The Celts and their Belief Systems

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Celts considered watery places sacred

Archeology provides us with evidence of the Celts’ belief systems and of their sacred sites: watery places and forests, wooden enclosures and stone temples.

The most tangible evidence we have of the Celts belief systems is their sacred sites generally divided into three main categories: watery places and forests, wooden enclosures and stone temples.

Architectural remains of these sites present us with ideas about how the Celts viewed their world but it is difficult to look on ancient rites and practices with our modern eyes and beliefs.

Celts and Watery Places

It may be that the Celts looked upon bodies of water as a gateway to another world but whatever the reason water had a special significance to them. Shrines have been found at springs and at river sources where precious jewellery and weapons were ‘sacrificed’ into rivers, bogs and lakes.

When the Romans destroyed the Volcae capital of Tolosa (Toulouse, France), their plunder included hundreds of precious offerings from the sacred lake. Archaeologists have discovered precious objects at another lake, Llyn Cerrig Bach (Lake of the Small Stones) in Ynys Mon (Anglesey), North Wales. Collections of weapons and armour have also been found in large rivers such as the Seine, France and the Thames, England.

Woodland Groves

Groves in forests were considered sacred and were probably man-made and then maintained by skilled arboriculture. At Snettisham, east England, for example, the largest hoard of debased gold and silver alloys have been found (35kg/77 pounds). The metal was buried in eight separate lots, likely to have been within some kind of special area reserved for some kind of extraordinary activity.

The Celts viewed by Greek Historians

In the 3rd century BCE, Greek historians recount how the Celtic chieftain, Brennus, mocked them for representing their gods as human- shaped figures (anthropomorphic) – implying that the Celts did not. This information must be taken tongue-in-cheek as Greeks and Roman historians are not always to be trusted when it comes to the customs of other societies. Considering themselves to be superior, some writers drew attention to the contrast of their civilised world against the barbarians, sometimes out of context, sometimes out of misunderstanding and sometimes as propaganda.

Religious Symbolism

Generally, Celtic art does not favour human figures as symbols that had a close connection to the forests and waterways of their environment. But there are artefacts that have been discovered whose figures may be interpreted as gods, and several of them are identified with animals but we are unsure of their relevance.

The crow was the Celtic symbol of the gods and goddesses of death and battle.

The wheel, as some other inanimate objects, is worshipped as a religious symbol and is in some way linked to the sun. It has been worshipped as a pan-European religious symbol since the early Bronze Age. Wheels have been found in Iron Age burial grounds, and wheels or circles are often included with other symbols in religious artefacts.

Sources:

  1. Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Celtic Empire 1000BC – 51AD, 1990, Constable and Company Ltd, London
  2. Wood, J, The Celts: Life, Myth and Art, 1998, Duncan Baird Publishers, London