About the Ancient Celts

When one says that one wants to study and, perhaps, reconstruct the religion of the ancient Celts, it is well to be clear about whom one speaks. Celtic describes a language group which, over time, has divided into two strains — P-Celtic (Brythonic) spoken in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany and Q-Celtic (Gaelic) spoken today in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Celtic speaking people inhabited much of Europe for millennia and their descendants live on today. Each locale and each time offer different views or hints about the nature of the relationship of the Celtic people to divinity.

One must also be clear about the possible tools for such study that are available. As so many things Celtic comes in threes, so do our sources — archeology, classical commentaries and the vernacular traditions of the Celtic countries.

Archeology is the study of material culture. We dig a grave and observe that the body was accompanied by food, jewelry, a sword — we can't know that one particular necklace was beloved because of lifetime associations or exactly what the haunch of pork signified to those who interred the body. So we have "real" facts, but they are definitely open to interpretation.

Classical sources are fragmentary, and each of the classical authors who wrote about the Celts saw them from their own particular perspective. Posidonius saw them through the lens of Stoic philosophy as primitives closer to the Golden Age than the more civilized Greeks; Caesar reported on them as a conqueror who continually needed to convince his government to support the war effort. Yet these sources are the only contemporary view we have of the living Pagan Celtic culture. We don't have any contemporary religious writings from the Celts themselves because, as Caesar tells us, they had a religious prohibition against writing things down (although they eventually kept trade-related records using Greek characters).

The vernacular traditions are those hints we can get of Gaelic and Brythonic cultures, through the annals compiled by Christian monks centuries after the fall of Celtic Paganism from the 8th to 13th centuries, and in the folklore of the Celtic language areas compiled by scholars from the 17th century to the present. The early monks recounted tales of the pre-Christian history of Ireland and Wales for several reasons — to maintain legal precedents (despite their origins in Pagan times), to craft histories of their nations (for example relating them to the Christian notion of the Flood and Noah) and to satisfy local aristocrats who fancied the idea of ancient lineages or enjoyed hearing hero tales of their ancestors. The later antiquarians, tale-collectors and Celtic revivalists generally had their own agenda as well — often they were involved in a nationalist movement in the Celtic country in question. They were certainly Christian and saw ancient Celtic religion through that lens — witness the early Druid revivals of the 17-18th century which painted Druids as monotheists who had expected the birth of Jesus and were just waiting to hear word so they could convert. (An excellent essay by Dr. Michael Raoult on the early Druidic revivals can be found in The Druid Renaissance.)

Obviously, none of these sources is sufficient to give us a clear vision of the religious beliefs or practices of the ancient Celts. And I fear that even in aggregate, with the addition of the comparative study of other Indo-European religions, they are insufficient for more than a fragmentary understanding of our ancestors' world view. This paper will generally confine itself to study of the archaeological and classical source materials.

Who were the Ancient Celts?

When I speak of the ancient Celts, I am referring to the communities of people sharing linguistic and cultural ties who inhabited most of Northern Europe between 800 BCE and 400 CE. The folk of the Urnfield culture which preceded them may also have spoken a variety of Celtic, but they had not yet created the material culture that we identify with the Iron Age Celts. At the height of their expansion (4th-3rd centuries BCE) Celtic communities spread from Ireland to the Near East.

Hallstat culture (800-250 BCE), named after a type-site at Hallstat, Austria, is the name given to the material culture of the early Iron Age Celts. Their range spanned from the Paris basin to valley of Morava in Eastern Europe and from the Alps to the north European plain. During early Hallstat (800-600 BCE) there is little evidence of great distinctions of wealth in burials. A few people are buried with wagons and horse gear, rather more are warriors (both genders) buried with their swords, most people are buried with personal ornaments and pots containing food. Cemeteries are small and associated with small settlements, perhaps one family or a group of related families.

