This study has aimed to show the complexity of determining and defining the goddesses worshipped by the Celts. The conclusions which can be drawn are multiple and do not necessarily align in any neat or coherent way. This ensues from the obvious lack of evidence, which, in addition, is indirect and often fragmentary – particularly as regards Gaul and Britain. Contrary to the situation for Classical belief systems, where there is a surviving corpus of mythological texts, there are no contemporary Celtic literary works describing the cosmogony, theogony and myths of the Celtic deities. In addition to being secondary, the surviving sources relating to the goddesses are heterogeneous, and are scattered over a wide variety of geographical and temporal contexts.
In Gaul and Britain, the material is sparse, fragmentary and scattered. It is evidenced by archaeological, epigraphic and iconographical data, which, with few exceptions, date from Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times; a time when Celtic religion had already been largely influenced, distorted or supplanted by Roman beliefs and practices. Celtic culture did not encompass a written language, and thus there are no votive dedications to their deities. This practice was Roman and only adopted by the Celts after the conquest, which is why it is impossible to identify the deities honoured in sanctuaries dating from Celtic times. The sanctuaries of Ribemont-sur-Ancre (Somme) and Gournay-sur-Aronde (Oise) were certainly devoted to war-deities, but naming them is beyond the bounds of possibility.
In Ireland, some myths related to the Celtic goddesses have survived in texts written in the vernacular language from the 7th c. AD by Christian monks. It is important to constantly bear in mind that these texts were composed from about two to seven centuries after the Christianization of Ireland by a learned community who had different religious beliefs, but the syncretism between pagan and Christian religions was such that Celtic traditions, legends and belief-system survived and were more or less harmoniously accommodated within the new religious faith. Because of the continuity in the traditions and the similarity between the Irish, British and Gaulish theonyms, the authenticity of the Irish material can in general be relied upon, as can the fact that the basis of legends is more or less genuine.
This study has confirmed that Irish evidence can be used to throw light on the Gaulish and British goddesses. Despite their disparity in nature, time and type, the sources often complement one another and constitute a unified body of material, which, when carefully, precisely and objectively compared and analyzed, allows the researcher to reconstruct some elements of the religious beliefs and cults of the Celts. In this sense, the various sources pertaining to the study of Celtic gods and goddesses should not be considered independently but as an inter-related whole. Indeed, it is clear that without this inter-disciplinary and comparative methodology, the reconstitution of the beliefs and practices surrounding the worship of Celtic goddesses would have been impossible.
Conclusions remain multiple, conjectural and tentative because of the limitations of the sources. There are various reasons for this. In addition to the scarcity and indirectness of the sources referred to earlier, it should also be emphasised that Celtic religious beliefs and practices evidence considerable regional variations; for the Celts did not form a homogeneous entity, but were rather a patchwork of different peoples. This goes a long way to explain the multiplicity of goddesses and the typically local character of some. The difficulty of reaching unequivocal and irrefutable conclusions also derives from the multi-faceted nature of Celtic goddesses, which makes it extremely difficult to establish a definitive portrait of their characteristics and the beliefs associated with them. It must always be borne in mind that Celtic beliefs did not constitute a single, coherent, standard system either in time or in space.
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From the detailed analysis of the sources, it has emerged that, even though categorization is limited, problematic and intertwines in numerous ways, Celtic goddesses fall into five main groups: Mother-Goddesses, Land-Goddesses, Territorial- and War-Goddesses, Water-Goddesses and Intoxicating Goddesses.
