Celtic Religion and Mythology

The fruits of a foray into a centre of learning of an ancient people (University College, Cork) by the most scholarly of wenches, Lady Lionors, alias Tracey Rosenberg

The study of Celtic mythology and religion is difficult for modern scholars because of the dearth of comprehensive sources. The scattered material that does exist is often complicated by the influence of other cultures, thus forcing the researcher to analyze "impure" information. However, scholars have been able to piece together coherent theories of Celtic religious and mythological thought through data from the continent as well as from the islands of Britain and Ireland (the "insular" sources). Continental and insular sources, while not interchangeable, are compatible for discussions of a widespread Celtic tradition, thus increasing their scholarly value.

Availability of sources varies greatly, as does their usefulness. For example, knowledge of Gaulish mythological tales or religious beliefs are non-existent, as the Gauls wrote down neither their tales nor their rituals. (Typically Celtic, the Gauls were an oral culture, much to the loss of modern research.) In contrast, Irish mythology has been preserved through manuscripts of early Christian monks. However, these are far from complete, thanks to the Viking invasion of Ireland in the ninth century.

During the so-called Dark Ages, an age of golden enlightenment in Ireland there were numerous Tech Screpta, or great libraries, in the country. There are frequent references to the enormous amount of Irish manuscript books. At the end of the eighth century, however, the Vikings began their raids on the country, Entire libraries were looted or destroyed.

In consequence, almost all Irish manuscripts in existence today date from after the eleventh century. Nevertheless, those that remain--over four hundred of which are pre-1700--still provide rich information on mythologies.

Sources from the continent can be roughly divided into two categories--inscriptions on statues and the writings of classical authors. Those sculptures of Gaulish gods which include inscriptions provide crucial and rare information about Gaulish beliefs; in many instances, archaeological sources are the only ones available for Europe. The 8000+ statues available for modern study do suffer in their usefulness, however, as they fail to provide a coherent, cohesive source. For example, the name of the god m ay exist only on one particular sculpture, not repeated on any other known source. While this provides a great range of known gods, it prevents scholars from tracing influences or discovering hierarchies. Most of the inscriptions are in Latin, although the earliest are in Greek, as the Gauls' first contact with letters were via the Greeks. Often the name of the god is Gaulish, with the remainder of the inscription in another language.

The locations of the sculptures provide a basis for the theory that the Celts had no centralised pantheon, but rather localised gods, with perhaps a few whose sphere of influence extended over wider ranges. For example, while Lug may well have been the m ost widely worshipped Celtic divinity, inscriptions to him (which are only in the form of dedications to Mercury) are principally found north of the river Garonne, and only rarely in Narbonne and Aquitaine. Still, inscriptions are invaluable, if for no ot her reason than that they provide scholars with the names of many Celtic gods that would otherwise have been lost.

The Continental classical writers are an additional resource, despite the fact that they rarely give detailed accounts of Celtic beliefs. A common problem is that of "interpretatio romana," which occurred when an author (such as Julius Caesar) wrote about Celtic gods but described them as if they were Roman. This "Roman interpretation" means that the gods may have been attributed characteristics which they did not actually possess. However, there are certain correlations, as with the Celtic god Lug and the Roman Mercury; the proliferation of images and inscriptions of Mercury, and the dearth of these for Lug, in addition to their common position as creators of all the arts, point to the likelihood that Caesar straightforwardly replaced Lug with Mercury.

Native informants might be considered a more accurate source of evidence. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that these informants provided incorrect information to classical writers solely for purposes of confusion. A further problem is that the wr iters themselves might have been incorrect in their transliteration of information.

Insular sources consist primarily of mythological stories, which are far more abundant than archaeological evidence. The two major divisions of mythological tales are those from Wales and those from Ireland. Both are problematic. Because the Welsh tales were transcribed later than the Irish ones--mainly in the Middle Ages--they display more influence of Christian writers and less love for the Celtic, pre-Christian past ; the Irish tales, although written earlier and therefore more faithful to the originals, suffered from the Viking purges.

The two most important texts that survive relatively unscathed are the Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na huidre), which dates from roughly 1050, and the Book of Leinster, a century or so younger. Neither of these are complete; the Book of the Dun Cow is at mo st only half its original size and in its truncated form contains thirty-seven stories. One crucial source of mythology which is completely lost is the eighth century Book of Driumm Sneachtai; the only extant page is that which lists the contents.

There are many similarities between Welsh and Irish mythology. The gods are obviously related: the Irish Lir is the equivalent of the Welsh Llyr; Manann‡n is Manawyddan; Dana is Don. These links are obvious in spite of the discrepancies in the transcript ions of the different mythologies. However, the unreliable nature of manuscripts cannot be overly stressed. The stories themselves cannot possibly have been written without corruption by not only the storyteller, but by any and all transcribers. The Christian writers invariably inserted some of their own thoughts and interpretations into the myths. This distortion provides an additional obstacle to the scholar interested in the interpretation of mythology. One scholar, Nora Chadwick emphasises the impo ssibility of defining Celtic religion through the mythology. "Nothing even remotely comparable with the modern concept of 'theology' emerges, nor should one be expected". However, the tales provide vital information that is unmatched by any other extant source; "concessions to Christianity were slight, and in the main consisted of obscuring where necessary the divinity of the principal characters in the myths."

The correlation between the insular and continental sources is not without gaps and contradictions, but there are obvious connections, promoted by extensive interchanges; the Irish traded with the Gauls, who themselves had routes to as distant places as Turkey. Peter Berresford Ellis writes that, in terms of religion, "the druidic religion...was the corner-stone of the Celtic world, linking the Celts of Ireland with their fellow Celts in Britain and on the Continent in a common heritage."

One such example of correspondence between continental and insular sources is the statue of Cernunnos--"the horned one"--a Gaulish divinity who is portrayed with a snake wrapped around his neck. This is paralleled in the Irish Conall Cernach (note the similarity of names), who himself was adorned with a snake.

However, the lack of centralised deities meant that there was not a great deal of consistency among Celtic gods; "relatively few of the names from Gaulish inscriptions reappear in Ireland." Although the Gaulish gods were actual deities to be invoked and worshipped, there is no trace of this in insular tradition. (This might have been affected by the Christian monks who transcribed the mythologies and who wanted no rival for the Christian god.)

Modern scholarship has no easy task in studying Celtic mythology and religion. There is no unified source of information, and what does exist is corrupted in ways that will never be fully known. Nevertheless, the combination of various sources still provide a body of data which allow for interpretation and continued discussion of Celtic culture, both insular and continental.


Chadwick, Nora. The Celts London: Penguin Books, 1971.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Dictionary of Irish Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Gantz, Jeffrey, translator. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981.
O Riain, Pa‡draig. "Celtic Mythology and Religion." In K.H. Schmidt, R. Koedderitsch ed., Geschichte und Kultur der Kelten. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1986. pp. 241-251.