Then between 600-450 BCE things begin to change as Mediterranean luxury goods begin to appear. Hilltop forts and a hierarchy of rich graves begins to appear. These aristocratic burials are associated with much larger residences inspired by Greek architectural styles. Archaeologists have suggested that paramount chief burial is accompanied by inhumation in a wooden chamber with wagon and horse trappings as before, but now there would also be a wide range of imported goods including bronze wine drinking vessels, silk, gold, amber, glass and coral. A vassal chief would be similar but the goods are more of local manufacture without the wide range of imports. Sub-chiefs are again similar but less elaborately furnished with totally local manufacture. Below this status wagon burials are not present. This type of burial and the prestige goods economic system it represents was spread from Burgundy to the middle Rhine. The economy was based on conspicuous consumption and potlatch-style distribution of goods. This is an unstable system relying on a continuing stream of imports and exports. Around this core, warrior societies arose whose wealth came from raiding the settled traders. This was an unstable equilibrium which was unbalanced by political changes in the Mediterranean and population growth among the Celtic tribes. After the collapse, the Celtic migrations began (circa 400 BCE).

La Tene culture, known for its elaborate artwork, coincides with the last 50 years or so of Hallstat. It its this culture which was carried by the migration. Warrior bands moved southwards and eastwards toward the rich pickings of the cultures they had previously traded with. Rome was attacked in 369 BCE and the thrust continued into Italy. Delphi was attacked in 279 BCE by eastward moving bands who then continued on to Asia minor. Migrations in response to population pressure continued on throughout the next few hundred years, culminating in the aborted migration attempt of the Helvetii mentioned in Caesar's commentaries.

A drastic change took place during the eight year war with Caesar's Rome as hundreds of thousands of Celts were killed, sold into slavery or maimed. And then Caesar went home to where, for him, the real politics were and Gaul and Britain were left alone for 15 years. When later Roman emperors began to set up administration of Gaul things changed again. Most of southern and eastern Gaul was brought into the Empire fairly easily because they had already adopted a sedentary lifestyle and trade-based economic system. The borders of Empire remained in flux for some time with the pressure of the so-called Germanic tribes pressing in from the east which finally contributed to the end of Empire in the 5th century CE. There is controversy about how different the Celtic and Germanic tribes actually were and where the division may be made. Caesar arbitrarily called anyone north of the Rhine Germanic and anyone south Celtic. Archeology makes clear that while there were two different material cultures (with different house building and burial styles) they were much more intermixed than Rome's simplistic geographical divisions would indicate. H.R. Ellis-Davidson has discussed the intersections and diversions of Celtic and Germanic culture in several books, to which I direct the interested reader.

Continental vs. Insular Celts

There are differences between the religious practices of European and British Celtic peoples. Some deities span the entire scope of the Celtic world but most are specific to a place. The south of England which was settled by Belgic peoples is more closely tied to the Continent, while northern England has more unique deities and practices. Ireland had even less context with Europe and maintained their culture the longest. Continental Celts had felt the pressures of the Mediterranean cultures much earlier than Insular Celts. Traffic between Gaul and the eastern Mediterranean began as early as 8th century BCE. Regular trade with southern Britain begins in the 6th century BCE. However the impact of occasional maritime traders is quite different than the concentrated river trade which occurred constantly in Gaul.

Sources of Information

Classical Commentaries

A number of classical writers mentioned the Celts. The very first use of the term Keltoi is by the Greek Hecataeus of Miletus circa 500 BCE. Most of these Greek and Roman authors whose works have survived didn't have any first hand knowledge of the Celts. Most of the extant writing comes from the first two centuries of the common era and rely on observations of Stoic philosopher Posidonius (early 1st century BCE), whose own writings have been lost. His information was based on first hand knowledge of Celtic society in Gaul. Scraps of his writings are contained in later writings, especially Athenaeus, Diodorus Siculus (mid-1st century BCE) and Strabo (40 BCE-25 CE).

From Posidonius we learn that Celts subscribed to the Pythagorean idea of transmigration of the soul, which Caesar mentions as well though he couches it in terms of making the fighters unafraid of death. Julius Caesar had the opportunity to see Celts at first hand, both on the continent and in Britain, but his concerns were mainly military. His writings also served as propaganda to raise money for his campaign against them. He wasn't particularly interested in religion other than to note the influence of the Druids on the nobility. Caesar describes the Druids, saying they "officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large number of young men flock to them for instruction and they are held in great honor by the people. They act as judges in practically all disputes whether between tribes or between individuals." He also noted that the Druids had the power to ban someone from the sacrifice, which meant both excommunication and shunning by the community. He mentions that there are many and diverse deities but does not name them except to use the name of whichever Roman deity possessed similar attributes.

