Published, formatted and edited by K.S.Doig
The nature and functions of these ancient gods can be deduced from their names, the location of their inscriptions, their iconography, the Roman gods they are equated with, and similar figures from later bodies of Celtic mythology.
Celtic mythology is found in a number of distinct, if related, subgroups, largely corresponding to the branches of the Celtic languages:
- Ancient Celtic religion (known primarily through archaeological sources rather than through written mythology; cf. Ancient Gaulish and British deities)
- mythology in Goidelic languages, represented chiefly by Irish mythology and Scottish mythology:
- Mythological Cycle
- Ulster Cycle
- Fenian cycle
- Historical Cycle
- mythology in Brythonic languages, represented chiefly by Welsh mythology (cf. also Breton mythology and folklore)
Rome introduced a more widespread habit of public inscriptions, and broke the power of the druids in the areas it conquered; in fact, most inscriptions to deities discovered in Gaul (modern France and Northern Italy), Britain and other formerly (or presently) Celtic-speaking areas post-date the Roman conquest.
Although early Gaels in Ireland and parts of modern Wales used the Ogham script to record short inscriptions (largely personal names), more sophisticated literacy was not introduced to Celtic areas that had not been conquered by Rome until the advent of Christianity. Indeed, many Gaelic myths were first recorded by Christian monks, albeit without most of their original religious meanings.
Mythology of IrelandThe oldest body of myths stemming from the Heroic Age is found only from the early medieval period of Ireland. As Christianity began to take over, the gods and goddeses were slowly eliminated as such from the culture. What has survived includes material dealing with the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians, which forms the basis for the text Cath Maige Tuireadh (the Battle of Mag Tuireadh), as well as portions of the history-focused Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of Invasions). The Tuatha Dé represent the functions of human society such as kingship, crafts and war, while the Fomorians represent chaos and wild nature.
The DagdaThe leader of the gods for the Irish pantheon appears to have been the Dagda. The Dagda was the figure after which male humans and other gods were based due to his embodiment of the ideal Irish traits. Celtic gods were also considered to be a clan due to their lack of specialization and unknown origins. The particular character of the Dagda describes him as a figure of burlesque lampoonery in Irish mythology, and some authors even conclude that he was trusted to be benevolent enough to tolerate jokes at his own expense.
Irish tales depict the Dagda as a figure of power, armed with a spear. In Dorset there is a famous outline of an ithyphallic giant known as the Cerne Abbas Giant with a club cut into the chalky soil. While this was probably produced in relatively modern times (English Civil War era), it was long thought to be a representation of the Dagda. This has been called into question by recent studies which show that there may have been a representation of what looks like a large drapery hanging from the horizontal arm of the figure, leading to suspicion that this figure actually represents Hercules (Heracles), with the skin of the Nemean Lion over his arm and carrying the club he used to kill it. In Gaul, it is speculated that the Dagda is associated with Sucellos, the striker, equipped with a hammer and cup.
The MorríganThe Morrígan was a tripartite battle goddess of the Celts of Ancient Ireland. She was known as the Morrígan, but the different sections she was divided into were also referred to as Nemhain, Macha, and Badb (among other, less common names), with each representing different aspects of combat. She is most commonly known for her involvement in the Táin Bó Cúailnge.
Lugh/LugThe god appearing most frequently in the tales is Lugh. He is evidently a residual of the earlier, more widespread god Lugus, whose diffusion in Celtic religion is apparent from the number of place names in which his name appears, occurring across the Celtic world. The most famous of these are the cities of Lugdunum (the modern French city of Lyon), Lugdunum Batavorum (the modern city of Katwijk, 10 kilometers to the west of Leiden) and Lucus Augusti or Λοuκος Λuγούστον (the modern Galician city of Lugo). Lug is described in the Celtic myths as the last to be added to the list of deities. In Ireland a festival called the Lughnasa (Modern Irish lúnasa) was held in his honour.
OthersOther important goddesses include Brigid (or Brigit), the Dagda's daughter; Aibell, Áine, Macha, and the sovereign goddess, Ériu. Notable is Epona, the horse goddess, celebrated with horse races at the summer festival. Significant Irish gods include Nuada Airgetlám, the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann; Goibniu, the smith and brewer; Dian Cecht, the patron of healing; and the sea god Manannán mac Lir.
Mythology of Wales
While further mythological names and references appear elsewhere in Welsh narrative and tradition, especially in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, where we find, for example, Mabon ap Modron (‘the Divine Son of the Divine Mother’), and in the collected Triads of the Island of Britain, not enough is known of the British mythological background to reconstruct either a narrative of creation or a coherent pantheon of British deities. Indeed, though there is much in common with Irish myth, there may have been no unified British mythological tradition per se. Whatever its ultimate origins, the surviving material has been put to good use in the service of literary masterpieces that address the cultural concerns of Wales in the early and later Middle Ages.
Remnants of Gaulish and other mythology
According to the Syrian rhetorician Lucian, Ogmios was supposed to lead a band of men chained by their ears to his tongue as a symbol of the strength of his eloquence.
The Roman poet Lucan (1st century AD) mentions the gods Taranis, Teutates and Esus, but there is little Celtic evidence that these were important deities.
A number of objets d'art, coins, and altars may depict scenes from lost myths, such as the representations of Tarvos Trigaranus or of an equestrian ‘Jupiter’ surmounting a snake-legged human-like figure. The Gundestrup cauldron has been also interpreted mythically.
Along with dedications giving us god names, there are also deity representations to which no name has yet been attached. Among these are images of a three headed or three faced god, a squatting god, a god with a snake, a god with a wheel, and a horseman with a kneeling giant. Some of these images can be found in Late Bronze Age peat bogs in Britain, indicating the symbols were both pre-Roman and widely spread across Celtic culture. The distribution of some of the images has been mapped and shows a pattern of central concentration of an image along with a wide scatter indicating these images were most likely attached to specific tribes and were distributed from some central point of tribal concentration outward along lines of trade. The image of the three headed god has a central concentration among the Belgae, between the Oise, Marne and Moselle rivers. The horseman with kneeling giant is centered on either side of the Rhine. These examples seem to indicate regional preferences of a common image stock.
Julius Caesar’s comments on Celtic religion and their significance