Chapter 1 dealt with the controversial subject of the Matres and Matronae, who represent, as their name and iconography indicate, the concept of the Mother Goddess, that is the earth goddess who nourishes her people by providing them with natural products coming from her womb. Their cult is evidenced by about 250 inscriptions and 400 iconographical representations from Britain, northern Spain, Gaul, Germany and North Italy. Generally appearing in groups of three, their iconography is of Classical type, for they are represented with the Greco-Roman attributes of sovereignty and fertility – diadem, tunic, cornucopiae*, paterae*, fruit and swaddled babies. They were mainly worshipped by Roman citizens or soldiers and their generic names (Matres and Matronae) are Latinized Celtic forms, which are equivalent in meaning. The term Matres predominantly occurs in Britain, Gaul - particularly in the south-east – and northern Spain, while the term Matronae principally appears in northern Italy (without an epithet) and the Rhineland (with anepithet).
Despite the conspicuous Romanization of their cult, the Gallo-Greek inscriptions from Nîmes (Gard), Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) and Istres (Bouches-du-Rhône), dating from about the 2nd or 1st c. BC, attest to the antiquity of their worship. Moreover, their indigenous character is reflected in their epithets, which are mainly of Celtic and Germanic origin. The cult of the Matres and Matronae was common to Celtic and Germanic peoples and determining the actual origin of certain Mother Goddesses is usually difficult. Goddesses whose epithet ends in -henae, -ehae, -nehae, -eihae, -ahae, -ehiae, -anehae, -inehae, -ahenae are generally attested as being Germanic, while goddesses bearing epithets of mixed character can be consideredas ‘Celto-Germanic’. The hybrid nature of some Mother Goddesses is interesting, for it reflects a certain syncretism resulting from the contiguity between the two peoples. Finally, a few inscriptions indicate that the Matres and Matronae were associated with Roman goddesses or epithets (Domesticae, Campestres, Parcae/Fatae, Junones and Nymphs), who, like them, possessed protective, domestic and motherly functions. This epigraphic interpretatio Romana proves that the Matres and Matronae did not belong to the Roman pantheon. From this, it follows that their cult was originally Celtic or Germanic.
Chapter 2 studied the belief in goddesses embodying the land and the natural elements. Irish mythology is evocative on that subject, for many goddesses are directly related to the earth by their names, legends or agrarian features. Ériu (‘Land’), Banba (‘[place of] women’s death’) and Fódla (‘Swarded One’) are the embodiment of Ireland, while Tailtiu (‘Earth’) and Macha (‘Field’) have their names on the places where they were reputedly buried: Mag Tailtiu in Co. Meath, Mag Macha and Ard Macha in Co. Armagh. Accounts also relate that the land is the body of the goddess. The river Boyne is described as the body of Bóinn, and the breasts of Anu and the Mórrígain can be seen in the landscapes of Co. Kerry and Co. Meath, where hills are called after them: Dá Chích Anann and Dá Chích na Mórrígana. This belief is mirrored in the names of Gaulish goddesses, such as Litavi (‘Earth’) and Nantosuelta (‘Winding Brook’ or ‘Meadows’?), which directly refer to the earth.
The land-goddess, in her role of mother purveying fertility, possesses significant agrarian features and functions. In Ireland, Tailtiu is said to have dug the plain of Brega, the Mórrígain is described ploughing a piece of land, Mór Muman is the ‘Greater Nurturer’ of the province of Munster, and Anu is the mother who nourishes the gods of Ireland. In Gaul, significant goddesses of prosperity are known. The cult of Atesmerta, Cantismerta and Rosmerta (‘Great Purveyors’), is attested by thirty-two inscriptions and four iconographical figurations from the north-east of Gaul and Germany. It is significant that a large number of devotees are non-Romanized people of Celtic origin, for it testifies to the antiquity of the cult of bounteous goddesses, which was still vivid in the tradition despite the Romanization of the country. It is clear that land-goddesses were related to the cycle of the seasons, the rural community and the pastoral year. Invoked from sowing time to harvest time, they guaranteed the survival of the community, the maturing of the crops and the raising of cattle.