It is to Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) that we owe our image of the Druids cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle. It was an afterthought on the mistletoe entry in his book on trees! The word he used was sacerdos, not Druid, and it was probably really the Vates who would perform such a ritual. We get this division of the Celtic "priesthood" from Strabo's Geographica written at the end of the first century BCE, which states: "Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honor: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy." (His use of "men" is generic, there are women in all three classes both in the vernacular and classical sources.) Additionally, Irish vernacular evidence does tend to support this tripartite division.

We believe that Classical sources tended to sensationalize Celtic religion. They were, after all, writing about foreigners whom they considered barbarians. It is the odd and "uncivilized" information that is most often reported. There is very little information on the deities themselves in these sources because the writers tend to conflate Celtic deities with their own where their worship is similar. Thus, we get sensationalists like Lucan (1st century CE) reporting that there were three major Gods of the Gauls who demanded human sacrifice, Taranis (burning), Teutates (drowning) and Esus (hanging and wounding). The Romans had banned human sacrifice only a generation or two earlier and felt superior on this account.

Classical writers also tell us something of the Celts' appearance. Diodorus says Gauls are tall and fair with loud voices and piercing eyes. He says the women are nearly as big and strong as their husbands and as fierce. Tacitus identifies the Caledonii of Scotland as having reddish hair and large loose limbs whilst the Silurians of Wales were swarthy with dark curly hair. Dio Cassius describes Boudica as large and frightening with bright red hair. Strabo tells us that both genders liked to wear lots of jewelry and this is certainly borne out by the archaeological record which shows heavy torcs, brooches, rings, necklets and bracelets. A lovely quote from Virgil sums up thusly the idealized classical view of a Celt, "Golden is their hair, and golden their garb. They are resplendent in their striped cloaks, and their milk-white necks are circled with gold."


Inscriptions on altars and votive objects provide us with almost 400 names of Celtic deities. Unfortunately many of these names appear only once and have no elaborating evidence to allow us to understand the nature of the deity named. Other names have descriptive epithets added to the names. Still others are paired with Roman deities whose known character allows us to guess more accurately about their Celtic counterparts. Some of these classical Roman deities also receive Celtic epithets. Classical gods often also receive Celtic consorts. When possible we compare inscriptions from more than one area and infer the characteristics of the deities, supplemented by contemporary comments.


The Celts do not seem to have had a hierarchy of divinity in the sense of a coherent pantheon dwelling in some remote place. The human world and the Otherworld formed a unity in which the human and divine interact. Each location has numinous powers which are acknowledged by the people as we can see by their naming of mountains, rivers and other natural features many of which have associated deities.

When the Celts invaded Greece in 278 BCE, Brennus entered the precinct of Delphi, saw no gold and silver dedications and only stone and wooden statues and he laughed at the Greeks for setting up deities in human shape. Caesar mentions that the Germans worship forces of nature only.

Sanctuaries, Temples and Shrines

Domestic Cult

The most basic sanctuary in a traditional culture is the home and hearth. Often non-family members are not allowed to approach the hearth. Archaeological evidence of elaborately decorated hearths and fire-related tools indicates that the domestic cult of the Celts was centered here. Each family would have had its rites, sacrifices to the house deity (perhaps as elaborate as the penates, lar and genius of the Romans), protections for the house and family, etc. Many fire tools echo the sacrifice, being in the form of horses or rams, garlanded and thus ready to nourish the Gods and the people.

The next level of ritual around the hearth would be the banquet. There are elaborate eating utensils present in the archaeological record and Posidonius (quoted by Athenaeus) gives a good account of a Celtic feast:
The Celts sit on hay and have their meals served up on wooden tables raised slightly above the earth. Their food consists of a small number of loaves of bread together with a large amount of meat, either boiled or roasted on charcoal or on spits. This food is eaten cleanly but like lions, raising up whole limbs in both hands and biting off the meat. When a large number dine together they sit around in a circle with the most influential man in the center, like the leader of the chorus, whether he surpasses the others in warlike skill, or lineage, or wealth. Beside him sits the host and next on either side the others in order of distinction. The Celts sometimes engage in single combat at dinner. For they gather in arms and engage in mock battles, and fight hand-to-hand, but sometimes wounds are inflicted, and the irritation caused by this may even lead to killing unless the bystanders restrain them. And in former times, when the hindquarters were served up the bravest hero took the thigh piece, and if another man claimed it they stood up and fought in single combat to death.

