

With it may be compared the fetich-stone or image of which an old woman in the island of Inniskea, the guardian of a sacred well, had charge. It was kept wrapped up to hide it from profane eyes, but at certain periods it was brought out for adoration.988

The images and bas-reliefs of the Gallo-Roman period fall mainly into two classes. In the first class are those representing native divinities, like Esus, Tarvos Trigaranos, Smertullos, Cernunnos, the horned and crouching gods, the god with the hammer, and the god with the wheel. Busts and statues of some water-goddesses exist, but more numerous are the representations of Epona. One of these is provided with a box pedestal in which offerings might be placed. The Matres are frequently figured, usually as three seated figures with baskets of fruit or flowers, or with one or more infants, like the Madonna. Images of triple-headed gods, supposed to be Cernunnos, have been found, but are difficult to place in any category.989


To the images of the second class is usually attached the Roman name of a god, but generally the native Celtic name is added, but the images themselves are of the traditional Roman type. Among statues and statuettes of bronze, that of Mercury occurs most often. This may point to the fact that Cæsar's simulacra of the native Mercury were images, and that the old preference for representing this god continued in Roman times. Small figures of divinities in white clay have been found in large numbers, and may have been ex votos or images of household lararia.


Images of the gods in Gaul can be classified by means of their symbols—the mallet and cup (a symbol of plenty) borne by the god with the hammer, the wheel of the sun-god, the cornucopia and torque carried by Cernunnos. Other symbols occur on images, altars, monuments, and coins. These are the swastika and triskele, probably symbols of the sun; single or concentric circles, sometimes with rays;992 crosses; and a curious S figure. The triskele and the circles are sometimes found on faces figured on coins. They may therefore have been tattoo markings of a symbolic character. The circle and cross are often incised on bronze images of Dispater. Much speculation has been aroused by the S figure, which occurs on coins, while nine models of this symbol hang from a ring carried by the god with the wheel, but the most probable is that which sees in it a thunderbolt.993 But lacking any old text interpreting {291} these various symbols, all explanations of them must be conjectural. Some of them are not purely Celtic, but are of world-wide occurrence.


Here some reference may be made to the Celtic cult of weapons. As has been seen, a hammer is the symbol of one god, and it is not unlikely that a cult of the hammer had preceded that of the god to whom the hammer was given as a symbol. Esus is also represented with an axe. We need not repeat what has already been said regarding the primitive and universal cult of hammer or axe,994 but it is interesting to notice, in connection with other evidence for a Celtic cult of weapons, that there is every reason to believe that the phrase sub ascia dedicare, which occurs in inscriptions on tombs from Gallia Lugdunensis, usually with the figure of an axe incised on the stone, points to the cult of the axe, or of a god whose symbol the axe was.995 In Irish texts the power of speech is attributed to weapons, but, according to the Christian scribe, this was because demons spoke from them, for the people worshipped arms in those days. Thus it may have been believed that spirits tenanted weapons, or that weapons had souls. Evidence of the cult itself is found in the fact that on Gaulish coins a sword is figured, stuck in the ground, or driving a chariot, or with a warrior dancing before it, or held in the hand of a dancing warrior. The latter are ritual acts, and resemble that described by Spenser as performed by Irish warriors in his day, who said prayers or incantations before a sword stuck in the earth.998 Swords were also addressed in songs composed {292} by Irish bards, and traditional remains of such songs are found in Brittany. They represent the chants of the ancient cult. Oaths were taken by weapons, and the weapons were believed to turn against those who lied.1000 The magical power of weapons, especially of those over which incantations had been said, is frequently referred to in traditional tales and Irish texts.1001 A reminiscence of the cult or of the magical power of weapons may be found in the wonderful "glaives of light" of Celtic folk-tales, and the similar mystical weapon of the Arthurian romances.

Footnote 953:(return)

Lucan, Pharsalia, iii. 399 f.

Footnote 954:(return)

Dio Cass. lxii. 7; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30.

