The Religion of the Irish Celts

Celtic Paganism, Christianisation and Celtic Christianity

Term Paper, 2010

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1) Introduction

2) The Old Religion of the Irish Celts
2.1) The Importance of Nature
2.2) The Pagan Gods
2.3) The Druids
2.4) Differences and Similarities to Christianity
2.4.1) Differences
2.4.2) Similarities

3) Adaption to Other Religions
3.1) Adaptations to the Roman Religion
3.2) Christianisation of Ireland
3.2.1) St Patrick
3.2.2) Monasteries, Saints and Asceticism
3.2.3) Adaption and the Remains of Paganism

4) Celtic Religion Today
4.1) Celtic Christianity
4.2) Rediscovering the Old Religion: New Druidism

5) Conclusion

6) Bibliography

7) Attachments

1) Introduction

During the last decades, old Celtic religion and traditions became increasingly popular again. Unlike other minor religious orientations, however, the Celtic does not separate itself from Christianity; it does not emphasise their differences but their similarities. On this basis, the symbiosis of Celtic Christianity is formed. This ability of adaption and assimilation is demonstrated throughout the Celtic history, particularly during the Roman Empire and Christianisation.

The first part of this paper gives an overview of the old, pagan religion of the Celts with emphasis on the druids and similarities with Christianity. In the second part, the adaption to Roman and Christian religion is displayed along with a short presentation of the Irish Christianisation. The last part combines the previous ones by dealing with the survival and revival of Celtic religion and gives an insight of today’s Druidism.

2) The Old Religion of the Irish Celts

When dealing with the religion of the old Celts – a culture that lived in the Iron Age and did not produce written records of their history and religious rituals (Green, Gods 1; Bellingham 96) – one has to face two problems, namely where to get the required information from and how reliable these sources are. Birkhan (Kelten 431) lists the following sources, starting with the one he considers most reliable: indigenous texts, writings of classic Roman and Greek authors like Julius Caesar and Diodor (cf. Bellingham 96), archaeological finds, etymology, Indo-Germanic parallels, medieval texts, subsequent traditions and contemporary tales. It is important to keep in mind that authors from other cultures did not unbiasedly write down what they had observed. In the worst case, the writer wanted to influence the readers to think that the Celts were barbarians against whom they had to defend themselves (Rankin in Green, Celtic World 24).

After combining information from all these sources, considering their reliability and importance, a more or less clear image of a people and its religion is formed. Religion was a very important factor of the Celts’ life, which is mirrored in the huge number of gods and in the authority of the druids. Additionally, like usual for their time, the Celts lived in great dependence on nature.

2.1) The Importance of Nature

It is therefore no wonder that the pagan Celtic religion had a “nature-based character” (Raftery 179) which was “at all time evident” (ibid). This character is shown in two aspects: the environment and animals. The Celts believed “that every part of the natural world, every feature of the landscape, was numinous, possessed of a spirit” (Green, Celtic World 465).

Of great importance were woods and groves, mountains, stones, caves and most prominently: rivers and bogs. These holy places were used for rites, sacrifices and votive depositions (Green, Druids 107; Bell in Green, Celtic World 154-155; Raftery 180 ff.; Gougaud 16-17). Many shrines of Celtic gods, for example, were placed in remote woods (Bellingham 97); weapons were deposited in rivers and lakes (e.g. La Tène) as offerings to the war god (Birkhan 798); and animals as well as humans were sacrificed in bogs (Green, Druids 80; Raftery 187 ff.). The local gods were strongly associated with the environment. They were present “in rivers, mountains and in each corner of Celtic territory” (Green, Gods 32), which is illustrated by some of their names: The Irish term nemed which means “a holy place” can be found in Nemetona and Arnemetia (Green, Druids 107) and “the identity of gods such as Glanis of Glanum and Neumausus of Nemausus […] were merged inextricably with their locality” (Green, Celtic World 466).

