When thinking of Celtic religion, the first thing that comes to ones mind is generally Druidism, and maybe even Stonehenge. There were many other components to religion in Celtic society before the Common Era, and they were integrated within the daily life, and still remain part of the culture. The sources available are mostly second hand or legends that have become christianised over time, but we can still learn a lot about their beliefs, and how they were intertwined with daily life.
The people who lived 25,000 years ago were in awe of nature. They believed that each aspect of nature, such as rain, rivers; thunder and all other natural evens were personified with their own “deity”. This assigning of Gods to naturally occurring events is called “Animism”. The ancient people believed that a God controlled the rain, a different God controlled the wind and most importantly, a God controlled the hunt. Archaeological evidence suggests our ancestors made use of what is called “sympathetic” magick. To have a successful hunt, the tribe would make a life-like version of the animal they hoped to kill, and would act out the hunt. They believed that this would positively affect the real hunt. Among animism and sympathetic magick, there was also a Goddess of fertility.
There was a high mortality rate and to procreate, the fertility of women and men was extremely important. The Goddess represented childbearing, fertility of people, the earth and animals, and She was as important as the other Gods were.
There is also evidence that our ancestors had a great belief in life after death, and an example is gravesites of the Gravettians (22,000 – 18,000 BCE). This culture would bury the deceased in full clothing, sometimes with his/her dog, and with everything else one might need in the afterlife, a tradition similar to that of the Egyptians. Individuals were also frequently buried under the family’s hearth, so that the deceased might remain close. Thus, we see early evidence of religion-magick or Witchcraft.
The Druids were the priests or ministers of religion among the ancient Celtic nations in Gaul, Britain, and Germany. Information respecting them is borrowed the Greek and Roman writers, compared with the remains of Welsh and Gaelic poetry. The Druids combined the functions of the priest, the magistrate, the scholar, and the physician. Their role in Celtic life is comparable to an Egyptian Priest. The Druids taught the existence of one god, to whom they gave a name “Be’al,” which Celtic antiquaries tell us means “the life of every thing,” or “the source of all beings,” Their supreme deity was associated with the Sun. Fire was regarded as a symbol of the divinity. The Latin writers tell that the Druids also worshipped many inferior gods. They used no images to represent the object of their worship. They didn’t meet in temples or buildings of any kind for the performance of their sacred rites. A circle of stones (each stone generally of very large size) enclosing an area of from twenty feet to thirty yards in diameter, was what they considered their sacred place. The most celebrated of these now remaining is Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, England.
These sacred circles were generally placed near some stream, or under the shadow of a grove or wide-spreading oak. In the centre of the circle stood the Cromlech or altar, which was a large stone, placed in the manner of a table upon other stones set up on end. The Druids had also their high places, which were large stones or piles of stones on the summits of hills. These were called Cairns, and were used in the worship of the deity under the symbol of the sun.
The Druids observed two festivals in each year. The former took place in the beginning of May, and was called Beltane or “Fire of God.” On this occasion a large fire was kindled on some elevated spot, in honour of the sun, whose returning beneficence they thus welcomed after the gloom and desolation of winter. The other great festival of the Druids was called “Samh’in,” or “Fire of Peace,” and was held on Hallow-eve, (first of November) which still retains this designation in the Highlands of Scotland. On this occasion the Druids assembled in sober conclave, in the central part of the district, to discharge the judicial functions of their order. All questions brought before them for judgement. Judicial acts were combined certain rituals, especially the lighting of the sacred fire, from which all the fires in the district, which had been extinguished beforehand, were relighted. This usage of kindling fires on Hallow-eve lingered in the British islands long after the establishment of Christianity.
Besides these two great annual festivals, the Druids were in the habit of observing the full moon, and especially the sixth day of the moon. On the latter they sought the Mistletoe, which grew on their favourite oaks, and to which, they ascribed a peculiar virtue and sacredness. The discovery of it was an occasion of rejoicing and solemn worship.
The Druids were the teachers of morality as well as of religion. Of their ethical teaching a valuable specimen is preserved in the Triads of the Welsh Bards, and from this we may gather that their views of moral rectitude were on the whole just, and that they held and inculcated many very noble and valuable principles of conduct. They were also the men of science and learning of their age and people. Their teaching was oral, and their literature (if such a word may be used in such a case) was preserved solely by tradition. But the Roman writers admit that “they paid much attention to the order and laws of nature, and investigated and taught to the youth under their charge many things concerning the stars and their motions, the size of the world and the lands, and concerning the might and power of the immortal gods.”
Their history consisted in traditional tales, in which the heroic deeds of their forefathers were celebrated. These were apparently in verse, and thus constituted part of the poetry as well as the history of the Druids. In the poems of Ossian we have, if not the actual productions of Druidical times, what may be considered faithful representations of the songs of the Bards.
The Bards were an essential part of the Druidical hierarchy. One author, Pennant, says, “The Bards were supposed to be endowed with powers equal to inspiration. They were the oral historians of all past transactions, public and private. They were also accomplished genealogists.”
The Druidical system was at its height at the time of the Roman invasion under Julius Caesar. Against the Druids, as their chief enemies, these conquerors of the world directed their unsparing fury. The Druids, harassed at all points on the main land, retreated to Anglesey and Iona, where for a season they found shelter and continued their now-dishonoured rites.
The Druids retained their predominance in Iona and over the adjacent islands and main land until they were supplanted and their way of life and religion overturned by the arrival of St. Columba, the apostle of the Highlands, by whom the inhabitants of that district were first led to profess Christianity.
The pagan religion of the Celts still lives on in modern times, and is practised by many people around the world. This alternative to the dogmatic religions of so many is, for some, a way to retrieve their roots, and follow their ancestors’ way of life to some degree. Today, neo-paganism follows the same basic form, with a God and a Goddess being worshipped, as well as a plethora of other Gods and Goddesses, for every function. Sacrifices no longer take place, and Nature is still worshipped. While it is still a misconception that pagans worship the Christian devil, this is impossible, as modern pagan author Gerina Dunwich says of modern witchcraft ‘it is not anti-Christian; however, it does not acknowledge the existance of sin, the Devil, or a judgemental and avenging god as defined by Christianity’ came before. Often, some close-minded people will still look at you funny if you say ‘I’m a Witch’, though it is becoming more mainstreamed and accepted.
As you can tell, the Celtic culture was rich with religious inspiration, which is evident in everything they did. Almost wiped out by the rise of Christianity, the region of the ancient Celts is beginning to become popular once again, as people from all around the world turn to a more simple way to worship, as well as a more natural way. Though there is still prejudice against neo-pagans, it’s becoming more and more acceptable for one to call oneself a Witch.