Another component of the feast is the Gift. The Celts practiced the redistribution of wealth at their feasts, creating an elaborate debt structure which binds the society together. Recipients of gifts may repay the giver in kind or in loyalty and service. In an extreme form, life itself may repay the gift. This system of clientage is documented both in myth and in the ancient laws of Ireland and Wales which have come down to us through Medieval redactors.

Other interesting evidence of the importance of feasting to the Celts are burial goods which indicate the belief in the Otherworld feast, many of which are also known from Irish and Welsh mythology, such as Manannan's Feast of Wisdom and Age, the feast of Bran's head with his companions, or Giobniu's Feast where the participants neither aged nor died. Otherworld feasts generally feature an ever filled cauldron so that food never runs out, or animals who rise up ready to be slain again the next day. Grave goods include flagons of wine, drinking vessels, animals and hearth implements,

Public Cult

How much of a public cult existed depends on which period of Celtic history is being discussed. In earliest times, sacral power was part of the sovereignty. The Queen and/or King would have done divination, carried out sacrifice, identified sacred springs or other natural features and other religious duties for the Clan, including becoming the ultimate sacrifice in times of trouble, according to mythological sources. Continental Celts were just beginning to develop cities in the last few centuries BCE. This led to a secular administration in the form of judges. Some cities were built around sanctuaries or religious schools, others were centers of commerce or military strongholds. Archeology is only beginning to give us insights into the type of civic ritual present in the cities.

The common form of sanctuary in early times (500-250 BCE) is an enclosure delimited by a ditch and sometimes a palisade, Interior pits and posts delimited sacred space and received sacrifices. As time went by interior buildings and more elaborate ambulatories were constructed (in archeology, wooden buildings pose a problem of interpretation — all that remains in the record is the positioning of post holes!). At the time of conquest many sanctuaries were dismantled and hidden by their worshipers. These areas seem to have kept their sacred character, however, as Romano-Celtic temples are often built on the same sites. Since the form of temples in both cultures was similar except for materials used, conflation was not difficult. Most Romano-Celtic temples had a central sanctuary surrounded by an ambulatory within a precinct surrounded by walls and ditches. There are variations which includes include auxiliary buildings or a divided sanctuary, but the general pattern is clear. These structures don't lend themselves to congregational-style worship. There is a small shrine where the statues of deities or sacred symbols are housed and the ambulatory gallery, perhaps with openings through which the worshipers could see into the sanctuary, but any large gatherings were probably held outside in the enclosure around the temple precinct.

Sanctuary enclosures were rectangular or sometimes circular. The great variation in materials deposited at such sites suggests that each was dedicated to a specific deity with particular requirements. There is some evidence that the posts, lintels, gates and other features of the palisade were highly decorated: carved, painted, hung with offerings. The entrance was a very important feature. In early ditch enclosures the entrance is a break in the ditch. Palisades brought in the custom of gates, monumental porticos, etc. At Gournay (France), a pit is dug at the entrance with a foot bridge to cross to enter the sacred space. The entrance was hung with human skulls. Two large heaps of cow skulls and weapons were deposited on either side in the ditch. These may be the result of the dismantling of successive displays at the entrance. Deposition in the ditch elsewhere is more even.

In the interior the center point of the sanctuary is indicated by a post, a pit or a building. Presumably the center is closest to the Otherworld being farthest from the outer world beyond the ditch. A system of posts with directional and astronomical significance were aligned around this center. Another interior feature are pits, the shape and size of which vary from site to site. At one site in Czechoslovakia the central pit was 11x8 meters and 2 meters deep! A more common pattern is 10 pits grouped in threes and a central pit. Sacrifices may have occurred at the central pit with the others being sealed so that sacrificial animals placed within could decompose. The animal bones are then thrown into the perimeter ditch. It is not uncommon in the ancient world to have seen pits as entrances to the Underworld (Greek bothroi and Roman mundi for example). Elsewhere in the Celtic world deep shafts are dug with ritual depositions, so the Celts may have shared this interpretation.

In addition to dedicated sanctuaries, the entrance to a city seems to have been a particularly important ritual area as well. In many British hill forts, ritual pits have been found at the entrance and along the principal roadway with horses, humans, and more rarely dogs, are buried there. It is unclear whether the human burials represent sacrifice or merely deposition near town.