Footnote 955:(return)

Strabo, xii. 51. Drunemeton may mean "great temple" (D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 203).

Footnote 956:(return)

Antient Laws of Ireland, i. 164.

Footnote 957:(return)

Holder, ii. 712. Cf. "Indiculus" in Grimm, Teut. Myth. 1739, "de sacris silvarum, quas nimidas (= nemeta) vocant."

Footnote 958:(return)

Livy, xxiii. 24; Polyb. ii. 32.

Footnote 959:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 13, 17; Diod. Sic. v. 27; Plutarch, Cæsar, 26.

Footnote 960:(return)

See examples in Dom Martin, i. 134 f.; cf. Greg. Tours, Hist. Franc. i. 30.

Footnote 961:(return)

See Reinach, "Les monuments de pierre brute dans le langage et les croyances populaires," Rev. Arch. 1893, i. 339; Evans, "The Roll-Right Stones," Folk-Lore, vi. 20 f.

Footnote 962:(return)

Rh[^y]s, HL 194; Diod. Sic. ii. 47.

Footnote 963:(return)

Rh[^y]s, 197.

Footnote 964:(return)

Joyce, OCR 246; Kennedy, 271.

Footnote 965:(return)

Lucan, i. 443, iii. 399f.

Footnote 966:(return)

Cicero, pro Fonteio, x. 21; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30. Cf. Pomp. Mela, iii. 2. 18.

Footnote 967:(return)

O'Curry, MS. Mat. 284; Cormac, 94. Cf. IT iii. 211, for the practice of circumambulating altars.

Footnote 968:(return)

Max. Tyr. Dissert. viii. 8; Lucan, iii. 412f.

Footnote 969:(return)

Antient Laws of Ireland, iv. 142.

Footnote 970:(return)

Rev. Arch. i. pl. iii-v.; Reinach, RC xi. 224, xiii. 190.

Footnote 971:(return)

Stokes, Martyr. of Oengus, 186-187.

Footnote 972:(return)

See the Twenty-third Canon of Council of Arles, the Twenty-third of the Council of Tours, 567, and ch. 65 of the Capitularia, 789.

Footnote 973:(return)

Mabillon, Acta, i. 177.

Footnote 974:(return)

Reinach, Rev. Arch. 1893, xxi. 335.

Footnote 975:(return)

Blanchet, i. 152-153, 386.

Footnote 976:(return)

Justin, xliii. 5; Strabo, xii. 5. 2; Plutarch, de Virt. Mul. xx.; Livy, v. 41.

Footnote 977:(return)

Cormac, 94.

Footnote 978:(return)

Keating, 356. See also Stokes, Martyr. of Oengus, 186; RC xii. 427, § 15; Joyce, SH 274 f.

Footnote 979:(return)

LL 213b; Trip. Life, i. 90, 93.

Footnote 980:(return)

O'Curry, MS. Mat. 284.

Footnote 981:(return)

Keating, 49.

Footnote 982:(return)

Jocelyn, Vita S. Kentig. 27, 32, 34; Ailred, Vita S. Ninian. 6.

Footnote 983:(return)

Gildas, § 4.

Footnote 984:(return)

For the whole argument see Reinach, RC xiii. 189 f. Bertrand, Rev. Arch. xv. 345, supports a similar theory, and, according to both writers, Gallo-Roman art was the result of the weakening of Druidic power by the Romans.

Footnote 985:(return)

L'Abbé Hermet, Assoc. pour l'avancement des Sciences, Compte Rendu, 1900, ii. 747; L'Anthropologie, v. 147.

Footnote 986:(return)

Corp. Scrip. Eccl. Lat. i. 122.

Footnote 987:(return)

Monnier, 362. The image bears part of an inscription ... LIT... and it has been thought that this read ILITHYIA originally. The name is in keeping with the rites still in use before the image. This would make it date from Roman times. If so, it is a poor specimen of the art of the period. But it may be an old native image to which later the name of the Roman goddess was given.