While the land was personified as a goddess purveying fertility, the natural elements, such as mountains, plants, trees and animals, were also individually deified. Some goddesses were indeed the personification and guardians of specific animals, such as Artio (‘Bear’), Andarta (‘Great Bear’) and Carvonia (‘Deer’). It has been demonstrated that Irish Flidais, who is usually envisaged as a woodland-goddess, is most certainly a medieval invention, while the Gaulish Arduinna is not related to the boar as is often asserted. The antlered goddesses of Besançon (Doubs) and Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) may be the representation of the belief in goddesses who could take both zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes. Of their metamorphosis, only the distinctive features of the animal they embody and protect remain. Other goddesses were the embodiment of plants, trees and forests, such as the Matres Eburnicae (‘Yew Mother Goddesses’), the Matronae Dervonnae (‘Oak Mother Goddesses’), the Duilliae (‘Leaves’), the Vroicae (‘Heather’), Abnoba, the goddess of the Black Forest, and possibly the Baginatiae (‘Beech Goddesses’?). Finally, hills and mountains were particularly admired and revered. Various goddesses are etymologically related to sacred hills and mountains, such as Bergusia and Bergonia (‘Hill’); Arduinna (‘the High One’); Brigantia, Brigindona, the Matres Brigiacae and Brigit (‘the High One(s)’). As for the goddesses Andei, Alambrima and Soio, they seem to have been presided over local mountains: the plateau of Plech (Ariège), Mont-Alambre (Hautes-Alpes) and the plateau of Malpas (Ardèche). These various land-, animal-, tree-, forest- and hill-goddesses attest to the numinous aspect of Nature in Celtic times.
Chapter 3 gathered and compared the literary and archaeological data evidencing the existence of territorial, protective and martial goddesses. The land-goddess became attached to different parts of the territory, inhabited by various tribes, and took on different names. Some were eponymous of the tribe they represented, ruled, nourished and protected. Examples are found in Britain and Gaul: Brigantia of the Brigantes, the Nervinae of the Nervii, the Matres Remae of the Remi, the Matres Treverae of the Treveri, the Matres/Matronae Senonae of the Senones, the Matres Eburnicae of the Eburones, the Matronae Vediantiae of the Vediantii, Dex(s)iva of the Dexivates, etc. Being known only by epigraphic evidence, the essence and functions of those ‘tribal’ goddesses remain uncertain, but the comparative study of the Irish territorial goddesses (Medb Lethderg, Medb Cruachan, Macha - the Mórrígain - and Mór Muman) suggests that they were simultaneously envisaged as purveyors of fertility, as sovereigns and as patronesses.
In her role of protectress of the territory and its inhabitants, the land-goddess had martial aspects attributed to her and was turned into a war-goddess, who took on different names and forms according to the relevant areas and septs. Irish mythology recalls a trio of powerful and terrifying war-goddesses, called Badb, Macha and the Mórrígain, who are characterized by their crow-shape, their terrifying and deadly shriek, their capacity to metamorphose, by their hideous appearance, their foresight and potent magical powers. They are sometimes depicted revelling in bloodshed, laughing at the carnage and washing the entrails or weapons of the warriors who are going to fall in the fighting. Their influence on the course of the battle seems to have been mystical rather than military, for they are never described taking up arms and fighting. Their role as a harbinger of death has survived in folklore in the Irish and Breton supernatural characters called ‘Washer of the Ford’ and ‘Lavandières de Nuit’, the bean sí (Banshee), and the fairy-lady Aoibheall.
The crow-shaped war-goddess reflects the ancient Celtic tradition of leaving the corpses of the dead warriors on the battleground for them to be eaten by the sacred birds of prey, ensuring the voyage of the soul to the otherworld; a tradition which is attested by pre-Roman reliefs or drawings, notably coming from Celt-Iberia, and various Classical texts.