One classical source, Strabo, gives a little insight into town gates. He says the Celtiberians worshiped an unnamed God of the full moon. "They perform their devotions in company with all their families in front of the gates of their townships and hold dances lasting throughout the night."

Classical writers mentioned (probably using a single, now lost source) the practice of choosing a scapegoat who was supported richly at the expense of the community for a year before being ritually killed to remove all ill luck from the people. Because the original source is lost, it is hard to say where this was observed. One writer places it at Marseilles.

Military Cult

Shrines were set up along borders where preparatory rituals could be done before a conflict and rites of thanksgiving and victory could be celebrated. Often sacrifices (or post-Roman, altars) were promised beforehand and these would be carried out at such a shrine. There are many altars dedicated to various deities with inscriptions such as "so-and-so gladly and willingly fulfills his vow". Unfortunately, they only rarely indicate what it was the deity provided in exchange. Military offerings were also deposited in water, see below.

Animal Divinities

Before the influence of Mediterranean cultures, the Celts do not seem to have anthropomorphized their deities. There are statues of boars, horses, bulls, bears, birds, etc., long before there are human featured ones. What we cannot know is how the people thought about these figures. Were the animals seen as symbolic of natural forces? Were there attributes of the animals which were revered as being associated with divinity? Some deities later given human form are inextricably linked with specific animals — eg. Epona and horses, Cernunnos and stags, Artio and bears, Arduinna and boars.

An interesting sidelight on animals as sacrifice — at Gournay-sur-Aronde there is an enormous deposition of animal bones. The horses and cattle are both elderly specimens and do not show signs of butchering. Pigs and sheep at the site are young and were eaten. Were horses and cattle revered and brought here for ritual and burial? And at South Cadbury in England there are horse skulls all carefully buried right side up.

Goddesses, Gods, Divine Couples


The name Cernunnos, meaning "horned" or "peaked" one, appears only once in an inscription in France. However, the name is generally applied by archaeologists to all male antlered deities found in Celtic iconography. A Horned God is the only pre-Roman anthropomorphic deity, having appeared in a rock carving in the 4th century BCE in Northern Italy. He is there accompanied by a ram-horned snake and bears two torcs, which remain common features of the "Cernunnos" iconography in both Gaul and Britain. Bull or goat horned heads are also found in La Tène metalwork He is also associated with a variety of animals both wild and domestic, especially stags, and with fertility symbols such as cornucopias and bowls of grain or money. He (or his male companions) are often ithyphallic as well. There are also several representations of Horned Goddess(es), including one representation in Gaul where she appears as consort to a Horned God. The frequent depiction of Cernunnos in a cross-legged pose has been cited by some as a "Buddha-like" posture tied to Indo-European roots and by others to indicate his ties to the common folk who (according to Classical sources) sat on the ground.

Jupiter Taranis

The Roman Jupiter while often Optimus Magnus (Best and Greatest) also has Celtic surnames, often territorial. Jupiter Optimus Magnus Beissirissa (associated with the Bigerriones in southern Gaul), Jupiter Ladicus (as the spirit of Mount Ladicus) and Jupiter Parthinus (associated with the Partheni in Yugoslavia/Bulgaria). An interesting aspect of the Celtic Jupiter is that he is often mounted, unlike his Roman counterpart. Jupiter is also paired with Taranis, one of the primary Celtic deities of Gaul. Caesar said that Taranis "held the empire of the skies" when likening him to Jupiter. Taranis was a thunder god who relished human sacrifice (according to Lucan), a later commentator describes Jupiter Taranis as Master of War. Seven altars to Taranis have survived from far flung locations indicating that his cult was widespread. Dr. Miranda Green believes that prior to conquest Taranis may have simply been an elemental force.

Sulis Minerva

Sulis Minerva is the primary deity of the temple complex at Bath, England. Sul or Sulis is thought to have been the primary deity of the area in pre-Roman times. When the Romans exploited the therapeutic potential of the thermal spring, Sulis became equated with Minerva Medica. Through the many inscriptions in the form of curses and altar dedications to Sulis we can get some idea of how her worshipers thought of her. She had the power to grant healing, of course, but also to witness oaths, catch thieves, find lost objects and generally right wrongs. Some examples include, "I have given to Minerva the Goddess Sulis the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to redeem this gift unless with his blood." and "May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as water. May she who obscenely devoured her become dumb whether Velvinna, Exsupeus Vbrianus, Severinus Augustalis, Comitianus, Catusminianus, Germanilla or Jovina." and "Docimedis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints."

