religion, Celtic

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The three main sources for Celtic religion are Romano‐Celtic epigraphy and iconography, the comments of classical authors, and insular Celtic tradition as represented by recorded Irish and Welsh literature. The iconography is largely derived from Graeco‐Roman models and reflects the religious and cultural syncretism which obtained throughout the Romano‐Celtic areas. Highly organized Celtic oral learning was maintained by three orders of practitioners headed by the priestly fraternity of the Druids and apparently replicated throughout the Celtic world. While the Druids were eliminated by the Romans in Britain (see suetonius paulinus) and displaced by Christianity in Ireland, the other two orders—the Gallic vates (‘prophet’, ‘seer’) and bards—survived in Ireland and Wales as privileged praise‐poets.

Caesar names five principal gods of the Gauls—not a complete catalogue—together with their functions; unfortunately, he follows the interpretatio Romana in referring to them by the names of their nearest Roman equivalents. There certainly were gods whose cults were either panCeltic or enjoyed wide currency among the Celtic peoples. Caesar's Mercurius is the god Lugus, personification of kingship and patron of the arts, whose name is commemorated in place‐names throughout Europe and survives in medieval Irish and Welsh literature as Lugh and Lleu respectively, and whose festival of Lughnasa is still widely celebrated. His Minerva corresponds to the multifunctional goddess best known as the Irish Brigit and British Brigantia, patron deity of the Brigantes. The divine triad of Father, Mother, and Son is attested throughout the Celtic realm, with matching names. Most of the Celtic gods and many of their myths are recognizably Indo‐European. The functions of the Celtic gods are less clearly differentiated in the literary sources than in Caesar's succinct, schematic version. The goddesses are closely linked to land and locality: in general they promote fertility, and as a personification of a given territory, e.g. Ireland or one of its constituent kingdoms, the goddess participates in the sacred marriage which legitimizes each new king, a sacred union which may form part of the symbolism of the many divine couples of Romano‐Celtic iconography. Some of the more popular and widespread elements of Celtic belief and ritual, such as pilgrimage, healing wells, and the rich mythology of the otherworld, were easily assimilated to the Christian repertoire. See celts.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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