The Celts were a superstitious, polytheistic society with high importance placed on religion. Similar to the Greek and Roman religious system, the Celtic deities were assigned different roles and were worshipped based on the population’s current needs i. e. harvest, success in battle, etc. However, the Celtic deities appear to have been more wide reaching in their functions than their Roman counterparts. Although the names of over 200 separate deities have been recorded in the Celtic world, when examined more closely we can find that depending on the town or region, a single deity could be known by more than one name.
This also displays the importance of the tribal god in Celtic society, by each tribe calling the same deity by a name exclusive to the tribe. The most important and popular deity in all regions of Celtic society was Lug, comparable to Mercury in the Roman system. Lug was known as the many-skilled deity, responsible for arts and crafts and, in many depictions, is portrayed carrying a spear and sling. Lug’s influence in Celtic society can be observed by the celebration of Lugnasad yearly on August 1st celebrating not only the ripening of the crops, but also celebrating Lug.
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Similarly, city names like Lugudunum (current-day Lyon, France) demonstrate Lug’s importance to early Celts. Another important deity in early Celtic society was Dis Pater (Donn, Dagda). The Gauls believed they were decendents of Dis Pater. Dagda was known as the great father. Portrayed as a somewhat vulgar character, Dagda was wise, and always shown with his club and cauldron; the club was believed to be able to kill the living or bring the dead to life, and the cauldron was a representation of unending hospitality.
Donn was the leader of the land of dead. Other Celtic deities include Teutates, associated with the Roman god Mars, who was the god of war, healing, fertility, protection and property. The gods Taranis and Esus were also thought to be similar to Mars, and they, along with Teutates were associated with human sacrifices. Maponos (Oengus) is thought to have had a similar function to Apollo and was capable of driving away disease. Ogmios, portrayed as an old man carrying a bow and club, was associated with the Roman Hercules.
Ogmios was an eloquent warrior and champion who was believed to have invented the first Irish alphabet, Ogam. A very important female deity in Celtic society was Brigit, associated with poetry, crafts and healing, among other things. Brigit was later made a saint, and now Saint Brigit’s Day is celebrated on February 1st, also the time of Imbolc in the ritual year. Some of the most highly regarded members of society were those who could communicate with the deities. For the Celts these were the druids, who were very respected and important members of early Celtic society.
A druid must be a learned man with a vast knowledge of tradition and were the highest ranking practitioners, of a higher ranking than both vates and diviners. However, anyone of noble class (equites) was able to become a druid through up to twenty years of secret teachings in caves and woods. In exchange for their religious services, the druids were not required to pay taxes or participate in the military. The druids were responsible for writing poems and making the calendar, which necessitated knowledge of the lunar cycle.
In addition, the druids acted as judges in Celtic society, and anyone unaccepting of the druids became outcasts of society, demonstrating the extreme importance the early Celts placed on the ability of communication with their deities. It was also possible for the druids to intervene and stop battles if they (or the gods) thought it was necessary. Annually the druids would convene in a central, sacred place, usually a forest clearing known as nemeton. The druids were responsible for keeping the knowledge of the Celts and their respective tribes preserved through oral tradition.
Furthermore, the druids would supervise sacrifices (sometimes human) and religious ceremonies. Triads also played an important role in early Celtic society, and there are many occurrences of groups of three. For example, the sovereignty goddess who gives her name to Ireland is referred to by three different names: Eriu, Banba and Fotla. This also occurs with the war goddess who was responsible for causing chaos and confusion on the battlefield; she was known as Badb, Morrigan, and Nemain. Similarly, the belief in the Matres (mother goddesses), and sculptures depicted with three faces demonstrate the mportance of the number three in early Celtic society. Advice and warnings were also given in threes, as demonstrated by the triads of Ireland: “The three worst welcomes: a handicraft in the same house with the inmates, scalding water upon the feet, salt food without a drink. ” (Meyer) The habitation of Ireland is explained through a myth of a series of six invasions, the first being led by the granddaughter of Noah and Ladra before the Biblical Flood. Ladra had sixteen wives and, due to excess of women, was the first person to die in Ireland.
His people were then eradicated by the Biblical Flood. Three hundred year later, the second invasion occurred, being led by Parthalon, a descendent of Noah. During Parthalon’s time, four plains were cleared in Ireland, and seven lakes appeared. Parthalon’s people were responsible for the first battle in Ireland, the first beer brewed in Ireland, the first time security of contract was used, the first adultery case, and the first judgment made. After fighting against Fomoire, Parthalon’s people were eventually killed by plague.
The third invasion began thirty years after the second, led by Nemed, a Greek from Scythia. Similarly to the previous invasion, Nemed’s people battled with Fomoire, where most were killed and eventually defeated. The race of Fir Bolg then was the people of the fourth invasion. Fir Bolg divided Ireland into five provinces and introduced kingship, and were the just rulers of Ireland for 37 years until the Tuatha De Danann people took over Ireland in the Battle of Mag Tuired and the fifth invasion. The Tuatha De Danann were associated with Lug and Dagda, and were thought to have magical powers.
A Spanish warrior by the name of Mil then conquered Ireland from the Tuatha De Danann, and his people, the Milesians, are associated with the Irish people of today. Bibliography Chadwick, Nora K. The Druids. Cardiff: University of Wales, 1966. Print. Cunliffe, Barry W. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. Mac, Cana Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn, 1970. Print. Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 1994. Print. “The Triads of Ireland. ” SMO. Web. 26 Oct. 2011. .