Another way to try to figure out how she was thought of is to study the cognates of her name. Suil in Old Irish is 'eye' or "gap". Heol is 'sun'. Other possible interpretations are 'gap', 'orifice' or 'the center of the whirlpool'. There also exists a trio of Goddesses called the Suleviae, of the beneficent and protecting mother or matron type. Inscriptions to the Suleviae are found at Cirenchester, Colchester and in several locations in Gaul. Suleviae may be "the triple Sulis" as we have the triple Brigid and many other three-fold Celtic deity forms. One of the inscriptions at Bath, on a statue base says "To the Suleviae, Sulinus, a sculptor, son of Brucetus, gladly and deservedly made this offering" so we know they, as well as the singular Sulis Minerva, were known at this site also.

Mars, Lenus Mars

We moderns have this idea of Mars as exclusively a brutal war god. To the Celts he was more often a peaceful protector, a healer or a tribal god. This is much in keeping with the original Italian Mars who was a guardian of fields and boundaries and sometimes a storm god. It was only his late-classical/Imperial conflation with the Greek Ares that gave him the combative, warrior-for-gain aspects. Mars was venerated as Mars Albiorix by the Albici in southern Gaul who considered him a protective mountain spirit. Albiorix means "king of the world". Mars Camulos was widespread, found in both Britain and on the Continent.

Lenus Mars is a great healer god who presided over a large temple complex at Trier and a sanctuary at Pommern. He also was known in Britain. He uses is warrior strength as a protector against illness and death. His epithet Iovantucarus shows his special role as a protector of the young. Lenus Mars also has a Celtic consort, the mother Goddess, Ancamna. (She is also paired with Mars Smertius by the Treveri.)

Mars Loucetius ("bright" or "shining") gives us another insight into Mars. Loucetius in the Roman world is usually an epithet of Jupiter. Mars Loucetius is paired at Bath with Nematona (Goddess of the Grove) and on the continent with the war Goddess Bellona.

Mars Mullo (Latin for mule) was very popular in northern Gaul. He was associated with a shrine at Allonnes where pilgrims came to have their eyes cured. Many votive sculptures of the ailing part have been found there.

Rosmerta and Mercury

Rosmerta is a very widespread Celtic Goddess, her name means Great Provider. Her male equivalent would be Smertious. After conquest she is often paired with the Roman Mercury. She has similar attributes and Mercury was probably subsumed into her cult when introduced. She is also conflated with Fortuna, but they also appear together or with Maia (Mercury's mother). Rosmerta is shown associated with a cornucopia, purse, patera, caduceus, scepter, wheel, rudder, globe and, in Britain, a wooden barrel or bucket, The high status of her cult is indicated by the rank of some of her worshipers and the fact that her name is linked epigraphically with the Emperor. Presumably she was invoked for good fortune in commerce, in life and in death (the caduceus is a symbol of guidance through the Otherworld). Mercury is usually represented very classically, he carries his caduceus, wears his winged cap, holds or wears a purse. He is accompanied by a cock, goat and/or turtle.


Depictions of mounted women or charioteers are found on Iron Age coins and may also represent horse-related Goddesses, in addition, representation of women and horses as linked continues in the vernacular traditions in the stories of Rhiannon and Macha. Epona, whose name is derived from the Celtic word for horse, is the Goddess of horses and horse breeding. As mares were often used as working animals on farms, some writers have speculated that Epona has aspects of fertility of the land and the domestic cult. Her worship became very widespread — there are over 300 representations and inscriptions found bearing her name. She was adopted by cavalry soldiers throughout the Roman world, perhaps because she was a deity who offered protection both for the soldier and the horse! She was the only Celtic deity whose festival was celebrated in Rome itself, on December 18.

Representations of Epona always have a horse present. She is most often shown sitting sideways on a mare, sometimes a suckling mare. Sometimes Epona is standing or sitting beside or between horses. She holds symbols of plenty like cornucopias, patera full of grain and fruit. She sometimes is feeding her equine companions. She often appears with the Mother Goddesses in inscription and iconographically. There are even several finds where she herself is tripled and an inscription is dedicated to "the Eponas".

