In previous posts, we explored the cosmology of the Celts and the concept of Sacred Reciprocity. In traditional cultures, it is understood that human beings live in relationship with many other beings – plants, animals, birds, fish, insects, and features of the natural landscape. In addition, what appears to the modern mindset as ’empty space’ is in fact often filled with other beings more difficult to see or identify. This is the realm of the gods and spirits, who may inhabit cosmic realms like the sky, ocean and underworld, or whose domain may be part of the world they share with us.
In western materialist culture, acknowledging, perceiving or discussing this traditional perception of reality is grounds for being labeled delusional or even insane. However, as modern physics is beginning to understand (and catch up with ancient wisdom), there is a great deal going on in the ’empty spaces’ around us. Indeed, in some scientific models, what we perceive in our world can only be explained scientifically and mathematically if there are a number of other planes of existence. I have to admit I often picture a group of indigenous shamans sitting around the fire and having a jolly laugh as they watch the struggles of scientists to finally figure out what they have known for millennia!
So who inhabits the space around us? In Celtic tradition we see evidence for the perception and veneration of numerous deity figures, both male and female. Some seem to have been venerated over wide areas (or at least similar archetypes), while others were more local in nature. Early European evidence seems to indicate that deities associated with the Upper and Lower World were originally recognized, but starting in the late Bronze Age, the focus seems to have shifted to the Underworld realms. The reasons for this are not totally clear, but may be associated with worsening weather conditions at that time.
Romano-Celtic inscriptions refer to deities who may have inhabited the Sky realms, like Taranis (‘The Thunderer’), Loucetius (whose name may be related to a word meaning ‘Lighning’), and Sirona (‘Divine Star Goddess’). Vestiges of celestial worship may exist in the Welsh figures of Mellt (‘Lightning,’ father of Mabon in one text) and Arianrhod (‘Silver Wheel,’ perhaps an epithet referring to the moon).
Inscriptions and place-name evidence also record deities who were associated with features of the land and environment. Throughout the ancient Celtic world, rivers were associated with female divinities: Sabrina (The Severn), Tawa (The Tay), Dewa (River Dee), Dewona (River Don), Boand (The Boyne) and Sinann (The Shannon). Deities associated with trees, groves and forests also existed, including Nemetona (‘Goddess of the Sacred Place / Grove’) and Arduinna (associated with the Ardennes Forest).
Most of the detailed information we have about Celtic deities comes from early Irish sources, and is found in a variety of manuscripts and texts. The Irish deities – the Aés Síde, or later, Tuatha Dé Danann – were perceived as inhabiting síd mounds throughout the landscape, which were portals to their Lower World realms. In some cases they were also perceived as inhabiting – or appearing – in or near bodies of water, hills and mountains, rivers and springs.
But the Irish gods are not ‘just’ deities of nature – they were in many cases also associated with culture: wisdom, healing, battle, divination, magic, arts, crafts and skills of many kinds. This appears to be the case with other Celtic deities throughout the ancient world as well. The modern focus on ‘gods of fertility’ and the seasonal round is not a terribly apt or accurate description of the Celtic gods and goddesses, who were multi-aspected in ways that may be challenging for modern perceptions.
Learning about the Celtic deities is a life-long task, but a rewarding exploration, if you know where to look! The first and foremost piece of advice I would give is to not rely on anything you read about the Celtic gods on general interest Celtic websites or spiritually-based websites (sorry to say this). This situation also holds true with many spiritually related books and articles. There is a great deal of misinformation out there about the deities, for some reason, although we do actually have alot of detailed knowledge about them.
The most reliable information we have about Celtic deities comes from physical sources; either inscriptions (although caveats are needed regarding some of these) and manuscripts (ditto). Reading someone else’s retelling of a retelling of a retelling of a myth is bound to create problems. It’s best to read first-hand what the Celts themselves had to say about the divinities of their forebears!
Here are some excellent sources of information about Celtic gods and goddesses, which should be readily available through used book dealers or your local library:
For a discussion of the gods and mythological concepts:
Pagan Celtic Britain – Anne Ross
Celtic Mythology – Proinsias Mac Cana
Celtic Heritage – Alwyn and Brinley Rees
Celtic Myth and Religion – S. MacLeod
The Celts – T.G.E. Powell
The Druids – Stuart Piggott
Celtic Goddesses – Miranda Green
Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Culture – Maier
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology – McKillop
These are excellent, reliable resources which can serve you well throughout your path. Once you have some background in Celtic culture, religion and mythological constructs and symbols, it’s time to delve into the texts themselves. Make sure to read introductory materials and footnotes, as these will help guide you in understanding what you’re seeing:
Early Irish Myths and Sagas – Gantz
Ancient Irish Tales – Cross and Slover
The Tain – tr. Kinsella
The Mabinogi – Patrick K. Ford
The Mabinogion – Sioned Davies
Celtic Heroic Age – Koch and Carey
The Metrical Dindshenchas – Gwynn
It’s important to remember that not every part of these texts can be viewed as the ‘original’ pagan setting or presentation of this material. Some stories were changed for cultural, religious or even political reasons over time; others underwent changes as scribes copied and recopied them. They were also written down after the introduction of Christianity, and redacted during the early, middle and late medieval periods. Still, there are many places where the pre-Christian stories shine through, and can present us with a remarkable amount of useful information about the Celtic gods and goddesses.
Once you have gotten through the materials above, you may want to start reading other academic books and articles – which are handily referenced in the footnotes or bibliographies of the above books! Remember to focus mainly on newer, updated research (after 1975), as earlier books (while they ‘look old’) are often very misleading, containing inferior translations and explanations based on Victorian perceptions and misperceptions. This more advanced exploration may require some training in one of the Celtic languages, to really dig down deep into the materials and access our most up to date understanding of what these stories, characters and symbols represent (as well as to be able to read them in the original and meditate on the wisdom and culture encoded in the language).
As mentioned before, it is vitally important not to project modern ideas, needs, fantasies and concepts onto traditional cultures. The same is true for Celtic cultures. Approach this material with ‘beginner’s mind,’ no matter how experienced you may perceive yourself to be. Be open to the guidance of learned teachers – whether devoted academics, tradition bearers of the past, or the words of the deities themselves, and you will be constantly humbled, surprised, delighted and inspired!
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.