I am now starting with the description of Celtic Religion. As the
matter is large enough this once again (and as most of you are already
used from me, I am not the best for saying something in short
sentences when I can say the same in more complex ones) will be a
multi-part message. Additionally I will admit here that I am not a
real expert on Celtic Religion, so it may happen that I leave out
some things, which is highly likely as I am writing this more or less
from the top of my head.
What will follow under this subject heading will be a summary of how
Celtic Religion may have looked, but I will only give quotations
where I do have them at hand, not if I would have to head off for
university library to find sources.
If you want you may distribute this freely as long it is not used for
commercial purposes and you include my email adress
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CELTIC RELIGION - WHAT INFORMATION DO WE REALLY HAVE
I have already noted in the first part of this message what sources
are available to us.
I will now start this look at pagan Celtic Religion with a survey of
what we know about what we would call "priestly" functions more or
When thinking of Celtic religious functions, the first thing that
comes to ones mind is doubtlessly the "druid". In most of the
literature, and not only the popular but a good deal of the
scientific one as well, "priest" is equated with the term "druid"
when talking about the Celts. However, this is a gross
simplification. There's definitly more to Celtic religious functions.
DIFFERENT RELIGIOUS FUNCTIONS
To start with, definitly the term druid is, to a certain extent, also
a catchover term for all the Celtic religious functions, Caesar for
instance seems to use it in this kind in his excursus on the Gauls in
his De Bello Gallico, when he writes: (BG VI, 13-4) "To return to
those two classes: One of them is the class of the druids, the other
one those of the knights. The druids are concerned with the divine
worship, the due process of sacrifices, public and private, and in
the interpretation of ritual questions ... In fact, it is they who
decide in almost all disputes, public and private ...".
On the other hand, the term druid is also used to describe a specific
religious function. We can at least identify one other religious
function, probably even more. For this, we can look at Strabo (IV,
4) quoting Poseidonius: "Among all the tribes, generally speaking,
there are three classes of men held in special honor: the bards, the
vates and the druids" (B/ardoi te kai\ Oua/teis kai\ Drui/dai). This
gives us at least the vates as a second religious function, and it is
possible that the bards are to be considered as a religious function
as well. Additionally, it is worth noting that for all these three
classes we have equivalents in the Irish literature, where we find,
additionally to the druid (Ir. drui/ Gaul. *druids) the fai/th (greek
oua/teis, Gaul. *vatis) and the bard (greek ba/rdoi, Gaul. *bardos).
Added to these in the function of interpreter of "rectus" (law), which
would, if we follow Caesar's description above, as well fall into the
"druidical" functions, would be the Gaulish "vergobretus" (supreme
magister), which contains the same root as the Irish "breithem"
Additionally there is the Irish "fili" (seer, poet, priest), whichs
gaulish cognate would be "*velits", a cognate of is attested as a
name for a Germanic seeres, "Veleda".
This now leaves us with the following terms:
Druid, Vates, Vergobretus, Bard, and perhaps fili
Let us take a look at what their jobs were.
The specialised function of the "druid" is described in Strabo IV, 4
as the science of nature and moral philosophy (pro\s te physiologi/a
kai\ ten ethiken philosophi/an). The term "druid" itself is probably
derived from IE *dru-uid- "highly wise" - which might be the reason
for why it was also used as a catchover term for all the religious
The specialised functions may allow us to assume that the druids in
fact are the class who worked as medics and who were knowledgeable in
herbal lore as described by Pliny the Elder.
A grave of such a "druid" we know from the cemetery of Pottenbrunn,
object 520, which contained the burial of an adult male of the early
La Te\ne Period, which carried, additionally to the usual equipment,
a medical instrument and a propellor-shaped bone object of unknown
function, which could be an item used in rituals.
The function of the vates is described by Strabo as "interpreters of
sacrifices and natural philosophers" (hieropoioi\ kai\ physiolo\goi).
This fits quite well with what we know of as the function of the
Irish fa/ith, whose job was to carry out the divinations. The
description of Strabo allows us to assume that also the vates were
the diviners, and as such probably also the calender of Coligny falls
into their field of work (the Claender has been interpreted as a
solar/lunar predictor by Olmsted), so the vates would be the ones who
were the astrologers and mathematicians amongst the "priests"
We know little about the actual function of the Vergobretus, of whom
we only have one short notice in the ancient literary sources which
only gives us that title. However, as the term has the same root as
the Irish breithem, whose function we know was judging in lawcases,
we may assume that the Vergobretus was a similar function. As Caesar
reckons the judging in lawcases to the druidical functions it can be
assumed that it was a "religious" function as well.
Not much has to be said about the bards. Strabo (IV, 4) describes
them as "singers and poets" (hymnetai\ kai\ poietai\), which fits
quite well with what we know about the Irish bards. As a possible
etymology for *bardos could be derived from the IE root *gur-d(h)o-s
which is translated as "Praise Giver" this function could have been
religious as well.
WHAT ELSE WE KNOW
Well, actually not much. We do not know which of the above if any
carried out which of the rituals we know or can guess at. However, we
know that, according to Caesar (BG VI, 14-2), "Many young men
assemble of their own motion to receive their training; many are sent
by parents and relatives. Report says that in the schools of the
druids they learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore
some persons remain twenty years under training.". Additionally, as
well according to Caesar (VI, 13 and 14), they usually do not
participate in wars, they don't have to pay taxes, they elect for
lifetime one out of their midst to be chief druid (more or less the
druid pope), a position which is very honorable and therefore
sometimes it is, if no decision can be found, even fought about with
So much for today on the druids. I will continue as soon as possible,
the next part will deal with the gods.
To be continued ...