Statues of Epona have been found associated with healing springs. It is hard to know what significance this has. Many Celtic deities have a healing aspect. Perhaps she was invoked for healing of horses.

Her image appears on tombstones and in graves. One statue where she has a man behind her on her horse has been interpreted as taking the soul on horseback to the Otherworld. She is shown holding a key or a mappa (a napkin used to begin races) which may link her to the beginnings and endings.

Seasonal Festivals

The seasonal festival dates that we associate with the Celts come from a variety of sources. Classical writers speak of periodic assemblies where Druids performed rites and judged inter-tribal disputes but dates are not given. An Imperial temple at Lugdunum (Lyon) was dedicated on August 1, probably in recognition of a feast of Lugh (and the Emperor Augustus' birthday — such a coincidence would probably be played up). However, we lack direct evidence to substantiate this assumption although given the fact that the city is named after Lugh and Lugh's feast is similarly dated in later Irish tradition we can speculate with some certainty. This lack of direct evidence hampers us with other dates as well — important events in mythology happen on Beltaine, Samhain, etc, but no coherent scheme is set down. The earliest calendar that we have, the Coligny Calendar, mentions Samhain which appears as Samonios.

The Coligny Calendar, which dates from between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, is both a lunar and solar instrument, providing reconciliation between the two years. A year was divided into 12 months of alternating 29 and 30 days. Every 2½ years a 13th month was added. According to Diodorus every five years a great sacrifice was held. The Coligny Calendar provides information on auspicious and inauspicious days and we can see that they reckoned by nights. It is the oldest inscription we have in a Celtic language (the letters themselves being in the Roman alphabet.)

Votive Offerings

Votive offerings often provide us insight into the powers of a site, and into the motives of the worshipers. It is assumed that artisans and workshops associated with larger temples and shrines made souvenirs and mass-produced offerings available. We know from some chance anaerobic depositions that wooden objects were used. Because these do not survive well, we mainly find the offerings of the higher classes. In areas where pottery or pipe clay was common, we presumably have more offerings from all classes represented.

The most common offerings are coins. In addition to regular coins in circulation there are tiny coins whose small character makes it unlikely that they were used for anything other than offerings. For example at the site of the temple at Bath over 16,000 Roman coins have been found dating from the mid-first century CE. and continuing until the late fourth century, shortly before Rome abandoned Britain. A handful of pre-Roman coins of the local tribe the Dobunni suggest that coins featured in worship at the spring before the Roman invasion. Many of the coins found were clipped to mark them as property of the Goddess and therefore no longer legal tender. Some of the coins are quite rare, others were coins of the eastern empire with no value in the west but perhaps representing pilgrimage to the shrine from distant parts. A substantial number of mid-fourth century coins depicted a phoenix rising from the ashes, possibly alluding to the hidden fire that heats the spring water. On the continent wheel models are often present in coin deposits.

The next most numerous offering is personal jewelry (bracelets, brooches, rings, earrings, hair and dress pins, etc.) In some cases these appear to have been "killed" before deposition. We can speculate that items so closely associated with a person would be useful in sympathetic magic. Unfortunately, we have no certain way of knowing what the ancients were thinking when they threw their jewelry or coins into the sacred springs. Is our custom of throwing coins into wells a survival of these practices?

Another type of offering, especially at healing centers, are anatomical models of, presumably, the afflicted area which needed the deity's attention. For example at the shrine of Sequana, Goddess of the River Seine, come models of eyes, breasts, heads, limbs and internal organs. Some of the models showed particular ailments: eye disease and respiratory problems seem to have been the main afflictions among her pilgrims.

Sacred springs and rivers also received many martial offerings, primarily swords, scabbards, helmets and spears. Some such artifacts appear to have been made especially for sacrifice as they are of precious metals and elaborately decorated rather than made of workable materials for a warlike function.

The Celtic practice of throwing things in springs was so common and resulted in such rich deposits that such sites were auctioned off by the Romans after conquest. One sacred site of the Volcae Tectosages is reported to have yielded 100,000 pounds of silver and 100,000 pounds of gold!

Human Sacrifice and Head Hunting

Evidence of human sacrifice comes from various Classical literary sources. Dio Cassius mentions a sacrifice to Andraste by Boudica on behalf of the Iceni. Lucan attributes sacrifices on behalf of three Gaulish Gods, Taranis, Esus and Teutates. Archeology doesn't confirm such sacrifices, with the possible exception of the man found in the Lindow Moss. There are also a couple of sites where a burial can be interpreted as sacrifice or as punitive criminal burial.