While Irish war-goddesses are particularly well-represented in Irish mythology, evidence of a cult rendered to martial goddesses in Gaul is almost non-existent. The material consists of a few figurations on c. 3rd/2nd BC coins, several theonyms referring to war and victory, two reliefs depicting Brigantia and Rigani with offensive weapons, and two inscriptions dedicated to crow-shaped goddesses, possibly related to war: [C]athubodua and Cassibodua. Dunisia, Ratis, Bibracte and Vesunna may have provided protection of the city, while the qualities needed in time of war, such as strength, aggression and courage, may have been linked to Belisama, Vercana, Exomana and Noreia. Certain goddesses are the literal personification of victory, for instance Segeta, Segomanna and Boudina/Boudiga, while others were envisaged as war-leaders ensuring triumph over the foe, for instance Camuloriga, Ricoria and Coriotana. Celtic war-goddesses were therefore endowed with both supernatural and military functions, and they offered protection and support to their people in time of conflict.
Chapter 4 demonstrated that water was a particularly sacred element for the Celts and their ancestors. The divinisation and deification of water is evidenced in Bronze and Iron Age Gaul, Britain and Ireland by the ritual deposition of hoards (weapons, jewels and domestic objects) in rivers, lakes and bogs. This tradition endured in Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times in the form of votive offerings, which consisted of dedications, personal objects, coins, anatomic ex-votos and reliefs depicting pilgrims or swaddled babies, offered to the healing deities of sacred springs, fountains or rivers. Moreover, the ancient names Deva (‘Goddess’), Divonna (‘Spring-Goddess’) and Bandea/Bandae (‘Goddess’), given to rivers in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, proves that rivers and springs were envisaged as divine female entities.
The tradition of a goddess embodying and inhabiting water is illustrated by Irish mythological accounts, which tell of subaquatic lands inhabited by beautiful supernatural maidens or describe the sea and the river as the body of the goddess: the hair of the Mórrígain are the waves of the sea, and the body of Bóinn is the River Boyne. Some Irish legends also recount how a deified sea, river or lake might have originated with the drowning of a woman. Such stories are known for Clidna, who became Tonn Chlíona (‘the Wave of Clíona’) after drowning at Cuan Dor (Co. Cork); Bóinn, the goddess of the River Boyne; Sionann, the goddess of the River Shannon; Eithne, the goddess of the River Inny; and Erne, the goddess of Lough Erne. This belief was common to Celtic peoples, since inscriptions from Gaul and Britain prove that the River Seine, the River Marne, the River Saône, the River Yonne and the River Wharfe were deified as goddesses bearing their names: Sequana, Matrona, Souconna, Icauni and Verbeia. Many fountains, springs and wells were also presided over by a goddess, such as the spring of Luxeuil-les-Bains protected by Bricta, the spring of Mont-Dore by Stanna/Sianna, the Fontaine l’Etuvée by Acionna, the nympheum* of Le Sablon by Icovellauna and Mongotia, and the well of Carrawburgh by Coventina. As for Damona and Sirona, they were supra-regional healing goddesses, for their cult is attested at various curative springs in Gaul and Germany.
As the numerous water sanctuaries, votive offerings and anatomic ex-votos indicate, Gaulish and British water-goddesses perform functions of healing, while Irish water-goddesses are related to wisdom, poetry, clairvoyance and esoteric knowledge. The name of the goddess of the River Marne, Matrona (‘Mother’), indicates that the water-goddess was also envisaged as a mother purveying fertility. Proto-historic ‘coffin-pirogues’ enclosing corpses of dead people, discovered in several Gaulish rivers, notably the Marne, point to a funerary character. This proves that the essence of the water-goddess was ambivalent. Having both a life-giving and funerary dimension, she could heal and grow the crops, as well as accompany the dead in their voyage to the otherworld, probably bringing them to be reborn in the afterlife. Therefore, the water-goddess has potent regenerative functions and represents the eternal cycle of life and renewal.