Footnote 988:(return)

Roden, Progress of the Reformation in Ireland, 51. The image was still existing in 1851.

Footnote 989:(return)

For figures of most of these, see Rev. Arch. vols. xvi., xviii., xix., xxxvi.; RC xvii. 45, xviii. 254, xx. 309, xxii. 159, xxiv. 221; Bertrand, passim; Courcelle-Seneuil, Les Dieux Gaulois d'apres les Monuments Figures, Paris, 1910.

Footnote 990:(return)

See Courcelle-Seneuil, op. cit.; Reinach, BF passim, Catalogue Sommaire du Musée des Ant. nat.4 115-116.

Footnote 991:(return)

Reinach, Catal. 29, 87; Rev. Arch. xvi. 17; Blanchet, i. 169, 316; Huchet, L'art gaulois, ii. 8.

Footnote 992:(return)

Blanchet, i. 158; Reinach, BF 143, 150, 152.

Footnote 993:(return)

Blanchet, i. 17; Flouest, Deux Stèles (Append.), Paris, 1885; Reinach, BF 33.

Footnote 994:(return)

P. 30, supra.

Footnote 995:(return)

Hirschfeld in CIL xiii. 256.

Footnote 996:(return)

RC xii. 107; Joyce, SH i. 131.

Footnote 997:(return)

Blanchet, i. 160 f.; Muret de la Tour, Catalogue, 6922, 6941, etc.

Footnote 998:(return)

View of the State of Ireland, 57.

Footnote 999:(return)

RC xx. 7; Martin, Études de la Myth. Celt. 164.

Footnote 1000:(return)

IT i. 206; RC ix. 144.

Footnote 1001:(return)

CM xiii. 168 f.; Miss Hull, 44, 221, 223.




Pliny thought that the name "Druid" was a Greek appellation derived from the Druidic cult of the oak ([Greek: drus]). The word, however, is purely Celtic, and its meaning probably implies that, like the sorcerer and medicine-man everywhere, the Druid was regarded as "the knowing one." It is composed of two parts—dru-, regarded by M. D'Arbois as an intensive, and vids, from vid, "to know," or "see."1003 Hence the Druid was "the very knowing or wise one." It is possible, however, that dru- is connected with the root which gives the word "oak" in Celtic speech—Gaulish deruo, Irish dair, Welsh derw—and that the oak, occupying a place in the cult, was thus brought into relation with the name of the priesthood. The Gaulish form of the name was probably druis, the Old Irish was drai. The modern forms in Irish and Scots Gaelic, drui and draoi mean "sorcerer."

M. D'Arbois and others, accepting Cæsar's dictum that "the system (of Druidism) is thought to have been devised in Britain, and brought thence into Gaul," maintain that the Druids were priests of the Goidels in Britain, who imposed themselves upon the Gaulish conquerors of the Goidels, and that Druidism then passed over into Gaul about 200 B.C. But it is hardly {294} likely that, even if the Druids were accepted as priests by conquering Gauls in Britain, they should have affected the Gauls of Gaul who were outside the reflex influence of the conquered Goidels, and should have there obtained that power which they possessed. Goidels and Gauls were allied by race and language and religion, and it would be strange if they did not both possess a similar priesthood. Moreover, the Goidels had been a continental people, and Druidism was presumably flourishing among them then. Why did it not influence kindred Celtic tribes without Druids, ex hypothesi, at that time? Further, if we accept Professor Meyer's theory that no Goidel set foot in Britain until the second century A.D., the Gauls could not have received the Druidic priesthood from the Goidels.

Cæsar merely says, "it is thought (existimatur) that Druidism came to Gaul from Britain."1005 It was a pious opinion, perhaps his own, or one based on the fact that those who wished to perfect themselves in Druidic art went to Britain. This may have been because Britain had been less open to foreign influences than Gaul, and its Druids, unaffected by these, were thought to be more powerful than those of Gaul. Pliny, on the other hand, seems to think that Druidism passed over into Britain from Gaul.1006

Other writers—Sir John Rh[^y]s,