The severed head seems to have had significance for the Celts. Veneration of the head is found in all Celtic areas and over the entire temporal spread. The head is seen in art, as a religious symbol and as a battle trophy. There is ample archaeological evidence for the human skull being given special treatment. Niches in shrines such as the Celto-Ligurian lintel is merely one manifestation. Human skulls have been found deposited in lakes and wells.

Vernacular sources such as the story of Cu Chulainn in Ireland present vivid descriptions of head taking as do the accounts of classical authors. Diodorus Siculus (quoting Posidonius?) says: "They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and carry off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song of victory, and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm the heads of their most distinguished enemies in cedar-oil and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold." It is interesting to speculate why such a sum would be offered. Perhaps the kin of the slain would pay a ransom to have the head returned for proper ceremony?

Livy, writing in the 3rd century CE, reports that the Boii who captured Consul-Elect Lucius Postumius in Northern Italy "stripped his body, cut off the head, and carried their spoils in triumph to the most hallowed of their temples. There they cleaned out the head, as is their custom, and gilded the skull, which thereafter served them as a holy vessel to pour libations from and as a drinking cup for the priest and the temple attendants."

The head is also very common as a motif in art. Statues of heads and disembodied heads in coins, reliefs and jewelry are quite common.

Animal Sacrifice

There are a variety of animals, both wild and domestic, whose remains may represent sacrifice. Some are burned or buried whole while others are butchered and, presumably, consumed. Archaeological evidence in either case is somewhat problematic, although the location of deposition in a temple area may suggest the sacrificial interpretation. However, a butchered animal may not have been killed with a sacred purpose and a non-butchered animal may simply have died of old age and been buried rather than dying as a result of sacrifice.

Among sacrificial animals we find horses, cattle, lambs, pigs, and dogs, also stags, hares, birds and wild pigs as well as other wild animals. Young animal often show signs of butchering, older cattle and horses mostly do not. Pig, either wild or domestic (its hard to tell!), is a favorite in both burial and temple deposition. Pliny mentions bull sacrifice by the Druids.


Much work has been accomplished toward studying the Celtic world. It is unlikely that more classical sources will be uncovered, but archeology gives us a tool for discovery which we are only beginning to use. A grounding in the physical remains will allow us to interpret the later literature more accurately and provide a more complete picture of our ancestors' worship. But I hope it is plain from my discussion, that our ancestors did not leave us a whole cloth in which to wrap ourselves.

In the absence of such a tapestry, it is necessary to be aware that speculation is rife — and amongst the New Age/Occult community is sometimes based in little more than wishful thinking. If one is interested in reconstructing and practicing Celtic religion it is well to be aware of the sources and of the philosophy in the researches of any teacher or group you may join or any book you may read.

People wishing to practice some form of "Celtic" religion pull threads from the tattered cloth of our knowledge and wrap them around some other system. Some, such as the Neo-Pagan Druids of Ar n'Draiocht Fein, study the Celtic religious data and then combine their researches with information on the religious traditions of other Indo-European cultures. Other practitioners pull threads and wrap them around some other system, thus creating syncretic traditions such as the various forms of "Celtic Wicca", "Celtic Magick" and such. Unfortunately, some (perhaps most) of these have nothing particularly Celtic about them except the use of Celtic deity names within a system very different from any conceived by the ancient Celts.

I believe that the greatest source of magic and religious inspiration exists within each person. Practicing based on the dictates of one's own experience with one's land, Otherworld spirits and divinities is certainly valid religious practice. If, however, we wish to claim that what we do comes to us from the religion of the ancient Goidelic or Brythonic peoples, I believe that we must do our best to research and understand their worldview and practice.

Particularly when teaching, passing on the research along with the practice helps the student to better understand and evaluate whether a tradition fits with her/his aims and worldview. I believe we owe it to our students to tell them our inspirations and our experience and to credit any source materials — spells adapted from vernacular prayers or ancient inscriptions, practices gleaned from archaeological study or borrowed from a magical traditions of other cultures. There are few things more embarrassing than sharing some bit of "ancient" lore and finding out that the person you told it to wrote it a decade or so before.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License