Chapter 5 studied goddesses related to rites of intoxication, which consisted in absorbing a sacred beverage to make contact with the supernatural world and enter into a dialogue with the deities. It was traditionally believed that goddesses listened to the prayers of pilgrims and granted their vows. Divine listeners and fulfillers of prayers are indeed known from various inscriptions: Clutoiθa and the Rocloisiabo are ‘Listening Goddesses’; the Matronae Vediantiae may be ‘the Praying Mother Goddesses’; the Matres Menmandutiae, ‘the Mothers who answer the prayers’; and Garmangabis, ‘She who takes the tears away’.
It has been established that ritual intoxication was part of Celtic religious practice. Even though some of the etymologies are uncertain, it would appear that several goddess names refer to the notion of intoxication through a sacred drink. Latis, who is mentioned in two inscriptions from Britain, literally means ‘Drink (Conveyor)’. The British Braciaca, whose gender remains debatable, might be related to intoxication by beer. Finally, goddesses from Ireland and Gaul may be the personification of mead and of its rites. The Irish goddess Medb (‘Mead Goddess’), who is described intoxicating soldiers and kings in Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], is etymologically related to the Comedovae mentioned in an inscription from Aix-les-Bains (Savoy) and to Meduna honoured with Vercana in Bad Bertrich (Germany). Without dismissing the other possible etymologies, these theonyms may be the reflection of rites of intoxication.
Ritual intoxication is attested by archaeological and literary evidence. Irish mythology refers to fled Goibnenn (‘feast or banquet of Goibhniu’), a feast consisting of food and drink conveying immortality to the gods. The sacred beverage of the Irish gods can be compared to the Indian Amrita, the Persian Hoama, the Greco-Roman Nectar or Ambrosia and the Norse Mead. The 500-litre Cauldron of Hochdorf (Baden Württemberg, Germany), discovered in the c. 550-500 BC tomb of a Celtic Prince, provides important archaeological corroboration. Botanical analyses have revealed that the crater contained a honey-based beverage. Interestingly, the Cauldron of Hochdorf can be related to the mythical cauldron of plenty of the Dagda, which symbolises immortality and regeneration. From the theonyms and the Hochdorf cauldron, it can be assumed that the sacred intoxicating drink of the Celts was mead - Classical authors besides mention the consumption of mead by certain Celtic peoples.
Mead-intoxication rites were certainly performed in various contexts that required divine help. First, the Cauldron of Hochdorf indicates that mead-intoxication was practiced at funerals. The impressive size of the burial mound and the richness of the funerary room prove that burial was accompanied by sumptuous and elaborate ceremonies, which aimed at honouring the deceased and facilitating his rebirth in the afterlife. The voyage to the otherworld involved making contact with the deities, and this was accomplished through the absorption of a sacred beverage: mead. Furthermore, mead-intoxication rites might have been carried out in thecontext of war. The practice of drinking fermented beverages before going into battle to be divinely possessed and acquire strength is attested by Classical and Welsh texts. The association of Braciaca with the Roman war-god Mars, and of Meduna with the goddess of war-fury Vercana could also produce proof of such an idea, but this remains conjectural. The Comedovae, honoured near the thermal spring of Aix-les-Bains, might have been connected to healing and represented some intoxicating-cult aimed at making contact with the healing deities of the place and being granted a cure; a tradition known as ‘oracular incubation’ in the Classical world. Finally, Irish medieval literature indicates that mead conferred sovereignty: Medb, who married various kings, is the land-goddess of sovereignty par excellence. Mead-intoxication rites were certainly performed for the inauguration of new kings, who were the representative of the gods on earth and symbolically acquired sovereignty by uniting with the land-goddess through the consumption of the divine beverage she embodied.
