The previous chapters have analyzed the concept of goddesses embodying the earth and various elements of nature: mountains, forests and animals. Nature definitely had a sacred dimension for the Celts, who revered it in the form of gods and goddesses. Those land-goddesses were respected and honoured for ensuring fertility and providing the people with food. Jullian says “it was easy at the beginning to believe that the surface of the earth was shared among a certain amount of domains each with its own god […]. Towns and other circumscribed areas of land were under the protection of a god”.1229 Irish mythology indeed indicates that land-goddesses became attached to distinct territories and were revered with different names according to the peoples and places. These ‘territorial’ goddesses would have been endowed with a potent role of sovereign, representing, protecting and presiding over the tribe, while sustaining its members and guaranteeing prosperity to the province. Is there proof of such territorial- or tribal-goddesses in Britain and on the Continent? In view of Irish mythology what might have their roles been? Which functions may have been attached to them?
Protection of the territory is patently linked to war. It seems that the goddess presiding over the land and the tribe was, at some stage, given martial attributes to protect the territory and its inhabitants against invaders and enemies. In other words, it seems that the land-, territorial- or tribal-goddess was turned into a war-goddess, invoked for her protective and defensive qualities in time of conflict. As will be seen, various goddesses, such as the Irish Mórrígain and the British Brigantia, possess the double aspect of land and protection in their character. They were originally goddesses embodying the landscape and were later attributed significant war-like attributes and pictured protecting their people and territory.
War was a favourite avocation of the Celts, as Strabo explains in his late 1st-century BC or early 1st-century AD Geography:‘The whole race which is now called both ‘Gallic’ and ‘Galatic’ is war-mad, and both high-spirited and quick for battle, although otherwise simple and not ill-mannered. And therefore, if roused, they come together all at once for the struggle, both openly and without circumspection […]1230 ’
War and religion were closely connected. In De Bello Gallico, Caesar says “The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites” (Natio est omnis Gallorum admodum dedita religionibus), which means that Celtic people had recourse to the gods and religion for every single aspect of their lives: agriculture, home and family, medicine, etc.1231 War was was surrounded by rites and traditions of various kinds occurring before, during and after the battle, such as the ‘armed council’ taking place before the fighting, the ‘vow’ made to a war deity to obtain victory in exchange for which spoils of war would be offered, and the devotio, a rite in which a leader appealed to the underground deities and offered his life to have his army saved.1232 In short, Gaulish warriors left destiny in the hands of the gods.
The Irish texts tell of powerful and obscure goddesses of war, spreading terror in the hearts of the most valorous warriors, flying around the battlefield in the shape of ravens and eating the flesh of the dead combatants. Did those preternatural ladies take part directly in combat? If not what role in war did they fulfil? As regards Britain and Gaul, is there literary, iconographical, epigraphic or archaeological evidence of beliefs in crow-shaped war-goddesses? In comparison with Ireland, it seems that material providing proof of a cult devoted to protective and martial goddesses in Britain and Gaul is scattered and fragmentary. Considering the Gallo-British archaeological and linguistic data and what Irish mythology tells us, is it possible to reconstruct some myths concerning Celtic divine warrioresses? What was their essence? Which functions might they have embodied and fulfilled?
Jullian, 1887, vol. 1, p. 62.
Book IV, 4, 2.
Book VI, 16.
Brunaux, 1986, pp. 101-113.