Animals, as already said, were used as sacrifices for gods (ibid. 438-439) but also for ritual activities like predicting the future (Green, Druids 88). However, they were also assigned to a more rewarding task: Many deities are portrayed with animal characteristics like horns (Green, Celtic World 465) or along with particular animals with which they were associated like the horse-goddess Epona (Green, Druids 29). Some gods were also capable of shape-shifting between their human and animal form (Green, Gods 33).

All this shows the great importance of nature in the pagan Celtic religion, especially concerning rituals and deities. Of course, the gods were the centre of the religious belief.

2.2) The Pagan Gods

As mentioned before, the Celtic gods were strongly connected to nature and everyday life. Unfortunately, there is not much information about the Celtic deities before the Roman period so that most names and images were influenced by other cultures or mentioned in foreign – not Celtic – sources (Bellingham 97). An important fact is the strong localisation of the gods, which is demonstrated by “around 400 god-names, over 300 of which occur once only” (Green, Gods 32). Every tribe had its own god for its river, its wood or its cattle. Whereas this could also mean that there were only a couple of gods which had a lot of names.

In need of bringing an order into this huge crowd of gods and goddesses, one can divide them into groups according to their function. To start with: “Celtic male deities were usually tribal and females were invariably types of mother-goddess” (Green, Gods 33). The following examples of important groups of gods are taken from Birkhan (Kelten 513-731).

The mother-goddesses had a major role. They often occurred in triads, which is a very common feature as the Celts liked to group their gods in threes (Birkhan, Kelten 492) or pairs (Green, Gods 37). They fulfilled a large number of functions, their most important one acting as fertility goddesses, but they were also commonly invocated in need of help.

Comparatively little is known about a father-god; however, there were gods of death or gods of the dead. Against natural conclusions, these gods were also symbols of fertility, as after some Celtic doctrines the death marked the beginning of new life.

The solar god and the thunder god belong to the group of sky or celestial gods. The wheel as symbol of the sun is often found in connection with the sun god, whether in iconography or as sacrifice. These gods symbolise the “triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and sky/life over earth/death” (Green, Gods 55).

The gods of healing are strongly connected to the local sacred springs. These could be hot or mineralised with real healing ability or simply a source for fresh water (Green, Gods 150); nevertheless, they were of great importance to the Celtic healing cult. A famous example for a sacred spring is the modern Bath; its goddess was Sulis Minerva (Green, Druids 112).

Handcrafting was one of the most important issues of Celtic life. Accordingly, the gods of handcraft, for example the deities of smithery, had a prominent role as well. Additionally, ‘intellectual’ crafts like arts and poetry also belonged to their range.

The other important factor of Celtic life was war and fighting, which is strongly emphasised by classic authors. As mentioned before, the Celts sacrificed a huge amount of weapons to the war gods, but also animals and treasures they had captured (Birkhan 799). Interestingly, there were more female than male war gods in Ireland.

The last big noteworthy group of deities covers the animal gods. These were gods that either were called after animals, had animal traits or could even shape-shift into them. Common animals are: horned animals like stags or steers, bears, horses, swine, dogs and wolfs, birds, snakes, and there even was a salmon god because it was the most important edible fish for the Insular Celts.

However, to communicate with these various gods, to tell them the needs and wishes of the people, the Celts needed a skilled person. This role was filled by the druid.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Religion of the Irish Celts
Celtic Paganism, Christianisation and Celtic Christianity
University of Heidelberg
Geteilte Geschichte(n) - Irland und Deutschland
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Der Dozent fand diese Arbeit so gut, dass er sie in seinen zukünftigen Seminaren verwenden wollte.
Irland, Anglistik, Englisch, Landeskunde, Religion, Kelten, Celts, Christianisierung, Christianisation, Celtic, Druids, Gods, Saints
Quote paper
Sandra Bollenbacher (Author), 2010, The Religion of the Irish Celts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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