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Various key themes have emerged from this study of Celtic goddesses. Most important perhaps, the religious beliefs pertaining to the goddesses were essentially animist. Every single natural element was sacred and believed to be inhabited by a divine force: fields, animals, plants, trees, forests, rocks, hills, mountains, rivers, springs and lakes. As Green explains, “the nature-based character of Celtic religion pervades the whole spectrum of belief and worship”.2468 The adoration of nature ensues from an instinctive respect for the natural elements and phenomena, perceived as inexplicable, unpredictable and essential for the survival of the human race. Everything that was beyond human comprehension and rationality was necessarily of a supernatural character. Water, which ensured the survival of the community, the irrigation of the harvested fields and the raising of cattle, miraculously and mysteriously gushed forth from the ground: it was accordingly a gift from the gods. The life-giving aspect of water and its particularly capricious nature – for it could suddenly destroy dwellings, crops and cattle – explain why it was highly respected and revered as a divine entity. Similarly, hills and mountains had a peculiar numinous character because they rose up out of the flat landscape, which was, as De Vries explains, “a sign of the idiosyncratic power that the earth had at this very place”.2469 It was believed indeed that the ground was lifted up by a mysterious subterranean force and was the manifestation of a divine power. As for animals, plants and trees, they were particularly revered, because hunting, gathering and agriculture guaranteed the survival of the tribe.
It can be noted that the fertility of the land was mainly achieved and watched over by female deities. This is rooted in the biological fact that it is the female who gives birth to, and nurtures, new life. Metaphorically, the land was viewed as the womb of the goddess, from which all natural produce grew. The land-goddess represents thus the eternal cycle of life, renewal and regeneration. It is striking that all the goddesses, be they attached to healing, sovereignty or war, are closely related to prosperity and originally emanated from the land. Suggestive examples of this theory are the Irish Macha and the Mórrígain, who are war-goddesses par excellence, but have pronounced agrarian features in their characters. The legend, which relates the Mórrígain’s sexual intercourse with the Dagda at the Ford of the river Uinsinn (Co. Sligo) at Samhain, presents her as the archetype of the land-mother-goddess, whose union with the sky-father-god symbolises the cycle of the seasons and the eternal renewal of the earth. In other words, this union ensures the fertility of the land. Indeed, the feast of Samhain marked the starting point of a pastoral new year. This belief is ancestral and was common to the various Celtic peoples from Gaul, Britain and Ireland. It lies for instance behind the Gaulish land-goddess Nantosuelta and her partner Sucellus, who is often compared to the Dagda because of their similar attributes – Sucellus’s olla* and hammer can be compared with the Dagda’s cauldron and staff. Similarly, Litavi (‘Earth’) and her consort (Mars) Cicolluis (‘Fierce Striker’) may be the representation of the same land-goddess/sky-god union pattern.
This theme is also reflected in the various Irish accounts which relate the coupling of the territorial goddess with the new king; a union granting him sovereignty. Medb Lethderg, Medb Cruachan, Macha, Mór Muman, Aoibheall and Áine are all archetypal figures of the land-goddess uniting with the father-god - represented by the king. Their agrarian character is clearly identifiable in their names and respective legends. These accounts also show that the notions of earthly bounty, territory, sovereignty and war were interrelated and ensued from one another. Medb Lethderg, Medb Cruachan, Macha and Mór Muman personified, ruled and defended territories and tribes: Leinster and the Laighin tribe, Connacht and the Connachta tribe, Ulster and the Ulaid tribe, and Munster and theÉrainn tribe. Similarly, the British goddess Brigantia is a deity who simultaneously possesses land, territorial, tribal and war-like traits. Her name indeed indicates that she was originally the embodiment of sacred heights. She is also the eponymous goddess of the tribe of the Brigantes, and protective and martial functions can be deduced from her association with Roman war-goddesses in the epigraphy and from the relief picturing her with offensive weapons. She was thus simultaneously the provider, sovereign and patroness of the Brigantes and their territory.
The case of Brigantia illustrates the difficulty faced by researchers in determining with certainty the characteristics of Celtic goddesses. Thus, in addition to her attributes linked to the land, the tribe and war, she is also related to water and wisdom for she is given the title of Nymph in a dedication, and her Irish counterpart Brigit is said to have presided over filidhecht (‘poetry, divination and prophecy’), smithcraft and curing. Therefore, Brigantia must also have possessed regenerative, healing and mystical abilities. Similarly, the Gaulish goddess Segeta could be understood as a healing water-goddess or a war-goddess. While her name, literally meaning ‘Victory’, relates her to war, the dedications honouring her come from curative spring sanctuaries. Another example of this complexity is the Gaulish goddess Atesmerta (‘Great Provider’), who, on account of her name, can be viewed as a goddess of bounty or as the healing water-goddess of the spring of Corgebin – a small water sanctuary and anatomic ex-voto were excavated there. Was Segeta a water-goddess, as the archaeological record would suggest, or a war-goddess, as the etymology tends to indicate?
These problems of definition may ensue partly from the fact that the functions of the goddesses are often considered uniquely the point of view of individual disciplines. Archaeology, etymology and literature each have their own limitations. Archaeology reveals significant information, but it is often fragmentary and has to be interpreted in the light of the present (incomplete) state of our knowledge. Equally, etymology is not always an exact science and various interpretations are often possible on the basis of the same inscriptions. Finally, Irish medieval literature reflects admittedly ancient Celtic beliefs, but beliefs perverted by time and largely expurgated by the medieval Church.
However, while the etymological, archaeological and literary material can sometimes be misleading, divergent or conflicting, it can also throw light, in its diversity, on different aspects of the personality of a goddess. This study has proved that Celtic goddesses were above all multi-faceted; they could fulfil different functions at the same time, according to the context, the time of the year or the needs of the devotees. We thus do not have to make a ‘choice’ as regards the functions of a goddess. Segeta, for instance, was certainly both a goddess of healing waters and a goddess of war. While general themes emerge from the study of goddesses, such as their personification of land and the natural elements, sovereignty and war, it is striking that goddesses generally do not fall into one single category - apart from the goddesses embodying a specific local natural element, such as Sequana. Indeed, their potency lies in this multiplicity, which combines, transcends and embraces a broad spectrum of activities. Celtic goddesses thus do not fall into a neat and stable structure and absolute clarity cannot be obtained. It is moreover in the very nature of Celtic mythology (and mythology in general) to be flexible and inconstant, and to cultivate ambiguity and mystery.
The answer to the question ‘Can we speak of a Celtic pantheon?’ is complex in view of the scarcity of the sources and the multiplicity of the deities. It is all the more difficult as the cult of some goddesses was local, attached to a specific natural element worshipped by the local population, while the cult of other goddesses was supra-regional and common to the various Celtic peoples of Gaul, Britain and Ireland – and other parts of the Celtic world. The use of the word pantheon (from the Greek pan, ‘all’ and theos, ‘gods’) for Celtic mythology is conceivable, for it designates the body of gods and goddesses of a polytheist religion. Nonetheless, some scholars, such as Christian Guyonvarc’h and Françoise Le Roux, consider that this term does not lend itself to Celtic mythology.2470 If we refer to Classical mythology, the word pantheon implies a theogony, that is to say a genealogy of the gods, who are all descended from the mother-earth and the sky-father. This theogonic system confusedly appears in Irish mythology. The land-goddess Dana is clearly attested as being the mother of the gods, for the Tuatha Dé Danann are ‘the Tribe of the Goddess Dana’, while the Dagda, called Eochaid Ollathair (‘Eochaid the Great Father’), may be envisaged as their symbolical father. As explained above, Gaulish Nantosuelta and Sucellus, Litavi and Cicolluis, or Rosmerta and her primary partner (replaced by Mercurius in Gallo-Roman times), could also represent this ancestral couple.
As regards other possible ‘divine filiations’, the Irish texts tell us very little, and what they do tell us is obscure and confused: a genealogy cannot thus be established. In Gaul and Britain, the lack of evidence, the multitude of deities and their multiplicity at a local level, makes it impossible to reconstruct some parts of the genealogy. Caesar’s vision of the ‘Celtic pantheon’, in which six main gods presided over commerce and arts (Mercury), medicine (Apollo), crafts (Minerva), war (Mars) and the sky (Jupiter), is obviously far too simplistic to reflect Celtic religious organisation. As we have seen, Celtic goddesses were multi-faceted, performed different functions and had many abilities in common. Many Celtic gods and goddesses could thus fit Caesar’s description, which, in addition to be evasive and unclear, is actually a simplified vision of the Roman pantheon. For all these reasons, it is not in our view appropriate to speak of a Celtic pantheon. Celtic deities are far too numerous, intermingled and complex in character to be organized in a neat, structured and hierarchical pantheon. However, several pre-eminent goddesses emerge from the comparison of Irish, British and Gaulish sources.
Similarities between Irish, British and Gaulish goddesses can be noted in the names and functions of those goddesses. The British Brigantia (‘the High One’) is etymologically related to the Irish Brigit, the Gaulish Brigindona and the Celt-Iberian Matres Brigiacae. The Gaulish goddess of healing springs, Damona (‘Cow Goddess’), is linked to the Irish river-goddess Bóinn (‘the Bovine Wise Goddess), the British river-goddess Verbeia (‘She of the Cattle?’), the Gaulish spring-goddess Borvoboendoa (‘the Seething Wise Cow’), and possibly to the Gaulish goddess of healing springs Sirona (‘Heifer’?). The name of the Irish Mórrígain (‘Great Queen’) is similar to the theonym Rigani (‘Queen’), attested to in Britain, Gaul and Germany, and to the Gaulish Camuloriga (‘Queen of the Champions’) and Albiorica (‘Queen of the World’) – but her gender is questionable. The name of the Irish crow-shaped goddess Badb can be identified in two Gaulish goddess names: Cassibodua (‘Sacred Crow’) and [C]athubodua (‘Battle? Crow’). Despite the scepticism of some scholars about the reconstitution of the initial letter ‘C’, it is striking that the Gaulish Cathubodua is the very same figure as the Irish Badb, who is called Cath-Bhadhbh (later Badb Catha, ‘Battle Crow’) – a theonym which would linguistically go directly back to a Celtic *Catu-bodua. Moreover, the Irish goddess Medb, whose name pertains to ritual mead-intoxication (or power), is etymologically related to Gaulish Medu(a)na and the Comedovae. Her function also linked her to the British goddess Latis (‘Drink’), and possibly to the British goddess Braciaca (‘Beer’?).
Those examples indicate that Celtic peoples honoured similar deities and shared common beliefs. Five main Celtic goddesses can be therefore identified: a goddess personifying sacred heights and the eminence of wisdom; a cow-shaped goddess related to water fertility and curing; a queen goddess, fulfilling the functions of sovereignty and protection of the territory; a crow-shaped goddess possessing martial and funerary functions; and a goddess embodying the rites of intoxication.
Similarities can also be noted in the characters of some goddesses, who do not bear the same name but refer to the same belief-concept. River-goddesses of Gaul and Ireland, even though they have divergent functions, represent the same religious concept: the goddess is eponymous of the river she personifies. The Celtic peoples also shared the belief in a deer-shaped goddess, for doe-goddess-metamorphoses are related in Irish mythology, a dedication to a goddess Carvonia (‘Doe’) was discovered in Croatia and two semi-zoomorphic antlered goddesses are known from Gaul. These goddesses (rivers, animals, trees, etc) are of lower rank, because they embodied a specific local natural element - such as Sequana goddess of the river Seine - or because they did not fulfil functions relating to sovereignty, war or healing, but simply personified a species of animal or plant.
Green, 1992a, p. 22.
De Vries, 1963, p. 192.
Guyonvarc’h & Le Roux, 1990, p. 157.